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Election Violence in Nigeria is not Inevitable

When Nigeria went to the polls in 2011, a period of intense post-election violence left over 800 dead and thousands more displaced. Given that past incidents of violence are seen as an indicator of the potential for future bloodshed, many fear that a similar outcome will come to pass when the now postponed elections are held on March 28th 2015. In addition, concerns over technical deficiencies, intense political rivalries exacerbated by ethnic and religious cleavages, and the menacing Boko Haram threat, are said to be creating a ‘perfect storm’  that could see the country erupt into another round of fighting. The recent announcement of the delay has compounded the situation further, with opposition candidates viewing it as an attempt to “…subvert Nigeria’s democratic process”. 

Nigeria Elections

Protests in Abuja over the postponement of the election. AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga

In this climate, the risk of atrocity crimes is immense. Civilians could find themselves threatened by Boko Haram’s attempts to disrupt the electoral process, heavy-handed retaliation from the Nigerian military, inter-communal or religious post-election violence, or some deadly combination of all of these.

However, despite the presence of these risk factors, electoral violence is not inevitable.  As Ban Ki-moon noted in his 2013 thematic report ‘Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention’, the absence of atrocities in countries that display one or more risk factors stems, at least in part, from sources of national resilience. For example, the 2013 election in Kenya demonstrates how a country that has previously experienced atrocity crimes at the polls can learn from this and take preventive measures to avoid repeating the cycle of violence.

There are encouraging signs that Nigerians, regional players, and the international community are learning the lessons of Nigeria’s 2011 election by taking steps to mitigate the risk of atrocities and prevent the recurrence of electoral violence. The below sections detail the unique threats faced by Nigeria, the relationship between elections and mass atrocities, and civil society recommendations for further preventive action that can be taken with the hopes of sparing the country more carnage.

 

The Looming Threat of Electoral Violence

In a recent Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) report, Jennifer Cooke and Richard Downie categorized Nigeria’s risk of violence as having roots in political, technical and security-based aspects. Politically, the upcoming election is as contested as ever, with two main candidates emerging as strong contenders.  The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and his main opponent, Muhammahdu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), stand a relatively equal chance of clinching the presidency.

This type of contest makes for heated rhetoric, and sometimes violent action – particularly when elections are tinged with an ethnic or religious tone. The showdown between Jonathan and Buhari is often dangerously depicted as a showdown between Nigeria’s mainly Christian South and the Muslim North.  In Nigeria, disparities in access to land, services and jobs also figure along these lines, and many view power as the only way to ensure equal access for one’s regional, ethnic or religious group.

These divisions have already led to low-level instances of violence, for example in attacks on APC candidates and a bombing of a Goodluck Jonathan campaign bus. Other dangerous incidents include the use of intimidation tactics and hate speech, for example, one state governor who referred to the opposition as “cockroaches” amid chants to “kill them” from supporters.

Such tensions are sure to increase if the election results are not viewed credibly. However, technical hiccups have already surfaced that could negatively impact the outcome. Comfort Ero of International Crisis Group (ICG) explains that with regards to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) tasked with administering and overseeing the elections:

“…the electoral commission is still struggling to get permanent voter cards to more than 15 million registered voters (about 22% of the electorate). It has asked voters to collect them instead, which for many will necessitate an arduous journey.”

The affected areas are those that have been hit hardest by Boko Haram, including Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno states. In these areas, forced displacement could also prevent an additional 1.5 million from participating in the polls. Given that these states are considered bastions of support for Buhari, it could lead to disputes over the election’s results if not adequately addressed.

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Members of the Nigerian State Security Services. Wikimedia Commons/Beeg Eagle.

Lastly, the security challenge posed by Boko Haram adds an additional layer of friction. In recent weeks, the extremist group has stepped up attacks drastically, perhaps most horrifically in Baga where groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented “large-scale destruction” amid fears that up to 2,000 civilians may have been killed. In addition, the group has conducted a number of suicide bombings, attempted to claim crucial territory in the city of Maidaguri, and regionalized its insurgency by making incursions into neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.

The escalation in violence led INEC to determine that, “The risk of deploying young men and women and calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility…Consequently the commission has decided to reschedule the elections thus.” This decision was ostensibly taken to give the military an additional six weeks to tackle the Boko Haram threat.

However, in the past the Nigerian security forces have demonstrated spectacular ineptitude in their efforts to counter Boko Haram, mostly due to pervasive corruption, mutiny, poor equipment, and low morale. More often than not, the army has added to the suffering through aggressive counter-terror tactics and human rights abuses that have further endangered civilian populations. The APC has also made accusations of politicisation, pointing to instances of restrictions on their campaigning activities and an unwillingness to properly investigate attacks against their supporters. Assertions that the delay is of more a political gambit than an outright concern for the safety of Nigerians can only add to these concerns.

 

Elections as a Trigger for Mass Atrocities

While elections have not been shown to be a direct cause of atrocities, political transitions that occur in times of instability have a tendency to exacerbate underlying tensions and act as a ‘trigger’. This was demonstrated in several states that recently experienced election-related violence in Africa, including Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2008, Cote d’Ivoire, and to a lesser extent, Guinea, in 2010.

The United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide’s ‘Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes’ explains that “Census, elections, pivotal activities related to those processes, or measures that destabilize them,” should be carefully monitored for the potential to foment atrocity crimes, particularly where a major shift in the political power of a group takes place. However, as noted above, violence is not inevitable if preventive measures are taken.

The 2013 presidential election in Kenya offers a positive example of how state officials, civil society, media representatives, and international donors can work together to ensure free and fair elections, counter hate speech and violent incitement, inform the public through conflict-sensitive reporting, and undertake other peacebuilding activities to prevent the outbreak of widespread violence.

Some of these precautions are being taken in Nigeria. For example, the leading presidential candidates have all signed the Abuja Declaration Accord, publically committing themselves to non-violence and peaceful navigation of the electoral process. Local civil society organizations such as the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, are working around the clock to monitor and report on instances of violence and incitement during the campaigning and on Election Day.

Secretary_Kerry_Meets_With_Nigerian_Presidential_Challenger_Buhari_For_Conversation_About_Upcoming_Election_(16364324705)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Presidential Challenger Buhari. U.S. Department of State photo.

The international community is also stepping up, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently travelled to Nigeria to speak with the presidential candidates, threatening travel restrictions and other measures should they stoop to the commission of violent acts. The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, has also warned that the court will be monitoring the election and that “No one should doubt my resolve, whenever necessary, to prosecute individuals responsible for the commission of ICC crimes.” Lastly, the African Union has approved a 7,500-strong regional force to assist the Nigerian authorities in their fight against Boko Haram.

But there is more that can be done. For the presidential candidates, Comfort Ero calls on them to tone down their rhetoric, publically denounce incitement from their supporters, and use the courts and other constitutional means to pursue any grievances. For this, CSIS stresses the importance of abiding by the Abuja Declaration Accord, recommending its widespread circulation and enforcement, potentially through a national peace committee.

To the security services, CSIS add that “Nigeria’s security agencies have a responsibility to perform their duties in a strictly impartial manner, to act with restraint, and to strike a balance between providing safe conditions for voting to take place and appearing to “militarize” the process …” ICRtoP member the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect urges Nigeria and regional governments involved in the fight against Boko Haram to finalize and coordinate joint operational plans. Indeed, if the Nigerian military is to uphold its promise to dismantle all Boko Haram bases in northeastern Nigeria in the next six weeks, regional cooperation will likely prove indispensable.

Lastly, the Fund for Peace and Search for Common Ground recently released a joint letter stressing the role of the media, civil society and the private sector in continuing to monitor and report on inflammatory rhetoric, including through social media, delivering messages of peace, leveraging positive relationships with candidates, and establishing a mechanism for mediation in the event of disputed results. Importantly, the critical support of the international community is called upon to reinforce these activities and provide a constant reminder to concerned parties that violence has no place in the electoral process.

 

Preventing Election Violence a Collective Responsibility

It has been rightly stated that the primary responsibility to prevent election violence lies with presidential candidates themselves. However, other national, regional, and international actors have an equally important role to play. While there are encouraging signs of RtoP preventive action being taken, the delay in elections makes it all the more important that efforts to encourage calm and ensure that credible elections are held in a timely and peaceful manner are redoubled.  Should stakeholders waver in their responsibility, the results could be even more catastrophic than in 2011. In this event, as has been pointed out, “Boko Haram will be the only winner…”

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All eyes on upcoming elections as Kenya works to prevent the recurrence of atrocities

The people of Kenya are just days away from casting their ballots on 4 March in the country’s first election since the 2007 presidential race which resulted in unprecedented ethnic violence, leaving over 1000 people dead and 600,000 more displaced.  A country with over 70 distinct ethnic groups – the five largest being Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin, and Kamba – Kenya’s past elections have largely witnessed voting along ethnic lines. This year, eight candidates are running, among them Uhuru Kenyatta and his running-mate, William Ruto, both of whom have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in the commission of crimes against humanity following the 2007 elections. While the Kenyan government has undertaken a range of measures to prevent a repeat of 2007’s deadly crisis, including the adoption of a new constitution to redistribute political power, the training of police and civil society to identify and monitor  hate speech, and educating the Kenyan population on the newly established electoral process , civil society organizations have raised alarm to the sizeable risk of violence that remains.  As several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), have reported,  Kenya has already experienced election-related inter-communal attacks that left over 400 dead and upwards of 118,000 displaced during 2012 and early 2013.  This election, which is expected to be extremely close and require a second round, known as a “run off” (scheduled for 11 April), will prove a great test for the Kenyan government as it works to uphold its responsibility to protect its population from the recurrence of mass atrocities, as well as ensure a free, fair and transparent presidential race.

Kenya’s 2007 disputed election: a political and humanitarian crisis

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre, head table), flanked by Kofi Annan (left, head table), former United Nations Secretary-General, and Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, participate in a meeting to end the two-week old deadly violence sparked by recent disputed results of the presidential elections, with the major parties to the conflict.
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The presidential election of December 2007 swept Kenya into a wave of ethnically charged violence following the contested announcement of incumbent Mwai Kibaki as president over the predicted favorite to win, Raila Odinga. The declaration of Kibaki as president, followed by the swiftness of his inauguration a handful of hours later, triggered widespread and systematic violence characterized by ethnically targeted killings, which evidence later showed to be largely pre-meditated by politicians and community leaders. Crimes committed included crimes against humanity – one of the four crimes and violations that all governments, including Kenya, committed to preventing and halting when endorsing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P). The international community acted rapidly to keep the volatile situation from deteriorating by deploying former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to serve as international mediator and head of the African Union Panel of Eminent Personalities.  The outcome of the Panel’s efforts was a power-sharing government that committed to address the long term issues and root causes of the conflict.

Pre-election preparation and reform: enough to prevent a repeat of 2007?

A range of preventive actions have been taken by the government, UN agencies, and civil society to prevent a repeat of the tragic violence that plagued Kenya five years ago.  Civil society and media representatives convened a forum organized by the Nairobi Peace Initiative – Africa and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, in Nairobi in early February 2013 to share their work to ensure peaceful elections, and discuss the concerns surrounding the poll with the goal of generating a collective voice and strategy for civil society and media.  At the national level, Kenyan authorities have trained hundreds of police and peace organization representatives in monitoring media and speech to bring attention to hateful language that can incite violence.  With the support of translators the monitors can identify hate speech in a range of dialects and, through partnerships with phone service providers, track phone messages too.

Monitoring will be crucial to determine the election results so organizations like the Carter Center, the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, and the Elections Observation Group, as well as the East African Community and the African Union, have dispatched teams to oversee the upcoming poll.

UN officials and agencies have been vocal and active as well, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling on all leaders to “abide by legal mechanisms and to send a clear message to supporters that violence of any kind would be unacceptable.”  The Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng, was in Nairobi in early February where he recalled the responsibility of the Kenyan authorities to protect and noted the need to ensure a swift response by the international community to prevent a repeat of 2007.  His office was there to work with the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region to support Kenya’s National Committee on the Prevention of Genocide, which included holding a five-day workshop on RtoP and the prevention of inter-communal violence. To ensure that all preparations are underway in the event of displacement, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, created a humanitarian contingency, with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons calling on the government and international community to do everything possible to prevent massive displacement.

The government itself has adopted numerous reforms to create the environment needed for peaceful and fair elections and to address the country’s deep seeded grievances.  While these actions should be commended, remaining challenges and incomplete reforms have left many NGOs questioning if the government’s response will be enough.

Constitutional reform

Following a 2010 referendum, Kenya adopted a new constitution to prevent ethnically charged politics and check the power of the executive.  This has been done by giving greater power and resources to local political leaders through the creation of what International Crisis Group (ICG) calls a “new level of governance”– the establishment of 47 districts each with their own governor, senator and assembly. The government has also adopted measures to ensure full geographic (and therefore ethnic) support for the president-elect by creating new voting rules that require the winning candidate to receive more than half of all votes and at least 25% in 24 of the newly established counties.  While these new rules will serve to spread power and responsibility to a range of politicians, the majority of Kenyans have not received the information needed to understand the new Constitution and voting rules, as the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) found in its report entitled Countdown to the March 2013 General Elections.  Through conducting polls and interviews throughout the country, KHRC’s research indicated that increased and continuous civic education is crucial “to secure an informed public for future elections.”

The devolution of presidential power is also meant to keep the nation from erupting into large scale violence; however the new counties and positions could very well create the likelihood for localized conflict.  This is in part due to the increased influence that local politicians will hold, which may lead “many local leaders seek to preserve the system of ethnic patronage that devolution was intended to remove.  As a result, the mobilization of ethnic grievances to garner political support remains rampant,” as the Global Centre for R2P (GCR2P) points out. These findings were echoed in ICG’s report entitled Kenya’s 2013 Elections, where the organization elaborates on how the constitutional changes can lead to risk of violence, stating that “although the new level of governance should give communities, including minorities, a greater say (…), it could also transfer political competition, violence and corruption down and create new minorities and new patterns of marginalization.”

Strengthening the security sector

Efforts were also undertaken to address the failures of the police to protect in the aftermath of the last elections. During the violent crisis, the government responded with excessive force, with Amnesty International (AI) recalling the role of police in “killing and injuring protestors and raping and sexually assaulting women and girls, particularly in opposition areas.”  The government subsequently established an ambitious framework which, as the International Center for Policy and Conflict in Africa noted, was meant to “establish and elaborate an effective system of democratic regulation and oversight of security services;” however, as AI points out, the framework has not been implemented to the fullest, and the capacity of security personnel remains an inherent problem, placing civilians at risk of violence yet again.

Little has been done practically to bring to justice those responsible for violent crimes committed following the previous election, and AI has stated that steps have actually been taken to cover up and politically manipulate cases against security personnel.  As a result, while conducting on the ground research, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has heard from countless Kenyans that “they view the police as ineffective and corrupt.” As the elections approach, police also remain understaffed and ill-equipped, with the Council on Foreign Relations reporting that the Kenyan force has about 70,000 police, “or roughly 160 per 100,000 residents, which is less than three-quarters of the 220 per 100,000 recommended by the United Nations.”  These forces will be stretched to their limits when tasked with patrolling the polling stations, which could exceed 40,000 nationwide.

Ending impunity

Upholding accountability for crimes committed during the 2007 election remains a critical challenge for Kenya, and one that has already had an impact on the elections.  HRW also pointed out that little has been done nationwide to arrest and prosecute civilians responsible for attacks on people and property, leaving those responsible for 2007 election-related violence free to repeat their actions.

At the government level, impunity has been stated to be at the heart of the 2007 crisis, with the final report of the Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence calling for the creation of a domestic special tribunal.  After two failed government attempts to establish the tribunal, Kofi Annan sent to the ICC the names of a dozen suspects deemed most responsible, leading to the opening of an investigation by the Court’s then-Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.  From this investigation, six of the suspects, referred to in the media as the “Ocampo six”, were summoned to appear before the Court, ultimately resulting in the confirmation of charges for four of the “Ocampo Six”, including candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto.  The ICC indictments have influenced the presidential campaigns with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) reporting that some are describing the polls as “a referendum against or for the ICC”.  The indictments have also resulted in an unexpected political alliance with the formation of the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket, as the two men are Kikuyu and Kalenjin respectively, two ethnic groups which violently targeted the other in 2007. Civil society organizations, including the International Commission of Jurists-Kenya (ICJ-Kenya), the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and the International Center for Policy and Conflict, fought to keep Kenyatta and Ruto from running, arguing that their candidacy violated the integrity clause of the new Constitution.  The Kenyan High Court, however, disagreed, ruling that it would not intervene, ultimately giving the two men the green light to participate.  This ruling has led many to wonder about the practicality of a Kenyatta/Ruto presidency, with ICJ-Kenya noting in their report entitled If Uhuru Kenyatta or William Ruto is Elected President or Deputy President, that such a presidency would cripple the government because the country would be left with leaders who are unable to carry out their vast domestic duties due to repeated trips to the Hague.  As of 27 February, the trial dates remained up in the air as the Chief Prosecutor for the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, indicated that she would accept a postponement of the trials to August.  Kenyatta and Ruto had been slated to begin their trials on 10 and 11 April respectively, with 11 April being election run-off date.

What do these risks mean for the elections and the people of Kenya?

As FIDH notes, the pre-election environment has been “marked by political parties and alliances’ mobilization of the population along ethnic lines, the re-activation or creation of illegal gangs and militia groups (…), cases of civilians arming themselves as a preventive measures, the use of hate speech or inflammatory coded language by politicians, vernacular radio stations as well as through social media: in other words, all the ingredients that led to the 2007/2008 violence.”  But 2013 does not need to be a repeat of the cycle of violence that has plagued the country.  As put by ICG, “the people deserve better.  (…) they deserve the change to vote without fear and elect leaders committed to reform and ready to serve society as a whole rather than the narrow interests of elites.”

While the Kenyan government should be commended for the steps taken, more can certainly be done at the domestic and international levels to ensure free and fair elections and uphold the state’s responsibility to protect from mass atrocity crimes.  This can include publicly committing to respect election rules and, as KHRC’s research found, providing civic education about the electoral process.  As HRW recommends, the government can take direct measures through the deployment of police “in adequate numbers to areas of potential conflict and ensure that they perform their duties impartially and with full respect of the law”.  This point was echoed by the GCR2P, who also noted that state authorities should “warn all Kenyans (…) that they will be held responsible for inciting, aiding or perpetrating mass atrocity crimes.”  For actors at the regional and international levels, ICG has called on leaders to send messages urging against “political interference with the elections and especially against the use of or incitement to violence”.  These are just some of the many steps the government of Kenya and the international community can take to prevent the spread of post-election violence.  These preventive efforts drive at the very heart of RtoP, which not only calls for states to halt mass atrocities, but to protect from genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing happening again.  The people of Kenya deserve the opportunity to elect a new president without the fear of mass atrocities; the time for preventive action is now.

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