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Nigeria's elections promise a genuine contest – but avoiding unrest is vital
Nigeria's elections promise a genuine contest – but avoiding unrest is vital
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
Op-Ed / Africa

Nigeria's elections promise a genuine contest – but avoiding unrest is vital

Originally published in The Guardian

With less than a month to go before contentious polls, Nigeria is facing a perfect storm. Elections on 14 and 28 February are not only about choosing a new president and political representatives; they also constitute a critical test for Nigeria’s unity, particularly after five years of insurgency by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.

A public pledge for a peaceful election and the avoidance of violence after the polls has been signed by the seven presidential candidates, including the two front-runners: President Goodluck Jonathan and the former head of state,Muhammadu Buhari. It is certainly a positive first step, but it will be seriously undermined without full support and respect on the ground.

Past elections have been violent, but the February polls could be particularly destabilising because they mark the first nationwide contest in decades between two relatively equal political parties – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has held the presidency and most state governments since the return to democratic rule in 1999, and the All Progressives Congress (APC), a merger of the four largest opposition parties.

This genuine contest is a sign of progress. But the acrimony between the parties, aggravated by regional and religious claims of entitlement to the presidency, has created a volatile environment. Jonathan is a Christian from the south, while Buhari is a Muslim from the north.

Violence intensified in January, and included a gun attack on seven opposition members, allegedly by PDP agents. In northern Kano state, PDP supporters have been unable to campaign for fear of lynch mobs. Jonathan’s campaign bus was attacked and burned in Jos, Plateau state. Supporters of both candidates have threatened violence if they feel their man has been cheated.

Boko Haram’s attacks make the vote still more hazardous. The insurgents are hampering the work of the independent national electoral commission (Inec) and have already forced it to halt elections in high-risk areas of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states. The insurgents may seize more communities – and more voters – before the polls.

At the time of writing, the electoral commission is still struggling to get permanent voter cards to more than 15 million registered voters (about 22% of the electorate). It has asked voters to collect them instead, which for many will necessitate an arduous journey. Despite a senate resolution, in December, ordering Inec to make provisions that would enable internally displaced persons to vote – a move that would allow probably in excess of one million to participate in the election – this has not yet happened.

As most displaced persons are from areas that traditionally support the opposition, this could disproportionately affect the APC, increasing the likelihood of the final results being disputed.

Pro-PDP bias in security agencies also heightens tensions, raising doubts about how they will deal with potential post-election violence. The security services’ inadequacies have been exposed by Boko Haram, leaving many citizens to wonder if they will actually be safe at the polling stations. The police are dysfunctional and have suffered immense retaliation at the hand of insurgents, and the army is reeling from casualties, corruption and mismanagement.

Four key steps must be taken to lower the political temperature.

First, political parties and the presidential candidates, who bear the primary responsibility for preventing violence, need to tone down their rhetoric and hold their supporters accountable. In the event of contested results, aggrieved parties must turn to the courts, rather than to violence or unconstitutional arrangements.

Second, Jonathan and his military chiefs must contain Boko Haram while avoiding heavy-handed tactics that alienate northern regions. As the governors of the three most affected states have demanded, the federal government should urgently deploy more troops and intelligence personnel both to repel Boko Haram and to protect voters. Boko Haram’s recent attack on Baga, a village on the border with Chad, shows the government must enhance its cooperation with neighbouring countries to stem cross-border operations.

Third, the electoral commission must act quickly to ensure that millions of voters are not disenfranchised. When it is unable to deliver new voter cards, it should allow voters to use their old ones.

Fourth, institutions overseeing security agencies and monitoring respect for citizens’ rights, including the police service commission, national human rights commission and relevant committees of the federal parliament, should publicly condemn partisan acts and other excesses by security agencies.

Nigeria’s religious, civic and media leaders have a critical role in urging politicians to take these steps to limit the risk of widespread violence. Nigerians cannot afford to continue with politics as usual; it is ruining their country.

Podcast / Africa

France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Sahel experts Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff about France’s announcement it will pull troops from Mali, and what the withdrawal means for the fighting against jihadist insurgents.

On 17 February, President Emmanuel Macron announced he would withdraw all French troops from Mali after a deployment in the country of almost ten years. In early 2013, French forces together with Chadian troops ousted jihadists from cities and towns in northern Mali, which created space for a peace deal between Bamako and other, non-jihadist rebels. Since then, however, the French-led campaign against militants in the Sahel has struggled against local al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches. French operations have killed jihadist leaders, but militants have extended their reach from northern Mali to its centre and to parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and even Gulf of Guinea countries. Inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. Mali has also suffered two coups over the past couple of years. Relations between Paris and the junta currently holding power have deteriorated sharply, partly because Mali’s military leaders had agreed, mid-2021, to the deployment of Russian private military contractors to help fight jihadists. Popular anger toward France’s deployment has also mounted, seemingly partly fuelled by disinformation. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff, respectively Crisis Group’s senior Sahel analyst and interim Sahel director, about the French decision, its causes and its implications. They look at the collapse in relations between Bamako and Paris, the direction the junta is currently taking Mali and how other countries in the region have responded. They talk through what the French departure might mean for other forces, including the UN force in Mali and the G5 Sahel regional force. They also examine the repercussions for the balance of force between jihadists and their enemies in the Sahel and ask what a future French presence in the region might look like after the withdrawal from Mali. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

N.B. This episode was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel regional page. For our analysis of African perspectives of the Ukraine War, check out our commentary ‘The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis’.

Contributors

Executive Vice President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Consulting Analyst, Sahel
IbrahimYahayaIb
Project Director, Sahel (Interim)
richmoncrieff