Human Rights Watch warned on Monday that the failure of the Nigerian authorities to address accountability for past elections-related abuses and widespread insecurity across the country threaten the safe conduct of the upcoming 2023 general elections.
On February 25, Nigerians will elect a new president to replace President Muhammadu Buhari, who is completing his second 4-year consecutive term, the maximum allowed. They will elect federal National Assembly members the same day and governors and state lawmakers on March 11.
“There is a thick veil of violence shrouding the 2023 elections that undermines people’s fundamental right to vote,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is important for the authorities to swiftly restore public confidence in their ability to hold those responsible for electoral violence accountable and ensure the safety and security of all Nigerians.”
“Nigerian authorities should put in place adequate systems and plans across the country that will allow citizens exercise their right to vote safely,” Ewang said. “The authorities should ensure that security forces deployed during the elections act in accordance with the law and put in place safeguards, including a system, to respond to complaints; protect voters, candidates, and election officials; and address any irregularities that may hinder the credibility of the elections.”
The elections are set to take place against a backdrop of impunity for abuses by security forces and other actors during the previous general elections in 2019. There have also been security threats from multiple groups across the country, including violent gangs in the northwest and groups in southeastern Nigeria who have been trying to undermine the elections.
Nigeria’s elections have historically been fraught with violence and other abuses. The election of President Buhari in 2015, the first transition of power to an opposition party since the country’s democratic transition in 1999, was largely peaceful. But the 2019 election was marred by violence from security forces, including the army, and thugs acting on behalf of politicians.
Human Rights Watch research on the 2019 elections in Rivers state in the south and Kano in the north, both of which have a strong history of violent elections, found that pre-election tensions including clashes between supporters of major political parties and rivalry between key politicians culminated in serious violence during the elections. Military officials indiscriminately shot and killed civilians in Rivers state while political thugs and security officials attacked election officials, voters, journalists, and other observers in both states.
Under international human rights law, federal and local officials are required to take all reasonable steps to create and maintain an environment in which election officials, journalists, and civil society can operate free from violence and intimidation. Democratic elections require the protection of freedom of expression and access to information. The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has issued detailed guidance on how to ensure freedom of opinion, expression, and access to information during elections.
Despite repeated calls to the Nigerian authorities to ensure justice and accountability for election-related violence, Human Rights Watch has found that there has been little progress. A committee set up by the Nigerian Army to investigate allegations of violence and killings against officers during the elections was given two weeks in March 2019 to produce its findings. Four years later, the authorities have provided no information on the committee’s work, findings, or recommendations.
In 2020, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced the prosecution of 18 people in seven states across the country for offenses during the 2019 elections, including snatching and destroying election materials, disorderly conduct, unlawful possession of ballot papers and Permanent Voters’ Cards, and vote buying at polling places on election day. It is unclear how many of these cases have concluded or led to convictions.
The commission indicated that it faces constraints in ensuring justice and accountability for electoral offenses because, while it can prosecute offenders, the authority to investigate rests with the security agencies. This has led to a lack of effectiveness in dealing with cases involving election infractions, the commission said.
Law enforcement authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate and appropriately prosecute offenses, including violence and threats against candidates, voters, election officials, and others, Human Rights Watch said.
In January, INEC announced that it plans to move ahead with elections across the country, including in troubled areas, despite the prevailing insecurity and threats from various groups in various parts of the country.
In states including Zamfara, bandit gangs, which emerged following years of conflict between nomadic herdsmen and farming communities, have continued to carry out violent activities causing widespread displacement, among other problems. Election officials announced that adequate arrangements have been made for displaced people who now live in different areas of the state to cast votes in polling places other than those they were registered to do so in, which may remain inaccessible to them because of insecurity and other related concerns.
However, Yusuf Ankah, an analyst and journalist who follows the crisis in the state closely, told Human Rights Watch that provisions were only being made for displaced people and areas documented by the government, which could potentially leave people whose situation the government has yet to document out of the electoral process. He also said that security concerns persist due to the bandits’ violence, which may discourage people from coming out to vote or even interfere with voting on election day.
Concerns also persist around safety and security during the elections in states in the southeast, including Imo, where violent secessionist groups have repeatedly attacked offices of the electoral authority to disrupt elections. A human rights activist in Owerri, the capital city, who works on electoral violence in the Southeast, told Human Rights Watch that the general public does not have confidence in the authorities’ ability to ensure people’s safety during elections in areas like the Imo West Senatorial District, where several attacks have taken place.
“There is a strong sense of fear among voters,” he said. “Amidst the incessant attacks and threats they are witnessing, they are concerned about their safety … people want to vote to be a part of the political process, but this is severely challenged by the security issues which there appears to be little or no commitment to address.”
Samson Itodo, the executive director of Yiaga Africa, an organization working primarily on elections, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have failed to put in place or provide information about comprehensive early warning systems, including data on various threats communities face and clear plans to ensure citizens in these areas can vote safely and are not disenfranchised.
In 2019, Human Rights Watch also documented a lack of adequate and effective policing to ensure the safety of voters and polling places. Ahead of the elections, National Security Adviser Mohammed Babagana Monguo has assured citizens that the government is working to ensure adequate security for the elections, but with the security forces spread thin across the country, this remains a serious concern.
In 2020, the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security adopted a Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty. The committee was established by the Nigerian authorities to ensure that election, security, safety, and law enforcement agencies work together to manage election related violence.
The code of conduct, among other things, makes clear that security personnel deployed during elections need to ensure the security and safety of everyone involved in electoral activities, prevent abuse of fundamental human rights, and avoid the use of excessive force. It also says that they must maintain a high level of professionalism and be impartial and neutral to ensure the integrity of the elections.