A Lack of Security Could Undermine Elections in Nigeria

Africa's most populous country faces its highest levels of election-related danger since transitioning to democracy 24 years ago

A Lack of Security Could Undermine Elections in Nigeria
A police officer walks beside a burnt prison vehicle in Abuja, Nigeria, on July 6, 2022, after suspected Boko Haram gunmen attacked the Kuje Medium Prison. (Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images)

Nigerians will head to the polls on Feb. 25 to elect a new president and members of the National Assembly, followed on March 11 by gubernatorial elections in over two thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states.

The polling will take place against a troubling regional backdrop, as West Africa has experienced what political scientists label “democratic backsliding” in recent years, embodied most conspicuously by the spate of coups in the Francophone countries since 2021. Since the beginning of 2021, there have been military seizures of power in Guinea and Chad, while putsches have also occurred twice in both Mali and Burkina Faso. In much of the region, the problem could perhaps better be described as “authoritarian stasis”: indefinite political “transitions” overseen by juntas, geriatric strongmen holding onto power and novel legislative means being employed to ensure continued de facto one-party rule.

That Africa’s most populous state is holding what looks to be its most competitive elections to date is therefore something to celebrate. This presidential poll will be Nigeria’s seventh since it returned to democracy under the Fourth Republic in 1999, marking the longest uninterrupted stretch of democratic rule in the country’s history. After eight years at the helm, President Muhammadu Buhari is adhering to term limits and will step down from office in May. After initial resistance, he signed a new electoral act into law in February 2022 that attempted to address some of the procedural and technical issues that have undermined elections since the country’s transition to democracy.

This year’s race is also the most tightly contested in years. Rather than being another showdown between the incumbent All Progressives’ Congress (APC) and long-dominant People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a third-party candidate — Peter Obi of the Labour Party — is staging a dark-horse campaign, with strong youth support across the south. This makes 2023 the first election since Nigeria’s short-lived Second Republic in 1979 in which candidates from each of the three major ethnic groups are running.

Obi represents the Igbo, who have traditionally been sidelined politically. He hails from the South East, one of the six official geopolitical zones that make up the Nigerian political map.

Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of the PDP, is a Fulani from Adamawa in the North East zone. He has run unsuccessfully for the presidency five times: in 1993, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019.

The APC’s candidate, the billionaire businessman Bola Tinubu, nicknamed the “Godfather of Lagos,” is from the South West zone. Like former president Olusegun Obasanjo, he is a member of the Yoruba ethnic group.

If the mood within Nigeria is not uniformly one of optimism, it is because unprecedented levels of insecurity are casting a long shadow over this year’s contest. Nigeria has experienced multiple conflicts throughout its history, most notably a civil war that killed over 1 million people in the late 1960s, but the insecurity the country currently faces is more geographically widespread and multifaceted than ever before. The spectrum of violence includes everything from highly organized insurgencies to sophisticated and brutal criminal enterprises to recurring intercommunal clashes along ethnic or religious lines (the two are often blurred in practice).

This insecurity is compounding — violence in one region frequently spills into another, further tearing at Nigeria’s delicate social fabric in the process — and calls into question the viability of Nigeria’s entire political-economic system more so than any one conflict would on its own. Were it not for the insecurity, the country’s trajectory would be easier to gauge. As it is, Nigeria exists in a state of immense uncertainty, really an identity crisis, such that it defies the simplistic paradigms employed by analysts who prognosticate about the developing world. Is Nigeria a country with strong human and natural capital, the home of promising new business sectors and global cultural exports? Or is it a failing state trapped in a cycle of poverty and seemingly ineradicable corruption, in which criminals and insurgents defy and erode state authority with increasing brazenness? (The answer to both questions is “yes.”)

Insecurity has been a primary concern of pundits, ordinary citizens and many officials alike in this election period, forcing the current president as well as the chairman of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) to directly address fears that the polls will be canceled because of it. While a cancellation seems unlikely, there is a risk that violence will lead the polls to be delayed and/or fundamentally undermine the conduct and credibility of the elections in a manner that could have significant ramifications for Nigeria’s stability, cohesion and development moving forward.

In contrast to previous election cycles, none of Nigeria’s six geographic regions has been without significant insecurity over the past year. The Boko Haram conflict continues in Nigeria’s North East zone, though the insurgency has undergone several notable evolutions (and fracturings) since its emergence in 2009. Improved security in parts of the region create more favorable voting conditions than at the height of the conflict in 2015, but the high number of internally displaced persons in the region and lack of state control in the hinterlands mean that, for the third election in a row, voting will not occur in parts of Borno state in particular.

Unlike the North East, the North West zone has experienced a serious deterioration in security conditions since 2015, when Buhari assumed power. The problem there comes less from jihadists (though they constitute a growing presence and temporarily put a halt to political campaigning in one part of Kaduna state last year) than from dozens of bandit gangs, which have also begun terrorizing certain parts of the North Central zone that suffer from their own longstanding intercommunal conflicts. The most powerful bandits act as warlords in the North West countryside, which gives them leverage in election season. Elections require mobilizing rural communities over whom the bandits often hold sway, which is one reason local and state authorities in the North West have engaged in more dialogue with certain kingpins over the past year — they want to reach a settlement with the bandits that will allow elections to happen.

Eager to show it is handling insecurity, the Buhari administration has taken the opposite tack and ordered the military to step up operations against the bandits in recent months, killing several warlords in the process. But military operations can be a double-edged sword. While some of the more politically ambitious bandits respond to military pressure by scaling back their terror and extending an olive branch to the government, others lash out in anger — typically at helpless civilians accused of supporting the military — and therefore exacerbate insecurity.

While many Western observers are accustomed to thinking of Nigeria’s north as the locus of the country’s insecurity, due to the high-profile Boko Haram conflict, it is the southern states that have witnessed the most violence directly related to elections in this cycle.

The South East is of particular concern. The region has experienced the highest number of direct attacks against INEC offices and personnel, which many observers attribute to the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) secessionist movement.

IPOB is highly fractured, however. Of its three principal factions, the one apparently led by the Finland-based activist Simon Ekpa has been the most vocal in its opposition to the 2023 election and the most unabashed in its embrace of violence. Some in the South East believe the Ekpa faction is conspiring with politicians to suppress turnout in the region. Yet it is far from clear that the Ekpa faction is even responsible for all of the attacks, let alone in conjunction with one political party or another. “IPOB” is indeed only of limited use as a label these days. When its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, announced the formation of a vaguely defined paramilitary force in December 2020, he effectively gave carte blanche for local kidnappers and political thugs to conduct their activities under the guise of IPOB. It is therefore quite likely that there is not one principal perpetrator of violence in the South East but, rather, that the insecurity lumped together under the IPOB banner is in fact a mix of criminal, secessionist and election-related violence.

Meanwhile, the Niger Delta, also known as the South South zone, is the site of a long-running conflict over control of the region’s vast onshore oil reserves. While this conflict was the primary security concern in the first decade of the Fourth Republic, it has faded from the headlines lately. Yet it remains a persistent challenge. It has spawned a generation of warlords of significant political savvy. When I traveled through the region last year, a number of militants I interviewed made vague threats about disrupting elections under the pretext that the government had not demonstrated its commitment to address the genuine grievances of the indigenous population. Others said they had been approached by politicians looking to hire gunmen to conduct attacks on their opponents during the campaign season. More than in any other region, politics and militancy are strongly fused in the Niger Delta, and the region could experience significant violence in the lead-up to gubernatorial elections, in particular.

The South West, which is home to Nigeria’s largest city and main economic hub (Lagos, effectively a mini-country of its own), has largely avoided the same scale of militancy and intercommunal conflict as the other five zones in recent years, some notable exceptions notwithstanding. Yet the region has witnessed high levels of election-related violence in recent months, particularly in Osun state, which held successful gubernatorial elections in 2022, as well as an uptick in banditry along major transit corridors, such as the Lagos-Ibadan highway. Several sources have reported to New Lines that bandits from the northwest have relocated as far south as Ogun state on the outskirts of Lagos. Given the population and electoral significance of Lagos state — and the strong challenges the incumbent APC faces in both the national and gubernatorial elections in the state — the possibility of increased election-related clashes in the coming weeks is high.

Insecurity — along with corruption and the economy — has always been a major campaign issue around elections in the Fourth Republic. First, it was the crisis in the oil-producing areas, i.e., the Niger Delta conflict, that was toward the top of voters’ concerns for the first decade of the 2000s. Then it was the Boko Haram conflict that helped propel Buhari, a former military ruler, into office in 2015 with promises of ending the insecurity. In the present cycle, the rise of kidnappings for ransom, most acute in the bandit-plagued North West but increasingly a problem nationwide, has been the major concern of the electorate.

The increase in banditry has also contributed to a proliferation of informal or semi-formal militias and vigilante outfits across the country that seek to fill the gaps left by Nigeria’s overstretched security forces. These outfits are a product of necessity and are indispensable in some circumstances. But they are also plagued with problems. They generally lack proper training, are even less accountable than the formal security agencies, and are often formed along ethnic lines, such that they may do more to stoke conflict via their ethnic profiling and abuses than they do to prevent it.

One question hanging over the elections is how these informal security outfits will conduct themselves on election day, especially during the gubernatorial elections held on March 11, seeing as many of these local outfits are reliant on the governors for their meager funding. Already, this election cycle has seen numerous incidents of state-backed militias engaging in openly partisan behavior — something that is not limited to one political party or geopolitical zone.

The situation in the South East points to a larger, more concerning trend that we may see escalate nearer election day. In the past, Nigerian politicians have sometimes hired thugs to harass voters, steal ballot boxes or otherwise employ violence to skew polling results in their favor. After all, someone must be sponsoring the thugs, providing them with weapons and motorbikes, telling them which stations to attack, and so on. This year, hardly any region of the country lacks well-armed criminals and militants who are already liable to attack without warning, often seemingly at random, and with a degree of anonymity. “Bandits” or “unknown gunmen” are a daily news item, with perpetrators of attacks rarely identified or brought to justice, given the frequency of violent incidents in the country and the limited and often poorly allocated security and judicial resources. Many of these gunmen are primarily motivated by criminal gain and could easily be paid to conduct attacks on behalf of politicians, as some already do. In sum, political actors have more opportunities than ever before to use the prevailing insecurity as a cover for targeted violence seeking specifically to influence election outcomes.

INEC says it has worked with security agencies to ensure that the necessary resources are deployed to protect election workers and facilities. To their credit, the security agencies by now have substantial experience in providing election-day security. Nonetheless, the present violence will likely test Nigeria’s security sector more than ever before. Most concerning of all, fear of violence on election day may produce low turnout, which could in turn lead many to question the legitimacy of the election. This will especially be the case if turnout is low in regions such as the South East, where opposition-leaning electorates already accuse the incumbents of voter suppression.

It is also possible that low turnout, combined with the tight playing field, will prevent INEC from declaring a winner, given the constitutional requirement that a candidate secure at least 25% of votes in two thirds of Nigeria’s states in order to be declared president-elect. This eventuality was very unlikely in previous elections but, in this year’s hotly contested three-way race, with a relatively popular fourth candidate who could spoil the race for one of the two leading parties in the north — or so the conventional thinking goes — the possibility of a second-round election is high. This would be an unprecedented development within Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, for better or worse.

If insecurity leads to a postponement of elections or the need for supplementary elections in certain states, as was the case in 2019, this could further undermine popular acceptance of the poll results (election delays often favor the incumbent party). Several security sources have warned that this post-election period could therefore prove to be the most turbulent since 2011, when over 800 people were killed in intercommunal clashes sparked by the election. Beyond the immediate risk of violence, an election that lacks widespread acceptance would further undermine Nigerians’ faith in the present federal system (turnout in the past few presidential races has been far lower than at the start of the Fourth Republic), empowering secessionists and other extremists in ways liable to aggravate Nigeria’s insecurity and structural weaknesses.

The above analysis has focused on the potential for violence to derail or otherwise adversely affect what is arguably Africa’s most consequential election for the next two years — and potentially Nigeria’s most consequential since 1999. But while insecurity poses a challenge, Nigerians are well aware of the risks, and the level of vigilance and advocacy from civil society, journalists and political organizers is high.

Even in the event of a tight or contested race, the political heavyweights may decide that violence is not in their immediate interest, as when then-President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to Buhari in 2015, declaring, “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian,” amid calls from his base and certain political backers to contest the results. Influential figures within the political establishment and broader society could also unite to effectively discourage a candidate from employing violence in challenging any result, which is how the 2011 crisis was eventually resolved.

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