Thursday, 21st September 2023

How unceasing protests, violence trailed Rivers State guber poll

By Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
07 April 2023   |   4:19 am
Like the sooth that defines Port Harcourt skyline, gunshots and apprehension have become a daily feature of Rivers State ever since the March 18 governorship election.


Like the sooth that defines Port Harcourt skyline, gunshots and apprehension have become a daily feature of Rivers State ever since the March 18 governorship election.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has dictated the pace of politics in the state, is all bent to resist attempts by All Progressives Congress (APC) to relieve it of power in the oil-rich state.

This power tussle best explains why, barely three weeks after the governorship and State assembly elections, peace and normalcy have yet to return. While all other states are switching from election mode to readiness for governance, Rivers State is still grappling with election-related violence, attacks on rival candidates, protests and rumour mongering.

Although the state had, since 2015, been renowned as flash point for electoral violence, observers believed that the 2023 elections would usher in a new dawn. That optimism was buoyed up by assurances from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which hyped the new electronic device, Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) as a magic wand for credible, free and fair polls.

However, the perception of the electorate in Rivers State and beyond was that INEC failed to deliver on its promises, which gave vent for the outbreak of violence during the Governorship and House of Assembly elections.

That day alone, no fewer than 15 persons lost their lives, while others were kidnapped amid cases of ballot box-snatching, intimidation, harassments and suppression of voters.

So glaring was it that police officers deployed for the elections failed to deliver on their basic responsibilities, as they were seen aiding party chieftains to hijack ballot boxes.

In most instances, they provided cover for thugs, who whisked election officers to unknown destinations, where results were manipulated. A viral video shared by APC chieftain, Dakuku Peterside, on April 4, showed police officers watching, as political thugs destroyed parts of the party’s secretariat.

Also, three lawyers and five support staff working on APC’s election petitions were arrested by the police in a hotel in Port Harcourt. Evidence materials were seized but were later released alongside the lawyers after the Nigerian Bar Association mounted pressure.

However, after the elections, the candidate of PDP, Siminilayi Fubara, was returned as winner and declared the governor-elect of the 2023 governorship elections by INEC. Fubara, polled 302,614 votes to defeat his closest rival, Mr. Tonye Cole of the All Progressives Congress (APC), who had 95,274 votes. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate, Senator Abe came a distant third with 46,981.

Protests amid claims of dubious outcome
No sooner had the electoral commission announced Fubara as winner that most of the governorship candidates, including Cole, his Labour Party counterpart, Beatrice Itubo; Accord Party’s Dumo Lulu-Brigs, Victor Fingasi of the Action Democratic Party (ADP), among others, cried foul. The candidates who were aggrieved by the outcome of the gubernatorial poll, vowed to challenge the processes and proceedings at the tribunal.

However, despite their decision to toe the legal path, the recourse by the aggrieved contestants earned them further violent challenge. PDP supporters and those of APC clashed at INEC office along Aba road on Monday, April 3, 2023, while attempting to access the Certified True Copies (CTC) of electoral materials used in the February 25 and March 18, 2023 elections.

It was gathered that PDP supporters had stormed the INEC State Secretariat demanding that all parties interested in filing petitions against elections in the state could only be allowed to inspect the electoral materials they needed if it was done jointly.

One of the protesters, Samuel Nwanosike, who is also the Chairman of Ikwerre Local Government Council area, said it is within the rights of PDP to get documents it required to defend the mandates it secured during the elections. He accused INEC of frustrating PDP’s lawyers to access important documents needed at the election tribunal.

However, Cole, in company of the state APC Chairman, Emeka Beke, and other party leaders, showed up at the GRA axis of Aba Road and were proceeding to the INEC office when the protesters sighted him and advanced forward, pelting them with stones and sachets of water.

Security officers attached to the APC governorship candidate had to whisk him into the car. And, while the fracas lasted, soldiers from the 6 Division, Nigeria Army, operatives of the Nigeria Police and Nigeria’ Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) arrived the scene, shooting into the air to disperse protesters.

Reacting to the incident, APC spokesman, Darlington Nwauju, stated: “We know the strategy of PDP, they want to cause crisis, but we will not yield to their plans. INEC in Rivers State is not independent and not the only INEC office in the country, so, we have moved to lodge our complaints to the national office. We have other strategies to follow up our tribunal matters, they think they are smart, but we are smarter.

“Our simple request was for Certified True Copies of materials used in conducting elections on March 18 and we have obeyed the rules by making the necessary payments and deserve to have these documents as of Rights as enshrined in Section 74 of the Electoral Act 2022 (as amended).”

Reacting to the development, INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner in the state, Johnson Alalibo Sinikiem, said, in a statement, that though the application of Certified True Copies of documents and access for inspection of election materials are the legitimate entitlement of candidates and parties to election petitions, the documents are however, governed by processes and procedures, which include payment of requisite fees, making copies of relevant documents and certification by the authorised official of the Commission.

The PDP Campaign Council insisted that no amount of false moves would change the fact that PDP won the governorship elections in Rivers State. A statement by its Director of Publicity, Ogbonna Nwuke, warned APC against taking steps, which could lead to the breakdown of law and order in Rivers State.

The statement further accused the APC of overheating the polity in an effort to precipitate crisis.Part of the statement reads: “We are aware that what is playing out on the streets is part of a pre-arranged plot by Cole and his sponsors to derail the transition process after they were undeniably visited across the State by the ghost of abandoned property.

Labour Party, ADP to join in tribunal
The Labour Party candidate, Mrs. Itubo, who described the election as a Day Light Robbery exercise, has vowed to challenge it. She told The Guardian that PDP’s motive was to make the candidates run out of time in filling their petitions to the tribunal.

She said, despite the PDP tactics, they know how to go about it their petitions, adding she is not deterred by the ugly developments. She said, “the court has already granted us an order to go and inspect electoral materials from INEC, They know what they are doing, the know that they didn’t win the elections.”

Itubo, however, declared that INEC and police colluded with PDP thugs to rig the elections in the state. Similarly, the governorship candidate of ADP, Victor Fingasi, said the PDP demand is outrageous, because the court did not grant APC.

While noting that his party will also approach the court because what happened during the elections in the state should not be allowed to happen again, said they will avoid the ugly situation at all cost.

Views of election monitors, observers, civil society groups
A political analyst, Sunny Dada, who also monitored the 2023 elections in the state, said what is happening in Rivers State should be condemned by all lovers of democracy blaming the police for the sad developments.

Dada said, “What is happening in Rivers State is unacceptable, shameful and should be condemned by every lover of democracy.” He accused the police of not doing their due diligence and that is why the election time, there was rising violence.

“It is so unfortunate that those who perpetrated the violence have taken it further to post election window and they are so emboldened, because the police did not do its works properly.”Dada lamented that the police stood and watched political thugs perpetrate violence, hence, “they are so bold to execute more violence this time.”

Speaking further, he said, INEC on its part, needed to tell Rivers people what really happened, if they issued same dates to PDP and APC for material inspection.

“In all of these, the police need to be proactive, the state is too volatile, parties are throwing stones, attacking candidates while other states are switching from election to governance,” he stated.

Also, the Coordinator of The Peoples Advocates (TPA), a civil rights organisation, Courage Nsirimovu, said the group was deeply concerned about the tyrannical attacks on the civic space and democracy in Rivers State.

Nsirimovu alleged that the Police in the state has displayed high level of partiality. He noted: “TPA is worried, that even with a court order, INEC is delaying to release the public document due the APC to file their petition in Court, knowing full well that the time limit to file the petition would run out in three days.

“TPA noticed that the Police stood by and allowed the PDP supporters to have free course in their plot to attack the Guber Candidate of the APC and his team. He stated that the Police have the responsibility to protect the Civic space by protecting non-violent protesters but expressed disappointment that the institution has failed.”