Conflict Watchlist 2023

Nigeria: Historic Elections Threatened by Insecurity

Posted: 8 February 2023

Nigeria’s federal elections constitute a watershed moment for the country’s democratic history. President Muhammadu Buhari is barred from running for a third term through term limit legislation, while the end of his presidency marks the longest democratic stretch since independence. Yet, Africa’s most populous state will go to the polls on 25 February 2023 against the backdrop of distinct but overlapping security crises across its territory. 

In 2022, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) continued to operate and control territory in the North East and across the Lake Chad Basin, despite suffering setbacks from the military’s counterinsurgency campaign and grappling with ongoing infighting with the Group for the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad (JAS), Boko Haram’s original name. Alongside another violent jihadist organization, Ansaru, ISWAP has also allegedly been active in the North West, where dozens of bandit groups continued to engage in deadly raids, kidnappings for ransom, and other violent criminal activities. Following an attack that killed at least 200 civilians in Zamfara state, the Nigerian government designated bandits as “terrorists” in January 2022.1Emmanuel Akinwotu, ‘At least 200 villagers killed by bandits in north-west Nigeria,’ The Guardian, 9 January 2022 States in the Middle Belt region continue to be engulfed in a series of deadly conflicts involving pastoralists and farming communities, which are driven by long-standing disputes over land and resources and compounded by the proliferation of small weapons and widening social divisions. Communal militias, largely operating in the North West and the Middle Belt regions, were responsible for over 57% of total reported civilian fatalities recorded by ACLED in 2022.

Nigeria’s southern states were confronted with occasional outbreaks of violence. Banditry and cultism were among the main sources of insecurity, along with increasing electoral violence. ACLED records over 150 events involving cult militias in 2022, resulting in nearly 230 reported fatalities. In the South East, a separatist insurgency launched by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) intensified, resulting in a string of attacks against security forces and electoral officials. IPOB, whose leader Nnamdi Kanu was arrested in June 2021 and remains in detention at the time of writing, announced a boycott of the upcoming elections, although some factional divisions have recently emerged within the group.2Vanguard, ‘IPOB factions’ contest for dominance may disrupt 2023 polls in South East,’ 5 January 2023 In previous years, several governors established local security outfits to assist federal agencies in law enforcement operations. Among these groups are the Amotekun in the South West and the Ebubeagu in the South East, in addition to the long-established Civilian Joint Task Force supporting the fight against Boko Haram in the North East.3Idayat Hassan, ‘The insecurity ahead of Nigeria’s 2023 elections is unprecedented,’ African Arguments, 21 December 2022 While praised for assisting federal security forces, the unclear legal status and poor training of recruits have raised concerns over their limited accountability, human rights abuses, and alleged collusion with local political elites.

Overall, Nigeria remained one of the most violent countries in Africa last year. ACLED estimates that the number of political violence events increased by 9% during this period, with approximately 3,700 events recorded in 2022. There were also an estimated 3,900 fatalities resulting from violence targeting civilians, marking a 4% decrease from the record high of 2021, when over 4,000 fatalities were recorded nationwide. These trends, however, are not uniform within Nigeria. The North West and the Middle Belt account for approximately two-thirds of overall civilian fatalities recorded by ACLED in 2022. In the previous year, their combined share exceeded 75%. Violence against civilians has thus become more widespread, with the South East and the North East regions experiencing the highest increase rates. 

What to watch for in 2023

The unprecedented state of insecurity represents a direct challenge to the regular holding of elections across Nigeria. Attacks against polling stations, limited state control, and an estimated 3.1 million internally displaced people (as of November 20224United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Operational Data Portal,’ 31 December 2022) threaten to affect the logistics of the elections and disenfranchise millions of Nigerians of their voting rights.5International Crisis Group, ‘Countdown Begins to Nigeria’s Crucial 2023 Elections,’ 23 December 2022 Amid a race that is expected to be highly competitive, insecurity may contribute to further depress voter turnout in the most conflict-affected regions.

The run-up to the vote has also highlighted the escalation potential of electoral violence. Armed militias linked to political groups engaged in numerous attacks against supporters of rival political parties. Some state governors were accused of hiring militias or using state-sponsored security agencies to target members of opposition and other ethnic groups, raising concerns over abuses of political authority for electoral purposes.6Kingsley Omonobi and Festus Osahon, ‘2023: Governors to blame for violence,’ 18 November 2022; Edward Nnachi, ‘Ebonyi Ebubeagu: When security outfit is termed weapon of oppression,’ The Punch Nigeria, 28 November 2022 An international election observation mission concluded that the proliferation of informal security outfits such as the Amotekun and the Ebubeagu “further complicates security and increases opportunities for election violence and malfeasance.”7International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, ‘Statement of the Second Joint NDI/IRI Pre-Election Assessment Mission to Nigeria’, 9 December 2022 In the event of a contested electoral result, militias operating at the behest of political elites may therefore contribute to ignite partisan and ethnic tensions in key electoral battlegrounds. 

Jihadist groups are likely to remain a major threat to Nigeria’s security in 2023. Since the killing of JAS’s leader Abubakar Shekau in 2021, ISWAP has consolidated its success, forcing JAS on the defensive. In Borno state, the group is reported to generate significant financial resources from taxation while also running prison and court systems.8International Crisis Group, ‘After Shekau: Confronting Jihadists in Nigeria’s North East,’ 29 March 2022 ISWAP has also recently claimed attacks beyond its stronghold in the North East, expanding its operational presence to the North West and the North Central regions, including the federal capital territory.9Murtala Abdullahi, ‘ISWAP Claims Deadly Car Bomb Attack In Nigeria’s Kogi State,’ HumAngle, 3 January 2023 Yet, the reorganization of JAS under the leadership of Ibrahim Bakura Doro on the northern shore of the Lake Chad Basin, and the relative success of government-sponsored defection programs, point to the possible limitations of ISWAP’s model and highlight alternatives to military-focused approaches.10Maman Inoua Elhadji Mahamadou Amadou and Vincent Foucher, ‘Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin: The Bakura Faction and its Resistance to the Rationalisation of Jihad,’ Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 8 December 2022

Increasing collaboration between jihadist and bandit groups is another source of concern for the Nigerian government. While the lack of a shared ideology and hierarchical structure among the bandits is unlikely to translate into a stable partnership with the jihadists, these groups may join forces against the Nigerian security forces. Authorities have warned that jihadist groups, including the Kaduna-based Ansaru, already collaborate with bandits in the North West.11Folahanmi Aina, ‘Jihadists and bandits are cooperating. Why this is bad news for Nigeria,’ The Conversation, 6 December 2022 The pursuit of increasing strategic relevance for the jihadists, and the need for stable flows of money and guns for the bandits, may cement the alliance in the near future. 

Unable to prevent a nationwide escalation of violence, the government has often resorted to the use of force to defeat insurgents and stop the violence. Yet, the proliferation of self-defense militias, militarization of local communities, and widespread human rights abuses at the hands of the security forces have contributed to alienate local populations, making them vulnerable to recruitment into militant or criminal organizations and nurturing armed mobilization along religious and ethnic lines. Nigeria’s next president will therefore be called on to redress past wrongs, instead of addressing the overarching governance and socio-economic issues that lie at the heart of the security crisis.