Despite two decades having passed since the return of democratic governance in much of Africa, elections are still controversial and involve high levels of violence in some countries. In Nigeria, incidents of violence are due to the zero-sum approach to political competition and the militarization of elections. As a result, security agencies have to play an important role in election management.

This multi-faceted role spans the three stages of the election. First, the pre-election period: this includes providing security to candidates and their supporters during campaigns and political meetings. Second, during actual voting (election) stage when security agencies protect sensitive election materials, ensure the safe movement of people and materials, guarantee the safety of the voters, monitor voting stations and collation centers, and help maintain the overall integrity of the process. Finally, their role during the post-election period includes maintaining peace and security by preventing a breakdown of law as a result of violence or subversive activities.

Assessing the state of preparedness of security agencies for the 2019 elections

Given the myriad security challenges in different parts of Nigeria, including farmer-pastoralist conflicts in the North-central region, the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast, cattle-rustling and banditry in the Northwest, sporadic episodes of agitation over resource control in the South-south region, and incidents of kidnapping elsewhere, security agencies face an uphill task ahead of the coming elections. Some of the challenges facing security agencies are inadequate funding, poor logistical planning, ineffective inter-agency communication, and a capacity deficit, including personnel shortfalls. The UN recommendation of 222 police officers per 1000 people has not been met in Nigeria. Currently, the Nigeria police force has 370,000 personnel who are expected to cover 119,973 polling units across the entire country, which translates to a grossly inadequate ratio of 3 police officers per polling unit.

The security agencies have been stretched to their limits. Ensuring secure conditions for free and fair elections in such a volatile, politically charged environment is challenging. Recent developments, such as the suspension of Nigeria’s chief justice Walter Onnoghen (for failing to declare some of his assets) so close to the elections, and the fiery accusations and rhetoric of the spokespersons for the two leading political parties are contributing to the rise in political tensions in the country.

The situation is also not helped by the spread of vitriolic political messages—including false information—on social media by all kinds of faceless groups and individuals. It is also notable that most political campaigns by candidates standing for elective office are not issue-based, but instead seek to exploit divisive emotional, ethnic, and religious sentiments to elicit votes. It is also not uncommon for some candidates to induce potential voters by offering them gifts of cash, packaged food items, and party campaign memorabilia, rather than well thought out and articulated political programs. This gives political rallies the appearance of jamborees and venues for sharing spoils.

Despite the tense atmosphere in the run-up to the 2015 elections and the widespread perception that Nigeria was on the edge of a precipice, the reality was a far cry from the expected chaos. The 2019 general election is not likely to be radically different. State-level gubernatorial elections conducted under the current government in Edo, Ondo, Anambra, Ekiti and Osun states between 2016 and 2018 were mostly peaceful. As the 2019 elections approach, there are signs that security agencies are prepared to ensure free and fair elections. Some measures aimed at boosting performance include a pay rise in November 2018, the recent change in the leadership of the police force with the appointment of a new inspector general of police, and the redeployment of some state police commissioners. If there are no major surprises, the security agencies are expected, despite the challenges they face, to provide the conditions for a largely peaceful and orderly election.