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A Tumultuous Vote: How Nigeria's Controversial Election Could Invite Broader Conflict

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

By Alfie Fairlie

Guest Feature

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is seemingly becoming a common theme in presidential elections; the accusation of the result being untrue. 2020 saw the US presidential victory being awarded to Joe Biden which was immediately disregarded by Donald Trump and his more extremesupporters. Just two weeks before he assumed office, the world watched in horror as scenes eerily similar to Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ saw the Capitol being stormed by those who branded themselves as revolutionaries fighting for the Trumpian cause. The vernacular used by Donald Trump in his address to supporters was that of anger and incitement, as he stated that the Democrats had “rigged it like they’ve never rigged an election before”. Two years to the day of the Capitol attack, Brazil witnessed an identical event in its own presidential elections. After Jair Bolsonaro lost his presidency to Lula da Silva, angry Bolsonaro supporters stormed the Brazilian Congress and issued a chilling demand for a coup d’etat. Despite denying any involvement in the protests, his involvement is still under investigation by the Brazilian authorities.

Both incidents highlighta fundamental danger present in every democracy: the fragility of the system, and how easy it can be for a nation to slip into a state of insecurity and - in the worst-case scenario - violent conflict. Those who have been engaging with the news surrounding the Nigerian presidential elections will undoubtedly have noticed a similar rhetoric being espoused by opposition leaders. Although the victory has been officially secured to Bola Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress, the accusations of the election being a sham have not cooled down. At the moment of writing this article, calls to cancel the electoral result have been repeatedly made by the opposition Labour Party and the People’s Democratic Party (or PDP). In what should have been the conclusion of the most intense elections since the end of military rule in 1999, the stability of the nation seems to be hanging in the balance, with no end in sight to political tensions. With the background of a depleting infrastructure, increasing threats of terrorism and an overall threat to security, could the accusations of a rigged vote be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

The main bone of contention with these elections is mainly surrounding the introduction of an electronic voting system. This is one of the aspects which has branded this election as ground-breaking in Nigerian political history, and it has been rolled out as a means of stamping out corruption - a topic which remains high on each of the candidates’ agendas. The Independent National Electoral Commission for Nigeria - otherwise known as INEC - has been criticised for superficial issues surrounding a delayed collation of votes. The Commission has blamed software issues and troubles with internet access in some districts for the delay in rolling out the poll results. However, a quick look on Nigerian social media points to a completely different story. According to a BBC investigation, influencers have allegedly accessed INEC portals and have subsequently exposed incidents of over-voting and votes being altered. This alone demonstrates that in the age of social media, rumours can easily cause tensions to rise as a result of the political participation of influencers searching for fame. Overall, it seems that such an innovative change in the way Nigerians vote has backfired completely.

However, technology remains only a superficial factor in the hostilities surrounding these elections. This election has proved fruitful in shining a light on how fragile Nigeria is at this point in time. The vote should have been an opportunity for optimism across the country; a chance to refresh Nigeria’s image and further distance itself from the military rule which suffocated the country for sixteen years. However, interviews conducted by journalists from both BBC News and Al Jazeera with the Nigerian population have exposed the tense atmosphere surrounding the nation. Nigeria has recently been suffering from economic hardship; a fuel shortage has had disastrous knock-on effects for both infrastructure and international confidence. International corporations witnessing the economic downturn have been deterred by the fall in GDP of over $130 billion within the last decade. The city of Lagos had previously been on track to join the likes of Shanghai and Beijing in becoming a megacity, yet it appears that this is not likely to be the case in the 2020s. Furthermore, Nigerians are struggling in an unemployment crisis, with 33.3% of people unemployed including nearly half of the young population.

In addition to the economic crisis, national security is under great threat too. The increasing threat from the likes of Islamist militant group Boko Haram is putting a strain on the country’s already struggling security forces, with the Council on Foreign Relations reporting that the month of February saw 100 terrorists being killed. The northeast of Nigeria remains the most vulnerable area of the country in terms of territorial division, with mass kidnappings and suicide bombings being commonplace in that area. Such terrorist activity exposes the vulnerabilities Nigeria has in the security of its country, which go hand-in-hand with ethnic tensions involving the Igbo population in the south. Territorial differences paint a similar picture to that of 1966, a year which saw the Igbo population create the breakaway state of Biafra, which became the catalyst for a civil war that ravaged the country for three years.

The struggle Nigeria faces appears to take the form of political violence which puts the lives of voters, workers at polling stations and the balance of the country in jeopardy. The 2023 election has been marred by such violence, especially with the rise of thug gangs carrying out senseless attacks on polling stations. For example, Al Jazeera reported an attack on the Akinhami/Cole electoral ward located in Lagos, in which ballot papers were deliberately discarded by thugs who threatened bodily harm to potential voters. Nigerians are being robbed of their chance to actively participate in their own democracy, and this should be identified as a danger which could push the country into conflict. Twenty people have already lost their lives in what appears to be politically motivated violence. This includes one police officer and the assassination of Oyibo Chukwu, a Senate candidate for the Labour Party, who’s convoy was set upon by armed men in February. This incident itself already carried the risk of the polls being suspended, however a decision was not made in time by the country’s electoral board. Incidents like this assassination are not a new thing in Nigeria’s turbulent electoral history. These incidents serve as flashbacks to the 2007 elections, which saw attacks on INEC offices and 26 people killed in similar attacks. The 1983 election comes to mind as well, which saw a total military overthrow of the government and set in stone a dictatorship which finally ended in 1999. Time may have moved on in Nigeria, but the threat of political violence never seems to fade away.

The case of Chukwu’s assassination must be brought into further consideration in showing the fragile state of the African nation right now. This occurred in the city of Enugu - a location with an eerie significance to a fractured history. Enugu holds the status of being the first capital city declared in the breakaway state of Biafra in the 1960s; the murder of Chukwu uncovers echoes of a violent past which has the risk of breaking out again in the tense atmosphere which is already gripping the nation. 2017 saw calls for another Igbo breakaway state and increasing violence from Boko Haram who want to install an Islamist state in the northeast, demonstrates the omnipresent vulnerability of Nigerian unity. The surface-level rhetoric of the opposition parties in the wake of the election is just the tip of the iceberg. It is very possible that the superficial element of these accusations could easily spill over into a conflict which embroils the entirety of the nation; a nation which is already at an exceedingly dangerous moment in its history.


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