Many Nigerians head into Saturday’s gubernatorial and state assembly elections feeling a mixture of optimism and dread. The former is inspired by the chance that the polls offer Nigerians to decide their socio-political future; the latter, by the violence which typically attends Nigerian elections. In 2011, as was reported by Human Rights Watch, a communal conflict in northern Nigeria concerning that year’s election left more than 800 people dead. And in 2015 and 2019, hundreds of lives were lost due to reasons connected to the elections held in those years. Recent examples of election-related violence can be mined from the recently concluded presidential and national assembly elections, which were held on February 25.
Social media and the news were awash with reports of electoral violence and intimidation, one of them concerning a woman named Efidi Bina Jennifer, who, as she voted in the Surulere area of Lagos, was stabbed in the face by some thugs. Likewise, one Tobi Olayinka reported that some armed men had raided her polling unit in Ojuelegba, Lagos, dispersing the voters and vandalising the ballot boxes as they fired shots in the air, before proceeding to raid three more polling units in the area. These instances of violence had occurred despite the Nigerian Police Force promising to keep Nigerians safe during the elections.
It is with these insecurities in mind that many Nigerians approach Saturday’s elections. Already, some have speculated that these insecurities will cause a low turnout among voters.
On social media, as a way of protecting themselves, many resolved to take their dogs to the polling units, urging others to do the same. This strategy had been deployed by some End SARS protesters in October 2020, as a way of warding off miscreants from protest grounds. But the Nigerian Police Force caught on to the scheme, and, on March 7, banned dogs and pets from polling units, claiming the presence of pets at the polling units violates the Constitution. Many, however, have disagreed with the police’s fiat.
So if the Nigerian police have not been able to adequately provide security for electorates, and if dogs have been barred from doing so, how then might a Nigerian electorate ensure his or her own safety this Saturday? These tips could help.
Keep mum about your political allegiance
Few things inspire passion as much as political beliefs do. But sometimes that passion can take a foul turn, willing people to inflict physical harm on those who do not share their political ideals or support their political party or candidate. Which is why you should mask your intentions on election day. As that popular quote on social media goes, “What people don’t know, they can’t destroy.”
You can avoid making yourself the target of rage by avoiding attires, bracelets, hand bands, baseball hats, and other such accessories which betray your political leanings. You can also do so by steering clear of arguments at the polling units which concern any of the electoral candidates. Utterances made during such arguments could offend supporters of a certain candidate, causing disarray and violence.
Keeping mum about your preferred candidate could also be the difference between your voting and your getting disenfranchised. Some reports on the elections held three weeks ago revealed that some supporters of a certain candidate and political party had been denied entry into their polling units which were dominated by supporters of another candidate and political party. In an ideal democracy, no one would have to hide their political choice for fear of violence or disenfranchisement. But democracy of the Nigerian variety is far from ideal, and so you are more likely to escape disenfranchisement if no one can tell where the pendulum of your vote would swing.
Take a self-sustenance kit
Elections in Nigeria are often a physically and mentally taxing affair. Voters often wait hours before voting commences, because the electoral process does not start as and when scheduled. This happened in several polling stations in the last presidential and national assembly elections, where voting was delayed either because the electoral materials were not readily available or because the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System machine was supposedly malfunctioning. This, coupled with the inadequate shelter at many polling units, left many voters, for many hours, under the unforgiving sun.
Meanwhile, voters in some polling units, such as in Delta State, had to brave a heavy downpour as they cast their votes. This is why you ought to go to the polling unit prepared for the worst, taking with you a first aid box, an umbrella, or a raincoat, while wearing sunscreen and/or a baseball hat to guard against the sun.
To stay hydrated through the process, you also should go to the polling unit with flasks of water. It is also advisable to pack some snacks, not only to stave off hunger but to remove the possibility of being offered food by certain persons at the polling unit, who, for their token of hospitality, might implicitly or explicitly demand that you vote for their candidate. Recall that vote-buying in Nigeria is an offence punishable by either one-year imprisonment or a fine of 500,000 naira.
Follow the news
You can ensure your safety during the electoral process by keeping your ears to the ground while in the polling unit. Because you most likely would not have access to a television at the polling unit, you could follow the news on the radio or social media or credible online publications to learn about the latest developments, especially those concerning security. Following the news keenly might just be the difference between your knowledge of and ignorance about a violent unrest happening only two streets away from your polling unit.
Report suspicious behaviour
To protect yourself and the rest of the people in your polling unit, you should be vigilant and willing to take the necessary action, which in many cases is simply reporting any suspicious activity in your polling unit to the authorities. The earlier you can spot any irregularity and report it, the more chance it does not degenerate into a grave situation. You can also use social media to report suspicious behaviour or any wrongdoing you may have observed in your polling unit. Sharing your observations on social media makes it easier to reach the authorities.
Emeka Okoro, a security analyst with SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based research firm, has given some more advice regarding safety during the elections. He advised against staying out late in the days leading to the elections and even on election day.
He also said, “Return home after casting your vote. Many will indeed tell you to stay back and ‘protect your vote.’ You can hang around to monitor the vote-counting process. However, staying back or loitering with other supporters after casting your vote may be detrimental.”
Okoro also advised taking a means of identification to the polling unit. This, he said, “will come in handy in case of a stop and search by the security agents or in the case of an emergency, and one can also not be mistaken for a political thug.”