US must heed warning signs of election violence in Nigeria

Nigerians will head to the polls on Feb. 16, 2019, to elect a president and national representatives, followed by state-level elections in March. Unfortunately, there are warning signs that violence is likely. Divisions and conflict have plagued this diverse country in recent years. Boko Haram has escalated its deadly attacks on the military in the Northeast. Rising tensions between herders and farmers have claimed more than 1,800 lives this year. Almost 2 million Nigerians are internally displaced because of conflict; many are unable to register to vote. High unemployment, corruption and other economic woes have fueled anger and frustration.

A special report issued by the United States Institute of Peace in September cited these factors and more as indicators that the potential for electoral violence is high. Recently, gunmen opened fire at a convoy carrying politicians in Kwara state, and another gunman fatally shot an aide to the governor in Kogi state. With the possibility of widespread violence looming, it is imperative that the United States not sit idly by, but take strong proactive steps to head off a catastrophe.

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Congress is taking notice. A new resolution introduced by Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassWhitaker takes grilling from House lawmakers Congressional Black Caucus leaders call on Northam to resign Congressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker MORE (D-Calif.) urges the Nigerian government and political parties to ensure electoral accountability and non-violence. Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee held a hearing on the upcoming elections. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy pledged support for efforts to prevent and mitigate electoral violence and highlighted Ambassador W. Stuart Symington’s diplomatic engagement to ensure a credible, peaceful election. But sustained and higher-level diplomatic engagement is required to deter the worst forms of violence.

An outbreak of violence after the controversial 2011 presidential vote in Nigeria left more than 800 people dead. My organization, Mercy Corps, operates humanitarian and peace-building programs in many parts of Nigeria. We have observed recent violence on the ground, and emerging warning signs include a rise in disinformation and hate speech spread by politicians and parties, which can trigger violence.

With the election just around the corner, the window for the United States to mount effective violence prevention strategies is rapidly closing. Thankfully, there is precedent for action. After the disastrous outfall of the 2011 election, Nigeria experienced its first democratic transfer of power in 2015, due in part to pre-election engagement from the United States.

Prior to that election, the secretary of State traveled to Nigeria to meet with the candidates and encourage all parties to refrain from actions that might incite violence. He and his British counterpart reiterated that message through an op-ed in Nigerian newspapers; the U.S. president and vice president also engaged with Nigeria’s leadership; and senior government officials appealed directly to the Nigerian public to maintain peace, including a video message from President Obama.

It is urgent that the United States seek to replicate the 2015 approach. That’s why Mercy Corps and 17 other organizations working in Nigeria recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHeather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents MORE urging the State Department to take swift action, including:

  • joint messages from the heads of state emphasizing the international community’s shared commitment to peaceful elections;
  • Cabinet-level official visits to Nigeria; and
  • calls from Cabinet and White House officials to Nigerian candidates.

This messaging must include warnings of punitive measures, such as visa bans and targeted financial sanctions, against individuals who incite violence. However, even after the congressional hearing last week, it remains unclear how much U.S. foreign assistance the administration has invested in programs to prevent electoral violence and if Secretary Pompeo will travel to Abuja in advance of the election to help ensure a peaceful vote. The Trump administration’s new Africa strategy, unveiled last week, made no commitments to advancing democracy or investing in violence prevention.

Mercy Corps is working with religious leaders to develop poll-monitoring plans and hold joint interfaith sermons in communities. We are sharing positive civic engagement messages through local media channels and hosting conflict prevention forums. This local action is needed, but Nigeria also needs the support of the United States and international community to ensure a peaceful election.

Diplomatic action in 2015 provided a successful model of U.S. engagement to maintain peace. We should learn from our success and replicate it, not reinvent the wheel every election cycle. If the United States fails to heed the warning signs of election violence, the repercussions could be tragic for Nigeria’s 190 million people and to the economic and security interests of the United States. In Nigeria and elsewhere, the U.S. government must assess the prospect of electoral violence further in advance and commit high-level diplomatic action and foreign assistance to prevent it. The time to act is now.

Richmond Blake is director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps, where he manages the organization’s Africa, conflict prevention and countering violent extremism policy. He also leads a coalition of 50 organizations in support of the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act. He previously served as a foreign service officer and policy adviser to the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights, and as deputy director of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.