Nigeria, the most populated country in the African continent, has been plagued with substantial election violence for decades since it became a democracy in 1999 after 33 years of nearly-uninterrupted military rule. Elections in the end of February showed that cyclical violence persists in Nigeria, standing in the way of true democracy and turning polling locations into bloodbaths, in some cases.
Through the years, causes for violence on election days have become rooted in deep feuds between political parties and religious groups. Specifically, Nigeria is broken fairly evenly into a predominantly-Muslim North and predominantly-Christian South, and these groups fight for political control each election cycle.
This year, the two main presidential candidates, from an official pool of over 70 challengers, were Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, of the All Progressives Congress and People’s Democratic Party, respectively. The former focused on health and safety issues, while the latter ran on a largely-economic platform while vehemently denying rampant rumors of corruption.
Before the election, groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) predicted less militance during the 2019 election, since both Buhari and Abubakar come from the Muslim North. However, perhaps the sheer commonality of election violence in the past made this year no exception to the bloody reality of Nigeria’s democratic process.
For context, according to the CFR, 1 in every 4 Africans is Nigerian, making the effect of Nigerian politics and policy huge for the entire continent, politically, socially and economically. In recent years, due to plummeting oil prices and inability to recover from the 2008 economic recession, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to a dismal 23.1%, according to the latest report in 2018 by the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics. Additionally, as reported by the CFR, the country has the greatest population of individuals living on under $1.90 per day, at nearly 90 million.
Consequently, Nigeria’s continental influence, economic turmoil and violent conflict largely precipitated by the insurgent militant group Boko Haram, which has resulted in around 30,000 deaths and displacement of 2,000,000 Nigerian citizens, all serve as catalysts for tension that culminates in election bloodshed. Systematic corruption in Nigeria’s political sphere has also attributed to violence and unfair elections for as long as elections have existed in the nation.
This year’s elections, in which citizens voted upon both parliamentary positions and the presidency, immediately found tension thanks to multiple postponements, one just 5 hours before polls were scheduled to open. In these cases, the government cited vague “logistical reasons,” according to CNN.
As in prior years, violence surrounded the elections from the beginning. At least 4 people died in a stampede during a rally for candidate Muhammadu Buhari on February 12, and 3 people were stabbed in a confrontation between opposing party members at an All Progressives Congress party rally in January.
As for the election day itself, the New York Times reported that at least 39 people had been killed in political clashes as of February 25, a number much higher than original reports coming out of local sources in Nigeria.
To name a few instances, six civilians, one soldier and an election worker died in a shootout in Rivers State, where multiple election workers and police officers were also taken hostage. Also, the populous city of Lagos saw chaos amid the election, with shots fired and ballot boxes set on fire at multiple polling locations.
The results of the election, as reported by the New York Times, saw Buhari reelected. Immediately, Abubakar and his supporters rejected the results, claiming a rigged election due to voter intimidation and logistical downfalls, both of which also contributed to dismal voter turnout, Nigeria’s lowest in 20 years.
Unfortunately, there is no certain way to determine the legitimacy of the 2019 election’s results, but no more clarity or certainty will be achieved in Nigeria’s future elections as long as violent political tension persists throughout the country. Thus, sadly, the cycle of bloodshed on Nigerian election days continued in February 2019 with no end in sight.