Presidential elections take place in Nigeria on February 16 (unless they are delayed). While there are dozens of candidates, only two stand a chance of winning the election. One is Muhammadu Buhari, incumbent president and candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and the other is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president and the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
In the past, elections have been the occasion of violence, though it does not tend to occur during voting. Violence is more common during the candidate selection process (now concluded and especially for lower-level elected officials) and when the results of the presidential election are announced.
Civil society is acutely aware of the potential for violence around these elections, and its leaders are sounding the alarm bells about the use of hyperbolic rhetoric and personal attacks on the two leading candidates by their respective camps. Clement Nwankwo is the executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center and chairman of the Situation Room, an umbrella organization of more than seventy civil society groups. He is a shrewd observer of Nigerian politics and not given to hyperbole. He said to Bloomberg that “tension is being fanned and escalated, so that you get the sense the different sides of the political divide are digging-in in an uncompromising manner…that is the kind of situation that leads to violence.” He noted that both Buhari and Atiku Abubakar failed to attend a presidential debate organized by civic groups.
For example, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, now a supporter of Atiku Abubakar, claims that the Buhari camp is “working round the clock in cahoots with security and election officials” to rig the elections and spark “violence of unimaginable proportion.” Sometimes there is humor. According to Bloomberg, the Buhari camp responded by saying that Obasanjo needed “a good doctor,” and hoped he would “get well soon.” (The irony is that Buhari's lengthy stays in London hospitals have proven to be a major issue for his campaign.)
For its part, the PDP is saying that Amina Zakari, the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s collation center, is a relative of Buhari, and her appointment is clear evidence that the APC intends to rig the vote count. (Apparently, she is a Buhari relative by marriage.) In turn, Buhari’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, is saying that the PDP “is orchestrating wide spread violence with a view to truncating the elections, thus triggering a constitutional crisis.” He also said the PDP is using armed bandits, Islamist militants, and mercenaries as part of the plot, according to Bloomberg.
There is nothing new about hyperbolic rhetoric around Nigerian elections. However, at present, both major parties are accusing the other of rigging the elections and planning to incite violence. Both parties appear to be laying the groundwork for declaring the election results fraudulent if they lose. Nigerian civil society organizations deserve the support of international NGOs and international election observer missions as they seek to hold the political class accountable. Nwankwo’s concern is well-placed.