How Nigeria avoided organised violence during the 2023 elections
Super Camps and military vigilance in the North, and Peter Obi’s candidature in the southeast quelled much potential violence.
In the 2015 presidential elections, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general, defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari’s victory was primarily attributable to the worsening Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast region, particularly the abduction of 276 Chibok girls and the Baga Massacre of about 2000 civilians. Eight years later, however, and despite assertions that the military have reclaimed all Boko Haram and ISWAP-controlled territory, insurgents continue to engage in violent acts. In addition, banditry, communal conflicts, and IPOB violence persist in different regions of the country.
These intractable security challenges dominated the campaigns for the hotly contested 2023 presidential elections, and there was concern that widespread insecurity would undermine the election. This fear is partly to blame for general voter apathy, with only about 27% of registered voters actually voting in the presidential elections. Although insurgencies and banditry did not prevent elections in general, the fear of attacks, activities of self-defence militias, and displacement shaped election procedures and, in some cases, facilitated vote buying and voter suppression. Election-related violence also occurred in major states such as Lagos, Kano, Bayelsa, and Rivers. Overall, however, the election was relatively more peaceful than previous ones, but more effort is needed to address security issues and reverse recurring election violence trends.
Despite aerial military operations and an internal schism between Boko Haram and ISWAP that have significantly reduced the groups’ capacity in the northeast region, 19 of the 27 local government areas of Borno state voted in various Super Camps. These Super Camps are garrison towns primarily intended to reduce military fatalities, but which have also become civilian protection zones. Most residents are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) resettled near their villages after the Borno state government shut down all official IDP camps within Maiduguri.
Even though thousands did not vote at their actual polling stations, this is an improvement considering that ahead of the 2015 elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) planned for 70,485 registered voters from 16 of the state’s 27 Local Government Areas to vote in IDP camps in Maiduguri. In 2019 over 409,000 registered voters from five conflict-affected LGAs voted in IDP camps in Maiduguri, Monguno, and Gomborun Ngala. This year, despite concerns of disruptions, the election was largely peaceful across all the northeast region, except in Gwoza, where Boko Haram fired a mortar targeting INEC facilities on election day. The attack injured five people and discouraged many other fearful voters from voting.
The activities of self-defence militias during election campaigns also resulted in electoral violence and voter suppression. In Borno State, some politicians from the ruling party used Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) members to intimidate their opponents and commit electoral violence. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), for example, condemned the CJTF’s harassment and intimidation of its members ahead of the 2023 general elections. The issue of political figures mobilising pro-government self-defence militias to engage in election-related violence may exacerbate the insecurity. It could resurrect ECOMOG, a notorious political gang in Borno state whose name is derived from the 1990s Nigeria-led Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group’s 1990 peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Politicians recruited ECOMOG members in Borno state to commit acts of violence against their opponents during the 2003 and 2007 elections, and many of them later joined Boko Haram.
In the Northwest region, the current joint military operations of the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) to eliminate Fulani-dominated armed militias known as ‘bandits’ in Sokoto and Zamfara states have yielded some positive outcomes. However, while relative peace has been restored in some local government areas, kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, and killings persist in some communities. Many residents of inaccessible conflict-ridden areas of Zamfara have relocated to Gusau and other safer communities. Some who remained behind continued to pay protection money to the bandits and could not vote without their permission. For example, in Shinkafi, residents alleged that notorious bandit commander Bello Turji ordered them not to vote due to the lack of ‘democracy dividends’.
INEC established 61 voting centres as a safer alternative for IDPs in camps in Zamfara to vote. The challenge, however, is that more than 453,000 IDPs are dispersed across the region, with many living with extended family members, relatives, and good Samaritans in safer communities where they are not registered to vote. In addition, establishing IDP voting centres facilitated the distribution of “gifts” and humanitarian aid to IDPs as a vote-buying strategy.
In the Southeast region, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) attacked INEC offices before the election, attracting a strong military response from the government. The Finland-based factional leader of IPOB, Simon Ekpa, also repeatedly threatened that elections would not be held in the region. The emergence of Peter Obi as the Labour Party’s (LP) presidential candidate, his popularity among the youth, and his Christian faith-based candidature, discouraged many IPOB leaders from disrupting the election. The armed wing of the separatist group Eastern Security Network (ESN) even claimed that its members never attacked INEC offices. However, despite the relatively peaceful conduct of the elections in the Southeast, some voters in volatile communities in Enugu State were disenfranchised as their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) were burnt during attacks.
Aside from the expected threats from non-state armed groups, election-related violence occurred in a few relatively safer cities, despite some efforts to prevent it. Before the elections, the national peace committee facilitated presidential candidates signing a peace accord committing to a peaceful election. There was also a massive deployment of police and military personnel throughout the country. Although the level of violence was not as high as in previous elections, at least 15 people were killed in Kano, Enugu, and Ebonyi states. During rallies and the collation of election results in Kano, supporters of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) were attacked by those of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), resulting in the burning of vehicles and campaign offices.
In Lagos, Rivers, and Bayelsa states, political thugs carried out attacks and vandalism, preventing some voters from casting ballots and forcing elections to be rescheduled for the next day in some polling units. However, in contrast to the 2019 elections, when security agencies were accused of conspiring with some politicians to perpetrate violence, the Department of State Services (DSS) and Nigerian police were more proactive this year, arresting politicians who organized violence, including the majority leader of the House of Representatives, who led thugs to perpetrate violence in Kano.
Finally, post-election tensions were heightened by logistical and technological challenges that prevented the direct uploading of results from each polling unit to the INEC server, particularly after the leading opposition candidates of the PDP and LP rejected the elections before the results were announced. There were also fears that Tinubu’s victory would spark ethnic and religious clashes, considering how his party’s “Muslim-Muslim ticket” was rejected by some Christian organizations during the campaign. However, the protests that followed the announcement were mainly peaceful, and the PDP and the LP have already filed separate legal challenges to the election results. If the 2023 elections were a litmus test for Nigeria’s resilience, it appears the country passed, as they were held despite intractable security challenges and violent politics. Still, the incoming administration must make more significant efforts to address the country’s security situation.