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Protests in Port Harcourt over vote suspension


People shout slogans and raise placards to protest against the suspension of governorship elections in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on March 11, 2019. PHOTO:  PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

Several thousand people on Monday protested against the suspension of governorship elections in Nigeria’s volatile Rivers state following widespread disruption to the vote, as international monitors criticised violence at polling stations and called for electoral reform.

State elections took place on Saturday in 29 of Nigeria’s 36 states — two weeks after President Muhammadu Buhari was elected to a second term, in a poll denounced by his main rival as a sham.

In Rivers state, an oil-rich province in southern Nigeria held by the opposition, dozens of men in military fatigues encircled a vote counting centre in the state capital Port Harcourt, prompting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to halt the vote count on Sunday.


Nigeria’s military denied its soldiers were involved, blaming “political thugs” for impersonating the army to commit electoral crimes.

On Monday members of Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) marched with civil society groups in Port Harcourt calling for the state results to be announced.

“As a stakeholder in peace, we are not happy that this process was aborted mid-way,” protest organiser and APC member of Rivers state parliament Victoria Nyeche told AFP.

“If there are issues, the election tribunal is there to resolve them. What INEC has done is illegal and an invitation to crisis.”

The INEC stopped the count after citing violence at polling stations, the kidnapping of staff, and confiscation and destruction of results.

Regional elections are fiercely contested in Nigeria, where governors are powerful and influential figures, controlling state finances and responsible for key areas from education to health.

Rivers is particularly important because it is in the oil-rich Niger Delta region that accounts for much of the government’s revenue.

Although in power nationally, Buhari’s APC party is in opposition in Rivers and had no candidate in the governorship election because of irregularities in the primaries.

It had urged its supporters to back a candidate from the small African Action Congress (AAC) party.

The state is currently controlled by the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which also condemned the suspension of the vote count as a “barefaced assault… akin to a coup d’etat”.

“Army, police and INEC are working with APC to subvert the will of Rivers people,” said incumbent PDP governor Nyesom Wike.

AFP reporters in Port Harcourt said the atmosphere was tense, with soldiers manning roadblocks throughout the city, which has long been a flashpoint for political violence.

– Electoral reform call –
Situation Room, an umbrella group of more than 70 civil society organisations monitoring the vote, has called for an independent inquiry into the entire election nationwide.

It said Saturday’s vote, and the presidential and parliamentary polls of February 23, failed to meet the threshold for credible polls.

Dozens of people have been killed, including in Rivers, where it said since 2011 the “environment for elections feels like a war, disenfranchising citizens who want to participate”.

“This has gravely undermined governance and security in the state,” it added, calling for an end to the impunity enjoyed by those who orchestrate the unrest.

Buhari won the presidential elections last month by a majority of nearly four million votes. His defeated rival, Atiku Abubakar, of the PDP, is challenging the result in court.

Results are still coming in for governorship contests across the country, with the APC hoping to keep control in 22 states and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.

Both the European Union and the joint International Republican Institute/National Democratic Institute mission highlighted low voter turn-out in both rounds of the election and violence.

“A heavy military presence and vote-buying in some locations, as well as irregularities in the vote counting and collation process served to undermine the integrity of the elections,” the IRI/NDI said in a statement.

The chief observer of the EU mission, Maria Arena, called the violence at the weekend “deeply troubling” and said some of its 73 monitors were blocked from collation centres, apparently by soldiers.

In Rivers, there was “no doubt that the electoral process… was severely compromised”, she told a news conference in the capital.

The EU’s preliminary assessment into the elections as a whole said “systemic failings and electoral security problems” indicated there was a “real need for serious reform” in Nigeria.

“We echo the view of leading civil society organisations that say there is an urgent need to restore faith in the electoral process,” it added.


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