BY Adebobola Omowon JP., Executive Director, Wide Gate Initiative for Peace and Dispute Resolution
With less than a week to the Nigerian Presidential elections, the postponement of the election is more likely than the election proceeding. Pockets of violence have been witnessed in various parts of the country as the Nigerian government battles with insurgency in the Northern part of the country and a growing separatist militia in the Southeastern part of the country. There are pointers that show that chaos could be looming if certain steps are not taken immediately. The current population of Nigeria is 220,046,124 as of February 11, 2023, based on interpolation of the latest United Nations data and Nigeria ranks number 7th in the world by population, in the list of 235 countries/territories. This can explain why so many are concerned about what happens in Nigeria and making sure that conflict in such a populous country is prevented at all costs.
Following Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the nation’s democracy halted prematurely as conflicts erupted, later culminating in a Civil war from 1967 to 1970. While the Civil War ended with the declaration of “No Victor, No Vanquished,” proper reconciliation did not take place, but rather, a suppression of the history of the civil war was witnessed. This has over the years given the different parties to the war a chance to tell their own stories, each in their own way from generation to generation, breeding resentment and making way for a latent ethnic conflict. The virus of ethnic sectarianism has been one of the most definitive causes of social crisis, injustice, inequality, and religio-political instability in Nigeria. Nigeria is marked by underlying ethnic cleavages and inter-ethnic fears and tensions, hence a bellicose nation.
MULTI-PRONGED REASONS FOR POSSIBLE CHAOS— EARLY WARNING SIGNS:
The 2023 presidential election in Nigeria is a peculiar one. Out of all the political parties contending, the three major and leading political parties have their candidates from the three major ethnic groups there are in Nigeria (Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba tribes). This has heightened the ethnic tensions and divided the election support base, primarily along ethnic lines. Although the federal government often stresses the need for the citizens to put national interest above ethnic and religious considerations, there is no politician in Nigeria who will win an election without the support of the members of his or her ethnic nationality.
For the Yoruba people of the Southwestern part of Nigeria where one of the presidential candidates comes from, the election holds very high stakes. They see this candidate, Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu, as an influential son that has risen, following former Nigerian finance minister (one of the most loved and brightest Yoruba politicians), Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and another influential Yoruba son, MKO Abiola.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo had contested and lost the bid to become Nigeria’s president, one which many Yorubas believe he was robbed of on various occasions (in 1979 and 1983 when he contested to be president). In Nigeria’s early independence stage, following a power tussle that shook the Southwestern part of Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was arrested in 1962, then was tried and convicted in 1963. Thirty years later, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola contested and won convincingly the presidential election of June 12, 1993, yet the election was annulled by the military government of that period. Abiola was later arrested and died in prison. This February, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and undisputedly the most influential political godfather in Nigeria now, is seeking to end that record. This is another 30-year cycle, where Tinubu, contesting to be president of Nigeria is being closely observed. The talk among many Yoruba people is the readiness that this time, they will give all it takes to make sure the ’30-year cycle jinx’ is broken.
In the Southeastern part of Nigeria, where the Labour Party candidate, Peter Gregory Obi is from, the significance of this election for the Igbo people dates to the civil war. The Igbo people bore the brunt of the civil war in Nigeria, where over a million of them died, many from starvation, hunger, and malnutrition. The introduction of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction by Nigeria after the civil war was copied from the post- American civil war. The actual commitment to walk the talk did not last, as there was no deliberate and intentional effort to truly reconcile the nation. Many Igbo still feel sidelined as since the civil war, no Igbo has become president. This election however has displayed a Southeasterner, Peter Gregory Obi, to be one of the leading candidates, giving hope to the millions of Igbo people who believe an Igbo presidency will amount to justice in the Nigerian system, and are ready to do and give all it takes to ensure their candidate’s emergence.
From the Northern part of Nigeria is the candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the flag bearer of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Many of the Northern governors from the All Progressives Congress (APC) party are openly against him on the grounds that a northerner is about to end an 8-year tenure and they considered it injustice for presidential power to remain in the north. Some have however doubted this open declaration by the Northern APC governors and believe the North will vote for its own. Atiku Abubakar also is no new politician as he has had his eyes on the presidency since 1993. He has kept contesting since he finished his tenure as a vice president to Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007). It is the 76-year-old’s record sixth attempt to occupy the highest office in the land, with three of his previous losses coming at primaries.
The E-War: The carryover of resentments deeply rooted in the Nigerian civil war, have produced a metamorphosis of the ethnic conflicts, posing a dangerous trend and threat on the social media space. This I have called the E-War. The spate of constant hatred, threats and attacks on social media spaces and the psychological war being waged has every coloration of warfare. The persistent War by the different ethnic groups on social media manifests through comments related to the actual events of the civil war. Different comments show a particular perception that each group has about the other groups and perpetuates a form of resentment and common hatred passed down from generation to generation, coated with different stereotypes. These express the polarized nature of the present Nigerian society. The E-Wars have a high chance of leading to physical violence, as evidenced when Nnamdi Kanu, acclaimed leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) used his following on the social media to gain physical followers, stirring a physical conflict that started from the Southeastern part of Nigeria before his arrest in October 2015. He was arrested again in June 2021. The 2020 Nigerian #End Sars protest was also a movement that started from the social media space and was the major use for physical mobilization, instruction, and actions. This was later part of the remote reasons cited when the Nigerian twitter ban in June 2021 took place and the Minister of Information and Culture warned about the dangers of social media for the, “Nigeria’s corporate existence.”
On Misinformation: Still on the usage of the social media, there is a growing and deliberate pattern of misinformation (by all political parties), capable of making the nation implode. Some parties have also conducted polls that have a potential to raise unrealistic expectations which can lead to violence as these results may manipulate voters; creating the impression of a rigged election should any candidate apart from their candidate emerge as the winner. This has the tendency of causing uncertainty and serious widespread conflict.
Lastly is the mostly unspoken part, which is gradually being reignited– the embers from the 2020 Nigerian #EndSars protest. This group feels the end of their 2020 protest was a diktat and an enforced peace and so, they are still embittered. Many of this group, being youth, form the greatest chunk of the online supporters of the candidate from the Southeastern part of Nigeria, seeing their candidate as representing the change from the old order, and a hope for the young. It will be difficult to convince this group otherwise if their candidate does not win, and there may be a high possibility of them heading back to the street since the 2020 protest.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
With a mixture of latent and impending conflicts as explained above, the tensions in this political season are prone to violent conflict if not professionally managed. As an immediate step to make this election conflict free, the Nigerian government should immediately begin to work with/ request that social media platforms monitor and remove false information and fake news. This is possible using AI algorithms and manual fact-checking by social media platforms, devoid of partisanship and in a conflict sensitive way. They should also immediately launch a public education campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of misinformation on social media and the consequences of spreading false information, using different communication channels such as text messages, posters, and community meetings.
Also, the Nigerian government should have meetings with all political parties about their social media pages that update vote counts while the election is ongoing. They should be held responsible for any misinformation they put out on the social media space. The media arm of these political parties should be present and made to sign a binding form, making those responsible for their social media handles liable for arrest, should they intentionally upload false vote counts to misinform the public.
Furthermore, the Nigerian government should take steps to secure polling stations, voting materials, and other sensitive election infrastructure to prevent theft, vandalism, or other forms of disruption. There should also be a rapid response team to handle incidents of election-related violence and to mediate conflicts that may arise. This team should consist of representatives from various ethnic groups, religious leaders, and community leaders of these different polling unit areas. The government must strive to prove, by all means necessary to the public, that the election is free, fair, and transparent during the conduct of this election.
Finally, the actions of the past will always affect the outcomes of the future if nothing is done in the present. Therefore, addressing the latent conflicts buried in history, there must be an intentional effort by the Nigerian government, designed to truly reconcile the nation. This can be done by addressing the residuals of the civil war and other forms of past conflict and ensuring justice and fairness for all ethnic groups. The government should also further address underlying ethnic cleavages by promoting inter-ethnic dialogue, understanding, national unity and integration and encourage citizens to put the national interest above ethnic and religious considerations. This can be done by implementing programs and initiatives aimed at fostering national cohesion and integration.
 Nigeria population 2021 – StatisticsTimes.com
 Can Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s ailing kingmaker, win the presidency? | Elections | Al Jazeera
 Remembering Nigeria’s Biafra war that many prefer to forget – BBC News