As Nigeria's national elections approach, the threat of Boko Haram to the election and to Nigerian democracy is assessed by Ryan Cummings.

On 14 February* an estimated 68.8 million Nigerians will cast their vote in the country's much anticipated general election. Like its predecessors, this election is expected to be a tumultuous affair. Inter-and intra-party rivalries; ethno-political communal tensions; divisive and inflammatory politicking; and ever present electoral malfeasance are all factors that could threaten the relative security of the vote. However, Boko Haram is likely the most tangible and ubiquitous threat to holding peaceful elections. The Islamist extremist group has numerous motivations to violently disrupt the impending voting process.

Boko Haram's relationship with electoral processes in Nigeria has always been ambivalent. Indeed, one account holds that it was in part an election that transformed the once nonviolent, isolationist, Islamist social movement into the brutal killing machine it is today. Although the exact origins of Boko Haram are debated, the prevailing school of thought identifies the group's origins as a proselytising Islamic social movement in the late 1990s. Its raison d'etre changed, however, after its charismatic leader was ostensibly co-opted by the aspiring Maiduguri politician, Ali Modu Sheriff. As the story goes, Sheriff solicited Yusuf's support of his candidacy for governor of Borno state in the 2003 election. In turn, Sheriff allegedly promised to implement sharia law in its totality in Borno state if he was elected governor.

After winning the Borno state governorship, however, Sheriff reneged on his agreement — angering Yusuf and his supporters. Yusuf started preaching directly against Sheriff and the federal government, eventually declaring Sheriff an apostate in 2007. This rising aggresssion against the government elicited a spate of police crackdowns. The most significant of these occurred in July 2009 when hundreds of Boko Haram supporters, including Yusuf himself, were killed at the hands of the police.

A rejection of electoral results could incite significant outbreaks of unrest

While these events may have served to strengthen the group's abhorrence of the democratic process, democracy has always been inconsistent with its ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islam. Security crackdowns likely reinforced Boko Haram's core contention that Nigeria's secular government, modeled on a western democracy, is morally corrupt and should be destroyed. As elections are perceived as the cornerstone of western democracies, they are an important target in Boko Haram's campaign to undermine any process supporting the Nigerian government.

But Boko Haram's targeting of the voting process may also coincide with the group's objective of creating an Islamic emirate similar to the historic Bornu-Kanem empire. By increasing armed attacks across a large geographic area during the elections, Boko Haram will force the security services to increase security in regions outside Boko Haram's main arera of operations. In doing so, the federal government will need to leave Borno, Adawama and Yobe states less secure, thereby providing the group freedom to expand and strengthen its nascent 'caliphate'.

Boko Haram's election-related violence may also ferment a political crisis in Nigeria. The areas worst-affected by the Boko Haram insurgency are political strongholds of Nigeria's opposition parties, which have consolodated under the All Progressives Congress (APC). Within this region, at least 1.6 million people may be disenfranchised due to either displacement because of violence or because their residence (where they must be to cast their ballot) is within the estimated 20,000 square kilometres of territory under Boko Haram control.

This scenario is one of grave concern for Nigeria. A definitive electoral victory for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) may well be rejected by the APC amid allegations that the ballot was not inclusive and consequently illegitimate.

Precedent suggests that a rejection of electoral results, based on perceived lack of inclusivity, transparency or fairness of the ballot, could incite significant outbreaks of unrest. This was perhaps best exemplified during Nigeria's 2011 presidential elections, when at least one thousand people were killed following accusations that the PDP rigged the vote. As was the case in 2011, Nigeria's opposition-held northern states, in addition to the country's politically polarised Middle Belt region, are particularly susceptible to spontaneous and protracted outbreaks of politically motivated violence. A repeat of such unrest could lead to an escalated deterioration in national security, the impact of which would last well beyond the conclusion of the 2015 election cycle. The resulting instability could readily be exploited by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram views the elections and all who participate in them as targets. Consequently, Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials and interests, including polling stations and ballot counting centres, in addition to political party offices and major public transportation hubs, could all be subject to attacks by the group. It is likely that the use of suicide and car bombings will remain the preferred method of attack, but targeted assassinations and armed raids against the aforementioned facilities cannot be discounted.

The areas of Nigeria most at risk of attack during the elections will undoubtedly be the north eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, where Boko Haram is most entrenched. However, the threat is also likely to extend to neighbouring states including Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, and Plateau. Nonetheless, a high value attack in an area which has not been significantly targeted by the insurgency also remains a credible threat. In this regard, Boko Haram may well seek to target a major city such as the capital, Abuja, or possibly even the city of Lagos to emphasise the extent of its perpetually expanding reach.

"We will not stop. This is not much. You'll see".

In his most recent video message, released on 21 January, Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the 7 January 2015 massacre in Baga in which it is reported that as many as 2,000 people were killed insurgents. In the thirty-five minute video, Shekau also warned that further violence awaited Nigeria by adding "We will not stop. This is not much. You'll see." This is an ominous threat of what may lie in wait for Nigeria as it heads to the polls.

* Note: The elections dates have now been postponed until 28 March and 11 April 2015.