The past few months have witnessed a dramatic increase in the political manoeuvring in advance of the 2019 Nigerian election. A raft of defections from the ruling APC party to the opposition PDP makes the outcome of the election – and what will happen in the run up to the election – increasingly challenging to predict.
There is hope that the 2019 elections will continue along the increasingly positive trajectory witnessed since 1999, with the first democratic handover of power to an opposition party occurring in 2015. Countering this hope, are recent developments such as the blockade of parliament by the security services, and the delay in passing the budget for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
In the Niger Delta, INEC suspended the recent by-election for the Rivers State House of Assembly, following reported intimidation of election officials and disruption of the voting process. This may be an early signal for concern over the 2019 general election, as current political dynamics mean Rivers, and some other Niger Delta states, are likely to be particularly fiercely contested. The common practice of vote buying, use of security services and violent groups to interfere with elections, and the proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons, means the region is a potential flashpoint for electoral violence and fraud in 2019. Escalation will be partly determined by the controls and constraints applied at the Federal level. If the rule of law is undermined and the use of the security forces is politically partisan, this could result in a serious escalation of tensions and prospects of increased electoral violence in the Niger Delta.
The conduct of the 2019 election will not only impact the electoral process, but will have ramifications for the post-election period. The Niger Delta, in particular, has a history of violence spanning a 6-12 month post-election period. If the vote and the process that delivers this vote is questionable or in dispute, the potential for violence by agitators in the Niger Delta, and a resulting heavy handed Federal response, is a concerning scenario. This could quickly escalate and catalyse further incidents that may stretch Nigeria’s capacity to manage concurrent conflicts in the North and South during the 2019 election period and in its aftermath.
Therefore, scrutiny by the international community and civil society of electoral processes and practices, respect by all parties for the democratic process, and ensuring INEC is enabled to fulfil its mandate, will be critical to move Nigeria along its democratic trajectory in 2019. An important step in empowering INEC depends on the passing of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill – which SDN has been advocating for. The current draft bill will enable a more level playing field in the 2019 elections, for example, by reducing the potential of rigging the vote between the polling units and the central collation centres. A failure to pass the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill may be an indication for concern over conduct in the approach to the 2019 general election.