As Nigeria looks ahead to general elections in February 2023, there is growing concern that insecurity will undermine the process, making it dangerous for voters to attend rallies and polling stations, and preventing elections from even being held in some areas. Much of the focus so far has been on the North East of the country because it is home to the notorious Boko Haram movement. But these concerns also apply to other regions such as the North West, the largest geo-political zone of the country, which is battling banditry, kidnapping and terrorism.
When bandits began attacking northwestern Nigerian communities, the region’s governors brought in some of the armed leaders for negotiations. Many peace and conflict experts – including the author of this article – criticized the governors for their actions, because the groups lack centralized leadership and clear demands. The Governors later realized that the amnesty granted to the armed group produced little or no meaningful results. Instead, in some cases the resulting agreements generated greater distrust when either the authorities or the bandits fail to abide by them. The security crisis, therefore, persists.
The region is also suffering from the resurgence of the Ansaru terrorist group, which is succeeding because it is doing what Nigeria’s democratically elected leaders have not: providing agricultural products such as fertilizers to local farmers, especially in Kaduna, Katsina and some part of Zamfara state, while promising to protect rural communities from armed raids. This represents a particular challenge to the 2023 polls because Ansaru has warned residents to shun political gatherings that aim to promote democracy. Moreover, this challenge is compounded by the growing acceptance of the group in some communities in Kaduna and Katsina States, which is fueled by the absence of effective state or national level government.
The failure of political leaders to provide democratic dividend has led to an increase in poverty, inequality, and ethno-religious divisions. In addition to the risk that voters will be too afraid to go to the polls, there is a significant threat that the elections will be hit by widespread apathy. In turn, this means that there may be parts of the country in which voter turnout is radically low, which could potentially undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process – especially if presidential and gubernatorial races are close.
The threat that insecurity poses to the elections is not limited to the way it will shape the actions of citizens, but also extends to the situation facing electoral officials. In parts of the North West – as with parts of the South East – the offices and officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission are threatened by anti-system movements and opportunistic criminal attacks by bandits and other groups.
The risk that this poses to INEC staff has increased significantly in recent years due to the proliferation and circulation of small, light and even more powerful weapons, which are increasingly in circulation among both bandit groups and citizens seeking to defend themselves. As a result, far too many people now possess sophisticated weapons like AK-47, G-3 and other locally made guns. Given this difficult context, INEC may find it harder to hire staff in 2023, making the logistical challenge of recruiting over 1 million poll workers that much harder.
Leaving aside the threat of insecurity, many residents from conflict affected communities believe that no political activities should take place until peace is restored. In Katsina and Zamfara young people were seen in August carrying placards with messages such as “No Peace, No Election”. When these conditions are combined with a backdrop of widespread hate speech and misinformation, the potential for unrest becomes clear. The challenge that this poses to the smooth conduct of the elections is clear.
Growing insecurity and ethnic/regional/religious tensions are particularly significant where the 2023 polls are concerned, because this is the first that there are three viable presidential candidates that come from each of the three largest ethnic groups, and from different geo-political zones. For example, Bola Tinubu of All Progressive Party is a Yoruba Muslim from the South West, a region that believes it is their turn to rule, as evidenced by the popular slogan “Emilokan”. Meanwhile, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party is a Fulani Muslim from the North East, which has never produced a president and sees his candidacy as their opportunity to take control of government. Finally, Peter Obi of the Labour Party is an Igbo Christian from the South East where there is high tension over the agitation of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) for a separate Biafran nation.
The competition between these leaders therefore risks exacerbating a number of different tensions. On the one hand, if Abubakar emerges victorious the presidency will not rotate from the north to the south of the country – as it is now expected to do under the under the “zoning” principle, given that outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari hails from Katsina state in the north – which would exacerbate the complaints of southerners that their interests are being marginalized. In turn, this would risk increasing support for IPOB. On the other hand, if no candidate can win outright in the first round – as current opinion polls suggest – then a run off between Obi and one of Tinubu and Abubakar would risk intensifying the country’s potentially explosive religious cleavage.
To prevent this, INEC must be supported to hold high quality polls, and the Inter-agency Consultative Committee on Election Security must develop a credible plan for keeping Nigerians and INEC officials safe. This then needs to be effectively implemented at the state level – which has been a problem in the bast – and supported by the full range of actors, including state security agencies, civil society groups and international donors. At the same time, it will be important to tackle fake news and misinformation, as well as the spread of hate speech, all of which threaten to exacerbate the issues set out above. Failure to do this could undermine not only the elections, but also the democratic system more broadly.
Idris Mohammed (@Edrees4P) is a journalist and researcher on extreme terror related issue based in North-western Nigeria. He is also a member of the United States Institute of Peace Network of Nigerian Facilitators (USIP-NNF). Currently, Idris is serving as an election observation master trainer with YIAGA AFRICA.