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Published: February 9, 2015

Planning for uncertainty: Nigeria’s elections

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Maurice McQuillan, Global Advisor Staff Safety and Security, Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Former Humanitarian Manager, Trocaire (Caritas Ireland). He recently returned from Nigeria.

Sam Slota Newson recently returned from conducting risk analysis and election planning for an NGO in Nigeria as a Safer Edge consultant.


A recent EISF article articulated the security threats which prevent NGOs from delivering much needed aid in north east Nigeria. Whilst the scale of Boko Haram destruction is extreme, violence is a constant issue for NGOs operating across the country. Impending elections raise the level of uncertainty: they may pass with little trouble, there may be sporadic violence across the country or significant religious, political or regional divisions could lead to widespread and intense violence.

This creates a dilemma as NGOs try to find a balance between keeping staff safe and continuing to deliver programmes. The date of the elections, and the possibility of violence, known in advance renders this dilemma more acute, potentially pushing NGOs into an overly cautious approach of stopping work, relocating or even evacuating. Whilst this may be the safest course of action it has downsides.

  1. If the elections go well and security is not significantly compromised NGOs will have unnecessarily disrupted the delivery of programmes.
  2. If the elections do not go well then significant additional population displacement is possible. Those that remain will be well placed to respond.
  3. There are security benefits to remaining during times of uncertainty as sharing risk builds trust. NGOs that remain may find they are better positioned to deal with bigger threats later.

What are the options?

Nigeria’s power dynamics are more complex than the north/south, Christian/Muslim, rich/poor dichotomies often presented. Whoever wins the election there are multiple competing scenarios that may emerge and NGOs cannot map, let alone plan for, all of them. Fund For Peace has done some excellent analysis, generating before during and after scenarios. The analysis is good but it cannot reduce the uncertainty.

When confronted by an array of threats, most of which you have limited to no influence over, one solution is to do the routine things well and focus on your capacity to react.

Consult within your organisation. Guards and drivers will come up with issues and solutions you would not have thought of. Involving them in the process will improve compliance with the plan. Furthermore, by conducting participative risk analysis you develop your staff’s ability to spot, judge and react to security issues. In a Nigeria context it is individual choices not complex written plans that will keep people safe.

Programme wisely. The elections are raising the likelihood and impact of routine risks; roads are awash with checkpoints and government convoys. Communal, religious and political divisions at the local level are accentuated by the high stakes game being played out in Abuja. Good programme planning: allowing extra time for journeys and avoiding travel on significant election days will reduce heightened proximity threats.

Consult widely. Discovering what others are concerned about and what responses they are planning may reveal issues you had not considered. Talking to other NGOs, Embassies, UN agencies and international businesses will give you different perspectives and ensure you are well networked and can benefit from others early warning .

Build security in to good operational management. Provide decision makers with the detailed information they need. Map staff locations, safe areas and likely extraction routes so that it is easier to visualise the problem and see the solution. This is particularly important where local staff know an area well, but international staff may not. Should a crisis point be reached clear presentation of information will support whoever is left making the hard calls.

Have a decision framework. It is impossible to provide prescriptive direction on how to respond to each event, but security specialists can help decision makers with a framework in which to weigh the significance of events, recognise a trend or progression and thus support a judgement call. Build on this by ensuring your hibernation, relocation and evacuation plans are up to date. If possible rehearse them in a map exercise and test your communications network at the same time.

Plan for the safety of all staff. NGOs may draw comfort from the fact that the target of election violence is unlikely to be the international community or NGOs but local Nigerians. This should not dissuade us from planning carefully and preparing assiduously. Most NGO staff members are local Nigerians.


Background reading

Nigeria votes 2015, Fund For Peace, undated 2015, http://library.fundforpeace.org/nigeria-election-2015


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