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Against the Clock in Nigeria
Against the Clock in Nigeria
Managing Nigeria’s Election Tensions
Managing Nigeria’s Election Tensions
A man walks past a portrait of Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, who began his campaign on Wednesday for a second-term in office in Lagos January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
Impact Note / Africa

Against the Clock in Nigeria

Preventing election violence in Nigeria

Advocacy Against the Clock

In 2014, Crisis Group’s Africa Program became convinced that Nigeria risked bloody confrontation after presidential elections then scheduled for February 2015. The organisation played a leading role in mobilising the international community to take action that successfully headed off potential new violence in one of the continent’s most influential countries.

Early on, our field research revealed clear signals that if either President Goodluck Jonathan or his main challenger General Muhammadu Buhari refused to accept defeat, violence was likely to erupt on a scale that could eclipse the 2011 post-election clashes that killed over 800 people. Building on our analyst’s inside-out knowledge of the country, our early and consistent messaging right up to the vote helped spur concerted international and local pressure that persuaded Jonathan to respect the results of the election and step down.

Crisis Group has been shedding light on Nigeria’s political and security problems since 2003, from Niger Delta militancy to the Boko Haram insurgency and election-time violence. Our Senior Analyst for Nigeria Nnamdi Obasi could see that with friction along the country’s regional and religious fault lines mounting, the 2015 elections would be more contentious than any since the return to civilian rule in 1999.

Supporters of both Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta, and Buhari, a Muslim from the far north, were uncompromising in their claims to the presidency. The Niger Delta camp believed that since their region was the source of the country’s oil wealth, their man was entitled to a second term, while sentiment in the north had hardened against Jonathan due to his perceived slow and half-hearted response to Boko Haram. Factional divisions within the main parties, fierce local competitions and inadequate preparations by the electoral commission all pointed to a flare-up.

In February 2014, a year before the elections, Obasi and other senior staff decided they should act to fulfil Crisis Group’s primary mandate, to prevent deadly violence. The government and political parties were pursuing their interests with little thought of the consequences. International partners were aware of the risks, mindful of the 2011 carnage, but their concern was not translating into the necessary preventive action. We raised the alarm to persuade influential partners to press home to the Nigerian protagonists how disastrous the consequences would be if they did not run peaceful campaigns and accept the final results.

For much of 2014, Obasi criss-crossed the country to prepare an elections-focused report, listening to voices from all corners of Nigeria’s diverse and deeply fractured nation. Already in June, we put Nigeria on our Early Warning Watch List and began sending confidential monthly updates to the European Union (EU). We made sure member states were fully aware of the rising tensions and called on the EU to caution campaigners to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric. Heeding our call, the head of the in-country EU delegation publicly urged the Nigerian government and media to avoid hate speech.

In November 2014, we published Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence, explaining in detail why and where violence could break out and how it could be avoided.

The Coordinator of the UN Response on the Regional Impact of Boko Haram, Assistant Secretary-General Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, quickly called Obasi to ask for our insights on how Boko Haram’s attacks could affect the elections. He described his hour-long telephone briefing as “highly valuable”.

In the four months leading up to the vote, the report web pages received 19,530 views – a Crisis Group record.

With three months to go before the scheduled vote, we intensified our efforts. In Abuja, Obasi delivered his findings and recommendations on TV and in the corridors of power: the main political parties, the electoral commission, the military and police. Some appreciated our insights, others were dismissive. Top army officers welcomed our suggestions on how the security forces could contribute to peaceful polls. The National Publicity Secretary of the then ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), on the other hand, listened attentively but rejected the report as “alarmist” and called Crisis Group a “foreign fault-finding organisation”.

In Dakar, Obasi and West Africa Project Director Rinaldo Depagne explained our warnings at a seminar on the region’s elections and convened a press conference to draw attention to the dangers in Nigeria. Obasi travelled to brief policymakers in Washington DC, New York and Ottawa. To maximise leverage on the main candidates, we pushed for collective and aligned international pressure, recommending high-level engagement before the vote, and suggesting that an African face would likely be most palatable to Nigerian politicians. In New York, a West Africa specialist in the UN Department of Political Affairs said the report was “extremely timely...exactly the type of top-notch analytical work that has defined ICG over the years”.

Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence

Nnamdi Obasi, Senior Analyst for Nigeria, explains the risks of violence around the 2015 elections in a Crisis Group video interview on 21 November 2014, the day we publish a major elections-focused report. CRISIS GROUP
In New York, a West Africa specialist in the UN Department of Political Affairs said the report was “extremely timely...exactly the type of top-notch analytical work that has defined ICG over the years”.

As elections approached, alongside other organisations – notably the Nigeria-based CLEEN Foundation – we monitored the rising tensions and kept up a drum beat of analytical warnings. In the opinion pages of The Guardian, Africa Program Director Comfort Ero underlined that “Nigeria’s elections promise a genuine contest – but avoiding unrest is vital” (16 January 2015). Obasi called for concerted action in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (“Nigerianische Zwickmühle”, 23 February 2015). In numerous media interviews, Obasi, Ero and Deputy Africa Program Director, EJ Hogendoorn, urged stronger international engagement to prevent election violence.

Our message, pressed in private and echoed by other credible organisations, began to sink in, reinforcing the good intentions of statesmen. Ahead of a January 2015 visit to Nigeria by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a former Crisis Group board member, one of his advisors called Obasi for his take on the lay of the land. Annan’s mission made a breakthrough when he brought the candidates together to sign the Abuja Accord, a pledge to eschew hate speech and respect the vote’s outcome.

As Jonathan had repeatedly shown an open ear to U.S. positions, it was vital to ensure the State Department was fully briefed. The director of its Nigeria Policy and Operations Group said he “benefited tremendously” from Obasi’s visit on 3 December 2014 and that our reporting helped them “orient [their] efforts”. In late January 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Abuja to make crystal clear that the U.S. expected respect for any election result.

The need for mitigating measures became ever more apparent and urgent. When the electoral commission postponed the polls from February to March, apparently to give Jonathan more campaigning time, tensions spiked. We sounded the alarm in a new commentary, “Nigeria’s Elections: A Perilous Postponement” (12 February 2015). In early March, former South African President Thabo Mbeki added his voice to the chorus now urging the candidates to heed the ballot box. The National Peace Committee, a group of eminent, non-partisan citizens, quietly insisted on peaceful elections.

But at the last minute, now fully aware of just what a hostile international environment he would otherwise face, Jonathan accepted the people’s decision.

In the days before the vote, opinion polls put Buhari ahead. Jonathan looked likely to lose, but his party, with sixteen years in power and access to deep state resources, still seemed highly unlikely to accept defeat. Former militant leaders in the Niger Delta said they would consider a Buhari victory a “declaration of war”. On 24 March, Obasi published another Crisis Group commentary pushing for last-minute diplomatic engagements and a crisis response plan.

On election day, a Saturday, Obasi was in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta. Fears of fighting had turned the bustling oil city into a ghost town. By Monday evening it was clear that Jonathan had lost. Party hardliners wanted the president to dig in; one rejected the results outright. But at the last minute, now fully aware of just what a hostile international environment he would otherwise face, Jonathan accepted the people’s decision. Obasi heard gunshots the night before the vote, but the speed with which Jonathan conceded defeat convinced many loyalists there was no point in fighting.

Nigeria’s presidential transition was not violence-free. Over 50 people were killed in election-related strife in the months leading up to the vote and at least another 50 died in clashes on election day and the day after. But the toll was far less than was feared.

While many organisations warned of the risks of bloodshed, Crisis Group’s early, consistent and compelling messaging was a vital component in the international community’s diplomatic campaign to ensure Nigeria’s successful political transition.

A poster of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (R) is displayed side by side with opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari, Lagos, Nigeria, 14 January 2015. AFP
Commentary / Africa

Managing Nigeria’s Election Tensions

Nnamdi Obasi, Senior Analyst, Nigeria, discusses possible outcomes of the general elections rescheduled for 28 March and 11 April, and how the international community should prepare for post-election unrest that looks increasingly likely.

Crisis Group: What impact has postponing these elections from February had on Nigeria?

Nnamdi Obasi: The decision by the government to delay the vote due on 14 February has had both positive and negative impacts.

The extra preparation time enabled the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to deliver more permanent voter cards (PVCs) and to test the new PVC readers that will be used to check voter cards. As of 16 March, 56 million voters had collected their PVCs (81 per cent of the total 68.8 million registered voters), up from the 45.1 million (66 per cent) who had collected their cards before the announcement of postponement.

On the other hand, the past weeks have allowed President Goodluck Jonathan’s well-funded ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to campaign more vigorously, while the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has appeared largely out of money. This unfair consequence of the postponement means that if he loses the election, APC presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari looks even less likely to accept defeat.

Jonathan has also faced heavy domestic criticism for the postponement decision, which was ostensibly to give time for a major offensive against the armed Islamist Boko Haram group. Although the government’s forces have made surprising gains, including the retaking of over 40 towns and villages previously held by the insurgents, PDP’s hope that a military success would boost Jonathan’s chances has not materialised.

Could the elections be postponed again?

The chance of a further postponement now looks remote, given the repeated assurances by INEC and President Jonathan. Still, several election-related lawsuits are still pending, some due for hearings only days before the polls. Another postponement cannot be entirely ruled out.

Another reason that the poll will almost certainly go ahead is the real threat of violence. The opposition APC has warned that its supporters will fiercely resist any further shift. Further postponement will raise multiple legal complications. The 1999 constitution stipulates elections must be completed no later than 30 days before the inauguration of the next president, in this case 29 May, meaning that all elections (including run-offs) must be completed before 29 April. Finally, any postponement will further damage the Jonathan administration’s credibility, both within Nigeria and abroad.

What if the election process and results are not credible?

Nigeria’s problem is that however well the election is conducted, each of the two major parties already believes it will win, and will question the credibility of any results that run contrary to its expectations. Attempts at vote rigging and other fraudulent activity are expected from all parties.

On top of this, the ruling PDP and some marginal parties continue to oppose some of the technical innovations INEC is introducing to minimise fraud and improve the vote’s credibility. For example, the PDP Governors’ Forum, a powerful pressure group, has protested INEC’s insistence that only voters with the new PVCs can vote. It argues that the system disenfranchises those who have still not collected their cards.

The PDP and some other parties have sought to stop the use of electronic PVC-reader machines altogether. On 4 March, fifteen (out of the country’s 26) political parties and five presidential candidates implausibly argued the use of the card readers to confirm identities would amount to “electronic voting”, which is prohibited by the constitution and election law. Following a 7 March field test in twelve states, which reported the readers were unable to recognise and authenticate 41 per cent of voters’ fingerprints, PDP again said the commission should not use them unless all observed flaws are rectified. On 11 March, a PDP senatorial candidate asked a Federal High Court to stop INEC from using the card readers, claiming they were “untested technology” and “unconstitutional”.

For now, INEC, supported by many civil society organisations, insists on using the card readers. However, if the commission fails to significantly improve the devices’ performance, or if a last-minute court ruling bars them, opportunities for fraud will greatly increase, as will the risk of violent protests and a crisis of legitimacy for whoever is said to win.

How will the loser and their supporters react?

Victory by either candidate will certainly throw up new security challenges. The main candidates and many of their supporters strongly reject even the possibility that they could lose. Opposition APC chairman John Odigie-Oyegun says his party will give the ruling PDP “a befitting funeral ceremony” on 28 March; controversial First Lady Patience Jonathan claimed the PDP will hold on to power for another 60 years.

If Jonathan wins, violent protests are likely. He is highly unpopular in the far north. His campaign team was stoned in Katsina and Bauchi states; and his campaign vehicles were burnt in Plateau and elsewhere.

Similarly, a Buhari win will almost certainly spark protests in Jonathan’s Niger Delta home region. This is the heart of Nigeria’s oil industry, and local people could attack oil installations to deny income to the new government, since they believe that the region’s role as the source of national wealth gives it the right to the presidency. In two meetings they held in Delta and Bayelsa states in January and February, former militant leaders said they will consider a Buhari victory a “declaration of war” and would respond “disproportionately”.

What will happen if there is no outright winner, leading to a run-off?

For the first time since 1999, a run-off seems a real possibility. The constitution stipulates that to win, a presidential candidate must not only obtain the highest number of votes but also not less than one quarter of the votes cast in at least two thirds of all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. If there is no such winner, INEC is required to organise a run-off between the two leading candidates, with the same requirements. In the unlikely event a clear winner again fails to emerge, there must be, within seven days, a third simple-majority election between the two candidates. If there are run-offs, the period of uncertainty between the successive ballots will certainly lead to increased tensions throughout the country.

What is the worst-case scenario?

The election could be marred by a combination of failures across the entire spectrum of polling activities. Vulnerabilities include logistics, balloting and security at polling stations; the likelihood of both leading candidates claiming victory; and rejection of the results in various parts of the country. Severe deficiencies could lead to a serious breakdown of law and order, and increase pressures for the installation of an interim government.

The very worst scenario, that the military could intervene, ostensibly to restore law and order, still seems very unlikely.

What should international partners do to defuse the potential election violence?

First, up to the eve of both elections – 28 March and 11 April – they should repeatedly make clear to the leading presidential candidates, the main party leaders, and the leaders’ ethnic and regional backers, that violence will not be accepted. They should underline that this means during the voting, while votes are being counted, and particularly after announcement of results.

Nigeria’s partners should also signal jointly that violence will have consequences. At the very least, they should warn that visa bans could be imposed on instigators of violence, as the U.S. ambassador has already rightly done. Other sanctions must also be kept in view. On 16 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor repeated her warning that any person inciting or engaging in violence would be liable to prosecution either by Nigerian courts or by the ICC. International partners should continually draw Nigeria’s leading political actors’ attention to this warning, and to the case of the former Ivorian First Lady, Simone Gbagbo, who was recently sentenced to twenty years jail for her role in the country’s post-election violence.

In their last-minute engagements, international partners should also emphasise that electoral victory is not a conquest. Both candidates must be continually reminded that they and their key supporters will be judged on how they respond to victory or defeat. Opposition leader Buhari should be persuaded to do far more to reassure the ruling PDP that while he will not ignore grave criminal acts, there will be no witch hunt if he wins. The PDP must be encouraged to pledge that if it wins, it will reserve some key portfolios for opposition appointees, show greater sensitivity to northern grievances and improve its chequered record of fighting corruption, improving services and increasing development.

Nigeria’s international partners should send messages to the leaders of the Nigeria Police Force and other security agencies leaders stressing the need for proactive deployments to identified hotspots, including Rivers, Kaduna, Lagos and Kano states, and across the Middle-Belt and north central zones. However, partners must sound early warnings that citizens’ rights must be respected, and against heavy-handed responses to violence, as these would only aggravate grievances.

What could be done to prepare for marred elections?

However deeply the elections may be flawed by fraud or violence, all parties, including international partners, must insist on finding constitutional remedies. They must be firm against any proposals that could undermine democratic rule. In particular, outside actors must reject the idea of an Interim National Government (ING), which has been suggested by several pro-Jonathan groups and individuals. Such an arrangement would be unconstitutional, and will certainly be challenged and ruled illegal, as was the case with the Ernest Shonekan-led-ING in 1993. It could also tempt military opportunists to exploit the situation. It is welcome that President Jonathan has already declared the calls for an ING as “treasonable” and Senate President David Mark has termed them “an exercise in futility” that will find no legislative backing. Nigeria’s friends should persuade Jonathan to go beyond denunciations and rein in those suggesting this arrangement on his behalf.

However, because Nigeria has been so divided in recent years, particularly by the tensions stirred by the elections, whoever wins the presidential vote should recognise that a winner-takes-all approach cannot work and that the best way forward could be a government of national unity. The new president will need to constitute a government that not only represents all of the country’s federal units, as required by the constitution, but also includes all major parties, in a manner to be agreed upon under a formal and mutually agreed arrangement.

What should the outside world do if large-scale post-election violence flares?

Nigeria’s principal partners – UK, U.S., France, EU, UN, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union (AU) – should start preparing now for rapid diplomatic intervention. This would require, among other things, stand-by arrangements for speedily engaging with all relevant actors to jointly demand an end to large-scale violence. It is welcome that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has designated his envoy Mohammed ibn Chambas to lead any UN involvement related to the elections, presumably potentially including coordination of the UN’s response to any post-election crisis or violence; he is now in Abuja for the presidential vote. Activating a crisis response plan at short notice would require prior establishment of channels of communication with a range of political, ethnic, regional and religious leaders, as well as security agencies and civil society organisations, all of whose efforts would be needed to end wide-scale violence.

International partners should also warn that under no circumstances will they accept a military intervention. Any group of officers weighing the idea of seizing power in the country must know they will face a hostile international environment.