Belfer Center Fellow Discusses Election Violence in Nigeria at HKS Seminar | New
Megan M. Turnbull, Belfer Center Fellow and Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Georgia, discussed the conditions leading to electoral violence in Nigeria during a virtual seminar hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School on Thursday.
Turnbull, who is currently working on a book that discusses the political order and electoral violence in more detail, provided three “big reasons” why electoral violence matters to scholars.
“It involves a lot of human suffering,” Turnbull said. “From a scholarly perspective, I think this book project advances the literature on election violence in an important way, and there is some policy relevance as well.”
During the seminar, Turnbull said she aimed to answer “the overarching big question of the book”, which explores under what conditions “political elites and non-state groups jointly organize electoral violence” in Nigeria.
Turnbull described election violence as a supply-demand relationship between political elites and non-state actors.
“On the demand side, the election violence datasets show us that the incumbents, the politicians, are overwhelmingly the biggest perpetrators of violence during elections,” she said. “On the supply side, who is committing electoral violence in the name of political elites?
Turnbull said that in the Nigerian context, governors and “powerful party leaders” – known as godfathers – are the political elites who create the demand, while the supply consists of non-state actors, including “co-opted, incorporated, contenders and challenger groups.
While co-opted groups are financially dependent on their political patrons, incorporated groups have “some autonomy and influence over politicians,” Turnbull said.
Turnbull defined “budding” groups as “budding incorporated groups”, which include smaller gangs and student groups.
“Their big motivation here is to try to carry out enough violence and generate enough insecurity during the elections to force politicians to open patronage distribution networks and turn them into incorporated groups,” she said. .
In contrast, challenger groups use election violence to “disrupt the political order and seek fundamental reform or even new political institutions”, according to Turnbull.
Turnbull, who conducted fieldwork in Nigeria from 2011 to 2019, said she pored over newspapers and conducted interviews as part of her research. In her presentation, she described the 2003 gubernatorial election in Rivers State as “an incredibly violent election.”
“A big driving force in this violence was a dispute between Governor Peter Odili, who was running for re-election, and his former sponsor, Field Marshal Harry,” Turnbull said.
According to Turnbull, the “elite conflict” between Odili and Harry – which stemmed from Odili’s withdrawal from his political affiliation with Harry – caused the two politicians to turn to different groups to engage in violence for them. The dispute, which began with a campaign hiatus, led to Harry’s assassination just weeks before the election.
During the seminar, Turnbull said that patronage — when politicians sponsor nongovernmental groups to varying degrees — as the “primary or most important source of political power” can help scholars analyze election violence.
“Understanding how the political order is constructed, maintained and challenged can tell us a lot about who organizes electoral violence, when and why,” she said.