'Risk of violence particularly high', sharp rise in weapons imports as Nigeria heads for polls - Crisis Group

Some leaders in the mainly Muslim north want to take back the presidency from the mostly Christian south at any cost.

NIGERIA’S general election is on track to be “volatile and vicious”, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said Friday, warning that “an increasingly violent” political climate must be checked to avoid widespread unrest. 

The concern came a day after police fired teargas inside parliament, apparently targeting one of the country’s most powerful lawmakers, who defected from the ruling party to the opposition last month.

“Mitigating bloodshed before, during and after the polls requires urgent improvements in security and electoral arrangements and, most importantly, in political mindsets,” the think-tank said.

Nigeria has experienced political bloodshed many times in the past: in the 2011 vote— widely regarded as the cleanest since civilian rule was restored in 1999—nearly 1,000 died in post-poll protests in the religiously divided central region. 

For the ICG, the “risks of violence are particularly high” for February’s elections because old tensions have not been resolved and new developments could prove inflammatory.

Religious divide, new opposition 

The 42-page report notes the stated desire of some leaders in the mainly Muslim north to take back the presidency from the mostly Christian south at any cost.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, will be the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, while the new opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), is almost certain to nominate a northern Muslim.

The emergence of the APC, which groups most of Nigeria’s leading opposition parties, could also raise tensions, the Brussels-based ICG said.

The February elections will be the first national contest between the two rival parties and the ICG noted that relations between the PDP and APC are particularly hostile, with both sides using violent rhetoric and cut-throat tactics.

The five-year Boko Haram Islamist uprising, which has cost more than 13,000 lives, is raging with no end in sight and Nigeria’s elections body has conceded that voting could be impossible in three of the hardest-hit northeastern states. 

“An election not held in all states may… fall short of the constitutional requirements for electing a president”, the report said.

A contested result could easily set fire to a combustible political atmosphere, it added. 

 Biased security services? 

The ICG also noted the growing opposition view that the security services function as political enforcers for the PDP, a concern reinforced Thursday when police sprayed teargas on senior opposition lawmakers who were trying to enter parliament for a key vote.

Security agencies “have created the impression, unwittingly or otherwise, that they are intimidating opposition leaders and their supporters, while allowing PDP agents and Jonathan’s supporters free rein,” the Crisis Group said.

The report claimed there has been a spike in the number of weapons being smuggled into the country, citing security sources and customs officials, and said this surge may be linked to the looming election.

The oil-producing Niger Delta was identified as a potential trouble spot, where multiple well-organised gangs have been lying dormant since accepting an amnesty deal from the government in 2009 that ended a rebellion in the southern region.

An international priority 

The head of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, was broadly applauded for his management of the 2011 polls but the Crisis Group questioned his claim that 2015 would be run even better.

“Repeated assurances by… Jega, that the polls will be an improvement on the past, are not entirely supported by realities on ground,” the report said, raising concern about the credibility of the electoral rolls and the fact that key changes to electoral law recommended after 2011 have not been passed.

The Crisis Group urged the international community to maintain support for INEC and warned of serious consequences if Nigeria’s polls turn bloody.

“As Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, Nigeria would present a very real security threat if destabilised by election violence,” says the ICG’s Africa Programme deputy director EJ Hogendoorn.

“Salvaging the situation requires concerted efforts by all national actors as well as international partners,” he added.

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