Is Nigeria heading for an election crisis reminiscent of the 2010-2011 Ivorian election crisis that plunged the West African nation into violence and at the brink of another civil war? As we head for elections in a few days, the present atmosphere of anxiety and fear engendered by the two main political parties, the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress, and their candidates could spiral into violence if the two leading candidates, the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, and the main challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, fail to concede defeat after the votes are counted. For Nigerians familiar with the controversial build-up to the 2015 elections and the atmosphere of distrust, accusations and counter-accusations against the Independent National Electoral Commission by the political parties, what is the assurance that they will accept any result issued by INEC? Does this not heighten the possibility of the candidates laying claims to victory and throwing the country into chaos?
Already, there are fears that the outcome of the elections may even lead to the country’s disintegration. Given the threat of violence that pervades the entire country, if Jonathan and Buhari both lay claim to victory or one of them refuses to concede defeat, the controversy arising from such a conundrum may make the Ivorian situation seem like a child’s play. The election violence that threw Ivory Coast into a near state of war is a tragic example of what may happen if political parties and politicians in our country continue the violent rhetoric that has defined the 2015 elections.
The hate campaigns, propaganda and violence that have characterised the 2015 elections resemble the situations in Ivory Coast and the Kenyan election violence in 2007. Given the bloody trail of violence of our recent history, election violence may threaten our corporate existent. In 2011, Ivory Coast erupted into violence after a disputed election. Laurent Gbagbo, the then President of Ivory Coast since 2000 (now facing trial at the International Criminal Court, The Hague), had been proclaimed the winner of the 2010 election, the first in the country in 10 years, in a controversial circumstance. The opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara, who is the country’s current President and a number of countries, organisations and world leaders claimed Ouattara had won the election. Before this, a constitutional crisis had occurred when Gbagbo had refused to concede defeat.
In December 2010, the head of the Ivorian Commission Electorale Indépendante (the equivalent of our own INEC) had announced provisional results showing that Ouattara had won the election in the second round with 54.1 per cent of the vote, against 45.9 per cent for Gbagbo; he reported that turnout was 81.09 per cent. Results had been expected and then postponed for days, beyond the deadline. In a dramatic turn of the event, the President of the Constitutional Council (a body that was viewed by the opposition as favouring Gbagbo, then took to the airwaves to say that the electoral commission had no authority left to announce any results, because it had already missed its deadline to announce them, and consequently the results were declared invalid.
But according to the Constitutional Council put together by Gbagbo and constituted by his allies, they insisted that the passing of the deadline meant that only the Constitutional Council was “authorised to announce decisions on the contested results.” It was widely presumed that the Court would issue a ruling favouring Gbagbo, although the electoral commission results had indicated that Gbagbo could only be credited with victory if hundreds of thousands of votes were invalidated. The Constitutional Council soon after declared Gbagbo the winner, ignoring the tension that had gripped the country. The Council had controversially announced that the results in seven northern regions were cancelled, and on that basis declared the outcome narrowly in favour of Gbagbo, who was credited with 51.45 per cent of the votes while Ouattara had 48.55 per cent.
But on the basis of the electoral commission’s results, Ouattara had maintained that he was “the elected President” and that the Constitutional Council had “abused its authority, the whole world knows it, and I am sorry for my country’s image.” He had the clear backing of the international community including ECOWAS for his claim to victory, but top officers in the military appeared to stand firmly behind Gbagbo. With no clear winner and both candidates holding stubbornly to victory claims, the country danced on the brink. In the midst of unprecedented insecurity, Gbagbo was sworn in for another five-year term in 2011 defiantly declaring: “I will continue to work with all the countries of the world, but I will never give up our sovereignty.” Meanwhile, at a hotel in Central Abdijan, Ouattara himself was sworn in separately shortly after, saying that “Ivory Coast is now in good hands”.
After months of attempted negotiation and sporadic violence, the crisis entered a decisive stage as Ouattara’s forces began a military offensive in which they quickly gained control of most of the country and besieged key targets in Abidjan, the country’s largest city. International organisations had reported numerous human rights violations, and the UN undertook its own military action with the stated objective to protect itself and civilians. A significant step in bringing an end to the crisis occurred in April 2011 following the capture and arrest of Gbagbo by pro-Ouattara forces backed by French forces.
Mrs Gbagbo who is currently serving term for her role in the election crisis was reported to have instigated violence by addressing rallies where she whipped up hate campaigns against the opposition. She was also reported to have kept a personal army that intimidated and harassed Quattara’s loyalists. At her trial last month, witnesses recalled the atrocities of all the protagonists and Mrs Gbagbo’s ignominious role in a tragedy that almost signalled an end to the country’s existence.
I have taken the pain to delve into the Ivorian crisis because if we are not careful as a country, we may be headed that way in the next few weeks. Can our country afford a re-enactment of the Ivorian election imbroglio? Every patriot who loves this country must ensure that political hate campaigns, speeches and propaganda are not allowed to snowball into violence during and after the elections.
I also have genuine fears that the level of partisanship being exhibited by agencies and institutions of government that are empowered to maintain neutrality in times of national crisis could worsen the situation if they become partial and support one of the candidates. There have been growing concerns that the armed forces and law enforcement agencies have become tools in the hands of a certain party/candidate. The accusation, if true, is not good for the image of the forces. I will advise the security forces not to allow themselves to be used by any of the parties. At times like this, we will need the security forces, INEC and the judiciary to be trusted to provide the needed neutrality that will avert needless crisis before and after elections. As I wrote on this column last week, we will also need all Nigerians to save the country from an imminent collapse. While we expect INEC to conduct free and fair elections, we also expect the candidates to accept the results bearing in mind that we have no other country to call our own.
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