Leading up to the February 2019 presidential elections, experts studied the imminent risk of electoral violence. Social and economic inequalities, ethnic and religious divisions and structural weaknesses were the suspected risk factors. To understand the possibility of electoral violence in 2019, many looked to the 2015 presidential elections.
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the popular vote nominated to defeat a sitting president in 2015. Contrary to the expectations of many, however, the elections and the subsequent change in the seat of power were relatively peaceful aside from attacks by Boko Haram. The peaceful 2015 election indicates a downward trend of electoral violence, as the 2019 elections saw even less violence, according to humanitarian observer missions.
However, this is not to say that the most recent Nigerian elections were entirely bloodless and peaceful. On the contrary, several violent incidents occurred. In one incident, some thirty-nine people were killed on the twenty-third of February 2019. A similar incident saw forty-one killed by Boko Haram’s attacks on voting centres. The reason Nigerian elections are often marred with such levels of violence is the rhetoric spewed by political candidates. Politicians are far too quick to exploit identity-related cleavages in order to maximise votes at the expense of peace. Take for example, a rather reckless statement by Ekiti State Governor Peter Fayose, claiming that “all former heads of state from the North West like Buhari… died in office”. A similar statement by former first lady, Patience Jonathan in 2015 asserted highly offensive stereotypes about Northerners having too many children.
In other cases, politicians falsely accuse each other of foul play, thus inciting discontent and, indirectly, violence. In one incident, a former state minister briefly disrupted election results, seizing a microphone and angrily shouting claims of bias. In another incident, APC and PDP severally accused each other of planning to rig the March twenty-third 2019 supplementary elections.
The reason why the 2015 elections were relatively peaceful is because the defeated incumbent peacefully relinquished power to the winning candidate. It is high time that all contesting politicians accepted responsibility for their words and actions. In order to end the highly disturbing trend of electoral violence, we must curtail politicians’ ability to use inflammatory language in order to gain support. We cannot afford to allow freedom of speech to come at the expense of peace.
What then follows is for INEC to heavily regulate electoral campaigns, speeches, and paraphernalia to ensure that no candidate directly or indirectly sponsors hate or violence or asserts any sub-national identity such as religion or tribe. Furthermore, any candidate found guilty of doing so must be expelled, not just from the race in question but also from subsequent elections. May God bless our country, Nigeria.
Funmilayo Adetokunbo A-A, a political and International Affairs Analyst, writes from Somerset, England, United Kingdom.