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Akpotis’ debacle and how to overcome gender bias with inclusive political agenda

By Leo Sobechi (Assistant Politics Editor)
27 December 2019   |   3:47 am
The November 16, 2019 governorship election in Kogi State did much to reveal the contradictions in Nigeria’s practice of democracy, especially in the area of managing multi-party elections.

Natasha Hadiza Akpoti

The November 16, 2019 governorship election in Kogi State did much to reveal the contradictions in Nigeria’s practice of democracy, especially in the area of managing multi-party elections. Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had to announce results of the election, the electorate is yet to come to terms with the profiles of winners and losers.

However, one area of national consensus is the painful lot of women in their abiding quest for active participation in partisan politics, elections and decision-making in their constituencies. Based on the faltering narrative of the Kogi State gubernatorial poll, which is one of the seventh staggered off-season polls in the country, Natasha Hadiza Akpoti comes off as the epitome or defining character of the challenges Nigeria women face in electoral contests and decision-making.
While Akpoti could be considered a reference point in the Kogi debacle, Mrs. Acheju Salome Abuh, who was on November 18, 2019 incinerated in the most barbaric and macabre fashion by overzealous and unthinking young political louts, underscores the extreme intolerance women endure in the country’s polity.

Deborah as victim
BUT the 23-year old Deborah Omoba, who was hit by a bullet from a helicopter on Election Day lives to tell the unfortunate story through her near-vegetable state in a medical facility. The story of Deborah is a sad narrative of how elections have become a social equivalent of dangerous warfare. Her situation underscores the fact of extreme militancy by entrenched political interests, some times referred to as power of incumbency during elections.

Reports had it that a police helicopter hovered around major towns in Kogi State during the gubernatorial poll. However, although the police claimed that the copter was part of the process of providing security for the electorate to perform its civic duty, nobody has volunteered information as to how or why bullets were fired.

As victim Deborah lies critically ill at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Lokoja, with the bullet still lodged in her body, the bodies of four other innocent citizens that lost their lives when the helicopter allegedly released some shots and teargas on voters on queue, amplify the pain from the exercise. If those who came out to cast their votes lost their lives for their daring, victim Deborah, who was said to be sleeping quietly at the premises of the Apostolic Church headquarters, Ajara quarters, in the state capital, could not be blamed for engaging in any unwholesome activity.

Victim Deborah relayed the claim that the church was viciously attacked during the last general election. By their nature, women are often referred to us tender vessels or weaker sex. What then could be the relationship between bullet and ballot and the sad mix of a woman being shot?

There is no denying the fact that violence was a central feature of the Kogi State governorship election. As if to drive home the unfortunate tale surrounding victim Deborah’s accident, staff of FMC also told their own story of woe, detailing how the helicopter also released some shots on the premises of the hospital facility same day.

A medical doctor in the facility actually thanked providence for saving staff and patients of the health institution, stressing that while a live bullet was recovered at the consultant’s office, another live bullet was recovered at the hospital’s library.

Aida Ogwuche
Aida Ogwuche had her sullen story to tell after she aspired to represent Ogbadibo State Constituency in Benue State House of Assembly. Recounting her sordid experience, Aida, who incidentally is a lawyer, said she returned to Nigeria in response to calls by her people to represent them. However, unknown to her, the entrenched political godfathers, who felt that she was coming to challenge their authority, decided to teach her some lessons in grassroots politicking.

On the day of the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) primary in her ward, her supporters were not only chased away, but were cleverly substituted. She had to escape with her life by a hair’s breath, but not without some scars and bruises she got from being thoroughly beating just as she managed to almost naked with her torn clothes.If Aida believed in democracy’s definition as government of the people by the people for the people, by now she must be wondering for which ‘people,’ but also whether women are part of the ‘people.’

Natasha’s diary of resistance
AKPOTI has defied the gods of Nigeria politics on countless times. The first time was when she told the Yakubu Dogara-led 8th House of Representatives how some powerful individuals wanted to corner the $8 billion Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited for themselves. Lamenting how the gigantic investment was serving as conduit of waste and corruption, the lawyer regaled the lawmakers with detailed report of sleaze and insider abuse in the attempt to privatize the firm.

While reading from her petition, she wowed the legislators with her factual rendition, disclosing how the Russian President, Vladmir Putin, had to write the Nigerian Government demanding for cooperation to not only modernize the Ajaokuta complex, but also abide by the bilateral contract. Without mincing words, as politicians are wont to do, Natasha named names of influential political actors in the former administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari that constituted themselves as cogs in the wheel of Ajaokuta Steel’s progress.

She declared that a few well-connected individuals in the Federal Government were planning to acquire the steel company illegally for themselves, even as she narrated how a Russian firm was frustrated in the project in 1994 when Nigeria failed to honour its contractual obligations by withholding funds meant for the speedy completion of the steel company.

Foray into elective contest
HER first attempt at partisan electoral contests was to represent Kogi Central Senatorial Zone in the Senate on the platform of Social Democratic Party (SDP). However, worried by the possible implication of her victory on the fortunes of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the state governor, Alhaji Yahaya Bello, put up a lot of obstacles on Akpoti’s way.

At the end of the day, with the spectre of violence, intimidation, thuggery and rigging, the lawyer-turned politician could not actualize her ambition of going back to the National Assembly, this time as a lawmaker and socio-economic rights activist. Determined to demonstrate that politics is all about agenda and less of gender, Akpori girded her loins and prepared to contest the Kogi State gubernatorial election, which amounted to taking the electoral battle back to Bello. But it is an experience she would not forget in a hurry, because the same forces that conspired to deny her a senatorial seat combined to make her gubernatorial aspiration a nightmare.

First, she had to grapple with the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) inexplicable decision to disqualify her running mate on the basis of not meeting the age mark. By the time she waded through the litigation, the election was at the door. But it was as if the established political godfathers were not done with teaching her the rudiments of Nigeria’s crude politics.

At a stakeholders’ meeting organized by INEC for party leaders, contestants and observer groups, Akpoti was rough-handled even before the watchful eyes of law enforcement agents. It would no doubt have dawned on the young lady that a trailer load of odds were stacked against the womenfolk in their desire to participate in the electoral process.She was to confess her observations and experiences while paying condolence visit to the family of late Salome Abuh, who was set ablaze in a bizarre manner a day after the governorship poll.

Akpoti told her audience: “That was not an election. It was the height of electoral manipulation, rigging, and violence all combined. I want to call it a mini-civil war. It is retrogression in our democratic system and it is a shame that a winner was declared out of that.”She explained that although she secured the support of her fellow women, wives of men who were her rivals pushed back on her efforts, saying: “For instance, the governor’s wife, the one acting as the first lady, approached me that I should step down for her husband.

“So, the support I was getting from women in authority was different from the support I got from women on the streets. The grassroots women were more committed to me but all these women whose husbands are ministers, governors, and chairmen were telling me to step down. This is hypocrisy from the elite.”Did Akpoti lose the Kogi State gubernatorial poll or the Senatorial contest? On the surface, she lost. But deep down, she was more of a winner, because she dared the enemies of democracy and conquered the fever of apathy that continues to restrain women from active participation in public service.

From her vantage point of experiential knowledge, Akpoti has been emboldened to fight for improvement of the electoral system, especially given her call for “a total overhaul of the system.”“The chairman of INEC, the national commissioners, some state Resident Electoral Commissioners and staff of the commission itself will have to be purged out of the system,” she submitted. “Above all, we need to go electronic completely. Look at what other countries are doing. We complain that the costs of our elections are very expensive and it is true. What makes it expensive? It is the logistics of INEC.”

The Kogi State Amazon noted that the murder of Salome Abuh “raises the question of how safe are women involved in politics. It also raises a flag on women’s inclusiveness in governance,” noting with pain that with a population of about 200 million, with approximately 51 per cent as men and 49 per cent women, women are yet to occupy 15 per cent of elective positions in the country.

On how to kick-start the review of Kogi debacle, Akpoti, in an open to the President Muhammadu Buhari, said: “Dear Buhari, thanks for ordering an investigation into the murder of the PDP woman leader Mrs. Abuh by APC Kogi chapter’s thugs. Please instruct the Nigeria police to investigate the attack on me by Yahaya Bello/APC Kogi chapter’s thugs at the INEC’s event.”Based on that clarion call, it could be said that Akpoti has emerged as the symbol of hope for women’s activism and the spirit of victory and determination over timidity.