The deaths and violence that trailed the 2019 elections on Saturday left a sour taste in the mouth. It was both demoralising and embarrassing. This was an ordinary election that most countries organise without any violence.
Before the end of voting on Saturday, media reports showed that as many as 40 people could have been killed. Different sources reported that as many as 30 could have been killed in Rivers State. Three were killed in Kogi State; two were killed in Bayelsa State; two were killed in Delta State; and one was killed in Oyo State. The dead included civilians shot by soldiers, civilians shot by political thugs, and politicians shot by political thugs and unknown assassins. One was said to be an ad hoc electoral officer recruited from the National Youth Service Corps.
However, the death that was most touching was that of the 19-year-old Daniel Usman, a student of Kogi State University, who was reportedly shot dead while voting for the first time. Hours before his death, he had made a post on Facebook which read thus:
“Vote and not fight!
Respect Yourself and stay out of trouble…
GOD BLESS NIGERIA.”
In Lagos State, thugs invaded areas that are dominated by another ethnic group and destroyed electoral materials, telling the voters to go back to their states of origin to vote. In Akwa Ibom, electoral officers were abducted; many of them were members of the NYSC.
An election, which was supposed to be like football match, turned out to be a war in which opposing groups engaged each other in gun battles. Thank God for the ubiquity of camera phones, some of the scenes were recorded and uploaded on the Internet, helping to give authenticity to the claims.
Over the weekend, Senegal conducted its election too. But there were no reports of deaths.
Before the elections, there had been violence and deaths during the campaigns in some parts of the nation. Political opponents and their supporters were blamed for this.
The high violence in these elections has its foundations in the example set by the leading candidates. During the build-up to the 2015 elections, the incumbent President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, helped to douse tension with his words and actions. He said: “My ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian.” He repeated this on different occasions. He also warned politicians repeatedly not to rig for him, adding that he would not interfere with the elections and would concede defeat if he lost. His message was consistent all through the campaign period. And during the collation of results when Elder Goddey Orubebe, who was the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, contested the results, and shouted repeatedly, “We will not take it,” he sounded out of tune with his principal. It was obvious that he was reprimanded in private after that drama.
Jonathan eventually lost that election, which was the first time an incumbent President lost an election in Nigeria. In line with his promise, he conceded defeat. He did not even wait for the whole results to be released before calling his challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, and conceding defeat. He did not stop there. He barred anyone from fighting for him. Even the different Niger Delta militants groups, who were his kinsmen, who had been spoiling for a fight, did not see a reason to start any crisis. Jonathan also refused to contest the result in court like other presidential candidates, especially Buhari, before him had done.
All these efforts from Jonathan ensured that the 2015 election was not bloody as feared, and there was no violence after the result was announced. Those who felt disappointed did not know how to start any problem when the man they wanted to fight for was insisting that he did not want to be fought for. So the efforts that made the 2015 elections peaceful were not accidental – they were deliberate and systematic.
The 2019 elections have not benefited from that. Even though the opposition candidate, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku of the Peoples Democratic Party, had repeated Jonathan’s comment that his ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian, the commitment to peace that carries more weight is that from the incumbent, who is in control of all forces of coercion and security. There was no clear-cut commitment that the elections would not be a do-or-die affair. The impression one got was that all effort was put in place to ensure that the incumbent was returned by all means possible. That message trickled down, and manifested in the attempts made by security agents and political thugs to intimidate voters.
The President might not have sent anyone to intimidate others, but because of the zealousness of people to ensure victory for him, many could have crossed the line to ensure victory in their locality, so as to be seen as politically relevant and valuable. There was no repeated and insistent statement from Buhari urging his supporters and security agents that this election was not a do-or-die one. Even on Election Day when Buhari was asked by journalists if he would congratulate his opponent in the event of a loss, he did not give such a commitment; rather he responded that he would congratulate himself after the election, because he would win.
The desperation to win a second term by incumbents is one reason why it would pay Nigeria better to practise the one-term policy for those in the Executive arm of government like the President, state governors, and the local government council chairmen. Since the incumbents will not be contesting for re-election, they may be less desperate to get the elections sway their way. Secondly, they will pay more attention to governance and less attention on campaigning and politicking.
The level of violence in this year’s elections is a reminder of the post-election violence of 2011. In those elections, members of the NYSC, who worked as ad hoc staff, were targeted and killed, in some parts of the North. Other people were also killed in that riot by those who saw that the results did not go their way and, therefore, believed that the presidential election was rigged against their candidate. INEC employs the services of members of the NYSC because it is cheap labour for them. But it has shown that it is a dangerous exercise for these young graduates who are engaged in the mandatory one-year service to their fatherland. No parent will feel happy to train a child from primary school through the university only to have that child killed while rendering some service to the fatherland.
That the soldiers and police deployed to keep the peace in these elections could not stop thugs from intimidating voters, burning voting materials and even killing voters in different parts of the nation is unfortunate. The huge amount of money spent on the elections looked wasted given the huge loss of lives recorded so far. It was a big disappointment. This failure will encourage more thugs to disrupt future elections in areas where they believe they will lose, so as to reduce the number of votes of their opponents.
Another consequence of this violence is that the winner of the 2019 presidential election will feel like someone who has secured a pyrrhic victory. It feels like an election in which human beings have been sacrificed on an altar to appease a god and make it easy for safe passage as seen in myths and legends.
The life of Nigerians should be made to be of high value. The government should make this clear and put it in practice. The security agents should be made to act this out. Citizens should be made to understand and imbibe it that human life is worth more than anything, including an election. That also means that victory in our elections should no longer be as lucrative as it currently is.