Nigerians are talking about how to prevent violence during the upcoming elections. Many are concerned about recent clashes and assassinations – they think much of that violence is politically motivated and may spill into next year’s state and national elections. A recent forum in Lagos brought together politicians, academic scholars, Muslims clerics and journalists from across Nigeria to talk about promoting fair and peaceful elections. The conference was organized by the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, with the support of the US Embassy.
Nigerians have good reason to begin thinking about how they can assure peaceful state and national elections. Political historians say only the military, which they say is resented by civilians, has succeeded in conducting elections that were seen as fair. On the other hand, they say, no civilian government has ever managed to organize trouble-free elections. The analysts say one of the reasons the army overthrew civilian governments in the past is that the elections they supervised were marred by violence.
The president of the Christian Association of Nigeria – CAN – Archbishop Sunday Mbang, says those experiences made it necessary to hold the recent forum.
He says, "You know we live in Nigeria and all my members, all the members of the Christian Association – they live in Nigeria. They need peace, they need to live properly and so on and when we saw that things were not going on well it is our duty to be able to organize this kind of thing for people to dialogue, and we are hoping this is not the end. We will go on organizing so that people will dialogue and reduce the kind of tension and conflict we are experiencing."
One of the politicians at the forum, Olusola Saraki, is a leader of the Peoples Democratic Party from Kwara State in north central Nigeria. He says a major source of electoral violence is conflicts within political groups. He attributes this to what he sees as a lack of discipline in the current political parties, unlike those of the past.
He says, "Today you find out that the governors behave as they like, whereas those days no governor, however big you are, could disobey the Party rulings. And the reason being that at that time, as I said before, nominations of the candidates were financed by the party. The party even went to the constituency to campaign for the candidates. But this time around they have no idea how to do all these things and that is the main cause of all these problems. All the leaders for the three political parties have no idea – what it takes to run the political parties."
Dr. Saraki says there will be less tension if more political parties are registered or and more individuals are allowed to contest as independent candidates, giving Nigerians greater freedom of choice. Currently there are only six registered political parties in Nigeria.
Another participant at the forum, former police officer Solomon Asemota, says the government and the Independent National Electoral Commission - INEC - should try harder to help the Police to maintain law and order during elections.
He says, "First of all, the Police, they need to have meeting with INEC, understand the electoral laws etc… and the role they are supposed to play. Perhaps on Election Day, de-emphasize firearms at polling stations. During our time, the mobile units are in vehicles away so that they only come in if there is violence. But the Policeman at the polling booth is there with only a baton or without baton. And the object of this exercise is to encourage people to come out and vote, not to bully them." Mr. Asemota says on Election Day police should be posted to areas where they understand the language so they can be effective in preventing violence. And he says they should have enough food and other supplies to last all day. A member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, El Hadji Liad Tella, says it requires political will on the part of the government to make all the suggestions work.
He says, "It is not that Nigeria is lacking in solution to the problem of electoral violence or ballot raping. The solutions are there; it is the lack of political will on the part of those who govern to ensure that the right solution is applied. For example, the Executive sent a bill to the National Assembly on election violence prescribing strict penalties for violators or perpetrators of violence during election. The National Assembly threw the executive bill out, saying that the existing law has taken good care of what the executive is trying to re-legislate – I don’t believe it."
That is El-Hadj Tella, who is also the managing editor of The Monitor newspapers, based in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria.
Most participants say the discussions should continue and as many groups as possible should be involved in finding solutions to the problem of electoral violence in Nigeria. They say the recommendations of the Lagos forum should be forwarded to the government, the National Assembly, INEC, and law enforcement agencies in order to help them develop a plan for fair and peaceful elections.