Nigerian politicians’ Dangerous Speech puts lives at risk on the eve of 2019 elections

Update 2/16/19: INEC, Nigeria’s electoral commission, announced hours before polls opened on Saturday that the elections would be delayed until February 23 due to logistical irregularities. We hope that politicians will use this time to reiterate their calls for peace.

Some Nigerian political figures have been putting their people’s lives at risk with Dangerous Speech, just as the country awaits presidential elections tomorrow – the first since the country’s only peaceful shift of power to an opposition party, in 2015. All other elections since Nigeria’s dictatorship ended in 1999 have come with mass killings, often following Dangerous Speech: more than 800 killed in 2011, 300 in 2007, and 100 in 2003.[1] So the politicians know they are playing with terrible fire.

President Muhammadu Buhari, his main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, and dozens of other candidates have just signed a new peace accord calling on their supporters to refrain from violence.[2] That’s good, but it comes disappointingly late, after streams of Dangerous Speech and numerous deaths in the course of the electoral campaign.[3]

For months, both major parties have been flinging predictions of violence and electoral misconduct at each other. On Jan 31, for example, the national chairman of the main opposition party, Uche Secondus, told a large crowd in the city of Asaba, on the Niger River delta, to expect “war” if President Buhari’s government rigs the election. He pressed his frightening message into the minds of the audience with call-and-response, saying “They will obey the Constitution and be neutral, but if they don’t, if they join hands with INEC [the national electoral commission] to rig this election, what are they looking for?” He got the shouted response he sought: “War!”[4]

On the other side, Buhari’s Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed accused Abubakar’s opposition PDP party of working with terrorist groups including Boko Haram, to orchestrate “widespread violence with a view to truncating the elections.” In Kano state, Mohammed said, “a group of notorious miscreants have been mobilized by some prominent opposition leaders to provoke massive chaos before, during and after the elections.”[5]

Predicting lethal violence from a group perceived as an enemy is a familiar technique of Dangerous Speech. It’s highly effective, since if people are persuaded that another group is planning to attack or kill them, violence against that group feels not only justified, but necessary and virtuous: it’s self-defense. Under the guise of warning people against violence, leaders often incite it.

Dangerous Speech is often false, and that has also been a major feature of this electoral campaign. Some of it is evidently designed to terrify Nigerian Christians with predictions that Muslims plan to kill, rape, and subjugate them – a message with power in a country that does suffer at the hands of extremist Muslim fighters under Boko Haram, and where both major presidential candidates are Fulani Muslims.

In early January, a message entitled “Fulani War Threat” circulated on WhatsApp. It was falsely presented as an English translation of a pamphlet in Arabic disseminated to mosques in northern Nigeria by a group called FUNAM, or the Fulani Nationalist Movement.[6] Staff at the outstanding civil society groups CITAD[7] and CDD[8] investigated and found that the group doesn’t exist. The fake “pamphlet” that circulated online seemed to call on Muslims to boycott the elections, and instead to prepare for holy war. During this election, several prominent Nigerians have also accused President Buhari of sympathizing with radical Muslim groups. After he began raising four fingers on each of his hands to signify the eight years for which he hopes to serve as president (two terms), former Aviation Minister Femi Fani-Kayode claimed it was instead the Rabaa or Rabia, a gesture used primarily in Egypt by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.[9]

Finally, threats and ominous predictions of violence have not been aimed only at Nigerians. On February 6th, 2019 the governor of Kaduna state, Nasir el-Rufai, threatened that foreigners who tried to advise Nigerians about their elections would be killed. During an interview on the Nigerian Television Authority channel, el-Rufai said: “Those that are calling for anyone to come and intervene in Nigeria, we are waiting for the person that would come and intervene, they would go back in body bags.”[10] Nonetheless Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia, is said to have successfully pressured President Buhari and Abubakar, his main opponent, to sign the new peace accord this week.[11]

We fervently hope that Nigerians will be able to vote freely and peacefully tomorrow, and that no one will end up in body bags. Nigerian leaders should continue to call for peace and renounce their own Dangerous Speech as often as possible, during the election and especially when the results are announced, which is the critical point at which most of the killings in previous elections have happened.

1.  Human Rights Watch. (2011). Nigeria: Post-Election Violence Killed 800. Human Rights Watch. Available at

2.  Mbah, F. (2019). Nigeria elections: Presidential candidates sign ‘peace deal’. Al Jazeera. Available at

3.  Mbah F. (2019). Fears of violence in Nigeria ahead of Saturday vote. Al Jazeera. Available at

4.  Sahara Reporters. (2019). BREAKING: There’ll Be War If They Rig This Election, Says Uche Secondus. Sahara Reporters. Available at

5.  Opoola, L. (2019). ‘Oppositions are orchestrating violence to truncate elections’ – FG. Daily Trust. Available at

6.  Various sources use the N to stand for National, Nationalist, or Nationality. This WhatsApp message uses Nationalist, but there are hardly any (10) Google search results for “Fulani Nationalist Movement”. Nationality has several hundred thousand.

7.  Iwuagwu, P.O. (2018). CITAD Flays Use Of Social Media To Fuel Ethnic/Religious Crisis. Centre for Information Technology and Development. Available at

8.  Onyedinefu, G. (2019). How FUNAM Is Fueling Ethnic, Religious Hate — CDD. Global Sentinel. Available at

9.  YZ, A. (2019). Four-finger Sign: CITAD slams Fani-Kayode for linking Buhari to ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Others. Centre for Information Technology and Development. Available at; Zelinsky, N. (2013). What This Hand Gesture Means for Egypt’s Future. The Atlantic. Available at

10.  Akinkuotu, E. (2019). Foreigners planning to intervene in election will leave Nigeria in body bags —El-Rufai. Punch. Available at

11.  Daka, T. (2019). Buhari, Atiku, others sign final peace accord. The Guardian Nigeria. Available at