Nigeria is increasingly tense in the countdown to presidential elections on Saturday. President Goodluck Jonathan is facing an exceptionally strong challenge from former military ruler, General Muhammadu Buhari. Never has a presidential race been so close, and with that the risk of major political violence increases.
In a statement on Thursday, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said, “the footprint of pre-election violence has spread” and election-related trouble “in some form has been reported in nearly all the states of Nigeria”. Violence of this intensity occurring before an election is atypical of Nigerian’s recent poll history, it noted.
Post-election violence - and impunity – is customary. In 2011, when Buhari was trounced by Jonathan, 800 people were killed in rioting in the north of the country. This election, billed as one of the county’s most important, with Jonathan promising continuity and Buhari demanding change, is more highly charged. “There is a lot at stake, a lot of people have dug deep into their positions of support and distrust,” said Clement Nwankwo, director of the human rights NGO, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre.
According to Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch, “violence is inevitable. Making it less widespread, less brutal, is what everybody is working on.”
IRIN looks at some of the challenges surrounding the credibility of this election, and the impact that could have on the country’s stability if it provokes widespread unrest.
To tackle the rigging of the past, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has introduced two key technologies - the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) and the card reader. They verify each voter is at the correct polling unit where they registered, and their bio-data match what is stored electronically on their card. The card readers also generate a record of all voters who have been accredited at the polling unit before voting takes place.
However, in a test run in 12 states conducted in early March, the card readers only managed a 59 percent success rate in identifying the finger prints on the PVCs, intensifying the clamour for the PVCs and card readers to be dropped – especially by the president’s People’s Democratic party (PDP).
In the case of technology failure, the electoral officers at the polling units are allowed to verify the photograph and details on the PVC, and can allow a person to vote via a manual register once an incident form is filled. But the pressure on polling officers will be enormous in an election where turnout is expected to be at a record high, and in that chaos, procedure may go out of the window.
“If the election administrator is confronted with a mob – what happens? We will get ‘community voting’”, where politicians mobilize community leaders to deliver a bloc vote, NHRC chairman Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, told IRIN.
Hijacking of the vote
Running in parallel to INEC’s vote tabulation is an independent, civil society-led vote verification system set up by the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) known as Quick Count. Its observers will provide real-time results from each polling unit to guard against ballot box stuffing or dishonest recording of the vote tally. However, problems could still occur further up the chain at INEC’s vote collation centres.
Lazarus Apir, programme manager with TMG, worries that the vote could be subverted and “manipulated” at the collation centres, or results sheets “intercepted and tampered with before reaching the centres”. If announcements are made “on the basis of false tallies”, then regardless of the Quick Count results, chaos could ensue said Nwankwo. And if the election is so badly run that it proves inconclusive and INEC is unable to announce a result, “then we’re in uncharted territory,” he added.
If that happens, Segun of Human Rights Watch hopes that political opponents will turn to the courts rather than violence. However, in Rivers and Kaduna – two of the highest-risk states – all courts are currently closed.
Both men claim victory
On Thursday, Jonathan and Buhari of the All-Progressives Congress (APC) met and renewed a peace accord first signed in February, pledging to “respect the outcome of free, fair and credible elections”.
But, according to Segun, the real concern is whether either man has the ability to control their supporters, including senior party members. In the latest example of hate speech, Rivers State Deputy Governor, Tele Ikuru, on Monday called on “every Rivers man” to fight “this evil among us” - in reference to the APC - and “if it demands your blood, so be it”.
“The body language [in this election] is all-out war,” said Segun. “The belief that the candidates can rally their supporters and prevent this … my sense is that they don’t have the control or the influence. A lot of the reactions will be spontaneous.”
Among the likely targets of that violence will be minorities and migrants in each state – more specifically Hausa-Fulani, the same ethnic group as Buhari, in the south, and southern Christians – associated with Jonathan - in the north. Already, vulnerable minorities are seeking shelter around police and army bases.
But the security forces “don’t have the assets to protect everyone. If they don’t target properly they won’t be able to institute acceptable levels of protection”, said Odinkalu.
The Nigerian military has been deployed to provide security for the elections, despite a high court ruling that this is unconstitutional and the police are the proper body to impose law and order. Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Kenneth Minimah, warned on Wednesday that any politicians planning violence during elections would be met by “organized violence”.
But the APC believes the senior commanders support Jonathan, on the grounds that Buhari – renowned for his anti-corruption credentials – will force reforms. In a state governorship election in Ekiti last year, the military were accused of political interference. Jonathan has twice had to deny that there is a plot, should he lose, for the military to impose an interim government with him at the helm.
“Military involvement in the electoral process is a cause for concern,” said Nwankwo. Although the military will not be deployed at the polling centres, civil society’s fear is that they will be on the streets and could intimidate. “[They could, for example] prevent you from getting to the polling station,” noted Apir.
According to Segun, a potential fall out from a chaotic election would be a lack of attention to the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast – both in terms of the gains the militants could make, and vigilance over human rights abuses by all sides in the conflict. “We shouldn’t drop the ball on that one, in terms of civilian protection,” she said.
With the involvement of neigbouring militaries in the fight against Boko Haram, “we must strategise now on how to protect civilians – those caught in the crossfire or in retaliatory attacks by Boko Haram.”
In any conversation on Nigeria, the expression “Nigeria factor” usually crops up. It means that if anything can go wrong it will, but people in the end, by dint of luck and perseverance, somehow muddle through. Tunji Lardner, director of the West African NGO network WANGONET, describes it as a “logic defying” sense of Nigerian exceptionalism. What it also means is that in the context of Nigeria and this election, “anything fit [can] happen.”