The Lull in Violence during the 2023 Elections and Lessons for Nigeria’s new President

Bola Ahmed Tinubu took office as Nigeria's president on 29th May inheriting deep-rooted challenges, notably the spiraling insecurity across the country. This may be Nigeria’s most teething challenge because of the relationship between security, the economy and social well-being.  Acknowledging this, Bola Ahmed Tinubu stated expressly in his inaugural speech that security will be the top priority of his administration – promising better training, equipment, pay and firepower for security personnel. To show Nigerians that he intends to live up to these promises, President Bola Tinubu has appointed new Service Chiefs, after sacking all of the incumbent Service Chiefs, Advisers and the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service. Nevertheless, where and how the government will begin to tackle this complex issue and the efficacy of its approaches will require a deep reflection on the root causes and past events that have contributed to both aggravating the conflict or bringing about momentary lulls. Examining the period of time surrounding elections may provide valuable insights from which to learn.

The presidential and national assembly elections were held as scheduled on 25 February 2023 –a feat not achieved in the past three elections—while that of the governorship and house of assembly were held on 18 March, following a one-week delay. Despite the contentious outcome, the dissatisfaction with the deployment of technology and logistic failures surrounding the national elections, there was a surprisingly minimal number of attacks by known violent non state actors during this time (See graph 1). In the lead-up to the elections, threats by non-state violent actors saturated the analytical space driving many to question the plausibility of conducting such polls under the looming question of insecurity across the country.

Graph 1:

Contrary to the commonly held notion that the only major security issue of note is in the country’s North-East, all six geo-political zones are currently affected by at least one security-related challenge. The North-East is still under siege by Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP), Boko Haram, and its splinter faction, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’adati wal-Jihad (JAS) while incidents of banditry are prevalent in the North-West and North-Central zones. Secessionist agitations, principally spearheaded by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), threaten the South-East region and lead to clashes with government security forces. The South-West region is bedeviled with killings, robbery, kidnapping, and its own secessionist agitations. The South-South region is affected by communal, cult and oil-related conflicts. The unique drivers and actors of violence in each region dovetail with the farmer-herder conflict experienced in every region of Nigeria. There was therefore justified anxiety about how Nigeria would conduct the election in 2023 amidst the widespread violence. 

History has shown us that Nigerian elections are often a time of increased violence with many non-state actor groups taking advantage of the masses waiting hours at polling units using these as occasions to show their strength and influence election outcomes. The 2019 general elections coincided with an increase in political fatalities compared with the same months in the year prior to the elections (See graph 2). The 2011 general elections coincided with an enormous spike in political fatalities (See graph 3). And while the days surrounding the 2015 elections coincided with a decrease in overall political fatalities, the election days themselves were very violent with 99 fatalities recorded. What makes the 2023 general elections different? We argue that the anomaly of minimal political violence during the 2023 general elections can be attributed to a convalescence of government intervention, fuel and cash scarcity and, perhaps most importantly, a viable third-party candidate on the ballot.

Graph 2:

Graph 3:

The Turning Points

In the leadup to the 2023 elections, the Nigerian military took on the enormous task of targeting vast numbers of non-state actor groups in the north. These missions sought out non-state actors in secluded areas to limit the chances of civilian fatalities.  Overall, they were successful. While the exact number of fatalities caused by these missions is not known, data in the ACLED dataset suggests that hundreds of terror group members and bandits were killed in November and December (See graph 4).  

Graph 4: 

These missions continued through the first half of January, accounting for a significant portion of fatalities during the month. It is thought that these military efforts deterred the various terror groups from engaging in violence during the elections by diminishing their overall numbers and disrupting their ranks. 

The months prior to the elections were plagued with economic downturns which affected everyone, including those who may wish to disrupt elections. The limited fuel availability made it difficult for bandits to execute their kidnappings as they often get around on motorbikes. The cash scarcity resulting from the demonetisation policy of the Buhari administration contributed to minimize banditry as kidnap victims’ families were unable to get the cash to pay ransom. It also made it difficult for various terror groups to purchase the materials and transportation necessary to execute their attacks. While these issues did not stop these activities altogether, they had a numbing effect on violent activity in the country. 

However, all of these hurdles could have been overcome if the non-state actor groups thought that engaging in attacks during the elections would benefit their cause(s). It is for this reason, that we believe the biggest reason that the minimal political violence across Nigeria during the 2023 general elections was heavily influenced by the emergence of a valid third-party presidential candidate. In the South-South and South-East, secessionist groups had hope that an Igbo candidate could become president. Not wanting to hurt their chances at the polls, many within these groups chose to lay low until the election was passed. In the North-West, North-East and North Central, voters were excited by the opportunity to choose between two Muslim candidates, one of which had a Muslim Vice-Presidential candidate as well. Banditry groups began to see themselves as political constituents. As constituents, they used their leverage within their communities to encourage voting instead of discourage it. The diverse options provided them with the hope that the economic difficulties that drove many of them to banditry in the first place could be fixed in the next administration. Even in the North-East, terror organisations stayed away from the polls. Having a valid third-party candidate created a more diverse and representative ballot which opened the doors for political engagement via voting. People from all walks of life saw themselves as political constituents whose personal goals could be achieved by the next administration. 

Learning from the Lull

Upon the conclusion of the general elections, issues with logistics and technology became clear leading many Nigerians to become disillusioned with the political process fearing the culture of political corruption would not be toppled. The hope that fueled the lull in violence around election day was suddenly in question. These frustrations were evident in the increased violence during the state assembly elections in March. The presidential election was marked with 6% of observers reporting voter intimidation and suppression linked to identity politics and for the most part conducted by political parties’ thugs or loosely affiliated individuals mostly in Lagos. The governorship and house of assembly elections witnessed a deterioration in security with 10.8% of all observed polling units by the Centre for Democracy and Development recording violence. 

However, there are lessons to be learned from the lull. The government’s determination to minimize violence on election day provides a playbook to be followed in future elections. Military attacks on non-state actor groups forced many of them to regroup and re-strategize which bought enough time for voters to safely get to the polls. While this isn’t a cure-all, it does provide a template for ensuring Nigerians can safely exercise their franchise. It is true that economic hardships contributed to the lull. However, these hardships also had detrimental effects on the average voter that, in our view, outweighed the positive effects on banditry and terror groups. What may be the biggest lesson learned from the lull, however, is that more choice can lead to more peace. Having more candidates representing a more diverse populous provides a greater opportunity for hope. This hope led to a greater level of faith in the candidates and the electoral process leading many non-state actors to choose to vote instead of wreaking havoc on election day. With only minimal changes to the actual electoral process provided by the Electoral Act of 2022, much of the new-found faith can be credited to the dynamism of the candidates’ themselves. 

Nigeria’s extreme level of diversity creates a fulcrum of which keeps passive coexistence on one side and mutually reinforcing conflict dynamics on the other with active coexistence resting precariously in the center.  For example, the genesis of separatist agitations in the South East is predicated on citizens’ discontent with the structure of governance in Nigeria and federal imbalance. Members of IPOB equal political access to economic development as such, their position is to secede from a union structured in a manner that keeps them perpetually disadvantaged politically. The position of IPOB is apparently political borne out of frustration of limited access to political participation and decision making. For them Peter Obi gave them a glimpse of hope.  No single reason can explain why there is has not been a massive resurgence of violence in the South East despite Peter Obi losing the election and the reemergence of stay-at-home orders.  One explanation could be that non-state actors in the region have not yet recovered from the shock of losing an election they let so certain was going to result in an Obi presidency. They may awaiting the outcome of the court processes before making any drastic strategic changes. More so, although the Labour Party lost the presidential election, the party was regionally more successful than in previous elections producing the new governor of Abia state and members of the National Assembly from across the region. It is possible that the agitators would want to observe the changes in governance that might come with these gains.  What is striking, however, is that electoral participation, including by non-state actors and their sympathisers, brought on by a strong democratic process, inclusive governance and political settlement can reduce the spate of violence drastically in Nigeria. To continue down this road of relative quiet, the ongoing court processes need to be transparent enough to convince the followers of the opposition parties that the outcome is fair and supports the will of the people.  The judiciary is an important instrument of democracy. How it conducts itself during these high-stakes tribunals will determine how grievances can be weaponised as a rallying point for violence. Second, despite a fractured election, the country seems to have moved on without recourse to a healing process. There is a need for a reconciliation committee, especially in hotspots like Lagos and the North Central, where ethnicity and religion were weaponised during the state-level elections to serve dangerous ends. Those who openly perpetrated hate speech and political violence targeted at ethnic groups should be brought to justice.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu needs to expand the frontiers of decision-making and involve all groups. All appointments, employment opportunities, infrastructural development and other dividends of governance should reflect the federal character principle of Nigeria.  There is a high likelihood that violence would resurge in the south east region once the period of shock is over and the non-state actors in the region feel convinced that the region has been neglected by governance and decision-making processes in the Tinubu’s administration.  Banditry groups in the North West and North Central have begun to increase their activities again suggesting that the first actions of the Tinubu administration have not provided them with enough motivation to begin to trust in the government just yet. The North East has remained relatively quiet, but, like the South East and South South, this honeymoon period may be brief as constituents across the region await signs of improved governance which seeks to address the concerns of all Nigerians, not just those with whom they share a region, ethnicity, or religion. 

Additional subtle lessons offered insight into minimising violence beyond just during election seasons. Firstly, as became evident during the fuel scarcity, it is possible to track bandit groups in the northwest if fuel supply chains can be monitored. In the future, large purchases of fuel not being used for cars or any known business should be closely monitored. Closely related to this should be the monitoring of the sales and registration of motorbikes, especially within the northwest and northcentral region. Following the current marking system for civilian guns, parts of the motorbikes should also be marked for identification beyond just the basic paperwork and factory markings that come with it.

Lastly, the period of elections came with a more robust deployment of security that lessened the challenges of ungoverned spaces. Even in places where the formal security agencies could not cover adequately, there was some consensus with traditional authorities for local security even if it was just reporting early warning signs. The Bola Tinubu administration must think of innovative ways to decentralise the security architecture and ensure that all communities have a feeling of security and other dividends of governance.

Ultimately, Tinubu’s administration must show a broad understanding of security beyond the kinetic approach especially the interconnections between economic policies and security. There is a need to tread carefully about economic policies such as the removal of fuel subsidy, hikes in electricity tariffs and others that will put extra pressure on the poor in an era where 133 million Nigerian are multi-dimensionally poor, with a 24.82 per cent inflation rate and unemployment rate projected to rise from 33.3 per cent to  40.6. It is already established knowledge that there is a strong positive correlation between poverty and insecurity.

Dengiyefa Angalapu is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development

Nichole Grossman is a Research Scholar at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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