2023 Elections and the Danger of Violence



In Africa, this year, there would be a total of more than 10 general elections in countries across the continent, particularly Sierra Leone in June, Sudan in July, Zimbabwe in July, Liberia in October,  Gabon in October, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in December but Nigeria’s general election, the seventh in the cycle since the country’ return to civilian rule in 1999 is the bellwether election, given Nigeria’s leadership position in the continent, the country’s population which grants it many automatic advantages from market to political leverage, and that makes it clearly an election that both the local and the international community must worry about. Whatever happens in Nigeria’s elections, this month till March 11, 2023 and thereafter could have implications for the stability of the West African sub-region, and by extension, Africa. The big problem that the international community faces is that major stakeholders in the Nigerian election do not care. They think only of their individual and group, party ambitions. They can’t be bothered by any big picture about Nigeria’s role or place in the world. They are not interested in the country. They just want to win. It is a dangerous scenario, and that is why the grammar of politics in Nigeria has been coloured, characterized, determined by vitriol, hate as well as religious and ethnic extremism.

People that we consider otherwise sensible, at least on the surface of it, and going by their antecedents, have been threatening that they will either commit suicide or burn down the country’s roof if their principal does not win because it is their candidate’s turn to run the country. That is not democracy, that is psychosis, and no country should be subjected to such end-game.   Who are those scallywags who have appropriated unto themselves the right to dictate who the identity of the next Nigerian President must be? This is majorly the substance of political conversation in Nigeria today. Nobody must be allowed to do that. The people of Nigeria, the 93.4 million voters who are registered for the 2023 general election must be allowed to exercise their franchise and choose feely and wisely, without let or hindrance.

Those who claim that they will commit suicide if their candidate fails, should please go ahead and do so, having chosen to die in other people’s war, but they must be reminded ahead of the fact, that here in Nigeria, it is a felony to attempt suicide and fail at it. If you want to die because Atiku or Tinubu or Peter Obi or Kwankwaso or any other Presidential candidate does not win, please go ahead and harvest your idiocy. Under section 327 of the Criminal Code, (applicable in Southern Nigeria), it is stated clearly that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor, and is liable to imprisonment for one year.” This is on all fours with Section 231 of the Penal code, applicable to Northern Nigeria. It is important therefore that as Dele Farotimi, lawyer and activist, has pointed out in a book of the same title, “nobody should die in their war” that is – nobody should lose their lives because politicians simply want to realize their personal ambitions, the same politicians who want other people’s children to die while they have all taken theirs to safe havens in different parts of the world, the same politicians who are using Nigeria to play games, indeed the same politicians who do not care whether you live or die. 

The big caveat, as Nigeria goes to the polls on February 25, 11 days from today, is: voter beware!  It must be possible for every voter to go to the polls on election day and vote freely. Over the weekend, two incidents occurred that should attract attention and concern. In Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Lagos State, a certain traditional ruler in Igbara community reportedly summoned a meeting of about 60 persons from the community where he told them that every member of the community must vote for “our party”. He directed further, that voters must take pictures of their ballot papers to show compliance, otherwise they would have problems within the community after the election. It was an open threat, no holds barred. The Baale, as such persons are called, even asked the members in attendance to show their Permanent Voters’ Cards. Out of 60 persons, 20 had their PVCs. Notwithstanding, he warned the 20 persons that nobody in the community would be allowed to jeopardize his own future and the future of his children by failing to follow his directive. In a democracy, this is most absurd. How can a traditional ruler arrogate to himself the rights of every member within his domain? That is not democracy, that is feudalism. But does anyone know how many other communities in Nigeria where people have been similarly threatened, in open, undisguised space, places of religious worship where same threats have been issued or professional associations and so on where people have been told to vote according to communal dictates, not their conscience, and to face the consequences if they were to act otherwise?

The potency of the threat lies in the reality that Nigeria has neither the mechanism nor the personnel to checkmate this. It is not impossible that a few days to this year’s general elections, the contest will be determined not by the people’s choices but by ethnic bigots, shamanists, and clerics of different persuasion who will invoke dubious piety and ask the people to vote in a particular manner. The majority of Nigerian voters do not know any better. They could vote like zombies in deference to what they have been told. Nigeria’s literacy rate is less than 50%; ethnic and religious leaders wield a disproportionate amount of power in Africa’s biggest democracy.

It is for this reason that we must worry more about the threat of violence in Nigeria’s coming elections. Ignorant people, further empowered with election cards, under the influence of corrupt Godfathers could resort to violence at the slightest provocation. They may not even need to be prompted to behave violently. They have been programmed and incentivized to do so.  A drunken, hyper-sensitive political crowd could initiate violence even without being provoked. It is the biggest threat that the world has to pay attention to as Nigeria goes to the polls, and the potency of that threat. Last Saturday, the Labour Party held its mega rally in Lagos, with the party’s Presidential candidate, Peter Obi, Ibo, 61, former Governor of the South East state of Anambra, leading the charge. It was meant to be the final rally to end Obi’s total of 37 rallies across Nigeria. Lagos is one of the most critical states in Nigeria’s general elections with a large voting population. No serious Presidential candidate can ignore the state’s voting bloc.

Lagos is in the South West, the political stronghold of the candidate of the ruling party – the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu who had also been Governor for two terms and Godfather of politics in the same state since 1999.  Peter Obi daring to hold a final rally in Lagos, was the equivalent of daring to challenge the lion in its own den. Tinubu is widely acclaimed as the “Lion of Bourdillon”, an upscale quarter of Lagos Island. On Saturday, the Lion said nothing. But Labour Party supporters are alleging that the cubs roared, and that those cubs bared their fangs and drew blood.  As of yesterday, over 30 supporters of the Labour Party were said to be on admission in different hospitals across the city, nursing different grades of pain and injury.  Anyone who wore vests bearing Obi’s image or the logo of the Labour Party was attacked. Vehicles were destroyed, stomachs were ripped open, sharp machetes were used to crack skulls and chests open, many sustained injuries.  A determined crowd of Obidients, as they are called still made it to the Tafawa Balewa Square, venue of the rally and managed to express their support for Peter Obi, the most striking revelation of the 2023 electoral process in Nigeria, who built an electoral alternative from nothing into something. He created a movement in the process.

Nigeria’s Electoral Act at Section 128, thereof, frowns at any attempt to apply threat or to do so directly or indirectly against anyone involved in an election or to inflict serious injury, damage, harm or by any means whatsoever. Section 128 (d) prescribes a fine of one million Naira or imprisonment for a term of three years, in the event of an infraction but the wholesale problem with this electoral act touted as a major game-changer in terms of its provisions, is that no serious attempt has been made to enforce it.  Nigerian politicians have carried on in open defiance of the law and in contemptuous disregard of the legal framework. They have simply continued with their old ways. Even those lawmakers who made the law do not understand it, leading to the controversy in March 2022 over the constitutionality or otherwise, of Section 84(12) of the same Electoral Act. There is no evidence either that the law enforcement agencies know what the law says or care about their law enforcement responsibilities. The law forbids vote buying, but one of the leading topics in Nigeria today is how politicians are struggling to buy votes, through access to old or new notes and how a naira redesign policy on the eve of the elections has frustrated access to cash.

The law talks about the felony of hate speech, abuse, vitriol and heating up the polity. Nobody cares. The level of verbal diarrhea, hate and abuse in this election is unprecedented. Presidential candidates and their surrogates shoot typhoon missiles from the mouth, and they all use expressions such as “civil war” and “World War III” to characterize a general election. One spokesperson even accused a Presidential candidate of holding meetings with Army Chiefs to precipitate a coup.  The military hierarchy has reaffirmed its commitment to the constitutional order. State security agents have invited the party agent for a conversation! Nigeria is overtaken by tension, uncertainty and anxiety. More privileged Nigerians have fled town till after the elections. They are in the safe quarters of London, Dubai and the Americas, ready to watch the elections from a distance. Only the poor defend Nigeria’s future. The rich run away at critical times, in brazen demonstration of opportunism. When the elections are over, they return to collect positions and contracts from whoever wins and thus make more profits at the people’s expense. The ones who stay behind may or may not vote. Very few big men and their women venture out to vote on election days in Nigeria.

This is why the needless spectre of destruction, death, disaster and injury that attends every election cycle in Nigeria is condemnable and unjustifiable. The country’s electoral commission, INEC lifted the ban on campaigns in September 2022. Since then, indeed since 2019, when the last general elections were held, more than 50 INEC facilities have been attacked in 22 states across the country, placing the commission in a heavily compromised position. The security agencies have not been able to protect INEC offices despite the existence of an Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES). The National Security Adviser advertises ICCES as some kind of great initiative but sorry, we cannot see the impact. I want to hope that none of the agencies involved in that committee has received state funds that they have refused to deploy appropriately. Apart from the attacks on INEC facilities, the political parties especially: the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Labour Party (LP) have all complained about attacks on their members and supporters across the country. This year alone, there has been an attack on the residence of the spokesperson of the Coalition of United Political parties in Imo State.  Peter Obi of the Labour Party and his entourage were attacked after a rally in Katsina on January 24. PDP accused APC members of attacking its members in Lagos on January 27.  APC members in Rivers state reported an attack on them in Opobo and Port Harcourt in January, and on February 9, Dr. Abiye Sekibo, Director-General of the PDP Presidential Campaign Council in Rivers narrowly escaped death when his bullet-proof vehicles were riddled with bullets, two of which got through but missed target.  Just after that incident in Rivers, there was the report of a clash between APC and PDP supporters in Jigawa. There was also a similar clash between both parties in Lagos in the Aiyetoro, Surulere area on January 27, and yet another incident in Osun on January 30.

What Nigeria is going into looks like war, not an election and that makes it scary. This may affect the efficiency of the electoral body, voter turn-out, and the post-election scenario in the country, especially as the security agencies seem completely overwhelmed and aloof. Labour Party alleges that as the party’s supporters were being attacked in Lagos, security officers simply looked the other way! Nigerians have so badly mismanaged the people’s trust that even law enforcement officers do not want a share of their war.  The biggest loser will be President Muhammadu Buhari whose attempt to define his legacy in eight years will be thrown under the bus. The bigger loser would be the Nigerian people who will suffer the consequences of the derailment of their future, and the uncertainty that accompanies that.

Nigeria is in a dilemma right now, and that is putting it mildly. Even the shamanists of diverse colours, pastors and the Bar Beach crowd of fortune gazers have not been able to tell Nigerians what the immediate future portends. In a highly superstitious and religious country, religious leaders are as bad as the street thugs. They inflict their own kind of violence that is not even covered by the law. The international community is in a wait-and-see mode. International investors too. Our conclusion is that this country is in urgent need of patriots, persons who would place the country first and above their personal ambitions. The scarcity of that special breed makes all of us look bad. But Nigeria is one country that never crosses the edge of the precipice. We are a resilient people; we always manage to survive. This is probably Nigeria’s moment in the Garden of Gethsemane. But even this shall pass. And please, what happened to all those peace accords Nigerian politicians signed with so much fanfare?  Another hollow ritual?

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