Nigeria’s president threatens violence against ‘thugs’ ahead of elections

Opposition labels Muhammadu Buhari’s statements a ‘call for jungle justice’

FILE PHOTO: A man sits next to a campaign poster of Atiku Abubakar, leader of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), after the postponement of the presidential election in Kano, Nigeria February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Luc Gnago/File Photo

The address, broadcast live on national television, was greeted by an approving applause from senior officials and party loyalists.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said he had ordered the military to be “ruthless” with those who engage in electoral fraud in Saturday’s rescheduled elections.

If that left any room for doubt, his next words were to the point.

“I warn anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs to snatch [ballot] boxes or to disturb the voting system, he would do it at the expense of his own life,” Mr Buhari said on Monday at an emergency meeting called by his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja.

Following a week's delay, Africa's most populous nation returns to the polls on Saturday. But the president's words have some Nigeria's worried about a possible repeat of the violence which has plagued earlier elections.

Nigeria’s main opposition party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), responded swiftly to Mr Buhari's remarks, calling them a "direct call for jungle justice”.

"It is indeed a licence to kill, which should not come from any leader of any civilized nation," PDP spokesman Kola Ologbondiyan said in a statement.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), an Abuja-based human rights advocacy group, said in a statement: “The directive violates the constitutional guarantee of the right to life and cannot be justified under any of the exceptions to the general rule.”

“Evidently, the president is out of touch with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 which he swore to uphold and this shows that the military mindset is still dominant in his acts and omissions,” said Eze Onyekpere Lead Director at the CSJ.

Nigeria’s Electoral Act does not prescribe death for those who engage in acts of electoral fraud but rather a maximum punishment of 24 months imprisonment.

Mr Buhari, a former military ruler in the 1980s voted into elected office in 2015, has often been criticised for circumventing constitutional due process.

In January, he suspended and replaced Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, who could have overseen any disputes over election results, despite the judge securing a temporary injunction.

The move was condemned by Atiku Abubakar, the PDP presidential candidate, as an act of dictatorship. The Nigerian Bar Association called it an “attempted coup”.

The EU, US, and the UK all expressed concerns over the timing of the suspension, so close to the presidential vote.

With the race deadlocked according to many observers and tensions palpable, there are legitimate fears over post-election violence.

Three electoral facilities housing materials needed for the vote were torched in likely arson attacks and an ISIS-linked terror group opened fire on a convoy carrying the governor of the northeastern state of Borno, leaving three dead.

The National Peace Committee, a non-partisan group led by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s last military leader and the man who ushered in this era of democracy, has been so concerned about the possibility of violence that it convened two meetings where candidates and political leaders signed a National Peace Accord pledging to accept election results and ensure a smooth process.

Nigeria has a history of elections-related violence. In 2011, Human Rights Watch recorded more than 800 people killed and about 65,000 displaced in three days of  violent attacks across 12 northern Nigerian states following the election of Following the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan.

Mr Buhari was then running as an opposition candidate, and after it became clear that he had lost, his supporters rioted in northern towns to protest what they alleged was vote rigging.

“Election-related violence, sadly, has been a feature since the beginning,” the Council for Foreign Relations said in its document tracking violence in Nigeria’s elections.