This past Monday, President Obama made a video address to the Nigerian people in the run-up to the March 28 elections, ask them to shun violence. He said “all Nigerians must be able to cast their votes without intimidation or fear”, and called on “all candidates to make it clear to their supporters that violence has no place in democratic elections”.
In theory, the candidates president Goodluck Jonathan and challenger Gen Muhammadu Buhari, are a step ahead of the US President. The purpose of signing of a peace accord in Abuja on January 14, was to commit the major parties to a violence-free electoral season.
In practice, however, the rhetoric from both major parties has reached alarming levels. News reports are dominated daily by accusations and counter accusations, and while many of them are standard campaign fare in an election as close as this is billed to be, some of the talk emanating from both camps can be deemed as incendiary.
It is easy to see Obama’s intervention as condescending, in keeping with the familiar theme of the West telling African nations how to conduct their affairs. It would also be slightly ironic coming from Obama, who has presided over what is the most divisive political climate in the US, for decades.
Misplaced pride aside, there are real reasons for concern, from a historical and even recent perspective. Memories of post-election violence after the 2011 polls are still very fresh.
It is because of this history, and more recent events, that appeals for peace from the US administration is timely, even though it should be unnecessary. Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation should conduct its affairs better.
As rumours of a postponement of Nigeria’s elections began to gain ground, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with both Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, and urged against a postponement, as well as any violence. It was not heeded, however, and elections were postponed on February 7.
On March 18, Vice President Joe Biden also called both Jonathan and Buhari, supporting the use of card readers for the elections, the efforts of INEC to ensure free, fair and credible elections, and assured Nigeria of America’s support for its democracy.
A few days ago, the opposition APC sent in a petition to the International Criminal Court against the first lady, Patience Jonathan, for a statement during one of her rallies, where she asked to supporters to stone opposition members.
In other states like Rivers, Gombe and Plateau, there have also been incidents of politically related violence. Nigeria has a long history of this, where politicians use unemployed youths as election thugs. In the commercial capital of Lagos, there is a resurgence of violence perpetrated by thugs linked to the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), a group who have agitated for a Yoruba nation, but are now linked to the ruling party.
With the presence of Boko Haram, and their recent pledge of allegiance to ISIS, the US can ill afford a divisive post-election scenario in Nigeria that could further weaken its ability to fight off the insurgents, worsening a security situation that could destabilize the region.
No matter what the tallies say after the elections, Nigeria must come out the winner.
A quick and clean voting and counting process is in everyone’s best interests. Hopefully, Nigeria’s political class do not need Barack Obama, Joe Biden, or John Kerry to remind them of this.