NIGERIA: SOCIAL AND SECURITY RISKS RISE AS ELECTION CONTEST ENTERS CRITICAL PHASE
As Nigeria prepares to hold elections early next year, the political contest has become increasingly heated, with both the country’s foremost political parties experiencing a public backlash over their choice of candidates. At the same time, escalating attacks by Islamist militants and bandits, inter-communal ethnic and religious violence, and the activity of separatist rebels all threaten to undermine the credibility of the election.
On 25 February 2023, Nigeria will hold general elections at the federal level against a backdrop of growing militancy, inter-communal conflict, and rising socio-economic risks. Despite the signing of a peace accord by the 18 political parties contesting the election, since the start of the campaigning period in October, at least four people have been killed in over 50 violent election-related incidents recorded across the country. Notably, on 9 November at least one person was killed and 74 people wounded when a large group of people attacked the convoy of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, in Maiduguri, Borno state.
There is a high likelihood that such incidents will lead to reciprocal cycles of violence between rival party supporters over the coming weeks and months. At the same time, leading political candidates have increasingly adopted divisive language, threatening to exacerbate ongoing episodes of ethnic and religious inter-communal violence in many areas of the country. Bandits, secessionist rebels, and Islamist militant groups, are also likely to escalate attacks to disrupt the election, including on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) offices, employees, and voting sites.
PANGEA-RISK assesses the political and security outlook ahead of the election.
Intra-party divisions threaten to undermine political campaigns
The election is shaping up to be a close contest. Despite the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) having secured victory in the last two elections, the results of opinion polls conducted in September by Bloomberg and the ANAP Foundation favour Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate, Peter Obi, by a notable margin to the APC’s Bola Tinubu and the PDP’s Abubakar. While Obi has no doubt become increasingly popular since his defection from the PDP in May, the LP has performed relatively poorly in the last two presidential and legislative elections. Nonetheless, while the accuracy of polls conducted four months out from the vote should be viewed with scepticism, this outcome matches with a broad sense that voters have become deeply frustrated with the country’s two major political parties (see NIGERIA: TWO-PARTY POLITICAL GODFATHERS SEEK PRESIDENTIAL POWER AT 2023 ELECTIONS).
In particular, the PDP has suffered a loss of support deriving from internal fractures, revolving in large part over the party’s choice of presidential candidate. Abubakar was born in Adawama state, northern Nigeria, and many within the PDP have argued that the party ought to have chosen a representative from the south for this election, in line with a long-standing party custom to rotate the leadership. Furthermore, the appointment of Iyorchia Ayu as PDP National Chairman has provoked similar frustrations, given that Ayu and Abubakar are both from the north.
This situation appears to have alienated the party’s southern branches, and to some extent explains Obi’s growing popularity, which has been most pronounced in Nigeria’s southern states. In late November, the PDP governors of Abia, Benue, Enugu, Oyo, and Rivers states in southern Nigeria announced the formation of a new internal coalition, named the Integrity Group (also known as the G-5). The new faction is headed by Rivers state governor Nyesom Wike, who narrowly lost to Abubakar in the PDP presidential primary earlier in the year (see NIGERIA: RUNNING MATE SELECTIONS UPSET 2023 CAMPAIGNS AS INFLATION CONTINUES TO RISE). Wike has since indicated that he intends to support presidential candidates from other parties, pledging “logistical support” for Obi, as well as for Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples’ Party (NNPP).
At the same time, while the APC won the last two elections, popular support for the party has fallen significantly since 2019 due to deteriorating security conditions across the country, as well as growing socio-economic grievances. Moreover, President Muhammadu Buhari will not run for another term, raising doubts over the APC’s next candidate can match his popular appeal. The nomination of Bola Tinubu and Kashim Shettima as president and vice-president, respectively, has also generated significant controversy across Nigeria due to both leaders being Muslim. Many both within and outside of the APC view this as a violation of the convention that the country’s two most senior leaders should each represent one of Nigeria’s two major religions: Islam and Christianity. This has already damaged the party’s prospects, as Christian community leaders in the north have called for a boycott of the APC over the “Muslim-Muslim” ticket.
Risk of inter-communal and political violence
For the first time, the three leading presidential candidates will each come from a different major ethnic group: Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa/Fulani. As such, with both the PDP and APC aware of their vulnerable positions, the election period has seen a resurgence of divisive rhetoric, as leading candidates have attempted to mobilise supporters along ethnic lines. This in turn has driven hostile responses from “rival” ethnic groups, who have interpreted such efforts as a potential threat. For instance, shortly after PDP leader Abubakar publicly highlighted his Fulani ethnicity, in early November the PDP governor of Benue state, Samuel Ortom, accused the presidential candidate of supporting Fulani ethnic militias in his state. Deadly armed confrontations between Fulani herders and farmers over access to grazing land and water in Benue state have become increasingly frequent in recent years, driving ethnic tensions.
The APC’s choice of two candidates of the same faith also adds to the threat that the election will become defined as a contest based chiefly on religious identity. Indeed, many Christian communities have expressed fears that an exclusively Muslim leadership will encourage the persecution of Christians. At least seven attacks on churches have been recorded this year in Nigeria, including an attack on 5 June on a church in Owo, Ondo state, in which over 40 people were killed (see NIGERIA: GOVERNMENT FACES DIVERSE AND SERIOUS INSECURITY AHEAD OF 2023 ELECTIONS). Given this, there is particular concern that the run-up to the election will be marked by increased violence between Christian and Muslim communities.
Security threats predominate
While episodes of inter-communal violence are an evident concern, the main threat to the elections derives from the activity of non-state armed groups. In the north-east of the country, Islamist militant groups, including Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Jamāʿatu Anṣāril Muslimīna fī Bilādis Sūdān (known as Ansaru), have overtly expressed their opposition to democracy. During previous electoral cycles, these groups have significantly escalated attacks in order to disrupt election proceedings, including by targeting election workers and voting stations. In particular, Boko Haram and ISWAP are likely to intensify attacks on security forces and government targets in order to isolate rural communities, as well as to discourage broader turnout by undermining faith in the authorities’ ability to secure the election process.
Similarly, bandit groups in the north-central and north-western states have threatened to kidnap political candidates in order to extract ransoms. Bandits are also likely to interfere with the movement of INEC personnel and election materials along critical routes, such as the Abuja-Kaduna highway, which is regularly subjected to bandit attacks. On 5 December, the rail service between Abuja and Kaduna resumed under heavy security following a militant/bandit attack on the railway line eights months previously (see NIGERIA: MAJOR ATTACKS IN KADUNA STATE SIGNAL ESCALATION OF SECURITY CRISIS). While these groups have not overtly expressed their opposition to the election, given growing evidence of co-operation between bandit groups and Islamist militants, there is a growing likelihood that they will escalate attacks during the election period in line with the Islamists’ anti-democratic objectives (see NIGERIA: THREAT OF SOPHISTICATED TERROR ATTACKS RISES AHEAD OF 2023 ELECTIONS).
In south-eastern Nigeria, the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), have signalled their readiness to interfere with the elections to obtain political leverage. IPOB/ESN has previously threatened to disrupt past election cycles by enforcing a “stay-at-home” order in Nigeria’s south-eastern states in order to secure prisoner releases. The group has also directly threatened INEC officials, election candidates, and voters, indicating a willingness to use violence to prevent elections from proceeding.
Political violence is also driven by the activity of criminal groups, who are contracted by local politicians to disrupt election proceedings in their opponents’ strongholds, or even to attack rival political leaders. Such incidents have escalated since the start of November. For instance, the attack on Abubakar on 9 November appears to fit this pattern. Moreover, on 10 November, an INEC office in Abeokuta South, Ogun state, was set alight by an unidentified group of people, resulting in the destruction of 70,000 biometric voter IDs as well as an array of other election materials. A similar attack was reported on the same day on an INEC office in Oke-Iresi, Osun state.
An escalation of violence in the coming months will likely compromise the credibility of the election result. Significant numbers of people are likely to be dissuaded from turning out to vote due to mounting insecurity, particularly in the north, which typically has a higher turnout than the southern provinces. Moreover, escalating violence has generated millions of internally displaced people (IDPs), a significant portion of whom will be unable to vote. As such, the election result is increasingly likely to be challenged in the wake of the vote, heightening the prospects for post-election violence. Similarly, any delays to the election as a result of security challenges is likely to drive cycles of political violence, with supporters of rival political leaders likely to perceive any postponement as a signal of political interference.
There is a heightened risk of civil unrest, terrorism, and political and inter-communal violence in Nigeria as the country prepares to hold elections in February 2023. Islamist militants, separatist rebels, and bandit groups are likely to escalate attacks ahead of the polls, including the direct targeting of election workers and voting stations. The run-up to the election is also likely to see an increase in inter-communal ethnic violence and confrontations between supporters of rival political parties. The risk of confrontations between Christian and Muslim communities will also increase in the event of an APC victory, given that the APC has run two Muslims on its presidential ticket. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the new administration will be able to rapidly resolve Nigeria’s security, economic, and social issues. Rising inflation and slowing economic growth will present persistent challenges, while falling crude oil revenues are compromising Nigeria’s ability to meet its debt obligations.
- President Muhammadu Buhari of the ruling APC party will step down after serving his second and final term in office in May 2023. However, the February 2023 election contest has become increasingly defined along ethnic and religious fault lines, raising the likelihood that large numbers of Nigerians will reject the result, and threatening to drive incidents of political violence both before and after the polls. In particular, the APC’s decision to run two Muslim candidates on the presidential ticket has provoked a significant public backlash. Despite well-crafted comprehensive manifestos, based on the track record of recent years, it is unclear whether any of the leading candidates will be able to implement a strategy to address Nigeria’s multitude of political, economic, and security crises.
- Nigeria’s security environment will almost certainly deteriorate even further into 2023. Islamist militants have demonstrated a growing capability to project force beyond the north-east and north-central parts of the country, including into the capital, Abuja, and are likely to escalate attacks ahead of the February 2023 election. Similarly, bandit groups in the north-west have grown in capability, and are increasingly co-ordinating with Islamists. In the south-east, separatist rebels and criminal groups are likely to continue to target the security forces and the oil and gas industry. Episodes of inter-communal violence will likely be exacerbated by the February 2023 election. The threat of civil unrest will likely peak during the election, but protests in major urban centres will continue to be driven by a range of other socio-economic and socio-political issues.
- Nigeria’s economic outlook shows few signals of improvement, as late 2022 was marked by a steady rise in inflation stoked by excessive central bank lending, a slow-down in economic growth, and falling FDI inflows. An anticipated currency devaluation following the February 2023 election will likely sustain a high inflation rate, hampering growth as Nigerian consumers rein in spending. Falling crude oil production has cut into the country’s foreign exchange revenues, increasing the government’s reliance on borrowing to fund critical projects. While debt levels are judged to be currently sustainable, the debt service to revenue ratio is high, creating a significant degree of vulnerability to shocks. To fund its expansive election budget into 2023, more domestic and external borrowing will be required despite concerns over affordability.