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Nigerians Head to the Polls Again for State Elections

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Low turnout expected as voters choose 29 governors and lawmakers for 36 state legislatures.

By: Aly Verjee; Chris Kwaja

On March 9, Nigerians return to the polls to elect governors and state legislators. The balloting follows the presidential elections held February 23, which saw the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, re-elected for another four-year term. USIP’s Chris Kwaja and Aly Verjee discuss how Buhari’s victory may impact the state elections, Nigerians’ seeming disenchantment with voting, and how to avert potential violence.

How will President Buhari’s re-election affect the state elections?

Kwaja: President Buhari’s victory may impact the state elections in two ways. First, the confidence of members of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has been bolstered. Many see an opportunity to build on the gains made in the February presidential and National Assembly elections. At the same time, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has seen a number of defections, as opportunistic politicians join the bandwagon of the president’s victory.

Verjee: Some of the competitive energy that would have carried over to the state elections if the presidential results had been closer seems to have dissipated. Those voters who sought change through the presidential election—and who now know that Buhari will most likely continue for another term, barring an unprecedented ruling by the courts to overturn the declared results—may be discouraged from further participation. At the same time, as we noted in January, independent of the politics of the center, and irrespective of the outcome of the presidential race, “there is no ‘single story’ about Nigeria’s 2019 elections.” Each state’s election features its own intrigues and idiosyncrasies.

Turnout in the presidential vote was a record low for Nigeria. What does this say about citizen engagement in national politics?

Verjee: Despite the stakes in the presidential race, the possibility of electoral apathy was apparent for months. As one person said to USIP researchers in March 2018, more Lagosians voted in the popular television show “Big Brother” than in the 2015 elections. That analysis was reaffirmed in 2019: Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous state, recorded the lowest voter turnout in the country, with fewer than 20 percent of voters casting ballots.

But at about 35 percent nationwide, turnout was not much better elsewhere. Overall, this is Nigeria’s lowest rate of electoral participation since the restoration of democracy in 1999. While the last-minute delay to the start of the presidential polls and some weaknesses in electoral administration no doubt contributed to poor turnout, more fundamental factors of political alienation and citizen scepticism may also be at work. As we observed in our September 2018 Special Report previewing the elections:

Some respondents suggest the electorate is sufficiently disappointed that voter apathy will be greater in 2019 than in 2015, with the unifying narrative of change that helped elect the APC in 2015 much less compelling as a factor in mobilizing the electorate, and perceptions that another defeat of the presidential incumbent is less likely to happen in 2019.

If voters could not be bothered to show up for the presidential race, the presumption now is that the March state elections may well struggle to even match the low rate of participation of the February polls.

Should Nigerians and Nigeria-watchers be concerned about electoral violence in the state elections? What can be done?

Kwaja: While Nigerians and the international community tend to focus on presidential elections, that view risks overlooking how consequential undercurrents at the state and local levels are in shaping national polls. In some states, the potential for violence in state elections is higher. For some Nigerians, the lower-level races appear closer to the people, and therefore have higher stakes.

In our September 2018 report, we noted that the stage for violence could be set by the inability of political parties to consolidate their internal structures and effectively resolve intraparty rivalries. Today, there’s a continuing absence of institutionalized mechanisms for managing conflicts within the parties. This deficiency, coupled with the inability of state governments to create robust structures for peacebuilding, sustains conflicts and insecurity. Only Adamawa, Kaduna and Plateau states have formal peacebuilding institutions. While a standing peacebuilding body is no guarantee of success in mitigating electoral violence, habitually resorting to reactive, ad hoc approaches to peacebuilding is not sustainable nor effective.

Verjee: What concerns me is that the state elections could provide further fertile ground to cultivate political grievances, which could be exacerbated if citizens feel there is no point in even participating in the process. Although definitions of election violence understandably focus on the immediate incidents arising from the electoral process, the more insidious, long-term consequences of electoral discontent should also be considered in the determination of the future risks of conflict.

How can communities be supported to mitigate electoral violence arising from the state elections?

Kwaja: Traditional, religious and other civic leaders are critical voices to harness and encourage. By speaking out against people and groups with violent tendencies, such moderating voices may serve as localized counter-forces. Properly supported, they could have an effect comparable to that of the national peace committee, comprised of eminent personalities including the former Nigerian head of state, Abdulasalami Abubakar, and church leaders John Cardinal Onaiyekan and Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. Still, no single solution can work in every state. Determining how to redeem the important currency of civic resilience must be done by working hand-in-hand with the communities that have the most to lose to the merchants of hate and violence.

Chris Kwaja is a USIP senior advisor and a senior lecturer and researcher at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola, Nigeria. Aly Verjee is a visiting expert at USIP.