Nigerian 2023 Elections: Online Narratives & Election Violence
A country at the crossroads of Sub-Saharan Africa
By Alex Nelson, Senior Manager, Strategy & Analysis
Nigeria is expected to become the 4th most populous country in the world by 2050. Its burgeoning economy, long war against Islamic extremism, and broader influence in the region makes it strategically important for the US, Western Europe, and their allies. Meanwhile, China is intent on bringing Nigeria into its economic sphere of influence via the Belt and Road Initiative, Russia is expanding its political and military influence from North Africa and the Sahel to West Africa (both officially and through the Wagner Group), and Iran is opportunistically looking to influence the Shia minority that feels persecuted by the Nigerian government.
It is therefore crucial for the US, Western Europe, and their allies to support Nigeria in holding free and fair elections, which includes mitigating election-related violence, to help guide Nigeria on its path to becoming one of the world’s largest democracies.
Election-related violence persists leading up to the general elections in a country already plagued with internal conflict
With 95% of the Nigerian English-speaking population getting their news from social and online media and an increasing prevalence of online misinformation and disinformation1, Nigeria’s information environment is vulnerable to false, misleading, and toxic online narratives that could result in violence, cause a decrease in voter turnout, and decrease the perceived and actual legitimacy of the elections2.
Nigeria has a history of election-related violence, which has often been driven and/or exacerbated by ongoing ethnic tensions, Islamist, separatist, and militant organizations, and toxic political discourse. Over 800 people were killed in election-related violence after the 2011 elections and almost 50 of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) offices have been destroyed since the 2019 elections.
There has already been similar violence leading up to the 2023 general elections on February 25, which will decide a new President and members of the National Assembly. There were a series of attacks on INEC offices and local government offices in southeastern Nigeria from December 2022 through January 2023, some of which were blamed on the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) - a fragmented separatist organization that has fought against the Nigerian government to establish an independent state of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria. On February 2, 2023, armed gunmen attacked an INEC office in the southeastern Anambra State, resulting in the destruction of 800 ballot boxes and 200 voting stations, one death, and one injury3. This violence has caused some to question whether elections will be held at all in the region, despite assurances from the INEC.
Three online narratives that could cause election-related violence
Logically used its proprietary open-source intelligence platform Logically Intelligence (LI) and coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) detection model to identify and analyze three online narratives that could result in further election-related violence, which are ordered from the highest to lowest potential impact. Narratives #1 and #2 include potential signs of CIB and the potential tactic of tagging foreign government and media accounts to increase amplification.
1. Biafrans should not vote in the upcoming elections and push for Biafra’s independence from Nigeria
Users online called for Biafrans, who are predominantly Igbo, to not vote in the upcoming elections because Biafra should not remain part of Nigeria. Biafra is a region in southeastern Nigeria that unsuccessfully attempted to secede from Nigeria in 1967 during a civil war that resulted in over one million deaths4. Users also called for Biafrans to boycott the elections until Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the imprisoned leader of the IPOB, is released. Other users cited supposed oppression and violence by the Nigerian government against Biafrans as justification for the boycott and broader independence. A video on Facebook, which received 257 views and was reposted with the same text at least 3 times, purportedly showed Nigerian military forces moving into Biafra to “to commit genocides, extrajudicial killings of innocent Biafrans.” This post used hashtags such as #StopTheGenocide and #SilentSlaughtering. Another Facebook post using the same hashtags included a video of a woman giving a speech in a non-English language that received 12,707 views and was reposted with the same text at least 41 times.
Both posts also contained the hashtags #NoElectionInBiafraland and #fuckPVC, with the former referring to calls to not have elections in Biafra because Biafra should not remain part of Nigeria. The latter refers to claims that permanent voting cards (PVCs) are being withheld from ethnic Igbos (see narrative #2 below).
These posts tagged the official Twitter accounts of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, US State Department, the Delegation of the European Union to Nigeria, BBC, and other government organizations and officials and media outlets, indicating that the users were intentionally trying to amplify this narrative to both Russian and Western governments and media.
Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB)
There are signs that CIB may have been used to disseminate this narrative primarily from November 2022 through January 2023 by amplifying posts via hashtags on Twitter and the Facebook posts mentioned above that contained multiple hashtags:
- #biaframustgo - refers to calls for Biafra to become independent from Nigeria
- #freemazinnamdikanunow - refers to freeing Mazi Nnamdi Kanu
- #Prayformnk - also refers to Mazi Nnamdi Kanu
- #StopTheGenocide, #SilentSlaughtering - refers to claims that the Nigerian government is committing genocide against Biafrans
- #NoElectionInBiafraland - refers to calls to not have elections in Biafra because Biafra should not remain part of Nigeria
- #fuckPVC - refers to claims that PVCs are being withheld from Igbos
This narrative could depress voter turnout among Igbos and encourage further attacks on INEC offices and polling stations. CIB could increase the dissemination of this narrative and therefore the likelihood of the aforementioned negative impacts.
2. Permanent voting cards (PVCs) are being withheld and taken from ethnic Igbos to prevent them from voting
A video posted on Twitter that purportedly shows PVCs being taken away from ethnic Igbos in Lagos received over 16,000 views and was retweeted 93 times. Some users claimed that the INEC is doing this intentionally to suppress Igbos. One user tagged the official Twitter accounts of the US Embassy, UK Embassy, CNN, BBC, and other government organizations and officials and media outlets, indicating that the user was intentionally trying to amplify this narrative to Western governments and media.
Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB)
There are signs that CIB may have been used to disseminate this narrative primarily from November 2022 through January 2023 by amplifying the aforementioned Facebook posts from narrative # 1 that included the hashtag #fuckPVC.
This narrative could exacerbate existing ethnic tensions, reinforce narrative #1, and encourage further attacks on INEC offices and polling stations.
3. Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) machines are unreliable and exploitable.
The INEC is using new BVAS machines that identify voters via fingerprints and facial recognition to help prevent election fraud that has occurred in past elections. However, many users claimed that the machines are unreliable and can still be exploited to commit election fraud.
This narrative could cause voters to lose confidence in the integrity and outcomes of the elections and increase existing political tensions and the likelihood for violence.
Looking Forward: Unstable elections can lead to an unstable country
These and other online narratives could cause additional election-related violence leading up to, during, and after the elections, and therefore degrade the perceived and actual legitimacy of the elections. Such an outcome could cause greater instability in Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest and most strategic democracy and reduce its ability to promote democratic norms across the region.
US and Western European governments, media, and civil society can help mitigate the risk of election-related violence by helping partners on the ground identify and address potentially harmful online narratives, fact-check false or misleading claims, and increase partners’ capacity to promote factual and healthy online discourse.
Logically can provide all of these services through its proprietary open-source intelligence platform Logically Intelligence (LI), coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) detection model and other data science capabilities, team of dedicated open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysts, elections subject matter expertise, and regional experience.1. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2022/nigeria
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