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Natasha Akpoti: The woman who dared

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
20 December 2019   |   3:23 am
As I was writing now, I was not too sure that I would be able to remember the full name of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate – the major opposition contestant

Akpoti. Photo: BPWNIGERIA2

As I was writing now, I was not too sure that I would be able to remember the full name of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate – the major opposition contestant in the November 16, 2019, gubernatorial election in Kogi State.

So, it should not be surprising that I probably wouldn’t have heard about Natasha Hadiza Akpoti, the intelligent and courageous young lady who flew the governorship flag of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in that election if some fellows in the state’s murky political scene did not choose to attract undue attention to the state by stretching their desperation and crude politics to unimaginable extremes in their determination to run Natasha out of the governorship contest. 

Indeed, my interest in what happens in Kogi had been so badly depleted by the unedifying record of Gov Yahaya Bello whose most significant achievement in office appears to be his successful de-marketing of the very outstanding campaign undertaken by some young Nigerians to push for the greater participation of the younger generation in the leadership of this country. It is so demoralising that when anyone tries these days to applaud and strengthen the case of this laudable advocacy (whose delicious fruit was the signing into law of the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill by President Muhammadu Buhari on May 31, 2018), the predictable retort usually fired back at one is: what of Yahaya Bello, is he not a young man? What is the guarantee that other young people would not only replicate his dismal record if they assumed leadership positions? It is as bad as that. 

It was very clear as the Kogi governorship election drew close that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) had become very apprehensive due to the unedifying performance of their governor in Kogi who owed public service workers several month’s salaries. Imagine what it feels like to stay for some months without salaries to feed the family, pay house rent, school fees, and hospital bills! Is it not possible that some people might have died during this very excruciating period due to a lack of funds to solve their most basic needs like food and Medicare? That’s what Bello had subjected poor civil servants (some old enough to father him) to in his state. Obviously, the governor’s rating had achieved such a very low descent that the Kaduna State Governor and Chairman of the APC Campaign Council for the Kogi election, Nasir el-Rufai, had to kneel down during the grand finale of the party’s governorship rally in Lokoja, two days to the election, to appeal to the people to forgive Bello.

The wife of the president, Aisha Buhari, also joined her voice to beg Kogi people to forgive the governor and give him another chance. And just three days to the election, the APC-dominated senate approved the sum of N10.069 billion “refund” to Kogi State. Given the timing of this action, the impression out there was that the party had used its majority influence in the senate to put an election war chest in the hands of their candidate to overwhelm the largely disenchanted electorate and other contestants and grab “victory” no matter the cost. 

Indeed, the desperation and violence that attended the election have been widely condemned. In fact, the election was described by many as a “bloody war.” And after “the war” had been lost and won, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) announced to a shocked world that at least ten lives were wantonly wasted, with many others wounded. Even after INEC had said that it was Bello that won the gory election, thugs reportedly celebrating his victory went to the house of Mrs. Salome Acheju Abuh, a PDP woman leader, and set her and her house on fire, and reduced both to rubble!

And despite all these spine-chilling occurrences that left the civilized world dumbfounded, President Muhammadu Buhari hastened to congratulate Yahaya Bello on his “victory” and described the election as ‘a race well run and a victory well won.’ He urged those dissatisfied with the outcome to take their grievances to court. It was so saddening and very unsettling watching Natasha Akpoti’s interview on Arise TV shortly after the “bloody war” in Kogi that grossly diminished Nigeria in the comity of nations. It was most disappointing that Prof Mahmood Yakubu and his “Independent” National Electoral Election (INEC) could stoop so low to lend a helping hand to the desperadoes in Kogi to execute their crude self-help designs to deny this young woman the opportunity to seek the mandate of Kogi people. Why was it so difficult to allow a level-playing field so that the best candidate acceptable to the people could win, and those who lost would see clearly that they were rejected by the people and not shoved aside by the more violent and financially empowered co-contestant with the help of an electoral body that should have clearly underlined its neutrality?  Unfortunately, INEC seems to have perfected the egregious act of bending the rules guiding its operations whenever it finds it expedient in order to achieve some unwholesome ends.

The commission which had earlier declared that it lacked the powers to disqualify candidates (in agreement with a Supreme Court ruling of April 16, 2007, which clearly stated that “INEC has no constitutional power to disqualify a candidate from contesting elections without a valid order of a court”), suddenly assumed the powers to disqualify Natasha with the claim that her submission was “invalid,” because her deputy (and not her) was below the legally stipulated age of 35 for those running for the office of the governor and deputy. And to clearly underline its partisan interest in the matter, INEC rejected the effort by the SDP to replace the underage candidate even though, at that time, the legally allowed substitution window was still open. It instead went ahead to disqualify Natasha from participating in the polls.  It took the ruling of an Abuja High Court presided over by Justice Folashade Ogunbiyi-Giwa on November 7, 2019, to compel INEC to readmit her and her new running mate into the race. But by this time, the commission had succeeded in causing her to lose a lot of valuable time. She and her party had just a few days to campaign. And to further complicate her case, INEC excluded SDP’s name and logo from the result sheets claiming that it had instructed its officers to add them with pencils or biros, a directive the SDP has alleged was largely not adhered to by INEC officials, thereby, placing the party at a very great disadvantage during the collation of results.

By the way, where was INEC when the Zamfara State deputy governor, a thirty-three-year-old illustrious young man, passed through the entire process and won the election with his governor? Other cases abound and INEC was able to realise that it lacked the powers to disqualify them; but in the case of Kogi SDP candidates, it suddenly assumed the powers and disqualified them. 

As the election drew close, the SDP secretariat was vandalised and destroyed. Natasha has continued to accuse the governor’s thugs of being responsible for the mayhem. And to demonstrate that these were “privileged anarchists”, they allegedly spent about two hours razing the house, without any intervention from the police whose station was only two meters away. There were also uniformed security men observing the destruction, but no one can say if they were of “fake” or genuine policemen.  Also, few days to the election, INEC organized a stakeholder meeting in Lokoja attended by contestants in the election and party leaders.

An Assistant Inspector-General of Police (AIG) was also there as well as the INEC Chairman, Professor Yakubu and many of the top officials of the commission. But when Natasha arrived and tried to gain access to the meeting hall, she was verbally and physically attacked by thugs whom she alleged wore APC mufflers and the GYB (acronym for Gov Yahaya Bello) face caps. And despite the about 500 policemen and other security agents present there, nobody put forth a hand to help her despite appeals to them. Twice she fell down when she was hit and brutally pushed by her attackers.

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INEC was to later claim that when they learned about her ordeal, they sent their legal officer (not security officers) to help her! Well, she had to leave the venue when it became clear that her life was in very serious danger. But one of her campaign cars was damaged and her driver was wounded in the head. Now, exactly what kind of election took place in Kogi? This is one election from which videos have emerged showing uniformed men shooting into the air, causing voters and electoral officers to take to their heels, vacating the places for thugs to take away the ballot boxes and stuff them with thumb-printed ballots.

Sadly, despite the fact that over 35, 000 policemen were deployed in Kogi to ensure that the election was not disrupted by hoodlums, the Inspector General of Police could still tell us that “fake policemen” were able to overwhelm the thousands of genuine policemen on the ground to manipulate the process. This is quite unbelievable. What is the hope for this country and her democracy then? Natasha has alleged that her ordeal was tied to the fact that she is from Ebiraland like Governor Bello and so was seen as a big threat to his reelection bid. According to her, some of the thugs had called her all sorts of ugly names in the Ebira language and accused her of trying to jeopardize the “Ebira chance.”

She has also written to the Inspector General of Police alleging of plans by Gov Bello to terminate her life.

It is difficult to imagine how this young lady was able to summon the courage to push ahead despite the monumental obstacles placed before her and the obvious dangers to her life in the clearly shark-infested waters of Kogi politics. But by daring where many other women (and even men) would have recoiled and retreated into their shells, she has indeed become another shining example to many women out there. With her unyielding resolve despite the risks and obstacles on her way, she is telling them that they can also dare and make a great impact in the otherwise male-dominated political landscape of Nigeria. She is no doubt the heroine of the last Kogi governorship contest. One can only wish her well as she moves on to the next stage of her struggle, that is, the election tribunals. Other women also should be encouraged to always stand out and boldly seize the political space. I, however, disagree with her that a percentage of political offices should be allocated to women due to their gender. That is one badly limiting trap Nigerian women must never fall into, for it will forever hamstring them from aspiring to some particular “high” offices.

They should instead intensify their fight until they, by themselves, stamp their feet firmly on Nigeria’s political landscape and establish their presence in a way that no one can deny anymore. Hillary Clinton, after all, recently ran for the presidency in the United States and almost won the election not because some concession was extended to her because of her gender. She had leveraged the past efforts of other women and knocked several formidable men into a cocked heart to clinch the Democratic Party ticket. I know it is a long and tortuous journey in Nigeria here, but one day, and with persistence, our women will get there. 

Ejinkeonye is a journalist