By Tonnie Iredia
With only 72 hours to the official commencement of the 2023 general elections in Nigeria, the National Peace Committee headed by Abdulsalam Abubakar retired Army general and former Head of State must be warming-up for the signing of the next set of peace accords. At the end of a meeting of the members of his committee held 4 days ago in Minna, Niger State, Abdulsalam made it known that his committee would once again require top political leaders to sign an accord to maintain peace ahead of the 2023 general elections.
He attributed the expectation of his committee to the fact that during electioneering campaigns in Nigeria, politicians and their supporters create incitements which could endanger the country’s peace. In the words of the committee chair, “the pattern of public communication among political actors, their publicity agents, spokespersons, and media consultants always amplify the potential for personal attacks, insults, and incitement.”
It is difficult to disagree with Abdulsalam’s observation because in Nigeria’s elections, there have always been reports by many people who witnessed attacks by politicians and their supporters on their opponents –a trend which had for long shifted focus away from issue-based campaigns to the politics of thuggery in the country.
Sadly, the situation has not changed since 2015 when the peace committee began its principled mandate of seeking to establish a reasonable level of civility and decency in public discourse and debates associated with electioneering. Peace accords notwithstanding, the National Human Rights Commission, reported in 2015, a total of 61 incidences of election violence in 22 states in which at least 58 people were killed in different parts of the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria. Perhaps because the situation did not improve, the peace committee became more specific 4 years later.
The thrust of the committee’s demand as documented in the accord they prepared for the 2019 elections was for the political leaders to commit to run issue-based campaigns and refrain from statements that have capacity to incite any form of violence. Where any breach occurred, the same leaders were expected to forcefully and publicly speak out against provocative utterances.
This clear documentation was not adhered to in spite of the peace accords that were signed by the respective party leaders. A good example that Nigerian political parties perceive the peace accords as mere rituals which they would never follow is the case of Kogi state where some unknown persons in 2019 barred the SDP candidate from entry into the hall in Lokoja where the peace accord was to be signed. Is it politicians who can bar an opponent from the venue of the signing of a peace accord that would in all sincerity respect the so-called accord?
Whether or not the peace accords have continued to be observed in the breach or whether the situation has improved can best be understood from events of the last few months in which governorship elections were held in Ekiti and Osun states respectively. In Ekiti state as many as 5 of the 16 parties shunned the peace accord signing ceremony. According to the media, several violent clashes between rival political parties had made some of the parties and even voters to lose faith in the contest.
Campaigns in the last few days to the election had been reportedly rancorous between the leading parties to the extent that deaths and injuries were recorded. In Osun state, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and candidate of the Labour Party, Lasun Yussuf, was conspicuously absent at the signing ceremony.
His absence was said to have been influenced by an attack on him by unknown gun men late at night a few days earlier. One of his aides revealed that Lasun was still nursing fears from unending threats to his life as at the point of the signing of the peace accord, especially as he received no assurances of his safety from the law enforcement agencies.
From the above reports, it is now obvious that some political parties are increasingly beginning to see the peace accords as mere formalities as the more powerful candidates belonging to the ruling parties display more interest in the use of force to intimidate opponents. To start with, in virtually everywhere, such powerful forces do not allow for a level playing field. They always deprive others of the use of public spaces like stadium for rallies just as they direct public broadcast stations to not transmit opposition campaign materials.
This is particularly provocative as the electoral law specifically directs such organs of mass communication to provide equal opportunities to all parties. In Osun for example, the ruling party disallowed the opposition parties from using both the Osogbo stadium or the Freedom park to hold their mega rallies. What type of peace accord would endure under a circumstance in which different parties to the so-called accord are not equally positioned?
There are two issues which illuminate the fact that each of our peace accords in Nigeria is ill-fated. The first is the timing of the accord while the second is its scope. The problem with the first issue is tied to the erroneous impression that an election is in every respect the same as voting. In reality however, pre-voting issues such as party primaries and campaigns are part and parcel of election. Therefore, to assume that the best time to appeal to politicians and voters for peace is the eve of voting is rather simplistic.
Arrangements to short-change opponents that are made before voting day are usually too many and too devilish to be overlooked when they mature. Indeed, party members who had been cheated during party primaries are ever so willing to partake in whatever it takes to undo their party flag bearer who got the fag by fraud. So, the National Peace Committee ought to be told that no Nigerian politician relies on peace accords to win an election and none believes that participating in the signing of a peace accord means adhering to its tenets.
The second issue at stake referred to as scope concerns the number of persons and groups that ought to sign the accord. Here, the belief that politicians are the only persons obstructing electoral peace in Nigeria is again a weak conclusion. If the truth must be told, ample damage that impedes peace is the handiwork of some societal institutions that are sometimes invited to witness the signing of the accords.
Peace certainly loses value if those who can stop unknown gunmen from hijacking ballot boxes are themselves overwhelmed. Indeed, on the day the SDP governorship candidate who was an accredited signatory was stopped by unknown gun from entering the venue of the Lokoja peace accord, our official gunmen who should have stopped them were not only on ground, their foremost boss, the then Inspector-General of Police was personally in attendance.
If unknown gunmen can successfully determine participation in the signing of an agreement, who will supervise the attainment of peace? My considered opinion is that it would make more sense if the police boss would also sign the accord committing his team to maximum enforcement of law which ensures peace
Apart from what we see during the settlement of election disputes especially courts that wrongly grant injunctions and assume jurisdiction, there is plenty of evidence that the judiciary contributes greatly to political violence in the country. Here, it is hard to forget the revelation by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Stanley Shenko Alagoa, that “some judges collect bribe from politicians and traditional rulers to pervert the course of justice.”
Considering that using the judiciary to win elections subsists in Nigeria, it is time to invite the relevant heads of courts to sign our famous peace accords committing themselves and their teams to ensuring peace through proper dispensation of justice. It is similarly in order to invite relevant INEC bosses to commit themselves and their colleagues to end insider abuses in the electoral body which always provoke violence. If we are not prepared to go the whole hog, our peace accords would remain mere rituals notwithstanding that those who conceived the noble idea are transparently people of honour.