Yesterday, the Peace and Security Network in partnership with the Fund for Peace and the United States Institute of Peace organized a Roundtable on preventing electoral violence as the march towards the 2019 election approaches it target. The paradox is that as the integrity and quality of Nigerian elections improve, the risk of violence rises. This is partly because the elections become more competitive and the results closer as we have seen in the last two gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun States. In this context, the stakes of the elections become higher, desperation of politicians increase and corruption in the form of vote buying, thuggery and violence could be the result. It is for this reason that the drivers of election violence need to be understood and concerted efforts to contain them become imperative.
The Roundtable discussed the controversy on yesterday’s Osun rerun elections in some polling units and drew attention to the fact that INEC had to introduce the measure because some politicians were deliberately causing violence in constituencies where their opponents have a strong electoral base with the express intention of getting the votes in those areas cancelled in accordance with the Electoral Act. The measure was therefore developed to address such mischief. Democracy cannot be consolidated if people are allowed to create mayhem and to benefit from their dastardly action. We must not forget the absurdities that occurred in this regard during the 2007 and 2011 elections.
The elections would be taking place at a time when Nigeria is facing an unprecedented existential crisis and one might even say that there is a risk of a growing drift towards chaos. One element of the crisis is the spread of the culture of violence. The Boko Haram insurgency has persisted for a decade and although progress has been made towards containing it, it remains a major problem with over 30,000 people killed and millions displaced. The Niger Delta remains marked by militancy and economic sabotage. In more recent years, a crisis of pastoralism has developed and deepened leading to violence and mass atrocities in most states in the country as herdsmen and farmers clash and cattle rustlers, kidnappers and conflict entrepreneurs enter the melee. Communal clashes are also spreading and the religious arena has become a site for political mobilization and the articulation of hate and dangerous speech. Increasingly, Nigerians are taking their political directives from their pastors and imams and if religious leaders continue to proffer divisive messages, the of serious violence increases.
The meeting started with presentations of research findings on the risk of violent conflicts. Patricia Taft of the Fund for Peace spoke of the current national context of a legitimacy crisis of the State, which many citizens consider unfit for the purpose of providing for their welfare and security. Nigeria’s electoral history demonstrate the for each electoral cycle, hotspots of violent action arise. The challenge, she explained is that the hotspots change with each election so continuous research and surveillance is necessary to identify and address emerging hotspots of violence. In most cases, electoral violence is not spontaneous, it is orchestrated by violence entrepreneurs who push communities to confront each other. Violence however can be prevented if civil society organisations with convening power intervene early to keep the peace.
Chris Kwaja presented the newly published study by the United States Institute of Peace which studied eight states in different parts of the country where the risk of electoral violence is high. The report emphasizes the reality that a lot of the risk of electoral violence is linked to local politics around gubernatorial primaries and elections so we need to focus on state-level not only national level drivers of conflicts. He also drew attention to intra-party feuds as a major factor that creates violence as most Nigerian parties have resisted the culture of imbibing internal party democracy. The report however emphasizes that electoral violence is not inevitable and local preventive action can provide a pathway towards violence-free elections. The important point is for INEC, security agencies and political parties to play their roles correctly.
Clement Nwankwo of the Situation Room spoke about the dangers of hate and dangerous speech especially within the context of growing use and access to the social media and the multiplication of fake stories and images. Nigeria’s conversational space is suffused with hateful hate content that is threatening to throw the elections into disarray and the hate speech is not limited to the social media. It is openly broadcast in radio and TV programmes and to a limited extent in newspapers. He cited numerous examples of fake and hate speech being circulated to heat up the political atmosphere and drive lines of division and discord among Nigerians. He therefore called for vigilance among citizens and civil society organisations to ensure that our collective desire for free, fair and violence-free election is not derailed.
This advice is very important especially because we live in a context there has been the erosion of public trust in the political system. A toxic atmosphere has developed in which different actors are suspected of developing plots to destroy others. Action of whatever type by governments and private actors are no longer taken at face value but are re-interpreted within narratives of coordinated plots by some groups to take or keep power or even to destroy or eliminate others or to take their land. Late, poor or non-responses by governments to unfolding events has further eroded public trust. The roundtable asserted that role the security forces play in resolving national problems is extremely important. There are concerns expressed that in their deployments around the country and even more important, in policing elections, they are not always neutral in their action. The abuse of the powers on incumbency through the manipulation of security agencies could therefore push the nation towards brinkmanship so they must understand the need to conduct themselves fairly.
The meeting ended on the note that Nigeria cannot afford democratic regression so all stakeholders need to work together and support INEC in producing elections that are as good as, if not better that the 2015 elections. This is possible if we all become engaged in conflict prevention and work towards respecting our laws and ensuring that our electoral mandate is protected. Violence emerges when citizens believe that they have been denied the justice their popular votes had given them. Free, fair and credible elections is therefore the ultimate antidote to violence.