Nigeria 2023: In Lagos, history of voter intimidation, harassment worry opposition parties

By Ben Ezeamalu
Posted on Friday, 16 December 2022 09:10

Officials count votes in front of voters during the presidential and parliamentary elections on February 23, 2019, at a polling station in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria.(Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Barely an hour after a group of medics providing free treatment to residents in a Lagos community settled to work, the thugs attacked: they tore their banners, forcefully removed the face caps of some doctors, and threatened to beat everyone up.

“They were not even bothered whether policemen were there or not,” says Dafe Okpalefe, the Labour Party chairman in Eti Osa local government in the state. “At [one] point, the doctors were saying ‘we need to pack up and leave this place’.”

The incident occurred in Ilasan, Eti Osa local government in Lagos, in November, when some support groups for Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, organised a medical outreach for provision of free medical services for sick residents.

However, the harassment and intimidation exhibited by supporters of the All Progressives Congress, the ruling party in Lagos, is common during election season.

Opposition party members worry that as the 2023 election approaches, such attacks will continue, albeit with more intensity.

Attacks, threats

The presidential and federal parliament elections will be held on 25 February 2023, while that of the governorship and state parliament will take place two weeks later.

In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, there are usually pockets of violence on election day. However, the frequency appears to have hit fever pitch in recent years.

Some analysts say the attacks began to intensify after the 2015 election, where the major opposition party in the state, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), won 14 seats – eight in the state parliament and six in the federal parliament.

Two years later, during the local government elections in Lagos, cases of voter intimidation and harassment were reported in several polling units, mostly in the PDP strongholds.

In 2017, Chinedu Ezugha, a PDP vice chairmanship candidate in Ajeromi-Ifelodun, said he could not vote on election day because of threats to his life.

“Before the election, some of the thugs that were close to me had come to my place to come and warn[ed] me that I should not come out,” says Ezugha, an Igbo from Anambra State.

[There was] ballot-snatching and beating up of party agents, even those they perceive will vote against them, whether Igbo or Yoruba.

“My younger brother was beaten up for no reason. They said he’s the younger brother to the aspirant. Many of my people were beaten up that day.”

Similar scenarios played out in Amuwo Odofin, Oshodi-Isolo, Ikeja, and other local governments where a sizable fraction of the voting population are non-Yorubas. The outcome was the ruling APC sweeping the entire 57 local councils in the state.

The ruling party’s intimidation and harassment continued in subsequent elections.

“In 2019, [things got] worse,” Ezugha says. “[There was] ballot-snatching and beating up of party agents, even those they perceive will vote against them, whether Igbo or Yoruba.”

‘Not too good experience’

By the 2019 governorship election, the voter turnout in the state had shrunk: there were at least half a million less voters compared to 2015.

According to The Punch newspaper, Lagos State recorded the lowest voter turnout in the country during the governorship and state legislature elections: just over one million people cast their votes out of 5.5 million eligible voters (18%).

The PDP did not win any seat in the state parliament. They, however, won two in the federal parliament. Hakeem Amode, the PDP spokesperson in Lagos, attributed their dismal performance in 2019 to the threats of violence.

“The governing party in Lagos is known to be using […] intimidation, […] thugs, the touts in Lagos to intimidate voters,” Amode tells The Africa Report.

“And that is why we usually have low turnout because people are scared of their lives. There will be a change of system in Lagos if there is [a] free and fair election.”

‘Treading with caution’

Since the return of democracy in 1999, Bola Tinubu has had a stranglehold on the state. He avoided public office after the expiration of his governorship term in 2007, but remained instrumental in determining who governs Lagos or sits in the state and federal parliaments.

However, for the first time in 20 years, Tinubu will be on the ballot again. Amode says the implication is that the voter intimidation and vote-buying that was witnessed on election days “is going to escalate to the form that we have never seen”.

In October, suspected thugs from the ruling party attacked PDP members who had gone to campaign in the Badagry area of the state. Amode said one of those injured, a journalist, “nearly lost his life”.

Seye Oladejo, the spokesperson of the APC in Lagos, says he is unaware of any attack on Labour Party members by supporters of his party. “Whoever is attacked, politics or no politics, they should be able to lodge a formal complaint to the law enforcement agents.”

We are treading with caution, but it shouldn’t be so.

Oladejo says the claim that APC thugs in the state harass and intimidate the opposition party voters in the state “is neither here nor there”.

“No party can claim to be doing as much as we are doing in terms of awareness and campaigns, sensitising people and knocking on their doors, talking directly to the voters.”

Ahead of the 2023 elections, Nigeria’s electoral commission introduced the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), an electronic device that reads and authenticates voters’ cards using fingerprints.

Analysts say this technology could end the cases of voter harassment and intimidation as well as the snatching of ballot boxes on election day.

In Eti Osa, Okpalefe says the Labour Party groups in the local government have resorted to holding their meetings at different locations to avoid being attacked.

He says party members paste the campaign posters of their candidates at midnight so as not to attract attention. The posters, however, disappear or are defaced after a day or two.

Okpalefe says he is worried that things might get worse as the election draws near. “We are treading with caution, but it shouldn’t be so. There should be a level playing field, for people to place their ads and our campaign materials without any fear of harassment.”

“But as it is today, it is difficult.”

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