from Center for Preventive Action

Electoral Violence in Nigeria

Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 9

September 21, 2010

Contingency Planning Memorandum
Contingency Planning Memoranda identify plausible scenarios that could have serious consequences for U.S. interests and propose measures to both prevent and mitigate them.


In February 2015, the author wrote an update to this memo to reflect recent developments in Nigeria. Read the update.

John Campbell
John Campbell

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

Elections in Nigeria scheduled for January 2011 may well be the first in the country's history featuring a genuine political contest between the predominantly Christian South and the Muslim North. Candidates could be tempted to leverage Nigerians' ethnic and religious identities for political gain, a practice that may lead to widespread electoral violence or even a military coup. This Center for Preventive Action Contingency Planning Memorandum by Ambassador John Campbell describes the events and trends that indicate Nigerian politics are following this dangerous trajectory and recommends U.S. policy options for preventing and containing violent fragmentation of Nigerian society. The memo concludes that the United States should capitalize on the value elite Nigerians place on their country's bilateral relationship with the United States to hedge against the worst outcomes the 2011 Nigerian election might produce.

More on:


Elections and Voting

Political Transitions

Conflict Prevention

Read the Contingency Planning Memorandum Update, “Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential Election,” and explore CFR’s Nigeria Security Tracker and Global Conflict Tracker on the intensification of violence in Nigeria.

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Elections and Voting

Political Transitions

Conflict Prevention

Letter in Response to Electoral Violence in Nigeria

Posted October 27, 2010.

by Richard Joseph
Northwestern University

On October 1, 2010, Nigeria celebrated its fiftieth anniversary as an independent nation. During the official commemorative ceremonies in its capital, Abuja, car bombs exploded that killed and maimed a number of persons. How many is not exactly known. Such episodes seemed evocative of this country's modern history: the twinning of hope and disaster. Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell recently posted two articles on warning of possible calamity in the forthcoming 2011 elections. The first article provoked strong rebukes from Nigeria's foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States. In an eloquent rejoinder on September 27 by another former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Howard F. Jeter, coauthored with Professor Gwendolyn Mikell, Campbell's article was called alarmist and sensational and as having "constructed a complex improbability." Moreover, they claim that it misrepresents Nigerian political society in significant ways including overlooking the countervailing forces that make apocalyptic outcomes unlikely.

Having just returned from a two-week visit to Nigeria, which I visit often, I will pursue a different approach to this important debate and controversy. The "doomsday scenario" that Campbell is said to depict, according to Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia, is often sketched by Nigerian commentators themselves. Here, for example, is a statement made by two Nigerian academics in a volume recently issued to commemorate the country's jubilee: "Nigeria also runs the risk of exploding or imploding at any point given the sheer absence of any rooted, overarching, popular basis for sustaining the union." The authors, Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare, use language that rises a few decibels above the ringing of Campbell's alarm bell: "If she unravels, particularly if she violently snaps, the Nigerian space may well be the bloodiest of human tragedies the world has witnessed in modern times." More follows in this vein. These same authors, however, had earlier written: "Nigeria still contains within her the transformational possibilities and human potentialities which can be mobilized, harnessed and leveraged by a new kind of leadership."[1]

I call these seemingly contradictory views "the Nigerian paradox." Nigeria's citizens and longtime observers bewail and applaud it, sometimes in adjoining sentences. The dilemma of Nigeria is that it has avoided both collapse and transformation and may continue to do so. A few years ago, a seasoned diplomat I interviewed in Abuja (not mentioned in this article) calmly told me that the best thing for Nigeria would be the implosion of its predatory and dysfunctional state. "Let them—the governing elites—continue to steal until there is nothing left. They can then leave for Houston to enjoy their loot and allow the country to start putting itself together again." Such a scenario is unlikely, however, and not because the political class may suddenly be transformed by the religious upsurge, Christian as well as Muslim, in West Africa. The oil wealth that flows from the creeks of the Delta region, and from offshore wells, will continue to provide abundant revenues that can be creamed off at every level of the federal system. This vital lubrication of the political system is called "fertilizer" in Wale Okediran's comic novel of Nigerian corruption, Tenants of the House.

The likeliest scenario in 2011 is no different from what has happened during the four decades since Nigeria's thirty-month civil war ended in January 1970: muddling through. Political entrepreneurs in Nigeria have perfected the art of wading through any muddle that may arise, be it the shambolic elections of April 2007, which Campbell aptly described as "an election-like event," or the tragicomedy earlier this year as a mortally ill President Umaru Yar'Adua remained in Saudi Arabia and refused (or was not permitted) to transfer power to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Jeter and Mikell describe muddling through more elegantly: "exceptional ingenuity in making those accommodations that maintain the unity of the nation." Nigeria's political elites do not only "dance" on the brink of disaster, as the title of Campbell's Foreign Affairs article and his forthcoming book suggest. Rather, they often strut along it, confident that the system that has richly rewarded successive waves of office-holders, military as well as civilian, will continue to do so indefinitely. Meanwhile, a populace numbed by poverty, rotting roads, paltry electricity, deplorable health and education facilities, and the widespread risk of armed robbery and kidnapping will grumble, mount spasmodic street protests, and keep on keeping on. But will they?

What are the prospects of transformation of which Adebanwi and Obadare speak? What can shift the Nigerian political system away from pervasive predation and toward public service, the economy from the sharing of state largesse and toward production, and social norms away from trickery to probity? This is what Nigerians understand by transformation. Politicians regularly appeal to this hunger in soon-to-be-forgotten campaign speeches, and religious entrepreneurs construct mega-churches to tap into it as well as the pockets of their devotees. Nevertheless, an impending era of growth and transformation in Nigeria may be less improbable than a catastrophic implosion. The federal system, in which substantial power and financial resources are devolved to state and local governments, provides structures that enable enlightened political aspirants to respond to the deep longing of the population for good governance and sustainable growth. For this benign scenario to become a reality, immense challenges must be overcome.

High among these challenges is ensuring that the 2011 elections are substantially free, fair, and credible, that votes are accurately counted and tabulated, and that the actual winners are certified by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). President Goodluck Jonathan took a vital step toward the conduct of fair elections in 2011 when he appointed Professor Attahiru Jega, a political scientist and university president, to be the new INEC chairman. The retention by the late president Yar'Adua of the inept Maurice Iwu as INEC chairman, and his failure to act for many months on the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee, ensured that Nigeria must now scramble to prepare for the 2011 elections. Jega and his associates are charged with performing a near-miracle in a country in which large quantities of cash will be exchanged for party nominations, doled out to bribe voters and electoral officials, and expended to maintain squadrons of thugs.

Democratic resistance is as fundamental a component of Nigerian politics as the subverting of democracy by office holders and aspirants. It is such resistance that blocked the attempt by former president Olusegun Obasanjo to have the constitution changed in 2006 so he could run for a third term. It is seen in the "mandate protection" upheavals in such states as Kano, Lagos, and Bauchi to ensure that correct voting results are announced by election officials. And the judiciary, which canceled several gubernatorial elections since 2007, and either expelled the occupants or ordered new elections, has enabled governors affiliated with opposition parties to take office. After appointing Jega, perhaps the most important sign that Jonathan's promise of electoral fairness is being heeded was the October 15 decision of a panel of Appeals Court judges that Dr. Kayode Fayemi was the duly elected governor of Ekiti State in southwest Nigeria. Jonathan's People's Democratic Party had been responsible for invidious acts perpetrated to block Fayemi at every turn.

Fayemi was promptly inaugurated as governor on October 16 to begin a four-year term, thereby joining "progressive" governors in two neighboring states, Ondo and Edo, who also "retrieved" their mandate thanks to judicial action. Some of the tendrils of developmental governance in Nigeria are acquiring sturdy roots and stalks. The infrastructural advances in the country's most populous state, Lagos, under its current governor, Babatunde Fashola, has endowed Nigeria with one of the most dynamic and transparently democratic governments in Africa. What also bolsters hope for a benign scenario is that Nigeria was, within living memory, on the cusp of a democratic breakthrough that was snuffed out by the very man who engineered it: the head of the military government from 1985 to 1993, General Ibrahim Babangida.

Babangida had insisted on the formation of two political parties, "one a little to the left and the other a little to the right," and two emerged. What is more, they both transcended Nigeria's regional, ethnic, and religious divisions. Babangida insisted that honest elections take place, and Nigerians conducted on June 12, 1993, perhaps the best election since the last election took place under British auspices in 1959. And then the results were abruptly annulled on June 21. The winner of the presidency, Moshood Abiola, was forced into exile, and later arrested and detained by Babangida's successor, Sani Abacha, until he died in prison. Democratic resistance to Abacha's tyranny provoked his own liquidation in 1998 at the hands of his military associates.

Campbell describes the various forces that could seek to disrupt and derail Nigeria's progress over the coming months. It should be expected that there will be more reports of violent acts by Islamic extremists or Niger Delta militants, brutalities perpetrated against political contestants, furious accusations traded among contenders for party nominations, all seemingly reinforcing the alarmist scenario. Campbell may be criticized for stridently emphasizing the risks and not giving equal due to countervailing developments. However, another former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Princeton N. Lyman, warned a year ago against such a "balanced" approach. He cautioned that facile pronouncements about Nigeria being "the most important country in Africa" and frequent praise for its great prospects only induced complacency among its leaders regarding their country's profound problems. Lyman's entreaties were warmly welcomed by Nigerian commentators.

The response I advocate is to bolster the forces, institutions, and practices that can shift this complex nation onto a benign trajectory. Many acts of assertion and resistance can coalesce into a truly transformative movement. Here are two suggestions for international donors seeking unique ways to increase the slender prospects for democratic progress in Nigeria in 2011. The first would be to fund the purchase of thousands of copies of Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson's recent book, Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World, for distribution throughout Nigeria. The second would be to give robust support for the creation of a pan-Nigerian movement of civic and other organizations to work for free, fair, and credible elections, a recommendation I made in a jubilee lecture in Abuja and Lagos in early October.

It should not be underestimated how many Nigerians, at home and abroad, are willing to take unusual action to challenge the brinkmanship that passes for statesmanship in their beleaguered nation. We should begin by arming them with the requisite tools, such as small video cameras, to capture nefarious electoral practices in their communities for screening on websites and televisions. And the technology should be made available for tabulating and displaying votes cast in each polling station that are transmitted by cell phones to collating sites. The 2011 election can have a dual character: an officially administered one by INEC, and a citizens' movement to get out the vote that includes a comprehensive parallel vote count. The 2011 elections provide an opportunity for Nigerians to reclaim their democracy through neutralizing the efforts of politicians to distort and disrupt the voting process. From manipulated subjects, they can become active and alert citizens. They can be empowered to give birth to a new electoral democracy and demand greater performance and accountability of office-holders by a vigilant citizenry. This dream at independence has turned into a nightmare, especially during recent elections. The time has come to make good on a fifty-year promise, and the elections of 2011 is the moment to start.


  1. ^ These quotations are taken from the introductory chapter to a special issue, "Nigeria at Fifty: The Nation in Narration," of the Journal of Contemporary African Studes, vol. 28, no. 4 (October 2010).

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