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Wrong template for election victory

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In the wake of the offseason governorship election of November 16 in Bayelsa and Kogi states, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, in conjunction with other concerned stakeholders, has resumed conversation on how to make future elections as near perfect as possible to allow it to conduct a free and fair election.
 
Worried by the various reports from local and foreign observers that the elections were far below the accepted standard, with some people calling for outright cancellation, the commission has commenced discussion with various groups, party leaders and the National Assembly to find a lasting solution to the various problems militating against the conduct of a free and fair election devoid of violence. 
 
During the two elections, thugs despite heavy security presence, had a field day, shooting and carting away ballot boxes. A total of 66,000 heavily armed policemen were deployed to ensure there was peace and to give voters a sense of security to come out and cast their votes. But the Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed, said fake policemen had overpowered his men making it possible for thugs to maim and kill without let or hindrance. Not less than 11 persons were reportedly killed including the PDP women leader in Ofu Local Government Area of Kogi State, Salome Abuh who was burnt alive in her house at noon, two days after the polls.

INEC and others who genuinely want a perfect system do have a difficult task ahead of them. I use the word genuinely because at this stage I suspect that the majority of politicians, who are desperate for power, do not want a free and fair election. They fear that in a free and fair election they don’t have snowball’s chance in hell. That, in my view, is responsible for the way we turn every little election, be it by-election or off-season election, as a dress rehearsal for the big battle that was yet to come. 

Take, for instance, the by-elections that were held in Rivers and Kogi States in August 2018, which came some six months to the General Elections of February 2019.  Held on August 18, that of Rivers State was a three-state constituency by-election. It was, on all counts, moderate enough for easy conduct and effective policing, but, unfortunately, not too difficult for thugs to put a spanner in INEC’s work. 

As usual, INEC had fully mobilized and deployed personnel and materials to the 142 polling units involved in a good time. But mid-way into the election, Obo Effanga, Resident Electoral Commissioner reported that “miscreants and hoodlums accompanied by heavily armed security personnel in uniform stormed the various polling units and registration areas disrupting voting activities, destroying and carting away election materials including smart card readers and ballot boxes.”

The mayhem didn’t end there. The commissioner spoke about the trauma his officials were subjected to. Many electoral officials, he reported, were manhandled, injured and held hostage.  

The Lokoja/Koto by-election conducted also in August did not fare better. It featured ballot box snatching, intimidation, gunshots by thugs and men in uniform. Punch of August 11 and other newspapers reported that the mob reacted by killing two persons who attempted to snatch ballot boxes. Police spokesman in Lokoja, DSP William Aya, confirmed that some persons were killed during the by-election, one of them in front of the palace of the Maigari of Lokoja. Like in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, the one in Kogi started peacefully enough but it was later marred by vote-buying, ballot box snatching, and other malpractices. I remember calling to find how Mohammed Haruna, the INEC’s National Commissioner in charge of North Central Zone, had coped during the exercise, he confirmed that gunshots kept him awake throughout the night.

The two by-elections under review happened before the General Elections. I am not quite sure if any of the offenders were arrested, prosecuted and punished to show that the government meant business when it came to ensuring high integrity for the elections. And since the audacity of the thugs and other hoodlums attracted no consequences, their pernicious braggadocio was bound to be repeated on a larger scale during the next elections. 

There was no guessing what would happen in these places and other states during the Presidential and National Assembly elections. At least in Kogi State, especially in my own local government area, I was an eyewitness to madness.  Days before the elections, thugs had begun to harass opponents, disrupting their rallies and killing persons believed to be opposed to the aspirations of their principal. 

These hoodlums were not unknown to policemen and other security agents, but they were powerless to prevent the anarchy they were warming up to unleash on election day. On the D-day when voters should go to the polls peacefully without fear of molestation to perform their civic duties in a civil manner, majority of them stayed indoors. Those who braved it to the polls were chased away, unless if the thugs were convinced beyond reasonable doubt that you were on the queue to vote the way they wanted you to vote. 

Any little altercation could lead to death. Don’t forget the death by gunshot of Daniel Usman who was due to register the following week as an undergraduate of the Federal University, Lokoja. He was shot at close range in the afternoon at Anyigba as he was on the line with other voters to cast his vote. Till this day, nobody is known to have been prosecuted.  

In other circumstances, people learn from experience. Not with Nigeria’s elections. It seems to have been fated that way; every subsequent election is worse than the preceding one. 

But what is worse is that we now seem to have finally arrived at the desired end with the recent elections. Unless something is done, and done quickly, desperate politicians have now discovered an effective template for winning elections. As attested to by both local and international observers, we now have a situation in which guns, more than other factors, decide the outcome of the polls. This is unacceptable. This template is evil, dangerous, undemocratic and unacceptable.

The ball is squarely in the court of the Independent National Electoral Commission. It must start this conversation by admitting that despite all its good intentions and beautiful plans on paper, something is wrong somewhere. It has, in my view, failed to deliver on integrity and scrupulous conscience. In its recent outings, it seemed to have been overpowered by the “fake policemen” who also overpowered the IGP’s 65,000 authentic policemen. 

These able-bodied policemen, armed to the teeth, were there with the mandate to ensure a free and fair election. Certainly, they did not appear to have been compromised. But by IG’s admission, they were clearly outmanned and overpowered. Otherwise, they would have done their best. INEC was also incapacitated by its own officials in the field who were either overpowered and compromised or they were grossly incompetent. Unfortunately, without any other independent means of verification, INEC had to rely only on the report brought from the field for its ultimate decision, no matter how compromised the report. 

All Nigerians who are worried by this dubious deployment of the gun and the bullet to secure victory at the poll amidst the orgy of violence, must lend their voices to the national discourse that would free the country from shackles of political charlatans.  

We must all support and encourage our leaders to develop the political will to do the needful. Luckily for us, there is enough time before the 2023 General Elections to review the Electoral Act, make the necessary amendment and pass it on to the president to sign it into law. The reason the president gave for not signing the amended Electoral Act at the eleventh hour was to avoid confusion because the election was at hand. Now with this luxury of time, we must cultivate the clarity of mind to do that which will promote the country’s greatness as a democratic nation.


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