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Threat of Post-Election Violence Looms in Nigeria — But Not Necessarily From Boko Haram

Incendiary campaign rhetoric, armed militias, and trigger-happy police could once again shatter the promise of a peaceful democratic result to Nigeria’s presidential election.
Photo by Jerome Delay/AP

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has been accused of giving more than $40 million to local militias to fan election violence. Politicians have demanded that their supporters "kill" and "crush" competitors like "cockroaches." Police chiefs have threatened to shoot 20 people for any one police officer's death during voting season.

These are just a few examples of the alarming vitriol present in the run-up to Nigeria's hotly contested 2015 elections, where Jonathan is competing for a second term against ex-military commander Muhammadu Buhari, who is pursuing his fourth presidential bid. Voting was extended to Sunday after polling difficulties in some areas, and the two candidates are apparently locked in a dead heat.


Recurring hate speech, reports of small arms circulation among politically backed militias, and gangs and government officials attempting to influence the police have made human rights groups monitoring the elections worry that political violence will once again shatter Nigeria's promise of a peaceful democratic result.

According to the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, every election since 1922 in the West African country has been beset by politically motivated violence. This year is shaping up to be no different.

The election, originally scheduled for February 14, was delayed due to Boko Haram's bloody insurgency in the country's northeast. While an African Union-backed regional force of troops from Chad, Niger, and Cameroon have helped the Nigerian army retake 17 of the 20 local governments once held by the militant group, violence perpetrated by Boko Haram is not the only threat Nigeria faces. At least 40 people have been killed across the country since voting began Saturday. Boko Haram was responsible for most of the bloodshed, but not all of it.

Related: Election day in Nigeria marred by Boko Haram attacks and voting difficulties

Late Saturday morning, gunmen reportedly attacked a polling team convoy in Rivers state in the country's south, leading to a firefight between police and the attackers that lasted nearly half an hour. In Kano, a populous northern state, a mob assaulted two members of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP) while they registered at a local polling station in the late afternoon, forcing both to flee on foot.


On Sunday, groups of armed men stormed voting stations in the southeastern Ebonyi state and shot to disperse crowds before stealing ballot boxes and other electoral materials, though no one was killed. In Osun state in southwest Nigeria, gunmen accused of being associated with the incumbent party killed one person and injured 12 when they stormed a town in the early morning. Another group of gunmen attacked a town in the state's south, killing one and razing a house reportedly owned by a National Assembly member.

'Use of force or live ammunition at the slightest opportunity by our security agents is one thing that leads to this violence.'

Representatives from both parties have thrown accusations back and forth, blaming each other for leading the violence.

"The country and its leaders, institutions and citizens must learn the lessons from 2011 and before," Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, head of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, told VICE News. In 2011, Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) lost to Jonathan in their first time campaigning against each other. The election was followed by a three-day surge of sectarian rioting across Kaduna, Gombe and other states that killed more than 800 people, displaced more than 65,000, and destroyed $200 million worth of property.

"If the pathology of pre-election violence is any pointer, however, then it suggests 2015 will be much tougher," Odinkalu said.


A report on the 2011 post-election riots published February 17 by NHRC labeled "inflammatory campaign utterances" by competing political parties as a key cause of the violence. Pastors and imams at churches and mosques across the country also stoked political enmity by giving "divisive sermons of hate and hostility," the report said.

The incendiary rhetoric returned to the campaign trail this election season. Last August, the APC threatened to break off and form a parallel government if Buhari does not win. Earlier this month, a PDP spokesperson accused Buhari of being funded by the Islamic State.

Related: Why electricity, or a lack of it, is an election concern for many Nigerians

The NHRC report also found that between December 3, 2014 and January 31 of this year, election-related violence killed 58 people across 22 different states and injured "thousands" more.

A follow-up report issued by the commission a few days ago outlined an even bleaker picture: Since February, political violence had infiltrated every state in Nigeria, and complaints of politically motivated attacks were up 200 percent in February and March compared to December and January.

The NHRC responded by sending teams to various Nigerian states to speak with local government officials, police officers, political party leaders, and branches of the country's Independent National Electoral Commission.

The NHRC claims to have discovered a worrying amount of small arms and light weaponry circulating throughout Kaduna, Lagos and Rivers, the three states that have experienced the most election-related violence and documented the most deaths since December. The report didn't offer a specific number, but a Nigerian government committee said last year that more than 1 million small arms and light weapons circulate illegally every year in Nigeria, making the country a hub for the regional arms trade.


The justice systems in some states are also poorly equipped to handle election-related violence, according to the NHRC. In Rivers state, the court system was shut down after court buildings in Port Harcourt and two other cities were bombed with improved explosive devices in February. As a result, police say they are running out of space for prisoners and unable to properly bring suspects to trial.

Nigerian police have also claimed they "suffer interference from politicians" as they attempt to prevent and stanch election-related violence. But Alhaji Ali Ahmed, a resident of Yobe state, told VICE News that he worries corrupt or trigger-happy police might also be contributing to the instability.

"Use of force or live ammunition at the slightest opportunity by our security agents is one thing that leads to this violence," Ahmed said.

The NHRC's follow-up report concluded that the "only winner in these elections should be the Federal Republic of Nigeria," demanding all candidates to drop their political animosity and see elections as a civil service to the public.

Related: 'If Buhari returns we will all end up in jail': History hangs over Nigeria's election candidates

The presidential candidates have acknowledged these threats with encouraging responses. Last week, Buhari and Jonathan signed an agreement to help curtail election violence in the country by accepting the election's outcome as authentic, and communicating messages of co-existence to their supporters. But despite the proactive approach, some Nigerians are still worried about what lies ahead in the coming days and weeks.

"The hope and expectation of our government is limited," Mallam Goje told VICE News in Yobe state, recalling how some of her friends were killed as they tried to escape post-election violence in 2011 in Yobe and Kaduna. "It gave rise to orphans and widows, loss of businesses, bankruptcy — and above all a loss of confidence in government and those in authority."

Additional reporting from Yobe state by Hassan Jirgi.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno