Peaceful and credible elections are essential for democracy to thrive. When elections are peaceful, free and fair, it can help facilitate a smooth transfer of power from one administration to another and confer legitimacy on elected officials. Despite its importance, the process of electing leaders in Nigeria has been plagued by a myriad of problems ranging from voter intimidation and suppression, to harassment and outright violence etc. These acts which many Nigerians believe are sponsored by the political class have denied citizens their rights to participate in governance in a way that benefits them and society, directly or through chosen representatives. Marginalized groups like youth, women and people with disabilities are impacted the most. The role of Nigeria’s youth in election-related violence has been particularly dynamic, in that they have been perpetrators and victims at the same time. Due to eroding societal values and poverty, they are easy recruits for attacks on political opponents.
With the launch of the “Vote Not Fight: Election No Be War” campaign in 2014 and the awareness it raised around the dangers of election violence, Nigeria’s youth began to speak against this menace in successive elections. Before Nigeria’s 2019 national elections, the youth held simultaneous rallies in the 36 states of the country and announced their desire not to be used as a destructive force against their country’s elections again. As in previous years, the campaign’s leading partners, the Youngstars Development Initiative (YDI) and the 2Baba Foundation, received support from NDI to develop and implement
For the first time in the history of the campaign, leading governorship candidates in Anambra state in southeast Nigeria publicly denounced hate speech and electoral violence and promoted peaceful participation in elections and political processes. It was heartwarming for the VNF team to see that incumbent Governor Willie Obiano of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) and other candidates in the Anambra election went on to run violent-free campaigns in elections adjudged as largely peaceful by observer groups. These engagements continued through the 2018 off-cycle governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states and the 2019 general elections. During the 2018 Osun governorship election, Governor Rauf Aregbesola said the following when the 2Baba-led VNF team came calling “Violence endangers the freeness, fairness and transparency in elections, I support the VNF campaign.” Although the governor was not seeking re-election the candidate from his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and other front runners signed VNF peace pledges.
During the 2019 national elections, the campaign stepped up its engagements to include presidential candidates. Although the top two presidential candidates did not participate in the campaign, the VNF team met and secured commitments from other candidates. Prof. George Moghalu, the presidential candidate of the Young Progressive Party (YPP), did not hold back when the campaign sought his endorsement of its peace message. The former United Nations official and Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria said, “I want to say unequivocally that I, Prof George Moghalu fully endorse this campaign.” The presidential candidate of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN) also commented on the campaign stating, “The Vote Not Fight campaign is in line with my values as a person, and our values as a party… we are making a commitment that whatever you need us to do, we will be there.” More than ever before, the VNF is getting the attention of the political class.
Before the introduction of the VNF campaign, electoral violence was a much greater concern than it is today, resulting in multiple deaths. On May 11, 2011 for example, the Human Rights Watch reported that more than 800 people were killed in a three-day riot across 12 northern states – following the presidential election of that year. Since 2011, several national and sub-national elections have also experienced varying degrees of electoral violence with Nigeria’s youth fingered as perpetrators, but also the greatest victims. The VNF campaign has contributed immensely to the national dialogues on non-violent elections and influenced multiple stakeholders’ actions.
As a means of appreciating the efforts being made by the VNF to curb incidents of harassment and electoral violence in the country, the Nigerian Police Force in 2018 created a thread on their official Twitter handle saying:
“…the Vote Not Fight: Election No Be War is a non-partisan and youth focused voter education campaign that has been promoting constructive youth participation in Nigeria's political processes since the 2015 general elections."
“The campaign seeks to increase youth voter turnout and mobilize against hate speech, electoral violence and vote buying.”
The police tweets above followed a meeting between the Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) Abubakar Mohammed Adamu and the VNF team led by 2Baba. During the IGP meeting, 2Baba called on the Nigerian police to provide adequate security for voters, election workers, and other stakeholders before, during and after the 2019 general elections. He asked the Nigerian Police to be non-partisan in the discharge of their duties and promptly arrest and prosecute all election-related offenders irrespective of political affiliation, position and social status. Responding, Inspector General of Police Adamu expressed happiness for the visit – stating it was the first he was receiving from Nigerians seeking non-violent elections. He assured the VNF delegation that the Police will be professional and unbiased in the discharge of their duties. This did not fully play out as promised during the 2019 general elections, but there were gains in policing standards that can be built on going forward.
The VNF campaign may not have completely eradicated intimidation and other forms of electoral violence from Nigeria’s political landscape, but it is definitely reducing it. For example, a 2017 VNF retrospective study on the Anambra governorship election showed that the campaign had penetrated down to the grassroots and contributed to the peaceful outcome of that election. The study found that the youth focus of the campaign and the leadership provided by its Ambassador, 2Baba Idibia, were central to its success. Through the VNF, the youth are making a clear statement that their attitudes towards election-related violence are changing for the better, and have taken the campaign a step further by launching a Youth Policy Agenda, which provides them a platform to engage actively in governance and play a critical role in shaping policies that affect them.
The Youth Policy Agenda, a first of its kind in Nigeria, is a major success of the Vote Not Fight Campaign. Through NDI’s support civil society organizations in Ekiti, Kaduna and Osun states and a coalition of various youth groups set up state strategy committees, appoint LGA coordinators, and recruit ward volunteers to collect data on priority needs of youth across the states. The result of the data collected is a comprehensive Youth Policy Agenda which is now being used as a major advocacy tool to engage governments of each state and relevant stakeholders to drive youth policy initiatives in governance. The New Generation Girls and Women Development Initiative (NIGAWD) in Ekiti, One Project Afrika (OPA) in Kaduna State and Kimpact Development Initiative in Osun are the major partners who are driving this campaign in their various states.
Undoubtedly, Nigeria’s youth are rising to the occasion and taking ownership of their democracy through the Vote Not Fight Campaign.