THE recent warning by the National Peace Committee on rising political violence in the run-up to the 2023 general elections has not tempered the barbarism of political actors and their hired thugs. Led by a former military head of state, Abdulsalami Abubakar, and Matthew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, the committee deplored the intemperate language, intimidation and outright violence by political parties and by their allies. Desperate politicians are turning the four-year election cycle and off-season electoral activities in Nigeria into bloody encounters. There should be concerted efforts to stop the savagery.
Under its unconscionable politicians, politics and elections in Nigeria have been militarised. It did not start today, but the current electoral cycle, beginning with party primaries, has witnessed an escalation. Violence has continued unabated despite the signing of a peace accord by the 18 parties fielding candidates who promised to infuse decency, civility and nobility in the political process. But the ink had hardly dried on the document before the politicians resumed their nefarious instincts.
Campaign rallies of the major presidential candidates have been attacked; intemperate language and intolerance are rampant. In many states, posters, billboards, and vehicles of opposition parties and candidates are damaged, some at the behest of incumbent governors and the ruling parties. In the South-West especially where the ruling parties and governors have entered into treacherous alliances with violent transport union factions, union enforcers claiming allegiance to rival parties and politicians have been spilling blood in frequent clashes.
Early in November, political thugs attacked the convoy of the campaign team of the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar, in Maiduguri, Borno State. One person was feared killed, 74 others were injured. Also in October, supporters of the All Progressives Congress were injured in Ibadan, Oyo State, during a rally for the party’s presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu. In several states, rallies by supporters of Peter Obi, the Labour Party presidential flag bearer, have been disrupted, and the use of public facilities has been denied to opposition parties.
Nigerians are traumatised, but outsiders too have taken notice. The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, said her office had recently recorded 52 incidents of election-related violence in 22 states. The United States Institute of Peace noted that with the rise in criminal and political violence, the 2023 elections could set back democracy in the country. With the elections still about three months away, this is frightening.
Anxiety is heightened by the apparent unwillingness and seeming inability of the security forces to prevent the violence, or arrest and prosecute all the perpetrators and their sponsors. The Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, confirmed the elite conspiracy recently when he openly accused some governors and politicians of fuelling political violence. Typically, he did not name the governors, rendering his intervention practically useless.
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Political violence persists because the political elite are the chief perpetrators, and because they are never made to account for their crimes. Ministers, governors and political ‘godfathers’ hire thugs; buy fake police and military uniforms and arms for them, while providing them with a steady supply of drugs and intoxicating beverages. An election observer group, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, estimated that 626 persons were killed across the country during the 2019 election cycle and the supplementary elections. The International Crisis Group reported that more than 100 people died during and after the 2015 polls. Following the 2011 presidential election, Human Rights Watch said at least 800 people were killed in post-election violence across 12 northern states, the worst in Nigeria’s political history.
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network declared, “Violence is the greatest threat to free and fair elections in new and emerging democracies.” The weaponisation of politics has eroded confidence in the integrity of Nigeria’s electoral process; and democracy, anchored on the pillars of participation, inclusion and legitimacy, suffers. Decent people steer clear of politics, and voter apathy prevails. The Independent National Electoral Commission said voter turnout for the 2015 and 2019 general elections ranged between 30 and 35 per cent; in other West African countries within the same period, it averaged 65 to 70 per cent.
Nigerian politicians are generally desperate, and some are outrightly irresponsible. Even after gaining high political office, they persist in odious behaviour; they campaign with a retinue of thugs; when these hirelings unleash violence, including murder, state institutions that should hold them accountable do not because they have been emasculated by public office holders. Some state governments fraternise with, and reward controversial transport union operatives, and have handed over motor parks and garages in their respective states to their favoured transport union factional leaders.
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), should intervene and compel Baba and other security agencies to do their jobs without fear or favour. The IG should act strongly to counter the governors sponsoring violence; while they have immunity from arrest and prosecution while in office, their violent hirelings do not and should be promptly dealt with under the law. The police should build dossiers on errant governors and move against them immediately they leave office. Allowing thugs and their sponsors to escape consequences over the years has entrenched a culture of criminal impunity in the country. Buhari should order the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators of violence irrespective of their political affiliation.
Baba has a duty to protect lives and property, but he unwittingly enables instigators of violence by deploying policemen to undeserving persons as escorts; some of these cops enthusiastically participate in political violence. Politicians should hire private security guards if they so desire, the privatisation of police at the expense of the majority should be stopped. Police chiefs should muster the courage and integrity to build institutional capacity and refuse illegal orders from politicians.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of Nigerians to defend democracy and promote their own wellbeing by rejecting desperate politicians that deploy violence at the polls.
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