With Surprise Nigerian Election Delay, Civil Society Promotes Peace

By Jennifer Brookland

February 12, 2015

On the heels of a surprise announcement that postponed Nigeria’s hotly anticipated elections by six weeks due to insecurity in the North, local groups are working hard to prevent an escalation in violence and a loss of national confidence.

They could be effective in mitigating electoral violence among political rivals or inspired by sectarian interests, according to Jeff Fischer, Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International.

But good outcomes are far from guaranteed.

“Having impact requires participation by the competing civic society sectarian interests,” Fischer says: Muslims, Christians, and various ethnic groups, for example. “Where civil society would not have an impact is in the electoral violence caused by Boko Haram, which would be unresponsive to any civil society initiatives.”

Boko Haram, and the havoc it has wreaked in Northern Nigeria and now its neighbors, is the stated cause of the elections delay: Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Attahiru Jega announced the postponement after security officials stated a six-week counterinsurgency operation in Borno, Yobe, Adamowa and Gombe States was necessary before troops could guarantee the safety of voters, election officials and volunteers there.

“It’s a psychological and political victory for Boko Haram,” said Pauline Baker, President Emeritus of The Fund for Peace.

Doubters in and outside of the country were quick to point out alternatives to the state’s explanation that insecurity drove the decision.

Challenger Muhammadu Buhari’s political party, All Progressives Congress, accused the government of using security as a pretext for delays that would benefit Jonathan. Other theories insinuate that the postponement is a ploy to stall elections until Jega steps down, or to set the stage for an interim government that would allow Jonathan to remain in office.

As conspiracy theories ripple through Nigeria as to the reasons behind the decision and its political consequences, experts say civil society groups and the media have another role to play beyond promoting peace: dialing down Nigeria’s infamous rumor mill.

“The role these organizations play in mitigating misinformation is growing,” said Eniola Mafe, Program Manager at the Niger Delta Partnership Initiative Foundation.

Beyond increasing transparency and holding electoral institutions accountable, Mafe said these organizations can also “engage with communities physically and online in order to bridge that important communications gap.”

Celebrities and civil society on a mission

Several of the civil society groups active in preventing violence in this year’s vote were set up prior to the last presidential election in 2011—which resulted in around 800 deaths.

The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, which was created in 2010 to address electoral problems and challenges, now coalesces 63 organizations to share election-related information, anticipate problems and rapidly respond.

The Enough is Enough Nigeria Coalition traces its birth to a 2010 speech by internationally-recognized economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala that challenged the 70 percent of Nigeria’s population that is under the age of 30 to take charge of their futures by advocating for good governance and public accountability.

Flashier actors than they are promoting the nonviolence message as well.

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Civil society groups and celebrities and stepping up the call for nonviolence as a surprise election delay heightens tensions. Photo by David Snyder

Celebrities and young activists joined a documentary project launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Republican Institute called Dreams4Naija, which profiles youth in Nigeria and their hopes for the future.

Iconic Nigerian singer, songwriter and producer “2Face” Idibia launched a Vote Not Fight campaign with the Youngstars Foundation, the National Democratic Institute and other partners, making pledges of nonviolence “cooler” with a theme song in two languages including Hausa, most commonly spoken in the North.

A campaign video calls on people—especially youth—to set the agenda for their futures instead of letting local “big men” and politicians shape the agenda by inciting violence. Nearly 7,675 have submitted the online pledge to remain peaceful so far.

U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria James Entwistle has been personally calling for nonviolent elections in talks with leaders and celebrities by asking them to take a public pledge to avoid using violence and to stop it if it arises.

And at the highest level, Nigeria’s 11 presidential candidates agreed to a non-violence policy in the presence of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in January 2015, including incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and his primary opponent Muhammadu Buhari.

“The nonviolence pledge is a start,” says Fischer, “but its effectiveness depends upon enforcement of the pledge and penalties for breaking it.”

Coordinating for peace amidst escalated violence

Enforced or not, this promise of nonviolence may not trickle down to the masses, especially those living in remote areas with weak social contracts with the state, according to Mafe.

“Youth have a lot to gain but find themselves in a very vulnerable position,” she said, pointing out that organizations working for nonviolence need to look to young people at the fringes, and continue using celebrities and social media to reach them.

Fischer points out that INEC has recruited youth as poll workers in order to dampen their vulnerability to being recruited to commit acts of electoral violence.

A similar initiative in 2011 led to young people being targeted and killed as they volunteered at the polls.

These young people need to be reached with quick-impact projects, suggested Patricia Taft, a Program Director with the Fund for Peace. She said besides initiatives such as job training and community-oriented projects, civil society and the media needed more support to carry out voter education and nonviolent messaging.

According to Mafe, Nigerian civil society needs much better coordination and communication if they are to succeed in the critical task of contributing to peace rather than violence.

“One key thing I’ve been hearing is that there needs to be a coordination between all these organizations,” Mafe said. “Discussion between them doesn’t always happen.”

Growing urgency of the call for nonviolence

As many of these organizations focus on their own missions and fail to coordinate with each other, experts pointed out worrisome signs that the peace many are calling for may prove elusive this time around.

Taft presented data that showed levels of violence across the country have been higher this year than they were in the run-up to the 2011 presidential election, when about 800 people were killed.

Baker noted an exodus of Southerners who were returning from residences in the country’s North—a demographic shift she says is ominously reminiscent of the lead-up to the Biafran war in the 1960s.

Boko Haram has stepped up attacks on Nigeria’s neighbors in Cameroon and Niger. The African Union is considering sending up to 8,750 troops to combat the group. The announcement postponing the vote came on the eve of the 300-day anniversary of the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls from a secondary school in Borno State; 219 remain in captivity.

Political violence could easily result with cajoling from local actors dissatisfied with the eventual outcome of the national election, and Buhari’s party has threatened to establish a parallel government in the event of an election defeat that seems manipulated.

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