In 2015, Nigeria held elections that were widely expected to lead to large-scale violence. The risk derived in part from the country’s severe regional tensions, which included the religious and political cleavage between the North and the South, as well as the long-standing turbulence in the Niger Delta region, where militants warned they would take up arms if President Goodluck Jonathan did not win. More dangerous still was the insurgency of Boko Haram, which threatened to disrupt the “pagan practice” of elections.
The risk of violence also derived from the nature of governance and electoral politics in Nigeria. Elections in that country suffer from a “do-or-die” pathology, with too much political power, economic opportunity, and ethnic patronage accruing to the winners. In 2015, as in the previous election, a worst-case scenario was that the losing party would refuse to concede defeat and some of the losing constituencies would erupt into violence.
As it turned out, an estimated 160 people were killed but the anticipated mass violence did not occur. The election was widely acclaimed as a success. It was won by the opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) led by Muhammadu Buhari, marking the first peaceful transfer of power since Nigeria’s transition from military to civilian rule in 1999.
The absence of large-scale violence was due primarily to the restraint exercised by Nigerian political actors and to the conflict management roles played by Nigerian institutions, chiefly the National Human Rights Commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission, and the National Peace Committee (NPC). The decisive factor in ensuring peace was President Jonathan’s decision to concede defeat promptly when it became clear he had lost the presidential election.
International organizations, African states, and foreign powers played supportive roles in preventing violence. The United Nations engaged in discreet preventive diplomacy and, alongside donor countries, provided funding and technical expertise for the elections and the NPC. Significantly, all the external actors spoke with one voice in pressing for free and fair elections and refrained from providing partisan support to any of the Nigerian political parties.
The most influential institution in managing conflict and preventing violence was the NPC, an ad hoc group formed a few months before the election. It was chaired by a former Nigerian head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, and included prominent Christian and Muslim religious leaders. The Kukah Centre, headed by Bishop Matthew Kukah, served as the secretariat.
In the run-up to the election, there was acute tension between the APC and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by President Jonathan. Some of their leaders were making inflammatory statements and appealing to ethnicity as a means of mobilizing support. In this context, the NPC facilitated dialogue and reduced tension between the parties, addressed allegations of electoral misconduct, discouraged negative campaign tactics, and engaged in troubleshooting in local hot spots. Early in the electoral campaign, the committee was able to get all the political parties to sign a code of conduct known as the Abuja Accord. The parties thereby pledged to accept the results of the elections and desist from provoking violence. They also agreed to avoid religious incitement and ethnic or tribal profiling, and to accept the mandate of the NPC to monitor adherence to the Accord.
As the electoral campaign intensified, however, the sense of crisis and imminent explosion mounted. Just two days before the poll, therefore, the NPC convened a meeting between Jonathan and Buhari in order to get them to renew their pledge to respect the results. The meeting was extremely acrimonious but it succeeded in letting off steam and clarifying misunderstandings. It concluded with the two leaders signing an agreement on “Renewal of our Pledges.” This agreement heightened public confidence in the poll, sent a clear message to the members of political parties, and provided a basis for holding their leaders accountable in the event of violence breaking out.
Foreign observers and UN officials applauded the crucial prevention role of the NPC. This was also true of Nigerian political leaders. The PDP chairperson referred to the NPC as the “watchdog for peaceful and credible elections.” Responding to concerns raised by the NPC, he acknowledged publicly that there were problems in the PDP’s campaign and undertook to investigate misconduct. The APC chairperson similarly praised the NPC, describing it as the “most influential body at the most critical time.” He pledged publicly to put an end to inappropriate campaigning and to advocate nonviolence among the party’s supporters.
It is uncertain whether the successful election of 2015 will serve as a positive precedent for the next election in 2019. The potential for a major crisis and large-scale violence remains high because the risk factors have not diminished. The challenge to the NPC is to become a standing institution that extends its scope to include the local level and reinforces its capacity for effective conflict early warning and preventive action.
Laurie Nathan is Director of the Mediation Program, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies