Nigeria’s 2019 Elections: Six States to Watch


Nigerian elections are high-stakes affairs often marred by street clashes and worse. As the 2019 contests approach, the risk of disturbances is particularly high in six states. The government and its foreign partners can limit campaign-related violence by enhancing security and promoting dialogue among rivals.

What’s new? As presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections draw near in Nigeria, the risk of violence is widespread, particularly in six states where stakes are high or other conflicts fester.

Why does it matter? Nigeria’s last three elections have been deadly. More than 100 people died during and after the 2015 polls – and those were peaceful compared to the previous two. In 2019, with parts of the country in turmoil, violence could take more lives and jeopardise the country’s stability.

What should be done? The Nigerian government should move to defuse tensions, bolstering police deployments in vulnerable states and fostering dialogue between antagonists. Nigeria’s foreign partners should monitor hotspots and warn politicians of consequences for inciting violence.

Executive Summary

Nigeria will hold national and state elections in February and March 2019. Voters will choose a president, governors for 29 of the country’s 36 states, and federal and state lawmakers countrywide. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) faces a stiff challenge from Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which dominated national politics from 1999 to 2015. Many contests for state governor also involve high stakes, given the enormous spoils that elected office brings. Electoral politics in Nigeria is a brutal affair with a winner-take-all ethos and a history of violence, often driven by local as much as national dynamics. Already there have been incidents of violence, with some states displaying particularly troubling signs ahead of the vote. In such hotspots, the Nigerian authorities should enhance security plans; encourage rivals to pledge jointly to campaign and resolve disputes peacefully; sanction politicians using inflammatory rhetoric or inciting violence; and promote local dialogue in states suffering intercommunal strife.

Recent Nigerian elections have all been violent, the 2011 polls particularly so. More than 800 people died, as post-election protests morphed into mob attacks on minorities in twelve northern states. Even the more peaceful 2015 polls saw scores killed during campaigning and after the vote. A range of factors conspire to heighten risks of bloodshed nationwide around next year’s vote. These include the “win or die” attitude of many politicians, acrimony between the two major parties as they head into what appears likely to be a closely fought contest, widespread popular distrust of security agencies, opposition parties’ misgivings about the electoral commission’s neutrality, and the prevalence of conflict and deadly criminal violence in parts of the country. It remains uncertain how either side would respond to losing, particularly if the margin is narrow.

Risks of violence appear to be highest in six states: Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Adamawa. Dynamics in each state vary, but all feature at least two of four major triggers: an intense struggle between the APC and PDP for control over states with large electorates, vast public revenues or symbolic electoral value; local rivalry between former and incumbent governors; tension resulting from ethno-religious or herder-farmer conflict; and the presence of criminal groups that politicians can recruit to attack rivals and their constituents. Local violence is not only a problem for the areas affected. It can have wider implications, with pre-election bloodshed undermining the vote’s credibility and aggravating risks of disputes, and local protests after the ballot potentially ballooning into a national crisis.

At the national level, Nigerian authorities can take a number of steps to reduce risks. The federal government should speedily release all funds that are outstanding from the allocations that the federal legislature, the National Assembly, approved for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and security agencies but that are still stuck in the bureaucracy, to let them prepare for the elections properly. Political parties should fulfil commitments their leaders have recently made to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, campaign peacefully, pursue grievances lawfully and rein in any supporters in the event of their defeat. The electoral authorities should intensify outreach to political parties aimed at winning their confidence and firm up logistical arrangements, particularly for election day. Security agencies should act professionally, ensure neutrality between all parties, and finalise contingency plans for preventing or responding to violence.

In addition to these national-level steps, the authorities should redouble efforts to prevent violence in hotspots. While policies should be tailored to each state, priorities include:

  • Improving security arrangements by identifying and sanctioning politicians and groups using inflammatory rhetoric, inciting violence or plotting to perpetrate it; ensuring order at campaign rallies; strengthening inter-agency cooperation; and protecting polling centres in a non-partisan and non-threatening manner;

  • Encouraging leading politicians at the state and local levels to honour commitments, already made at the national level, to campaign and pursue any grievances peacefully and lawfully (ideally, the main rivals in conflict-prone states would make joint pledges to do so in public ceremonies);

  • Holding confidence-building dialogues between the local leaders of ethnic, religious and farmer-herder communities that are locked in conflict, as a way to undercut efforts by politicians to stoke divides for their own ends.

For their part, Nigeria’s international partners, through their diplomatic missions in the federal capital, Abuja, should set up a forum to coordinate their messaging, particularly to the main political contenders and electoral and security institutions. They should consider establishing an international working group, comprising prominent statespersons with sway in Nigeria, which could intervene in the event of a major crisis. Such a forum and working group helped lower tension and ensure a peaceful transition around the 2015 elections. Those sending observers should pay particular attention to hotspots. Diplomats also could warn state-level politicians, many of whom travel frequently abroad, that those responsible for inciting violence could face travel bans, asset freezes and other targeted sanctions.

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 21 December 2018