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Belfer Center Fellow Discusses Nigerian Election Violence at HKS Seminar

The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is located at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is located at the Harvard Kennedy School. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By Jina H. Choe, Erika K. Chung, and Emma H. Haidar, Contributing Writers

Belfer Center fellow Megan M. Turnbull, a comparative politics professor at the University of Georgia, discussed the conditions leading to election violence in Nigeria during a virtual seminar hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School on Thursday.

Turnbull, who is currently working on a book that further discusses political order and election violence, provided three “broad reasons” why election violence is important to scholars.

“It entails a good deal of human suffering,” Turnbull said. “From a scholarly angle, I think this book project advances the election violence literature in important ways, and then there’s also some policy relevance.”

During the seminar, Turnbull said she aimed to answer “the big overarching question in the book,” which explores under what conditions “political elites and non-state groups jointly organize election violence” in Nigeria.

Turnbull described election violence as a supply-demand relationship between political elites and non-state actors.

“On the demand side, election violence datasets show us that incumbents, politicians, are overwhelmingly the biggest perpetrators of violence during elections,” she said. “On the supply side, who is carrying out election violence on behalf of political elites?”

Turnbull said that, in the Nigerian context, governors and “powerful party leaders” — known as godfathers — are the political elites who create demand, while the supply side consists of non-state actors including “co-opted, incorporated, wannabe, and challenger groups.”

While co-opted groups are financially dependent on their political patrons, incorporated groups have “some autonomy and some leverage over politicians,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull defined “wannabe” groups as “aspiring incorporated groups,” which include smaller gangs and student groups.

“Their big incentive here is to try to carry out enough violence and generate enough insecurity during elections that they force politicians to open up patronage distribution networks and make them 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 newspaper media 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 conflict between Governor Peter Odili, who was up for reelection, and his former godfather Marshal Harry,” Turnbull said.

According to Turnbull, “elite conflict” between Odili and Harry — which stemmed from Odili backing out from his political affiliation with Harry — caused both politicians to turn to different groups to carry out violence for them. The conflict, which began with campaign disruption, led to Harry’s assassination just weeks before the election.

During the seminar, Turnbull said patronage — when politicians sponsor non-government groups at varying degrees — as the “primary or most important source of political power” can help scholars analyze election violence.

“Understanding how political order is constructed, maintained, and challenged can tell us a lot about who is organizing election violence, when, and why” she said.

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PoliticsResearchHarvard Kennedy School