According to some analysts monitoring the lead-up to next month’s state and national elections in Nigeria – scheduled to begin April 14 – the polls could be marred by violence. In recent months, police have prevented key candidates from campaigning, and political figures have been murdered. A wave of anti-government protests has also heightened tensions in Africa’s most populous country, where President Olusegun Obasanjo has ruled since 1999. Analysts say the 2007 elections are set to be the most important event in Nigeria since 1960, when the country gained independence from Britain. But they say the polls could a test of democracy in Nigeria. In the second of a five-part series, VOA’S Darren Taylor examines the potential for violence during the elections next month.
“The prospects for peaceful polls are not good,” says Prof. Rotimi Suberu, a political scientist from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
“The party primaries were grossly manipulated; there’s been a lot of violence and even assassinations as we approach the elections.”
Fifty political parties are pushing candidates to stand in the April elections, which could see the first civilian-to-civilian handover of power in Nigeria, which up until 1999 had been ruled by a series of military dictatorships. But observers say the presidential race is between President Obasanjo’s chosen successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and the president’s sworn enemy, Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who last year opposed the PDP’s bid for a third-term for President Obasanjo.
According to Suberu, another ground for pessimism is the instability in the Niger Delta region, where rebel groups are fighting the state for a share in the oil wealth that the area provides, and have been abducting foreign oil workers in order to pressure the authorities to accede to their demands.
“The militias in the Niger Delta have their roots in groups of thugs organized by politicians to rig elections in that part of the country. A lot of these thuggish groups also are prevalent in other parts of the country (and are) funded by (political) godfathers,” said Suberu.
He said these groups act with impunity because of police corruption and ineffectiveness, leading to a great deal of anxiety and insecurity.
Suberu said there was a “disturbing level of violence” throughout Nigeria ahead of the polls, so it was “easy to see” why many observers and citizens were predicting widespread electoral violence that could undermine the legitimacy of the process.
Reuben Abati, one of Nigeria’s top political commentators and the chairman of the Guardian newspaper group, said the country’s police force was a “serious factor in destabilization” in the run-up to the elections. It had disobeyed a court order to allow “government unfriendly” candidates to campaign freely by “illegally” enforcing Nigeria’s Public Order Act, under which said the crowds represented threats to the safety of citizens.
Abati was certain that the police would play a decisive role in the elections and that this would influence whether or not the international community accepted them as free and fair. Yet, despite a burden of responsibility upon the security forces to ensure peace, he said, they seemed resigned to a violent election.
“The Nigerian police has ordered 40,000 AK-47’s to be used for the elections; it has also ordered 30,000 K-2 rifles, and 10,000 Beretta pistols. So these are the official weapons of the 2007 elections,” Abati quipped.
While poor Nigerians suffered from lack of development, the government was going to expensive lengths to ensure that the PDP remained in power, he said.
All of this, Abati added, was creating a “climate of fear” in Nigeria that did not bode well for a peaceful election.
He identified Lagos state, “where there is a big fight between six or seven political parties,” as a potential “flashpoint, and also the (Niger) Delta, where there is ethnic politics.”
Abati alleged that the government was doing “little” to prevent political violence – other than handing “tons” of weapons to the security forces.
PDP Secretary Ojo Maduekwe countered that, in order to ensure peace in Nigeria during the polls, the security forces had to be “well armed” to stop violence. Abati, however, maintained that the Nigerian police were actually “ill prepared” to prevent election conflict.
“It’s only in (one state) that the policemen are going through drills, about crowd control, and all that.… If you hand over guns to the Nigerian policemen, then of course you can expect a lot of casualties,” he predicted.
Innocent Chukwuma, the chairman of the Transitional Monitoring Group (TMG), which encompasses Nigerian civil society groups committed to peaceful elections, agreed with Abati that the country’s police did not have the resources to prevent political strife.
“Instead of getting transport and communications equipment for the police, the government has provided them with weapons instead.… On election day, if the police encounter situations that threaten law and order, and without communication to call for back-up, they will simply run away for their dear lives, or stand idle and allow those who are involved in electoral malpractices to have their way,” he said.
Even transporting the police from their various stations to the polling booths would be a “big problem,” Chukwuma predicted.
“There is hardly any police station in Nigeria that has more than two functional vehicles.”
The TMG fears that the irregularities of the 2003 poll will be repeated.
Nate van Dusen, of the IFES group, which tries to ensure democratic, peaceful elections around the world, said that during the 2003 elections in Nigeria, polling stations were “sacked by hired thugs. There were thefts of ballot boxes, kidnapping of polling station workers, swapping out of polling workers on election day with party loyalists…. We’re seeing signs that violence is going to be a problem again.”
In February alone, said van Dusen, IFES monitors documented almost 80 instances of political violence in Nigeria – including kidnappings, assaults and the murders of candidates.
According to a businessman in Lagos, Emeka Chukwuka, the feeling in Nigeria as the elections approach is one of intense uncertainty.
“A lot of people are skeptical. Church groups are organizing prayers to ensure that nothing violent, or a civil war, breaks out in Nigeria. Everybody is anxious,” he said.