In the last one week, a fresh wave of electoral violence was unleashed on the country by agents of politicians seeking power through destabilization. Some supporters of the All Progressives Congress (APC) were shot on their way to an APC rally in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. On Sunday, unidentified persons threw dynamite into the APC secretariat in Abam Ama, Okrika Local Government Area (LGA) of Rivers State, and four APC members were macheted by political thugs in another round of violence in Rumueme, Obio/Akpor LGA.

These incidents in Rivers State came less than 24 hours after two campaign buses of President Jonathan were set ablaze by some misguided youths in Jos North LGA of Plateau State. Political hooliganism and thuggery is a pointer to internal corruption and underdevelopment. Electoral violence is any harm or threat of harm done to any person or property involved in the election process, or to the election process itself as the election approaches, during and after the election. To deepen Nigeria’s democracy, electoral violence must be curbed because it poses a threat to democracy by undermining the democratic norms of tolerance and non-violence.

Stemming electoral violence in a fragile and failing state like Nigeria requires a thorough appreciation of the broader landscape of the country’s internal conflict, political alliances and configurations. The 2015 elections may well be the first in the country’s history, featuring a genuine political contest where candidate will not be effective at leveraging ethno-religious identities for political gain. Given the stark realities of the changing political calculations, we need to be vigilant because incumbents who are afraid of losing may be charting a dangerous trajectory of violence aimed at fragmenting Nigeria ahead of the elections.

In the past, the issue had always been post-election violence. In 2015, the tide changed. This is largely because the PDP truncated the political horse-trading that preceded the selection of the party’s presidential candidate while the APC surprisingly pulled a cat-in-the-hat stunt by undergoing an open and contested primary. With the emergence of the Buhari/Osinbajo ticket, the PDP appeared inchoate with little internal discipline, no ideological platform, no principles and a seeming lack of excitement for its candidate – Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan’s second term ambition has divided the political elite. There is also a growing rank of clergymen within the previously sympathetic Christian base making unexpected declarations against Jonathan. It seems the collapse of ethno-religious coalitions has made violence an only option. This dangerous political dynamic arose because the game has changed from a predetermined elite game characterized by popular indifference; to unprecedented anticipation and active voter participation.

What is worrisome in the escalating crisis is that the federal government itself has become an instigator of electoral violence. In order to gain electoral advantage starting with the Ekiti election, the government unveiled a catechism of physical violence and intimidation against citizens, opposition candidates and political parties. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, high ranking political figures were denied the use of Nigerian airspace to truncate their plan of flying to attend political rallies. Many influential politicians were held at checkpoints manned by armed soldiers, some were teargassed while others were brutalized by the police. The voters themselves were not spared, sniffer dogs were let loose on them and many party agents were locked up or placed under house arrest.

There was no reason for this, other than the fact that violence helps in winning elections and afterwards, it helps politicians stay in office if election results are challenged by popular protest. Cases of ballot snatching and stuffing inform us that electoral violence may not only be directed at people, it may also be aimed at the electoral process where violence is orchestrated to delay, disrupt, derail a poll with an intent to influence the outcomes. The most current example is the allegation by the APC, that the invasion of its data center by the State Security Services (SSS) was a plot by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to postpone the February elections.

After this election cycle, Nigerians must be prepared to confront their demons in public sphere. Electoral violence before, during and after elections flourish in Nigeria because leaders face few little or no scrutiny and they always get away with violence. The threat of electoral violence will stop when there is true separation of powers. When there are checks on arbitrary power and when the judiciary is truly independent of the executive. The reason government in developed countries does not respond with violence when faced with electoral loss is because the leaders will be held accountable.

Another reason can be found in history. In 1999, 2007, and 2011 there were little pre-election violence because the eventual winners had no real worries about losing. They were confident of genuine victory. They had no real threat from opposition parties and public opinion polls predicted a decisive win. It is a different story in 2015. A credible opposition party has emerged with a candidate with strong moral credentials posing real threat to the incumbent. That is why the polity is heating up. Lack of accountability, responsibility for actions and possibility of electoral loss can cause the followers of a threatened and weakened incumbent government to seek violence as a plausible solution to electoral woes.

On Monday, the Nigeria police warned politicians and their supporters against violence before the February 14 presidential election. As usual, the police is beholden to the government in power. The word “politician” in the sentence reads more like a reference to “opposition politicians” only. The police have a history of collusion with the federal and state governments from the Sunday Adewusi era till date. So far, 13 suspects have been arrested in Jos for setting ablaze President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign buses. Nothing has been heard from the police about the shooting of persons in Rivers state.

Electoral violence is a common factor in unstable democracies where the conditions are predicated on contextual and structural drivers of violence that are native to failing and unstable nation states. Nigeria presents a textbook case of a country prone to electoral violence. This notion is well considered given Nigeria’s high level of impunity, weak judiciary, compromised and corrupt law enforcement, inequitable distribution of power and resources, a faulty federation, an overly attractive centre where the gravy flows, expanding societal divides, galloping unemployment, high stakes of gaining or losing power, proliferation of assault weapons, and official corruption. In a country where politics is ordered by hierarchical patron-client relationships, we can only push for reforms in development, enabling environment for job creation, respect for the rule of law and the building of enduring process-driven institutions.

We must take active interest in discouraging our judiciary and law enforcement who should curb election violence from being appendages to political power, encouragers of electoral violence and manipulators of democratic institutions.

I call on General Muhammadu Buhari and President Goodluck Jonathan to issue a joint statement condemning electoral violence, dissociate themselves from it and commit to a free and fair election. On your part as a citizen, you can send a clear message that it will no longer be business as usual by casting your vote and making sure your vote counts. Vote, protect your vote and remember, nobody’s vote is more valuable than yours unless you don’t vote. Get your PVC ready! God bless Nigeria!

Bamidele maintains a weekly column on Politics and Socioeconomic issues every Tuesday. She is a member of Premium Times Editorial Board.

Twitter @olufunmilayo