Barely 50 days to the Presidential Election, which is the first round of the 2023 general election, the political atmosphere seems to be unnecessarily charged because of the increasing violence trailing electioneering campaign across the country.
A few days ago, the Kano State Police Command said that it arrested about 61 suspected political thugs in the state in a bid to rid the state of all forms of criminality during political campaigns. The development was disclosed in a statement issued by the command’s spokesperson, SP Abdullahi Haruna-Kiyawa.
The arrest was said to have been made some hours after the ruling APC’s mega presidential campaign rally in the state.
The Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) said the arrest followed a directive of the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali-Baba, who earlier declared war on political thugs to ensure a peaceful election process in the coming months.
While many Nigerians commended the Police for the operation, they however, urged the security agencies to be apolitical and ensure that thugs hired by any political party or candidates are frustrated from carrying out their nefarious activities as the country inches closer to the election date.
The growing violence, which is a big threat to electoral integrity in 2023, is part of the ploys by the parties and their candidates to emerge victorious at all cost.
With the increasing and sad development, many are concerned that the elections may turn out bad, negating the essence of the new Electoral Act 2022, and the technological advancements deployed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure success.
Since the flag-off of campaigns in September, there is no day an electoral violence is not recorded across the country.
According to data from the Office of the National Security Adviser, in just one month, from October 8 to November 9, 2022, Nigeria recorded 52 cases of electoral violence across 22 states.
Some weeks ago, gunmen killed Victoria Chintex, women leader of the Labour Party (LP), in Kaura, Kaduna State.
Just two weeks ago, Christopher Elehu, Labour Party House of Assembly candidate, was murdered in Imo State by suspected assassins in Onuimo Local Government Area.
Some days ago, the convoy of Ikedi Ohakim, a former governor of Imo State, was attacked with several security men killed in what has been dubbed a politically-motivated attack. Many parties have been denied access to venues for campaigns by the ruling party in some states, and many campaign rallies have been disrupted by hoodlums half way across the country.
The number has been on the increase since and is expected to double from January as parties and their candidates unleash their last arsenals, inducements and all forms of violence to emerge victorious at the polls.
According to experts, violence will peak in the first quarter of 2023, which holds the two elections because the parties and their candidates want to emerge victorious at all cost. This, according to them, renders both the INEC and the security apparatus controlled by the ruling party, helpless.
Dotun Ogundimu, public affairs analyst, said impunity has encouraged the trend, adding that the government must deal with perpetrators of electoral violence in order to check the dangerous trend.
“This violence will become more pronounced as we get closer to the election time; I can tell you that impunity has encouraged the act.
“In 2019 there was violence, people were killed, and many people were not arrested and prosecuted. It just tells you where we are and that we are not serious.
“It may reduce a bit with electronic transmission of results here, but it is still part of the unresolved problem we have in the polity,”Ogundimu said.
Apart from the inter-party rivalries, the INEC is further worried over the attacks on its facilities and offices nationwide.
INEC has variously expressed fear that if not tamed would jeopardize the general elections.
The commission had expressed worry that, even as it was working hard to ensure a credible process in the forthcoming election, there were reports of clashes among parties and their supporters in some states of the country at the ongoing campaigns.
Mahmood Yakubu, INEC chairman, had also lamented the reported denial of access to public facilities for parties and candidates in some states of the federation.
Yakubu said those acts are not only violation of the Electoral Act 2022 but also negate the voluntary commitment by all political parties and candidates to the letter and spirit of the Peace Accord signed about three weeks ago under the auspices of the National Peace Committee (NPC).
“Parties, candidates and their supporters should not by acts of commission or omission further complicate the prevailing security situation in the country. A peaceful electioneering campaign is critical to the conduct of peaceful and credible elections,” the INEC chairman said.
But the INEC is also assuring Nigerians of credible elections this 2023, despite the challenges.
One of the steps taken by INEC to address the rising violence is convening meetings with leaders of political parties and security agencies to discuss, among other issues, the imperative of peaceful campaigns and equal access to public facilities.
At one of the meetings of Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) late last year, the INEC chairman said the Commission had so far tracked 50 incidents of physical attacks at campaigns, across 21 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory in a month.
Yakubu said those unhappy occurrences were coming just a little over one month into the election campaign, which is scheduled to last for about five months from September 28,2022-February 23,2023 for national elections and October 12, 2022-March 11, 2023 for state polls.
His worry is that if no urgent and decisive steps are taken, the attacks will intensify as election date approaches, saying a peaceful campaign heralds a peaceful election, hence the need to take decisive steps to stem the ugly trend.
According to him, Nigerians expect decisive action from ICCES, especially moving swiftly to apprehend perpetrators, prosecute them as required by law and reinforce security around election officials and electoral infrastructure around the country.
Similarly, Babagana Mohammed Monguno, National Security Adviser (NSA), said his office had recorded 52 cases of violence across 22 states within the period.
The NSA is worried that the violent clashes at the campaigns are increasing. He described them as bad signals ahead of this year’s elections, while warning that he and other security agencies have been given marching orders by President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure rancour- free polls.
“From what the chairman has already told us, there are issues that have emerged. From my own statistics, I am aware of the fact that within a period of just one month, October 8th to November 9th, we had 52 cases of violence across 22 states of the federation. This is a bad signal. This is something that we do not want to continue.
“We are all aware of the fact that the president, as far as he is concerned, is committed to upholding and safeguarding democracy. This is what the people want. The president has also given his directives to me, to all the operational intelligence and law enforcement agencies to ensure that the 2023 elections are held in an atmosphere bereft of any rancour,” Monguno said.
The retired Major General of the Nigerian Army also strongly warned political actors regardless of whichever party, including the party of the president, to play the game according to the rules or expect real shocker.
“For as long as you decide to scuttle the election process, the law enforcement agencies will equally be uninhibited in reacting to whatever actions you have taken. You will be visited appropriately, with commensurate response. I want to assure you, and I am saying this with all sincerity.
“So, those people who feel they have had a history of organising and controlling groups that have an inclination for excessive, inordinate behaviour, I want to send this warning to you. Please, reassess, re-evaluate, run through whatever contemplation you have been making, hold your people and advise them that as long as they do not behave in a manner that suggests compliance with the election laws, and as long as you do not operate on the straits and narrows, you will be held accountable.
“Therefore, it is important for you to call those people and you know the people under your control. Those thugs, those blood thirsty, trigger happy thugs straining at the dish, foaming at the mouth, desperate to have the opportunity to undermine the electoral process, they will be brought to book. Already, security and intelligence agencies have been tracking these people. This I can guarantee you,” the NSA warned.
On his part, Usman Alkali-Baba, Inspector General of Police, said several culprits have been arrested in connection with electoral violence and are being investigated while some are already charged to the court.
“The election is threatened by events that have been unfolding in some states from the day electoral campaigns unfolded. We have had incidences of intolerance by politicians within the various ranks of politicians. We had incidents of thuggery, we have incidents of rallies, campaigns, and processions being disturbed violently and so forth.
“It is our determination that these things are put to rest quickly to enable us to forge ahead with the general election. The incidents so far, arrests have been made, investigations have been conducted and some suspects have been charged to court. My prayer is quick dispensation of justice so that it will serve as a deterrent,” he stated.
Worried by the violent atmosphere ahead of the election, especially the attacks on INEC structures, the House of Representatives at twilight of 2022, launched investigation into the anomalies during which stakeholders expressed fear over threats to the 2023 general election.
Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker, House of Representatives, said the Green Chamber was disturbed by the systematically orchestrated attacks as they pose a threat to INEC’s capacity to conduct the 2023 general election.
According to Gbajabiamila, the trend was also an attack on democratic governance and said the perpetrators of those violent acts are enemies of the country.
“It is on this basis that the House of Representatives not only unequivocally condemned these nefarious attacks, but also resolved to set up an Ad-hoc Committee to investigate the remote and immediate causes of the incessant attacks on INEC facilities.
“We are indeed hopeful that at the end of this investigation, the Committee would be able to come up with far-reaching recommendations that will not only bring an end to these unfortunate attacks on our democracy, but also ensure that the perpetrators of the nefarious acts will be made to face the full wrath of the law,” he said.
The INEC chairman reiterated that the 2023 general election would be endangered if the spate of attacks on the Commission’s facilities across the country is not checked.
According to Yakubu, INEC had witnessed 50 attacks in 15 states since 2019, with Imo State topping the list with 11 attacks followed by Osun with seven, five incidents in Enugu and Akwa Ibom; Abia and Cross Rivers had four attacks each.
While two attacks were recorded in Anambra and Taraba states and one each in Bayelsa, Ondo, Lagos, Borno, Kaduna and Ogun states.
He assured the lawmakers and Nigerians that despite the attacks, the Commission was determined to continue with the preparations for the elections, insisting that the implications would be far reaching if not curtailed.
“We are determined that we will continue with our preparations for the 2023 general election. All the facilities would be rebuilt or alternatives found and materials would be replaced. However, should such attacks continue at the pace at which they are happening at the moment, the Commission may find it increasingly difficult to recover in time for the election.
“If it is about the attacks, yes we can recover, but if the attacks continue, it would be very difficult for the commission to recover. That is why concerted efforts to stop these attacks have become imperative and we hope this public hearing would contribute to the required outcome.
“The attacks have far-reaching implications on preparation for the general election. First, the facilities that are destroyed, especially offices, would take time to rebuild. They are not like items of procurement that you can procure off the shelf.
“The Commission and security agencies must also continue to provide safety around the facilities and this, as I said earlier, may be very challenging, because the security agencies are also protecting all of us and other national assets.”
The Inspector General of Police Usman Baba Alkali blamed politicians and secessionist groups in the South-east and South-west for the persistent attacks on INEC facilities and other violent acts and said police had swung into action.
He said: “When INEC finally lifted the ban on campaigns, the campaigns commenced and what we realised initially was inter and intra-party disputes. We realised that members of political parties were destroying billboards, posters and campaign offices in some parts of the states.
“We quickly alerted the Commissioners of Police in-charge of the commands and gave them clear directives that it is the right of every political party to go to all the nooks and crannies of the society and campaign.
“What we discovered is that we all know in this country, it is a well-known fact that in the south-east geo-political zone we have issues of secessionists – the IPOB and ESN. These groups are bent on stopping elections from taking place in the South-East.
“They have been attacking our personnel; they have been killing our personnel. They have been retrieving arms from members of the security agencies not only the police – the military and other paramilitary organisations that are there.
“They have been doing it, especially now that the embargo on campaigns has been lifted. The election is approaching very fast and they are putting much pressure to see that this election does not hold in the South-east political zone.”
Despite these assurances to law-abiding Nigerians and threats to perpetrators of violence from security agencies, the situation is unabated as INEC itself seems to be handicapped in tackling the monster.
INEC chairman, Yakubu expressed the inability of the umpire to tackle such issues when he spoke at a public hearing on a bill for an Act to Establish National Electoral Offences Commission and for Related Matters, 2022, organised by the House of Representatives committee on Electoral matters last year.
Yakubu said INEC is presently saddled with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders under the Electoral Act but the task is very challenging for the Commission.
“Much as the Commission would like to see more successful prosecution of offenders, our effort is hampered by obvious constraints.
“INEC is basically an electoral commission with extensive responsibilities which include the registration and regulation of political parties, the monitoring of party and campaign finance, their primaries, congresses, meetings and conventions; nationwide Continuous Voter registration (CVR) and the maintenance of the national register of voters; creation of polling units,” he said.
The bill, which proposed amongst others, a15-year jail term for anyone convicted of vote buying in any election, 20 years or a fine of N40 million for persons convicted of ballot box snatching while anyone convicted of hate speech or action, which incites violence shall be liable to a minimum of 10 years imprisonment or at least N40 million is yet to be finally passed to make it law.
Accordingly, it is said that no amount of threat can subvert that craving for a better Nigeria; not minding the current level of violence and killings happening across the country.
“The electoral body in conjunction with the security agencies should intensify their plans on security.” Charles Adewale, a lecturer with Caleb University, Lagos, said. According to him, politicians, in their usual manners, will do anything to win elections. Hence, the electorate should be properly sensitised on how to act peacefully on Election Day.
“The temptation to intimidate supposed minorities in polling units is a possibility. Security agencies should look into this as well,” Adewale said.
Another Lagos resident, Said Yekeen, a Lab scientist with MeCure, said every political party in government is guilty of one form of violence or the other against other political parties in their state.
“One thing that is common in our political environment is that the party in government usually monopolises the political space to frustrate opposition parties’ civic engagement with the populace,” he said. According to him, this is the primary cause of violence in many places that somehow degenerates into bigger fracas among the supporters of the different political parties.
“Look at the recent happenings in Rivers State where a sitting governor is going around trying to create a one-party state; how will that not promote violence in the state,” he asked.
However, some persons are of the view that the charged political atmosphere in Nigeria is intended to scare electorates away from the electioneering process, which is partly responsible for the voter apathy usually experienced on election day.
“The fact remains that the Nigerian political system is a study in paradox. The more one looks, the more one is likely to see more than necessary within any political issues. Besides this premise lies the fact that when the time comes for National Elections 2023, the issues of violence and related matters would fizzle out as if they never existed. This usually gives insights to some of us to interpret the violent nature of Nigerian politics as man-made, executed by humans and affected by humans,” Chuks Okoji, lecturer in the department of mass communication, Federal Polytechnic Offa, Kwara State said.
According to Okoji, the Federal Government and the INEC must come up with strategies to save the electoral process that would define a new way for Nigeria. He said further that the government and the electoral body know and understand what lies ahead in terms of responsibilities and expectations from Nigerians.
“With my little knowledge about Nigeria politics, it is crucial to say that the Nigerian Government and INEC as a strong agency know what lies ahead in terms of responsibilities and expectations of Nigerians. Frankly speaking, the Federal Government knows what to do on insecurity and the test of their character comes up in February and March 2023.
“I mean the potential for likely attacks from terrorist groups, bandits and kidnapping of electoral officials. We can’t pretend that all is well. The issue is, not all INEC offices across the 776 local governments of the federation could be attacked simultaneously,” Okoji said.
Okoji said further that the threats against the forthcoming general elections may actually be psychological rather than pragmatic. According to him, the recent threat to the elections has to do with religion and ethnic divisions and dimensions Nigerian politics have taken in the recent past.
“I don’t think that there has ever been a period of elections in Nigeria without the threat to life and property, without violence and killing of political opponents, especially in the last 20 years of democratic experiment, among others,” Okoji said.
Okoji said that there was a need to amend the Constitution to create room for Muslim-Christian or Christian-Muslim provisions.
“We don’t need to continue to argue over what should be a pastime. Our nation is not yet mature for a same faith candidate,” he said.