The 2019 presidential elections in Nigeria will be the country’s sixth since 1999, when it shifted to democracy after a long period of military rule. Most of these elections have been tarnished by acts of violence – including attacks on politicians – and vote rigging often influences the results.
In the past, election violence has been blamed on a lack of education among citizens, poverty, the long history of military rule and corruption. However, political patronage is also to blame in a country where power and state resources are often exploited for personal use by office holders. The scramble for the “national cake” by the political elite is often the real reason for many politicians’ do-or-die attitude.
Such was the case when the former president, general Olusegun Obasanjo declared in 2007 that the April elections would be a do-or-die affair for the country and his ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The election was marred by fraud and violence.
With the 2019 elections less than a year away, Nigeria’s ability to hold free and fair elections is open to question. Of particular concern are the security threats posed by the Boko Haram insurgency and clashes between farmers and herdsmen in northern Nigeria. There is also a threat posed by the arming of rival political supporters. Finally, there is the lack of election financing regulations which leaves the door open for patronage networks to fund campaigns using public funds.
Although the government claimed to have “technically defeated” Boko Haram in December 2015, the armed group was still able to carry out 135 attacks in 2017, five times higher than the 2016 number of attacks. The insurgents most recently killed at least 31 people in twin bomb blasts targeting people returning from Eid celebrations in Borno state.
The insurgency, which has affected 14 million Nigerians, resulting in 1.7 million being displaced, still poses a significant threat in the northeast. In 2015 elections, the Boko Haram threat affected elections in many parts of northern Nigeria. If the threat is not significantly contained, it poses a threat to free and fair elections next year.
Apart from the Boko Haram insurgency, several states in Nigeria, such as Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa, have witnessed violent clashes between herdsmen and farmers in recent years. Although this was not an issue in previous elections, the intensity of the clashes has increased tremendously. There have been 716 clashes and thousands of deaths recorded in the country since 2012.
In the same way Boko Haram was the primary campaign issue prior to 2015 elections, the clashes between herdsmen and farmers pose an election risk. Several opposition political parties have already seized on the insecurity as a campaign rallying point. Violent clashes could potentially ensue if the security situation is not addressed before the elections.
The proliferation of arms prior to elections also remains a huge threat. Since the 2003 elections, the arming of supporters has become an election tool.
As seen in previous elections, political patronage is often behind the formation of insurgent groups towards the time of elections. Politicians have been known to arm youths prior to elections in order to seek undue advantage over their political opponents.
Indeed, former Nigerian vice president Atiku Abubakar claimed to have personally warned some state governors against arming youths prior to elections.
Political patronage extends to the crucial factor of election funding. Previous elections have been marked by allegations of mismanagement of public resources to fund campaigns. It was estimated that the total amount spent by the electoral commission, political parties and candidates for the 2015 elections was about one trillion naira (USD$4 billion). A large percentage of these were “untraceable” public funds.
About half of this amount was allegedly siphoned out of the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission by the former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki to finance the 2015 election campaign of president Goodluck Jonathan. The implication of using public funds to finance personal ambition is that it often gives the incumbent an unfair advantage over their opponents and creates a cycle of corruption which hinders development.
Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has called for the regulation of campaign finance towards the 2019 elections, it is unclear how this will be done.
The sum of all these challenges is that Nigeria is far from ready to hold a credible ballot in 2019. In order to conduct a credible election in Nigeria, four key issues are very important. First, the government needs to completely defeat Boko Haram. Second, the conflict between herdsmen and farmers must be addressed and third, electoral commission must strengthen the electronic voting system introduced in 2015 and finally the formation of insurgent groups for the purpose of the election must be prevented.
An election that is not free and fair risks negatively compromising Nigeria’s already fragile economy, and sparking further conflict.