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How threats of violence challenge promise of free, fair polls

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Vandalised campaign vehicle of APC

While political gladiators engage in accusations and counter-accusations of plans to rig the forthcoming general election, tell tale signs of violence appear to raise apprehension that the election, if it eventually holds, might be surfeit of chance occurrences.

Although the change of guards in the Nigeria Police Force with the retirement of former Inspector General, Abubakar Kpotun Idris, and his succession by Mohammed Abubakar Adamu, has injected a measure of public relief, the destruction of campaign materials by rival political parties remains a source of worry to the electorate.

Unless Nigerians receive concrete assurances, violence would be the defining feature of the election, alongside voter apathy and intimidation by the electorate. Apart from cases of destruction of campaign billboards and vehicles, the most outrageous instance of violent buildup is the cases of importation of arms for the election.

Amassing arms
Nigerians were taken aback when Cross River State Governor, Senator Ben Ayade, accused the gubernatorial candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator John Owan-Enoh, of importing arms from Cameroon into the state for the March 2, 2019 governorship election.

Ayade made the allegation when he led some Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) stalwarts on a visit to two of their supporters who were receiving treatment at a private hospital in Calabar. The victims were allegedly attacked by thugs said to be loyal to the candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC) Senator Owan-Enoh.

PDP and APC supporters in Etung Local Government Area of the state, the hometown of Enoh, were involved in a deadly clash leading to the destruction of properties worth millions of naira with many people injured.  The development prompted the state government to release a statement through the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Christian Ita, directing the Police Commissioner to begin a stop and search on all political campaign vehicles for illegal arms.

Governor Ayade had referred to security reports indicating that the APC standard bearer was importing arms from neighbouring Cameroon, as well as sewing police and army uniforms for thugs to disguise as security personnel to disrupt the election.

While pointedly accusing Owan-Enoh and his party of unleashing violence on PDP supporters in the state, Ayade declared: “Few months ago the factional governorship candidate of the APC, Senator John Owan-Enoh went on campaign in Obudu, there was loss of life. He moved on to Boki recently; yet again, one of our strong political stalwarts in Boki had his father-in-law kicked; matcheted and killed. The body is still in the mortuary.”

“Just a few days ago in Etomi, Etung Local Government Area, the ward secretary of PDP was again matcheted in a very unholy and ugly manner. He was completely cracked and broken by the supporters of Senator John Owan-Enoh.”

Exposing a bit of despair, the governor urged the Federal Government and security agents to intervene in the matter, stressing, “it is sad also that he is boasting that those people who have been arrested with live ammunitions will be freed and he will ensure that he releases them. I therefore call on the Inspector General of Police, the entire Armed Forces of Nigeria to put an eye on Cross River State.

“The level of arm build up by this man is too much and there have been several security reports that he is sewing army and police uniforms.”

But responding to Ayade’s allegations, the Director General, Owan-Enoh’s Campaign Organisation, Mr. Maurice Effiwatt declared: “The governor is the Chief Security Officer of the state and all the security officers report to him and you know in law, he who asserts must prove. It is not just enough to say somebody has done something without you proving him or her of committing the crime. When you say somebody has stolen, you have to prove that person has really stolen.

“It is even a criminal offence for you to raise such allegation at somebody. Ayade as the Chief Security Officer should have been the one to call and say, ‘these are the people that have been caught and that the arms are imported into cross River from Cameroon, including the culprit for the smuggling.’ Outside that, the allegation itself is spurious and criminal.”

Billboards vandalism
Another disturbing negative trend in the build up to next month’s election is the destruction of campaign billboards, vehicles and other information and enlightenment and campaign materials.

In Ebonyi State, despite PDP being in control of the state, citizens were riled when a billboard exposing the pictures of the presidential candidate of the party is Alhaji Atiku Abubakr, alongside his running mate, Peter Obi, the governorship candidate, David Umahi, his running mate, Kelechi Igwe, and the patron of Friends of Atiku, Hon Linus Okorie, was destroyed.

The vandalism elicited exchange of words between the incumbent, Umahi and the sponsor of the billboard, Okorie, who as the member of House of Representatives, was denied automatic ticket as his colleagues due to his association with the Atiku/Obi candidacy.

While the governor reportedly alleged that Okorie was behind the destruction of the billboards in search of undue media attention, the federal lawmaker repudiated the claim, saying that it smacks of insensitivity.

Okorie said: “My attention has been drawn to an online newspaper report wherein my brother and leader, the Executive Governor of Ebonyi State, His Excellency, Engineer, Chief David Umahi, allegedly accused me of being behind the attack on our Friends of Atiku Campaign office in Abakaliki the state capital.

“I read the report which was titled, ‘Okorie Behind Atiku/Obi Billboards Destruction -Gov Umahi’ with complete incredulity because the governor I know is a man of great wisdom and integrity and could not have descended so low as to publicly accuse me of destroying billboards at my office that I spent great resources to erect.”

Okorie remarked that he was “deeply concerned that the governor did not condemn the unwarranted, destructive attack on the campaign office of the presidential candidate of his party, but instead chose to use the opportunity of the incident to launch such an obnoxious attack on me. May it not be that the further attacks said to be planned against the office is still afoot.”

But if the situation in Ebonyi could be said to be a family affair, what happened in neighbouring Enugu State was like a declaration of war, which caused a fresh wave of apprehension and worries in the state.

The spate of burning of campaign buses and destruction of campaign posters and billboards was like a whirlwind. The two frontline political parties in the state, PDP and APC, have continued to count losses of branded campaign buses belonging to the candidates, which have either been set ablaze or destroyed by unknown persons.

The latest in the evolving ugly trend was the setting ablaze of five branded campaign vehicles belonging to PDP at a branding centre. At the end of the day, three Sienna and two Coaster buses that had been branded and awaiting removal by their owners were completely burnt down. The incident occurred at about 8.00pm on Sunday.

PDP’s campaign council in the state, which reacted to the development, described it as the handiwork of those “that could not win elections,” stressing that it was not the first time such orgy of violence was being visited on the party since activities for the 2019 general elections commenced.

In a statement, Director of Media, Mr. Nana Ogbodo said: “This evening, five campaign vehicles branded with pictures of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate in Enugu State, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, and that of his running mate, Mrs. Cecilia Ezeilo, were set ablaze by yet-to-be identified hoodlums at Tickles Centre along Osadebe Street, opposite WTC, Ogui, New Layout, Enugu.

“It must be noted that this is not the first time such attack is visited on the campaign facilities of PDP in Enugu State by those who are obviously uncomfortable with the existing peace and good governance in the state since the inception of the present administration.”

Ogbodo said the government was not unaware of the apparent confusion in some opposition camps “given that there is practically no attempt on their parts at campaigning to the Enugu electorate.”

He declared: “This despicable resort to arson runs contrary to the prevailing mood in the state, which is arguably the most peaceful in the country. We therefore deprecate this dastardly act and view it as the climax of their crass desperation and inordinate pursuit for power.

“We hereby call on the general public to be aware of this ugly development and urge our teeming supporters to continue to remain calm and law-abiding even in the face of this inexplicable provocation. The matter has been formally reported to the appropriate authoritative and we have implicit faith in their capacity to bring the culprits to book.”

But the indubitable fact is that PDP was not alone in the lamentation, thereby raising posers as to who the perpetrators were and the motive of those behind it.

For instance, before PDP’s tale of woes, three branded buses of one of the governorship aspirants on the platform of APC, George Ogara, parked at his campaign office along Ogui Road, were burnt down in a similar manner.

It took the efforts of men of Enugu Fire Service for other buses branded with the pictures of President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo parked in the compounded to be salvaged.

Ward chairmen of the party in Abakpa, New haven and Nsukka areas of the state also had their branded campaign vehicles set ablaze or destroyed in locations where they were parked for repairs.

Reports also had it over the weekend that one of the campaign buses on the train of the candidate for Enugu East Senatorial zone, Chief Lawrence Eze, was set ablaze by unknown persons along Trans Ekulu axis. The attackers were said to have trailed the campaign team to Iva Valley Primary School and tossed an object that ignited the Sienna bus before they sped off in their own vehicle.

State chairman of APC, Dr. Ben Nwoye, while condemning the burning of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) campaign vehicles, also called on security agencies to do all in its power to fish out the perpetrators.

Nwoye said the current wave of suspected political attacks, possibly sponsored, on politically exposed persons and facilities of parties were unacceptable and highly detrimental to the progress of democracy in the state.

While expressing worries over the development, Nwoye added: “This uncivilized act indeed underscores the present anthem of Enugu state being in the hands of God We have reported to the police the attempt on my life, attacks on our campaign facilities, and burning of vehicles belonging to some of our party candidates and a ward chairman at New Haven, Nsukka and Abakpa, respectively. We also reported the destruction of our billboards by a serving commissioner in the state and no arrest has been made.”

He contended that despite claims by the ruling PDP that Enugu is the most peaceful state in the country, “Without fear of contradiction, Enugu State is now a comfort zone and safe haven for political miscreants.

“What is happening today in Enugu State’s political arena is a sad reminder of the dark days of PDP leadership in Enugu from 1999 to 2007, when the state became a safe haven for hired assassins and political thugs.”

Signs that all was not well in the state and that the coming elections could be fought with every amount of energy and arsenal at the disposal of political parties manifested late last year, when PDP and APC started the blame game on destruction of campaign posters and billboards. It came to a point that billboards mounted at strategic locations to welcome Vice President Osinbajo, who was in the state to inaugurate the governorship campaign office of Senator Ayogu Eze and unveiling of former governor, Sullivan Chime’s book, were destroyed.

Supporters of political parties and some residents that attend public functions convened by various political parties in the state now resort to parking their vehicles far away from the venue or attend such gathering in public transportation to avoid being attacked in error.

A political analyst, John Ugwu, said that the development signaled danger in the campaigns and the elections proper, stressing, “People are beginning to see the winning of elections as do-or-die affair in the state”.

The police have, however, continued to assure residents of its determination to secure lives and property and bring to book those behind the alleged burning of campaign buses in the state. Enugu Police Public Relations Officer, Ebere Amaraizu, who disclosed that investigations had commenced over the spate of incinerations, could not, however, state whether arrests had been made or not.

Until recently, destruction of campaign billboards for 2019 election in Cross River State was unknown. But between last December and now, not less than two billboards belonging to the incumbent governor, who is seeking re-election on the PDP platform, Senator Ben Ayade, and his main challenger, Senator John Owan-Enoh of APC, have been destroyed.

The state signage agency had raised the bar on pasting of posters and banners, making it difficult for candidates of opposition parties to survive. The agency imposed a total ban on the use of paper posters, saying it was difficult to remove and that they deface the city. Furthermore, fees imposed on flex banners are high, thus suggesting that the rules and regulation were targeted at the opposition parties.

As a result, opposition banners and posters are scanty or hardly seen, especially in Calabar, the state capital, while those of Senator Ayade dots everywhere, at street corners and strategic junctions.

APC poster in Lagos allegedly destroyed by aggrieved members

To worsen matters, a few of Senator Owan-Enoh’s banners were pulled down and, irked by the development, the APC governorship candidate, who addressed the press, threatened to stage a protest march in the state should his billboards be pulled down again by hoodlums suspected to be Ayade’s supporters. He said the governor’s supporters or agents brought down his billboards perhaps because the governor is unable to stand the sight of his campaign billboards.

Owan-Enoh added: “The government cannot stand competition and that is why they are doing everything possible to stifle opposition. The administration tries to posture in Abuja as being friendly to President Muhamadu Buhari, but back at home they are trying to stifle opposition and doing things that are unspeakable.

“For instance, people ask me why I have no billboards in Calabar particularly, but the administration cannot stand seeing my billboards. When I erected my billboards, the government pulled them down claiming I have not paid the mandatory fee of N2 million for governorship candidates, which I actually paid.”

“I had a big billboard, and because the governor could not stand seeing it, he asked that it be pulled down claiming that apart from the N2 million for governorship candidates there is another surcharge of N5 million. And all this is because they can’t stand the sight of it.”

Own-Enoh, who is the incumbent Senator representing Cross River Central, said having paid the required fees to the state’s signage agency, the APC in the state will go ahead to erect all the billboards that were pulled down by agents of the state and threatened that any attempt to bring down his billboard again, he will be left with no option other than call his supporters out to the street for protest.

Yet, barely a few days after the threat from Owan-Enoh and APC, Senator Ayade’s billboards were equally brought down or torn in Calabar, along Mutarla Mohammed highway and some other parts of the state.

Chief Press Secretary to the governor and Senior Special Assistant, Media, Mr. Christian Ita, told some journalists that the governor has no business pulling down billboards belonging to any opposition party.

He said: “As far as I am concerned, Owan-Enoh is not a contender. So we have no reason to pull down his billboards…That cannot be in the character of my boss; instead, it is the APC candidate who is noted for violence.

“His campaign has not gained any attraction, so he is looking for cheap publicity. Which billboard? In the places we went, we saw his billboards. Who pulled any billboard down?”

Commenting on billboard destruction in the state, Chairman of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and APC Senatorial candidate for Cross River Central, Senator Victor Ndoma Egba, said: “Violence is the argument of a man who has run out of logic. I recall that the governorship candidate of APC complained of the destruction of his billboards and this does not speak well for our democracy.”

Director-General of Cross River State Signage and Advertisement Agency (CRISAA), Stanley Nsemo, admitted that his agency pulled down the billboards of the APC governorship candidate because of fines owed the agency and that his billboards were not properly maintained.

He said though Owan-Enoh paid the requisite N2 million fee for registration for governorship candidates, he (Owan-Enoh) pasted paper posters, which had been banned by the government during the primary elections, which attract a fine of N5 million.

According to him, “The agency is not out to witch-hunt anyone, but just doing its job according to the law as the agency did not destroy any billboard, but took them down neatly and three of Owan-Enoh’s billboards were taken down, one of them in Ogoja Local Government Area.”

Lagos
In Lagos State, complaints about destruction of campaign billboards and posters are also rampant and cut across political parties.

While the ruling APC accuses the opposition of vandalizing its campaign materials, especially posters of its candidate, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, other political parties allege that APC is conniving with Lagos State Signage and Advertisement Agency (LASAA) and security agents to destroy their campaign materials.

Ironically, even within APC, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, who was denied a second term ticket under controversial circumstances, is being accused of sponsoring political thugs to vandalise Sanwo-Olu’s campaign posters and billboards as a form of vengeance or to undermine his chances.

The Guardian investigation revealed also that some contractors that took printing contracts of campaign posters and billboards are also not exempted in the vandalisation saga on the grounds that the more the posters and billboards are being destroyed, the more their turnover increases through more contracts.

Recently, Jimi Agbaje Campaign Organisation of PDP frowned at the destruction of over 3,000 billboards and campaign materials belonging to it by suspected thugs, just as it accused APC of using state powers to intimidate the opposition.

Spokesperson of the organization, Modupe Ogunbayo, in a statement titled: ‘Unlawful removal of campaign posters, party signs and other materials from Third Mainland Bridge’ described the move as undemocratic and ill-motivated to ensure there is no level playing field.

She said issues of intimidation and undemocratic practices ahead of the 2019 general elections have again come to the fore. Similarly, the state chapter of Alliance for Democracy (AD) has also cried out that some APC and PDP agents were destroying its campaign posters and flags across the state, even as it warned those behind the nefarious acts to stop in order to protect the sanctity of the nation’s democracy.

The state chairman, Mr. Kola Ajayi, said it was condemnable for APC and PDP to destroy AD’s campaign posters and flags less than two months to the general election, stressing that such acts make a mockery of democracy.

Taraba
Recent devilry by political thugs in Taraba State, which led to wanton destruction of lives and property, are no doubt clear indications that the dreams of Independent National Electoral Commission  (INEC) of conducting peaceful elections in the state may turn out a mirage.

From Jalingo, the state capital to Wukari and other parts of the state, destruction of billboards belonging to perceived political opponents, attacks on convoys, burning down of campaign vehicles and structures to mention just a few, has taken the centre stage of political activities in the state.

A spectacular case in point is the recent attacks on the convoy of the governorship candidate of APC, Alhaji Sani Abubakar Danladi, and clashes that erupted between two groups of thugs believed to be loyal to the APC and the United Democratic Party (UDP), which led to several casualties.

The battle of wits engaged by the leaders of the political parties, especially between the two major parties, APC and the PDP, was also observed as a possible factor that could thwart the dreams of peaceful polls.

The two parties have been trading words over the recent attack on APC gubernatorial candidate’s convoy, just as it was learnt that smooth landing is being planned for thugs that have been waiting anxiously to take advantage of any opportunity.

APC came out publicly to accuse the incumbent governor, who is seeking re-election on the platform of PDP, of taking advantage of his immunity to supply arms and ammunition to political thugs. The opposition party in the state also alleges that the governor wants to frustrate them because opposition parties are bent on preventing him from electoral triumph.

However, Governor Darius Ishaku and his party faithful see APC actions as a ploy to curry sympathy and possibly lead to eventual postponement of the election.

The Director General of APC gubernatorial campaign organisation, Bobboi Bala Kiagama, told The Guardian that the “ terror gang” that attacked APC convoy was sponsored by the governor who he said has been hiding “under the immunity clause he enjoys to distribute arms and ammunition to thugs.”

He expressed sadness that PDP was busy fashioning out ways to halt the election in the state, stressing: “The perpetrators are well known PDP party thugs, who operated freely, boldly and without hindrance for more than four hours. A clear indication that they were fully sponsored and supported to commit the heinous crime.”

But insisting that he should not be dragged to any controversy, the governorship through his Commissioner of Information and Orientation, Inusa Simeon Dogari, decried APC’s antics, saying that their “well know approach to the forthcoming elections is to cause mayhem, knowing fully well that they cannot win in a free and fair election.

“They want the election to be postponed, rescheduled and held at a time that the APC federal administration would be in a position to fully deploy security agencies to rig the elections in favour of the party.”

However, INEC has continued to engage party leaders in a series of dialogues, assuring that the commission would go extra miles to provide a level playing ground for all political parties.

Taraba State’s Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Baba Yusuf Abba, said the commission is up to the task and ready to conduct “ a free, fair credible and accepted general election in the state.”


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