Premature election fever and security challenges in Nigeria

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In this blog, Zainab Usman highlights the importance of looking at the political context in which militia groups in Nigeria operate. As political contestation around the 2015 elections starts to grow, she asks what impact these various groups will have on the polls, and what the post-election environment might have in store for them. Zainab is a DPhil candidate in Development Studies at the University of Oxford.


 ‘…These actions amount to a declaration of war and a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the Nigerian state… As a responsible government, we will not tolerate this’, declared Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. This was during his recent imposition of a State of Emergency to mark the onset of army raids in parts of Nigeria’s North-East, the strong hold of the Jama’atul Ahlus Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram, which has waged a deadly insurgency war against the Nigerian state since 2009.

While Boko Haram is apparently the biggest security headache for Africa’s most populous country, it certainly isn’t its only security challenge. Pockets of violence in the oil-rich Niger-Delta, the rise of other militias in the South-West and the Middle-Belt, alarming incidents of kidnapping in the South-East, frequent eruptions of communal violence in Jos, and other forms of violent crime abound. Crucially, the increase in militant activity should be situated within the larger context of Nigeria’s political economy and the 2015 general elections, on which most of the political elite and their networks are now fixated.

Since the transition to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has experienced a period of sustained economic growth averaging 7.4%, driven partly by the rise in global oil prices. Lucrative oil revenues, accounting for 80% of government revenues, have heightened intensely competitive contestations for political office, to do-or-die proportions. Politicians frequently ratchet up identity-based rhetoric along North-South, Christian-Muslim, and other fault lines in the run up to elections. Predictably, with such fierce competition for public offices, election season is punctuated with violence. Events in the Western Region in 1964 and in parts of the North in 2011 serve as particularly notorious examples of the devastation such violence can cause.

Given the enormous (oil) revenues accruing to the government, political posturing towards 2015 elections seems to have started much earlier than usual. Presently, political discourse in Nigeria is feverishly centred on the potential candidates for president and the state governors. Heated political commentaries focus on what region’s “turn” it is to produce the president. The threats and counter-threats being made by various groups are indicative of the acrimony that followed the collapse in 2011 of the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) 12-year power-sharing formula between the North and the South. Steps towards a coalition by the main opposition parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC), add fuel to an already raging debate. Nigeria’s growing number of militant groups can only be understood within this context of fierce rhetoric and political re-alignments.

One thread that runs through the militias – Boko Haram, Niger-Delta militants, the Odudua People’s Congress (OPC) and others – is that despite their varied approaches, they provide platforms for those disillusioned with Nigeria’s narrow political system to express their grievances, albeit violently. For example, people in the Niger-Delta have long demanded that underdevelopment in the region be addressed by the government. However, it was only after young men from the area engaged in a sustained insurgency, which crippled oil production, that a government-backed Amnesty Programme was initiated in 2009 to address some of their grievances.

A similar pattern is observable with Boko Haram, where radicalised young men up North have now attained local and international infamy. Their goal is not just to secure the release of detained members but also to reach the unfeasible goal of usurping Nigeria’s secular constitution with Islamic law. Alongside ongoing military action, the government is also considering an amnesty proposal for Boko Haram.

Consequently, these groups cannot just be understood in terms of the security risk they pose or the criminal elements they harbour. They must also be read in political terms, and seen as platforms for the assertion of authority by sections of Nigerians. The country has an exclusionary political system dominated by ‘big men’ or ’godfathers’, and their associates and networks. Barring familial link or other ‘connections’ to these networks, direct participation in Nigeria’s political system depends on luck, or as these groups have discovered, by causing enough mayhem to get the attention of those who matter.

Without such violent mobilisation, members of these militia groups would, politically, be in the same boat as any of the 61% of Nigerians living below the poverty line, or the rest of the rising middle class, who are yet to constitute a critical mass that can effectively demand representation or accountability in decision-making.  The power, ‘fame’ and lucrative payoffs that insurgents have gained by carrying arms against the state undermines the sustainability of state interventions and begs the question: what can they realistically offer these groups, and those that will follow them, to pacify their actions in the long term?

Returning to the run-up to Nigeria’s elections in 2015, there are several ways in which militia groups might exercise their new-found power. Some may rally around a particular candidate, allowing them to benefit from the mix of legitimacy and fear that such groups bring. In Nigeria, where there is a long trend of political thugs being recruited by desperate politicians, this would not be an unexpected development. Conversely, Boko Haram, in particular, may try and prevent elections in the North East happening at all.  Finally, should these groups be co-opted or crushed, we may see the rise of counter-militias to fill the vacuum that they leave. The massive funds allocated to national security at just under N1 trillion ($4.5 billion) may well give the government the firepower it needs to temporarily destroy or buy-off these groups, but such large funding flows could, just as easily, create sectors of the government who have a vested interest in maintaining an atmosphere of insecurity.

Whatever course these government and militia groups take, the results of the election in 2015 will undoubtedly have immense implications for political stability and security in the country. Boko Haram, for example, is understood by many Southerners in Nigera in terms of the country’s North-South divide. Currently, the group is split into three factions. The main group’s ‘war’ against the Nigerian state started in 2009, before Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger-Delta, became President. However, the narrative that has gained currency in the South, is that Boko Haram is a tool used by disgruntled northern politicians, in the fall-out of the PDP’s power-sharing agreement, to destabilise Jonathan’s government. In the unlikely event that the APC fields a northern-Muslim candidate who defeats Jonathan at the polls, the knock-on effects for Boko Haram will be huge.

Regardless of whether Jonathan is unseated, 2015 will also be an important moment for the oil-rich Niger-Delta. Ex-militants have been pacified by an expensive amnesty programme which coincidentally expires in 2015. They have also benefitted immensely from government pay-outs and lucrative security contracts, in one instance worth $103 million. Whether these conciliatory measures continue will depend on who the incoming President needed to appease to secure their electoral victory.

As tremendous political and financial resources continue to pour into Nigeria’s security challenges and its upcoming elections, it is unclear who the winners will be. However, it is unlikely that they will include most ordinary Nigerians in the sun-scorched arid areas of the North-East or those in the oily creeks of the Niger-Delta.

13 thoughts on “Premature election fever and security challenges in Nigeria

  1. Interesting developmental writ up ,but zainab we dont have middle belt in d constitution and political history of nigeria but north central in 21 century, and jos crises is not commual crisis but ethno religious conflict etc wit some other misconceptions u have about ur father land while in diaspora…….?

    1. Malam Rilwan, we don’t have North Central in the constitution either! It was a suggestion of these six geo-political zones which come during Abacha’s inconclusive transition.

  2. …”usurping Nigeria’s secular constitution with Islamic law…” = “Forcefully converting Nigeria into an Islamic state” (my humble interpretation).

    The “Secular Constitution” of the Federal Republic of Nigeria remains the grundnorm of this Republic; thus anyone that seeks to usurp it has in effect threatened the existence of the country; the inalienable Human Right of Freedom of Association and Religion of all Nigerians, inter alia.

    It is my very humble opinion that there is no SIMILARITY between a group with the afore-mentioned objectives (who attack and murder civillians – men, women and children) and the Niger-Delta Militants who fought govt forces and attacked oil installations in their bid to force the Govt to provide social amenities to their oil-polluted lands and to put an end to the degradation of their ancient lands.

    The two “causes” are not comparable.

    Sign: A fan.

  3. Boko Haram is not concerned at all with “good governance”, for all they care we could be Afghanistan as long as GEJ becomes Nurudeen Umar alongside the other infidels…either that or they have their throats slit or be bombed, them and their apostate-Friends.

    They have clearly stated their agenda count-less times; which is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.

    However, the truth of the matter remains that the cause of all the ills that have afflicted this nation lies firmly at the feet of the ruling People’s Democratic Party which has serially failed in providing good governance to the teeming population of Nigeria. This Failure of Governance has resulted in the quagmire we find ourselves; only good governance can remedy the situation. Thus it is my humble opinion that the 2015 Election Fever is not PREMATURE because those elections are going to decide the fate of this country, as a continuing corporate body nay as a State. “A stitch in time saves Nine”.

  4. Certainly a well articulated and balanced piece….shows the shape of things to expect,come 2015 and beyond.A coalition of all the militant groups in Nigeria will certainly spell doom for the “big men” and “Godfathers”.Politics in Nigeria is laced with deceit and selfish manipulations.

  5. Your piece is very rich in contents and clarity. The fever of 2015 election is eminent and real. Remember United State of America has predicted that by 2015, NIGERIA will break. The main problems with Nigeria is monumental corruption an all percept of life. It is not gainsaying that of recent the level of corruption is alarming. It is also clear that the quest for the disintegration of the Country by different groups is on increase. My personal opinion is that laedership must change for better in order for the lead to change. I pray May GOD decide what is best for us as a country.

  6. @Ugochukwu, “One thread that runs through the militias-Boko Haram, Niger Delt militants,the Odudua Peoples Congress (OPC) and others-is that despite their varied approaches, they provide platforms for those disillusioned with Nigeria’s narrow political system to express their grievances, albeit violently”. I thought the similarity speaks to the underlying causes of grievances, of which much of it is a fall out of bad leadership and policies by successive administrations in Nigeria as the writer of the piece alluded to. In addition, I also share the view that violence is violence no matter the logic behind it or the justification for it. Isnt this a similar thread that cuts across the different constellation of militia groups that pervade the landscape of our troubled country today? Both Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militants have resorted to violence to pursue their different grievances with the Nigerian state. Their operational and ideological objectives differ significantly but the socio-economic and political contexts that may explain their emergence is no any different. My humble opinion though.

  7. Zainab, I also do hope that that expensive amnesty programme for the Niger Delta ex-militant will grind to a halt by 2915.

  8. I must thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this blog.
    I really hope to view the same high-grade blog posts by
    you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me
    to get my own site now 😉

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