Book Project

Political Order and Election Violence in Nigeria: Governors, Godfathers, and Social Movements

A rapidly growing literature on election violence has revealed a number of country risk factors, including economic malaise, weak rule of law, majoritarian electoral institutions, the presence of an incumbent candidate, a history of exclusionary politics, weak political parties, high inter-party competition, and international election observation.  These studies have advanced our understanding in important ways of how national-level institutional, economic, and contextual variables, as well as international actors, help to create a country environment that is conducive to election violence.

Election violence is not a national-level phenomenon, however.  Like other types of political violence, it is not spread evenly across a country but rather, is concentrated and reoccurs in specific localities within countries.  For example, despite having the same electoral institutions, some areas of a country are peaceful after election results are announced, while others are marred by post-election riots.  Where inter-party competition is high in national elections, political parties threaten and terrorize voters in some regions, but not others.  Voters engage in deadly clashes in certain districts, but not elsewhere, despite shared historical legacies.  Because the economic, institutional, and contextual risk factors studied in previous work are constant across subnational units, they cannot explain within-country variation.  To understand when, where, and why election violence occurs, attention to local politics is essential.

My book advances scholarship on election violence by studying subnational variation in this phenomenon, specifically elite recruitment of social movement leaders and their followers for election violence.  I gain leverage over this question with comparative case studies of gubernatorial elections in Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country, biggest economy, and frequently violent elections.  I argue that when governors and powerful party elites – commonly referred to as “godfathers” in Nigeria – are in conflict with another, gubernatorial elections become highly competitive.  In this environment of electoral uncertainty, governors and godfathers have powerful incentives to recruit social movement actors to carry out election violence.  Outsourcing election violence to these groups gives political elites plausible deniability, reducing the reputational costs of violence.  In addition, governors and godfathers also turn to social movement leaders to mobilize voters for them when elections are competitive.  Conversely, when a single elite actor dominates state-level politics and elections are uncompetitive, they have little incentive to engage in the costly project of enlisting social movement actors for election violence, which would advertise weakness and create future security challenges.  I analyze most-similar and most-different cases of gubernatorial elections within and across Nigerian states to support the argument.  Specifically, I study governor and godfather recruitment efforts vis-à-vis the Indigenous People of Biafra in Anambra State, O’odua People’s Congress in Lagos State, the Ijaw Youth Council in Rivers State, and Boko Haram in Borno State, drawing on rich qualitative data (including local newspaper accounts, election observer reports, NGO reports, and detailed histories and ethnographies) to support the causal mechanisms.  I also conducted over 150 semi-structured interviews with a wide array of actors during in-country research in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2019.

The book makes two other contributions in addition to explaining subnational variation in election violence.  Previous work has largely focused on inter-party competition as a driver of election violence. Yet in Africa – where 50 per cent of elections since 1990 have been marred by violence – many countries have dominant party systems and inter-party competition is low.  Competition is not eliminated however; instead, it takes place within political parties.  While existing work focuses on intra-party violence around the nomination process, I show how it spills over into the general election. The book bolsters recent arguments that managing intra-party competition is essential to advancing peace and democracy.

Finally, the findings engage a broader scholarship on the relationship between political order and violence.  The reformist social movements studied in the book  were driven by mass frustration with personal rule, corruption, and state violence.  While they had radically different political agendas, they similarly condemned patronage politics, called for transparency and accountability, and gained significant support from local communities in their early years.  Yet the very political practices that these groups railed against – and laid fertile ground for their emergence and initial support – also incentivized political elites to recruit them for election violence.  The theory and evidence reveal how the dynamics of personal rule in Nigeria produced both the supply for election violence – reformist social movements – and elite demand for election violence.