Elections in Nigeria, especially in the Fourth Republic, are nothing if not contentious. They are frequently under the spectre of potential violence. It is becoming increasingly clear that violence is proving to be an effective means of voter intimidation and is driving low turnout. The 2019 general elections recorded the lowest turnout in the last four election cycles – stretching back to 2003. The governorship elections that followed two weeks on from the presidential elections were even worse.

Violence has been legitimised as a tool for keeping turnout poor in opposition areas. Pre-existing violence makes electoral violence significantly more fatal – for example, while the North-Central – bedevilled by underlying security issues including the Pastoral Conflict and a rising spate of kidnappings – accounted for 15% of all electoral incidents in the 2019 general elections, it made up 22% of the fatality count. The state votes that followed the last general election cycle – Bayelsa and Kogi – generally followed the same pattern of violent rises cycle-on-cycle. In Bayelsa, the presence of entrenched and politically connected gangs accelerated the scale of electoral violence. The fear of the opposition flipping Kogi, which has a governor who is very close to the President led to a bitterly fought electoral campaign on both sides.

Election sponsored violence reached such a crescendo that the United States imposed visa restrictions on key political actors in both states. There are also indications that an atmosphere of violence also provides a conducive environment for other nefarious electoral activities to thrive. 48% of respondents to a 2019 SBM survey said they had indeed heard of incidents of vote-buying during the last elections in the areas where they voted.

Ahead of the 19 September 2020 elections for governor, Edo State in South-South Nigeria is proving to be no different. The All Progressives Congress candidate, Osagie Ize-Iyamu and the incumbent, Godwin Obaseki of the Peoples Democratic Party, had swapped parties, and are now redoing the 2016 election under different umbrellas. Mr Obaseki had left the APC for the PDP following his disqualification from participating in the party primary that produced Mr Ize-Iyamu as the party’s candidate. The APC had alleged that Mr Obaseki’s disqualification bordered on discrepancies in his certificates.

Violence in the 2020 cycle

Violence, or the fear of violence, affects voter turnout. The stakes in this cycle appear higher, as Mr Obaseki is taking on not just Mr Ize-Iyamu, but his predecessor, Adams Oshiomhole whose support was crucial in making him governor. As often happens, the godfather-godson relationship has gone sour, prompting Mr Obaseki to move to the PDP, while Mr Ize-Iyamu, once sharply criticised by Mr Oshiomhole, claimed the APC ticket. The divided loyalties as a result of these events have led to a heightened level of competition in the state, as elections approach.

Prior to a peace meeting at the Oba of Benin’s palace, thugs said to be loyal to the PDP and APC, clashed on 25 July at the entrance gate of the Palace. This was after a visit of South-South PDP governors. The clash occurred immediately after Mr Obaseki left the palace with the other PDP state governors, who paid a courtesy visit to the Oba ahead of the flag-off of the party’s governorship campaign in Benin City.‎

In August, Governor Obaseki’s convoy was attacked twice. Once by hoodlums in Apana in Etsako West LGA, and on another occasion his convoy was brought to a halt temporarily as a group of armed robbers attempted to block his convoy in Uhunmwode LGA. These and other events prompted the Oba to personally intervene to call the two parties to order.

All the political parties and their candidates have also signed a peace accord to ensure peaceful conduct before, during and after the election. The deal was brokered by the Nigeria Peace Committee (NPC), led by a former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd); and supported by the Kukah Centre for Faith, Leadership and Public Policy, headed by the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. Promising to abide by the peace agreement, Obaseki and Ize-Iyamu both say they are fully committed to a peaceful election.

The Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu has deployed 31,000 officers to keep the peace in the state. He has also deployed the Deputy Inspector General in charge of Research and Planning, Adeleye Olusola Oyebade to supervise security in the state. He will be assisted by Karma Hosea Hassan, Assistant Inspector-General in charge of Federal Operations at the Force Headquarters, Abuja, and eight Commissioners of Police.

It is really hard to determine winners of election debates even when all their claims are fact-checked as how their policy proposals are assessed are subjective. However, despite best efforts to make the election campaigns issues-based, Saturday’s poll will still revolve around two personalities: the incumbent governor, Godwin Obaseki and his predecessor, Adams Oshiomole who backed him in 2016 and is now backing his opponent, Osagie Ize-Iyamu.

The election is critical to the political survival of Mr Oshiomole who was suspended as the APC National Chairman and is unlikely to get his seat back. An Ize-Iyamu victory will help Mr Oshiomhole retain some national relevance and strengthen his hand in the politicking ahead of the selection of a presidential candidate for the party in the 2023 elections (Oshiomole is allied with APC leader, Bola Tinubu who is strongly rumoured to be interested in succeeding President Buhari). This is largely why this campaign season has been very acrimonious and tense with the high possibility of violence, necessitating key interventions from the highly influential Oba of Benin as well as the National Peace Committee led by respected former Head of State, Abdulsalmami Abubakar.

What will really keep the peace, however, will be the electoral umpire being fair and more importantly, being perceived as fair, politicians being responsible in their actions and utterances and adequate and impartial security. A lot also depends on the ability of law enforcement to play it straight down the middle and ensure that the will of the people is reflected in the outcome, irrespective of the various pressures that will be brought to bear on the process from political actors. This is the only way to increase confidence in the process. These elections are pivotal to the future of elections in Nigeria’s current democratic practice, and messing them up will only decrease confidence in the process, and result in even more people staying away from future elections – a terrible omen for a still-maturing democracy.

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