The opposition is called “cockroaches” to be “crushed” by a governor. The speaker of the House of Representatives is teargased by the police. Security agents raid a party data office. Several events last week indicate that Nigerian elections are approaching. When the president and 28 (out of 36) governors are to be elected in February next year, more than who will be voted into office is at stake. The elections are anticipated to be more competitive than previous ones, and there are concerns that violence will erupt in relation to the elections. Apart from the Boko Haram insurgency, the behaviour of the political elite contributes to raise tension.

After the presidential election 2011, there were outbreaks of violence in different parts of the country, leaving more than 800 people dead. The up-coming election is believed to be a close competition as the four main opposition parties have come together to form a new party (All Progressives Congress, APC) to challenge the ruling PDP (People’s Democratic Party) and president Goodluck Jonathan. Like the last election, there will – most probably – be a “Northern” candidate facing Jonathan, who is from Bayelsa State in the “South”. Who will stand as the APC candidate is decided in December. The candidate will, by most indications, be either former military head Muhammadu Buhari, or former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar.

In face of the transition to democracy in 1999, there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” that someone from the south would be inaugurated as president, which would be followed by a northerner. In the 1999 election, Obasanjo accordingly faced a fellow Yoruba from the south-west as contender. In 2007, the major contenders to Umaru Yar’Adua, who became president, were also from the north. When Yar’Adua passed away in 2010, the status and content of the agreement was challenged. In the 2011 election, Jonathan ran against Buhari from Katsina State in the north. Recognising the controversy, Jonathan promised at the time not to ask for second term. This is also why Jonathan’s decision to seek re-election is controversial in some quarters, triggering the north versus south conflict.

The results of the 2011 presidential election showed a divided country. Buhari won 13 states in the north but gained very few votes in south. In several states in the south, Jonathan received more than 98 per cent of the votes. Will that pattern be repeated? Not necessarily. The low support of Buhari in the south in the 2011 election demonstrates the need to reach out nationally. To become president, there is need to obtain at least 25 per cent of the votes in at least 24 of 36 states. While Buhari’s support in 2011 was very limited outside the northern states, several of the states in the north had governors from PDP which helped in attaining more than 25 per cent in seven of the states Buhari won.  The APC was formed last year in an attempt to have a nation-wide opposition, not splitting the votes between different regionally strong parties. Apart from some states in the north, states in the south-west are controlled by APC. This could be used to de-emphasise the regional associations of the parties.

On the other hand, last week’s events suggest that it may not be Boko Haram and a deteriorated security situation that is the greatest threat to the Nigerian elections, but the behaviour of the Nigerian political elite. A persistent lack of respect for the citizens and their right to choose leaders has made elections ever more contentious. Inflammatory comments of the kind that those voting for PDP are “enemies of the north”, along with framing the election in religious terms create tension that may possibly result in a replication of the 2011 post-election violence. A newly released report from the International Crisis Group asserts that attacks on political opponents might escalate the closer the elections get. Gunmen have attacked and killed aspirants for different assemblies. Most serious would be if violence escalates between party supporters. Following the rhetoric of the politicians and the allusion to religious sentiments, violence may then become intertwined in pre-existing ethnic and religious conflicts. Violence would then probably quickly escalate. This was the case in 2011, when the worst affected areas of the post-election violence were places with prior latent conflicts on basis of religious mobilisation. These conflicts are in many cases still unresolved and states in the “Middle Belt” are among those most susceptible to electoral violence. The risk of violence will increase if election mobilisation includes ethnic and religious sentiments.

To make things worse, the security forces have proved to be biased. Military and police are exclusive federal institutions and have been accused of being used by the presidency to intimidate APC leaders. Opposition politicians have been prevented from entering places and several have been arrested on dubious grounds. Police have watched APC rallies being attacked, while protecting pro-PDP groups attacking APC meetings. In two gubernatorial elections that were held this summer, security presence was overwhelming. APC leaders were closely followed. The elections were however considered to have been acceptable, and this has raised the expectations on coming elections by the citizenry. Attempts to rig the elections and the results will generate tension. But the willingness of security agents to provide conditions for unbiased elections is questioned. In the efforts by PDP to remove the speaker of the House of Representatives after he defected from PDP to APC, security agents are assumed to have acted on instructions of the presidency when he was barred from entering the House of Assembly and subsequently ordered to be arrested.

Security issues in relation to elections have so far (for good reasons) tended to be discussed in relation to Boko Haram activities and possible attacks during the election process. But the politicians and their so-called god-fathers (persons who use money and violence to control the political process) reveal very few signs of reformation in their behaviour in times of national crisis. Elections are still “do-or-die” affairs, as former president Obasanjo infamously labelled the 2007 elections, for many of the contestants. The risk of violence is fuelled by the use of offensive statements, attempts to politicise state institutions, and a lack of respect for election results. For facing the security challenges in the election related to the Boko Haram insurgency, a change of behaviour by the political elite is essential.

Henrik Angerbrandt is PhD Candidate in Political Science and researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. His research concerns ethno-religious conflict in northern Nigeria.