/ 27 February 2023

Is it time to ‘demilitarise’ Nigeria’s elections?

Nigeria Elections 5
Over 400 000 security forces patrol the area during the general election in Lagos, Nigeria on February 25, 2023. (Photo by Emmanuel Osodi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It was election day, 25 February, 2023. A usually bustling street in Nigeria’s economic heartbeat Lagos, so packed the previous day, was now filled with deafening silence. Despite the heavy presence of the military, doing stop-and-search, Adesola Ikulajolu, a domestic observer, was unruffled. He has always looked forward to elections in Nigeria because he gets to take a deep look at the largest democratic exercise in African history.

As many as 93.4 million registered voters will determine who gets to be the country’s next president in what is seen as a chance for Nigeria’s democratic process “to send a proof-of-life message to the world”.

For this crucial poll, the Nigerian government said it had deployed 425 106 security operatives — the biggest security operation during a presidential election in the country’s history. The operatives were drawn from the various security agencies in the country, including the army. However, the number of military personnel deployed for the election could not be ascertained.

“This election is heavily militarised. In fact, I encountered as many of them,” says Ikulajolu. “But because I am used to meeting them (military personnel) at various elections before, I was not disturbed. From Ikorodu to Ojota, there are no less than four army checkpoints and I was sure I could answer all of their questions,” the 25-year-old boasted. He has been observing elections in the country since 2019. So, he said, he knows the drill.

That would change when he got to a military checkpoint and his vehicle was flagged down for a routine check. It was nothing like he had witnessed before. “Despite asking for my identity card, which I showed them, and also the [Independent National Electoral Commission]-accredited media tag on me, they still held me down and questioned me like I was a suspect. 

“One of them forced me to open my phone and delete some picture folders. They collected my ID card and also took a photograph of it before letting me go,” he says, recalling the moments that sent chills down his spine in a phone conversation with the Mail & Guardian.

This is not a one-off. Soldiers have been accused of using brute force, including the invasion of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) collation centres in different parts of the country to chase away accredited party agents, election observers and journalists.

Because of this, analysts are quick to point out that the recurring militarisation of the country’s elections clearly shows the unwillingness to divorce the country’s nascent democracy from the last strand of its long history of military rule, warning that this would continue to erode the sanctity of the entire electoral process, was a violation of human rights and heightened voter apathy.

Nigeria’s elections have always been characterised by voter apathy which has been attributed to several factors, including over-militarisation of the election process. As of the last general elections in 2019, the country had 82.3 million registered voters as collated by theINEC. Out of that number, only 28.6 million voted in the elections.

“Security deployments around election time are always controversial because soldiers and police are not trusted to defend the public interest over elite interests,” says Matthew Page, an associate fellow on the Africa programme at Chatham House.  The large presence of the security agencies is usually seen as a calculated strategy, says Page. For instance, in the wake of the 2014 gubernatorial election in Ekiti, prominent members of the main opposition party were denied entry into the state capital by soldiers and other security agencies in a commando-style operation.

For good reason, Page adds, “Nigerians largely view the police and military as predatory, open to political manipulation, and prone to using heavy-handed tactics. Increased security presence during elections should deter thuggery and rigging yet, in most cases, it doesn’t. This speaks to deeper challenges facing Nigeria’s security agencies: endemic corruption, unprofessionalism, personnel and material shortfalls, among others.”

With the exception of a few, elections in Nigeria have been marred by killings, injuries and destruction, which explains the deployment of heavy security operatives, despite various pronouncements by Nigeria’s courts that the deployment of the military, especially, is illegal and unconstitutional. The court of appeal had condemned the illegal militarisation of the Ekiti governorship election in 2014 after voters were subjected to harassment by armed troops.

But it has not in any way helped to tame the orgy of violence that is now synonymous with elections in the country.

Fola Aina, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, believes the responsibility to ensure law and order, including during general elections, allows the authorities to deploy the instrument of force it wields. “There is a general sense that the military is associated with draconian rule and, as such, a significant portion of society is inclined to perceive them that way, even during security provisioning, but their deployment is critical to upholding the social contract that exists between the state and society.

“However, the state must be able to balance this responsibility in such a way that ensures that it does not erode the sanctity of the electoral process.”

Achieving this would require its coercive apparatus conducting itself with utmost professionalism, Aina says.

Page offers a similar position. He stressed that the country needs to adequately equip the police and other security agencies to manage internal security duties: “Until Nigerian elites develop, train and invest in a professional police force, the military will continue to fulfil internal security duties.” 

The substitution, according to him, is problematic on many levels, and one of the main drivers of insecurity in Nigeria. 

“For example, the use of combat aircraft as an internal policing tool. In countless other countries, police do the policing. In Nigeria, combat aircraft routinely bomb criminals and bandits, often killing civilians in the process. 

“For Nigeria to develop as a democracy, its leaders need to get the military off the streets and replace them with police officers whose primary mission is to protect — not prey on — the public.”