On February 13, 2015, the National Human Rights Commission issued a report and advisory on election-related violence in Nigeria’s 2015 general elections, which found that, “The run-up to Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential election has been characterised by bellicose rhetoric, a rise in hate speech, and a worrisome footprint of election-related violence.”
The Report and Advisory itemised scores of incidents of pre-election killings and violence affecting 22 states of the federation. In the six weeks since then, the footprint of pre-election violence has spread beyond the 22 states, and election-related violence in some form has been reported in nearly all the states of Nigeria. During that period also, the number of complaints lodged with the Commission concerning election-related violence has grown by over 200%.
The Report and Advisory also identified Kaduna, Lagos and Rivers states as “the three most worrying trends and locations predictive of a high likelihood of significant violence during the 2015 elections.”
As a follow up and to mitigate this, teams from the Commission undertook verification, fact-checking and advocacy visits to all three states where we met with State Governments, cross sections of the leading political parties, their officials, candidates and campaign organisations, law enforcement, the Independent National Electoral Commission and INEC. In addition, the Commission or its senior officials have also been in Benue, Imo and Kano States. We have equally met with and consulted closely with both the leadership of the Nigeria Police Force and with the Defence Headquarters.
The visits to the states confirmed the assessments in the Report and Advisory. Certain patterns were very evident from these visits to these locations which predispose them to a potential for significant election-related violence. I summarise them below:
(i) Militias and gangs: it’s clear that there are gangs, cults and militias that have been cultivated and to whom the leading political parties or people claiming to act on their behalf have somewhat “outsourced” election violence. This has made election-related violence both transactional and casual. In some of the states, well known militia leaders have become candidates in the elections, guaranteeing that violence is part of the election and campaign narrative.
(ii) Small arms and light weapons (SALW): in the three main locations in particular, small arms and light weapons are present in very worrying quantities in the hands of cults, gangs, militias and unlawful hands. The calibre of ordnance in private hands in Rivers State, in particular, goes beyond anything that can be licensed for private use and, indeed, beyond what is legitimate or even for lawful law enforcement purposes.
(iii) Substance abuse and psychotropic substances: in nearly all cases, there was evidence to correlate (perhaps indeed even of causation) high pre-disposition to election violence with evidence of an illicit supply network for psychotropic substances to the militias involved.
(iv) Campaign billboard wars: in most states, the two leading parties and their supporters have launched mutual attacks on the billboards of opposite parties. Campaign billboards are gouged out, defaced, painted over or destroyed as if they have injured anyone. In some of the states, there were allegations that state assets had been used to procure or condone such destruction.
(v) Hate speech: all the institutions, entities and communities whom we consulted affirmed that hate speech was at unprecedented levels and nearly all warned that the level of such hate now presents a clear threat to national cohesion, irrespective of the outcome of the elections.
(vi) Effect of closure of courts: in Rivers and Kaduna States, the courts are closed, creating a major crisis of lack of access to remedies for election-related violence. The police complain that they suffer interference from politicians in policing election violence. They also say they have no courts to charge arrested persons to and are now short of cell space for detainees. Parties in some cases allege their supporters are being held interminably under opaque rules or “orders from above”. Serial and repeated bomb attacks on courts in Rivers are the immediate cause of the court closures there and have not attracted the right form of reprobation from the authorities. Judges need to be secured ahead of contentious election disputes. In Kaduna, we also heard allegations of interference with lower bench dealing with violence. These fuel a growing narrative of election vigilantism and “self defence”.
(vii) The self-defence narrative: two common expressions we heard in all the places visited were “we will not be intimidated” and “we will defend ourselves”. From political leaders this is worse than disappointing. It’s a confession of both desperation and leadership failure.
(viii) Discrepancies in casualty count between political parties and the police: there are clear discrepancies in casualty count between the parties, communities and police. This is most evident in Kaduna as well as Rivers, suggesting that categories are not clear or mutually dissonant or there is under-reporting of the incidents and consequences of violence. Communities and political parties have a responsibility to keep law enforcement fully informed of incidents of violence, especially where human beings are killed or injured. Law enforcement agencies also have a responsibility to keep accurate records of the reports received.
(ix) Governors alleging coercion: in all Kaduna, Lagos and Rivers States, the state governments made allegations of the use of violence or threats of violence as an instrument of coercion by the opposition party in the State.
(x) PVC discrepancies: in Rivers and Kaduna States, in particular, we received very credible indications that PVCS may have been “bought wholesale” by politicians or communities and indications that the practice of “community voting” could seriously endanger both plans for credible elections and the safety of staff engaged to organise or administer them. These are on a level that must be taken seriously by both INEC and the security agencies.
(xi) Allegations or perceptions of law enforcement uneven-handedness: we received allegations of lack of even-handedness in law enforcement, and security provisioning affecting campaigns and supporters were both rampant and too serious to ignore. Yet in all cases, the campaigns on all sides and officers making them enjoyed the protection of security agencies. Such allegations are not to be taken lightly but it is also important that political organisations should refrain from seeking to tarnish security agencies merely for the purpose of scoring political points.
(xii) Breakdown of Accord on Non-Violence: in all the locations, the parties suggest that the accords signed between the parties to promote issued-based campaigning and refrain from violence had broken down almost irretrievably. There is mutual suspicion and lack of good faith between the parties.
(xiii) Imperative of protecting internal migrants and minorities: it’s clear that around these elections, populations of internal migrants and minorities in many parts of Nigeria live in mortal fear of significant election-related violence. Many fled before February 14. Others re-located their families to places of origin. We have received several reports of fatal accidents involving women and children fleeing in this way. Many children have missed an entire term of school as a result. In some states, internal migrants have also re-located to ‘squat’ near military barracks or beside security establishments.
Each of these developments in itself is troubling. Together, they present a pattern of challenges that all participants in these elections, including the election Administrator, INEC; security agencies, the political parties, their principals and other candidates; the National Peace Committee; election observers; civic groups and other entities interested in Nigeria’s 2015 general elections should plan for and address, especially in the hours immediately following the announcement of results.
On its part, the NHRC has addressed recommendations previously to all these entities. We have looked again at those recommendations and believe they remain well-founded and should be taken seriously.
The right to vote deserves to be fully protected in these elections. To do so, we must accord primacy to the right to life. The message of the National Peace Committee in support of peaceful elections must be complemented with a clear and credible accountability threat: those who endanger human life in pursuit of political power must be held to account. This requires us to keep and preserve records and evidence of the infractions committed, as well as of those who do them. As we go into the elections, we must call on the parties and candidates to refrain from any conduct that could contribute to raising tensions. Above all, they must all accept to abide by the outcome of the elections. The only winner in these elections should be the Federal Republic of Nigeria. For all the candidates and their parties, irrespective of the outcome, these elections are a call to service.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, PhD is the Chairman of the Governing Council, National Human Rights Commission, Abuja.