February 2, 2015 / 4:08 PM / 3 years ago

Nigerian leaders must not stir up electoral violence: war crimes court

LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria’s leaders must not whip up violence around a presidential poll on Feb. 14 that has already triggered deadly skirmishes, the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Monday.

A man walks past a portrait of Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, who began his campaign on Wednesday for a second-term in office in Lagos January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, faces challenger Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, in an atmosphere of heightened regional, ethnic and sectarian tensions that many fear could to boil over into widespread violence.

The election is expected to be the most closely contested since the end of military rule in 1999.

“Experience has shown that electoral competition, when gone astray, can give rise to violence and ... even trigger the commission of mass crimes,” the ICC’s Fatou Bensouda said.

“Any person who incites or engages in acts of violence including by ordering, requesting, encouraging ... crimes within ICC’s jurisdiction is liable to prosecution,” she said in a statement.

Some 800 people were killed and 65,000 displaced in three days of rioting in the largely Muslim north after Buhari lost to Jonathan in 2011.

The ICC has been looking into possible war crimes in Nigeria since 2010, but few believe it would be keen to take on another powerful politician after being forced to drop charges related to 2007 electoral violence against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in December.

Supporters of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have already clashed in street battles that have killed several people.

Rhetoric has also been heated, with one PDP governor urging his supporters to crush APC “cockroaches”, in a chilling echo of the Rwandan genocide. The APC has threatened to set up a parallel government if the election is not fair.

Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which regards democracy as un-Islamic, is expected to disrupt the voting for both sides in the areas of the northeast where it operates.

A deadly car bomb went off near a stadium in the northeastern Nigerian city of Gombe on Monday, a few minutes after Jonathan left a party rally there.

Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Louise Ireland

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