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Violence marks run-up to Nigerian elections

By Christian Purefoy, CNN
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Nigerians ready to cast ballots
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most everyday brings stories of violence and intimidation from across the country
  • This has turned out to be the most expensive election in Africa's history
  • The European Union described the 2007 elections as the worst they had ever seen anywhere in the world
  • There have been riots, bombings and assassinations in Nigeria ahead of April elections
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Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- There have been riots, bombings and assassinations in Nigeria, yet not a vote has been cast in what has turned out to be the most expensive election in Africa's history.

"The unprecedented levels of violence that have seen several people either killed, maimed, kidnapped or intimidated for political reasons pose the single most significant threat to the conduct of general elections," warned the Nigeria Elections Situation Room -- a forum of groups focusing on the upcoming elections.

Human Rights Watch estimates at least 70 people have been killed in political violence in the run-up to the national elections that will be held the next three Saturdays.

Most everyday brings stories of violence and intimidation from across the country.

An Islamic militant group killed three people this week at a rally in the north. At the same event, police said stopped "two heavy explosives" from detonating in the crowd.

Too often, however, police are unable to stop the bloodshed.

The European Union described the 2007 elections as the worst they had ever seen anywhere in the world, with rampant vote rigging, violence, theft of ballot boxes and intimidation.

A new election chief has promised "free and fair" elections for April, but the concern is that such promises will be derailed by continued widespread violence.

As Africa's most populous country and its largest oil producer, Nigeria is important. Yet, despite its enormous oil wealth, 80% of the population live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.

Until Nigeria returned to democracy 12 years ago, democratically elected governments have been continually and violently interrupted by military coups during most of the 50 years since independence. The first ever transfer of power from one elected leader to another was in 2007.

"Corrupt politicians, in many cases backed by mafia-like 'godfathers,' openly mobilized gangs of thugs to terrorize ordinary citizens and political opponents and to stuff or steal ballot boxes," Human Rights Watch said of the 2007 elections.

Up to this point, there have been 16 bomb explosions, compared to 2 explosions in 2007, according to Shehu Sani of Civil Rights Congress. That number continues to increase on an almost daily basis.

Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency has canceled leave for emergency officers during the elections and identified one-third of the country's 36 states as "flash points."

The federal government has ordered the deployment of the military during the elections for security purposes. However, opposition political parties have rejected the security measures.

"The deployment of troops creates an atmosphere of warfare, which in turn heats up the polity," said a statement from the opposition party, Action Congress of Nigeria. "That's why it is not a common occurrence in other climes during elections."

Olusola Amore, a National Police spokesman, said the military will guard ballot boxes.

"We are taking note of volatile areas and adequately planning our deployment," according to Amore, who said three or four security agents will be posted at each polling booth.

But Human Rights Watch warns that similar steps were taken during the 2007 elections.

"The police were often present during such incidents but frequently turned a blind eye or, at times, participated in abuses, yet no one has been held accountable for these crimes," the group said.

An electoral reform committee, established in 2008, reported that no Nigerian has been convicted and punished for "electoral offenses" since Independence in 1960.

"Make no mistake about it: this test of honour is inescapably a collective one for all Nigerians," the Independent National Electoral Commission said in a recent statement. "It is our national honour at stake, and our relevance in the affairs of the modern world being redefined."

But the commission also admitted its limitations in ensuring smooth elections.

"By all means, the test isn't INEC's alone; the Election Management Body is only a midwife of the process and an umpire on the play turf," it said.

The concern is that despite all the promises -- it's happening all over again.

 
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