By: Punch Editorial Board
Seventeen years into the Fourth Republic, conducting credible elections devoid of manipulation, fraud and violence is still a mirage. The December national and state legislative rerun elections in Rivers State offer undeniable evidence of this ugly pattern. They were tainted by malpractices, intimidation and killings. It is highly troubling that with all the security arrangements deployed ahead of the elections, these gruesome incidents still occurred.
Elections are a vital part of democracy. Modern societies place a premium on them because they mirror the will of the people. But the persistent charade in Rivers State reflects our acrimonious, winner-takes-all politics. The Independent National Electoral Commission organised the elections because the original ballot in March 2015 and the rerun in March 2016 were characterised by large-scale rigging and killings. Indeed, Rivers has become a notorious nest of electoral bandits.
The ugly trend manifested again in the latest elections, which were meant to fill the vacancies in the three senatorial, eight House of Representatives and 10 state assembly seats. INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, rightly condemned the assault on democratic tenets. He said, “Once again, the overwhelming blight on the December 10, 2016 election is the level of violence and thuggery. There were no fewer than 70 incidents of deliberate obstruction of the electoral process.” This is a direct contradiction to a credible election.
No wonder the European Union delegation led by Michel Arrion; the American Ambassador to Nigeria, Stuart Symington; the British High Commissioner, Paul Arkwright; and the French Ambassador, Denys Guaer; in a joint statement, bemoaned the elections. Their call on politicians to allow future elections to be peaceful is a critical piece of advice worthy of consideration by relevant stakeholders.
As we move towards the 2019 general election, the onus is on the Federal Government and its agencies to give Nigeria credible polls. The decision of INEC to carefully scrutinise the documented malpractices in the Rivers polls and take appropriate actions, in accordance with the law, resonates with right thinking Nigerians. But Yakubu must summon the political will to implement the recommendations to the letter.
INEC was forced to cancel voting and results in some of the 1,840 units because of ballot-box snatching and violence. It is crude politics that an election will lead to bestiality. In Abonnema, Akuku–Toru Local Government Area, 11 National Youth Service Corps members, who served as ad hoc electoral officers, were abducted, along with election materials. Similarly, at Emouha, five NYSC members were abducted with election materials.
The rerun election became even more contentious with the leak of an audio tape in which Governor Nyesom Wike allegedly threatened INEC officials to favour the Peoples Democratic Party candidates or return the bribes he had given them. The main actor in the tape threatened to shoot and kill the INEC officials in question if they did not return the monetary inducement he gave them should his candidates lose. Already, the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, has instituted a 15-man panel to investigate the veracity of the audio tape. If properly done, it could shed light on the malpractices that marred the elections. Another tape surfaced last week, purportedly featuring Wike and Ayodele Fayose, Ekiti State Governor, bantering over the former’s electoral exploits.
Yet, it is curious that the brigandage occurred despite the deployment of 20,000 police officers, 20 gunboats, three helicopters, military, State Security Service and civil defence personnel by the federal authorities for the polls. Two of the casualties were police officers, who were beheaded in Ujju, Ogba/Egbema Ndoni LGA, by local gangsters. Five other policemen fled the scene of the ambush, a notorious spot that had earlier claimed the lives of about five security agents. One Meebara Kormaga, 25, was reportedly killed in Bodo, Gokana LGA as security men shot indiscriminately at a polling centre. Deaths reportedly also occurred in other centres like Emouha and Luwii. Elections should not result in death; when they do, something is amiss.
The events in Rivers State echo Nigeria’s troubled political climate. Electioneering comes with a huge dose of apprehension. In November, media reports stated that INEC handed 100 of its officials over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for prosecution. The suspects allegedly compromised their oath of office in the 2015 general election by receiving bribes from politicians. Some of the Resident Electoral Commissioners reportedly collected millions of naira to subvert the process, a criminal act. All the instruments of state power should be deployed against these deviants.
Sadly, the security agencies and INEC officials cannot be exonerated from the infamy in Rivers. Post-election reports by domestic and international observers indicated that security personnel aided rigging. In Gokana, a top management staff of the Niger Delta Development Commission reportedly diverted election materials. This is utterly deplorable. The NDDC official was said to be moving around with armed police escorts, who fired gunshots as the team hijacked materials allocated for election. In Ikwerre LGA, an INEC representative reportedly made away with result sheets, a design that disenfranchised, among others, Rotimi Amaechi, the Minister of Transportation.
For our elections to meet the minimum global standards, as was the case in the November elections in the US and the Brexit referendum in Britain last June, INEC, the security agencies and the government have to raise their game. For now, they are hobbled by political sentiments. The PUNCH has repeatedly made a strong case for the prosecution of electoral offenders; the police, saddled with internal security, should start from this area. They should make intelligence their priority in the run-up to elections. It is a misnomer for hoodlums to hijack the process in the presence of security agents and still go scot-free.