Between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. they entered the school chanting slogans and shouting: “Where are the Christians that supported the ruling party?” When you see the mob, they were not in their senses. They had painted their faces black and were shouting that they needed “change” [the Congress for Progressive Change campaign slogan].
The mob had all sorts of weapons – machetes, sticks, and clubs. They started breaking the windows on the buildings. The students ran away but the mob pursued them into the staff quarters and they had nowhere to go. The mob beat them to death and hit them with machetes…
This is an eye-witness account of a lecturer at the Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic, a college on the outskirts of the city of Zaria in northern Kaduna State to Human Rights Watch, after the 2011 presidential election result which former president Goodluck Jonathan won was announced. Over 800 people died following clashes in northern Nigeria.
Since Nigeria’s independence, elections in Africa’s biggest democracy have been marred by violence. During the early 1960s, Operation Wetie (English: soak him with petrol and set him ablaze) saw thugs set ablaze rivals properties with petrol and wanton killings were carried out as Ladoke Akintola and Obafemi Awolowo were embroiled in a protracted crisis. This eventually led to the first military coup in Nigeria in 1966.
Every election since then has been marred by pockets of violence or whole-sale slaughter of opponents. Businesses have been destroyed, investors flee with their money and Ghana, with less people than Lagos attracts more foreign direct investments than Nigeria.
Against this backdrop, the signing of a peace accord seems important. For the second time in two months, the key contenders in Nigeria’s February 16 vote have signed a peace accord which commits their political parties to peaceful elections and a non-violent transfer of power in the country but that in itself is incapable of curbing violence.
For this symbolic gesture to have meaning the actors must commit to violence-free elections; they must be statesmen, who rank the nation’s unity higher than their narrow ambitions.
While Jonathan was criticised for running a weak government, he immortalised his name by ceding power when preliminary election results indicated he would lose. Before his supporters could incite violence, he conceded to his challenger, saying his ambition is not worth the life of any Nigerian. This took the winds out of the sail of the violently disposed.
The incumbent who benefited from the peace accord with Jonathan was not that charitable in 2011 when his supporters went on a killing spree in the north. A government panel indicted him for making provocative remarks which played a role in the bloody violence that led to the death of 10 members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and hundreds of others after the presidential polls.
The Sheikh Ahmed Lemu-led Panel, in its report said Buhari’s statement to his supporters that they should guard their votes may have been misconstrued to perpetrate heinous crimes. Buhari did nothing to rein them in and since violence often spills out of control, he too was also a victim of the violence as his possessions were destroyed.
It is fear of violence that sees foreign investors pull their funds from the stock market precipitating a fall before general elections. Many foreigners and wealthy Nigerians fly out of the country and millions shun polling booths due to fear of violence thereby ceding political office to thugs.
The stakes are much higher this time around because the economy is in the gutters. This is also Nigeria’s only elections where rather than personalities; it is a contest of ideas – market driven economy or a socially inclusive one. Add rising poverty, evaporating middle class and fight about how to fight corruption, it gives a fine brew of high, octane expectations.
Already, battles are being fought on social media by supporters of both parties. Lies are being deodorised and a campaign of calumny are being run against the personality of both candidates. Unless, the candidates rein in their own people, their supporters latent capacity for violence will eventually spill into the streets.
This is why international agencies have been calling for a peaceful conduct of the elections because there is life after elections.
In 2019, the two key candidates are from in the north, the section of the country which is the least developed, while producing the most rulers, the most religious yet also the most volatile, the worst educated and yet the most politically fervent. This combination is as lethal as it is fortuitous depending on what the candidates want to make of it by their actions and inactions.