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How Hate Speeches By Politicians, Others Lead To Election Violence In Nigeria

Partly because of its multi-ethnic fault lines, Nigeria’s electoral history is smudged by mindless violence rooted in speeches from highly placed persons who wield influence on the masses.

In Aug. 2020, just as the South-South state of Edo state was gearing for its gubernatorial elections, Joseph Ihama, a resident, said to HumAngle, “Everyone knows that the elections will be violent. There is no need to pretend. We are just begging both parties not to kill too much.”

A major factor that contributes to the violence Ihama anticipated is hate speech. 

A pre-election survey conducted by NOI Polls and Yiaga Africa showed that Ihama was not the only Edo citizen who anticipated bloody elections. One in 10 persons who participated in the survey said they had experienced violence and intimidation first-hand. More than a third of the respondents also said they heard politicians making hate speeches during the elections.

“You know, you will mobilise yourself. Nobody has a monopoly of violence [sic]. If they want violence, we will show them violence,” Godwin Obaseki, Edo state governor who was running for a second term was quoted as saying during a press briefing addressing his supporters.

“We will show them that we are in government. I am governor and Philip [Shaibu] is the deputy governor. We are the only two people today who have immunity in this state,” Obaseki said in part, going on to further warn Ize Iyamu, his main opponent in the elections whom he alleged to have plotted to cause violence.

As predicted by Ihama and other residents of Edo, violence was recorded in the elections. This was despite the signing of a peace accord by two major candidates contesting the gubernatorial elections, coupled with the intervention of the Oba of Benin, known to be the most influential and powerful monarch in the state.

Hate speeches are not only peculiar to gubernatorial elections. Presidential elections are known to be bloodier than state elections, considering the fact that inflammatory speeches are at an all-time high, just as the resultant violence.

The famed National Peace Committee (NPC), a non-governmental initiative committed to peaceful democratic processes, was, in fact, formed in 2014 “in response to emerging threats occasioned by the 2015 general elections.”

Even though the use of hate speech as an electioneering tool goes as far back as 1960 when Nigeria gained independence and even in the pre-independence era, a good place to start with the examination of hate speeches and resultant violence in Nigerian elections would be the 2000s, particularly elections held from 2010 to 2019. Recent studies confirm that hate speech has become a campaign tool used by politicians to get a hold of political power. Nigeria’s division along ethnic and religious lines can be easily exploited.

During the 2011 general elections, the religious and ethnic division card was infused into hate speeches to rile up targeted groups. 

“It must be a Northerner or no Nigeria … If Goodluck Jonathan wins the PDP’s endorsement to contest the 2011 presidential election, there would be violence,” Dr Junaidu Mohammed, National Coordinator of the Coalition of Northern Politicians, was quoted as saying, during an interview with Guardian newspaper in Nov. 2010.

Muhammadu Buhari went on to lose to Goodluck Jonathan, birthing Nigeria’s most violent election to date. 

According to Human Rights Watch, 800 persons were killed and 65,000 persons displaced. “The violence began with widespread protests by supporters of the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim from the Congress for Progressive Change, following the re-election of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta in the south, who was the candidate for the ruling People’s Democratic Party”.

AFP reported, following the wave of riots, that they reflected deep regional tensions. “A home belonging to an aide to the vice president was among those set alight and a mob sought to burn a Christain woman alive in one area,” the news agency observed, quoting witnesses.

“Two charred bodies lay in the street in the Tudun Wada area of Kaduna, one with ‘no more PDP’ written in chalk beside it,” Reuters similarly reported.

Protesters in Kano, Northwest Nigeria, on April 18, 2011, following the presidential election. Photo: Seyllou Diallo/AFP/Getty Images

A 22-person panel of inquiry set up to investigate the violent incidents would later report that Buhari’s speech played a significant role in causing the carnage. “The panel categorically stated that Buhari’s pre-election utterances were misconstrued by his supporters to engage in the condemnable mayhem that greeted the aftermath of the presidential elections,” reported the local newspaper, Daily Post. 

In 2012, three years before the next general elections which Buhari contested in, he made more inflammatory comments reported by national dailies. “If what happened in 2011 [alleged rigging] should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood,” he said in Hausa to party members who had visited him in Kaduna State. 

In 2014, just a year to the elections, the Northern Elders Forum made inflammatory speeches as well. “Those who vote for Jonathan and the PDP in 2015 will be considered an enemy of the north,” read a 2014 Vanguard report, quoting the forum.

“I want to go on to say that, there will be no peace, not only in the Niger Delta, but everywhere if Goodluck Jonathan is not president by 2015, except God takes his life, which we don’t pray for,” Asari Dokubo, a former militant leader from South-south Nigeria also said, in support of Goodluck Jonathan.

The level of hate speeches and threats uttered during the period necessitated the creation of the National Peace Committee and the signing of peace accords between presidential candidates to ensure violence-free electoral processes. 

Yet, up to 100 deaths were recorded during the elections. A University of Nigeria (UNN) conference paper studied by HumAngle has shown that the violence was a result of hateful remarks made before, during, and after the elections. 

“Our interview also maintained that the multiplicities of hate speeches credited to the former First Lady, Patience Jonathan are behind the electoral violence in Rivers State,” observed the author, Christian Chukwuebuka Ezeibe. 

“Put specifically, the hate speeches made it impossible for the APC to campaign in Okrika. Some of these attacks include: the bombing of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Secretariat in Okrika on January 11th 2015; the gunmen attack on the campaign ground of the APC, destroying the platform and other equipment on January 24th 2015 and the disruption of APC rally in Okrika (the home town of Nigeria’s First Lady, Patience Jonathan) with explosions and sporadic gunfire on 17th February, 2015.”

The 2019 general elections were no different. Hateful utterances were typically uttered carelessly by politicians from the camps of both the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), seeking the re-election of incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), seeking to take back power through its candidate, Atiku Abubakar.

In January of that year, PDP chairman Uche Secondus made inflammatory remarks while addressing a crowd of supporters in Delta, South-south Nigeria. “Today, by your mandate, we warn INEC and we believe there are good people in INEC… we know that the government is pressuring INEC to rig this election, but if they rig this election, they’re looking for war,” he said.

While briefing journalists in January, Lai Mohammed, Buhari’s Minister of Information and Culture, made bold allegations against the opposition party. “Before you accuse the government of crying wolf, let me tell you, gentlemen, that we have credible information that armed bandits and Boko Haram insurgents have been mobilised to engage in massive attacks across several states in the country,” Mohammed said, mentioning 10 states where the said mobilised criminals would operate.

According to The Dangerous Speech Project, which researches the relationship between hateful speeches and violence, “predicting lethal violence from a group perceived as an enemy is a familiar technique of Dangerous Speech. It is highly effective since if people are persuaded that another group is planning to attack or kill them, violence against the group feels not only justified but necessary and virtuous. It is self defence. Under the guise of warning people, leaders often incite it.”

The presidential election, held on Feb. 23, 2019, was marred with electoral malpractices and violence, leading to the death of about 150 persons. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) attributed a bulk of the violence to hate speech. “Inflammatory political rhetoric, opposition parties’ allegation of intimidation and partisanship by security forces, partiality of the Independence National Electoral Commission (INEC), and planned illegal voting and results rigging raised the potential for violence,” the institute said.

Nigeria’s next presidential election has been slated for Feb. 2023 and with the emergence of Igbo candidate Peter Obi, Fulani candidate Atiku Abubakar, and Yoruba candidate Bola Tinubu as major contenders, there is a high chance there will be a resurgence of hateful utterances. 

It is perhaps in view of this that the country’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the United Nations (UN), as well as the country’s domestic intelligence agency (DSS) have warned both politicians and their supporters to avoid making inflammatory remarks that may result in violence. 

It remains to be seen if the country can break away from what has become a learned behaviour and an electioneering tool enabled by its diversity of ethnic groups, languages, and religions.

This report was produced in partnership with HumAngle Services.

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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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