Book Project

Gangs, Governors, and Godfathers:

The Organization of Election Violence in Nigeria

What causes electoral violence and how can it be prevented? Policymakers and practitioners have asked these questions for at least the past decade. Despite enormous efforts and funding, election violence has refused to decline, even as the number of democracies around the world continues to grow. The problem is particularly urgent in Sub-Saharan Africa where approximately 50 per cent of elections since 1990 have been violent. Understanding election violence and its different forms is thus an urgent issue for researchers, the policy community, and voters.

My book project asks two questions: (1) under what conditions do politicians mobilize and arm local associations for electoral violence? and (2) how can this be prevented? Electoral violence is a local phenomenon; rarely, if ever, does it engulf an entire country. To better understand the drivers of electoral violence, the book drills down to the local level, where it is organized and jointly produced by politicians and local associations. I rely on a subnational research design that combines most-similar and most-different cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous democracy. Specifically, the book studies the Bakassi Boys in Anambra State, the Ijaw Youth Council in Rivers State, the National Union of Road Transport Workers in Oyo State, and the early politics of Boko Haram in Borno State from its founding in 2002 until a harsh military crackdown that drove the group underground in 2009. I use a wide array of qualitative data gathered during multiple fieldwork trips between 2011 and 2019 to shed light on patterns of election violence in these four Nigerian states.

The book shows how electoral violence is jointly organized and produced in Nigeria by politicians who act as the “demand” for violence and local associations with high youth membership that serve as the “supply.” I show that places plagued by electoral violence differ from those which do not in a key way: elite rivalry, commonly referred to as “godfather politics” in Nigeria, and leadership rivalry within local associations. Together, these rivalries make for an explosive combination that result in electoral violence as politicians and competing factions in local associations ally with one another to out-do their competitors. I also show when and where local institutions- traditional indigenous groups and local civil society organizations- successfully intervened in these rivalries to reduce electoral violence over time.

The book directly engages policymakers and practitioners as well.  To be effective, prevention strategies must be tailored to the local context. My findings make the case that the policy community in Nigeria should work with local traditional and civil society organizations to invest in two prevention strategies: party conflict management, both between and within parties, and youth programs that emphasizes economic empowerment.