Rivers’ violent by-election as bellwether for 2019 poll
The liberty with which armed political thugs brandishing guns, bottles and other deadly weapons stormed several polling units to disrupt the electoral process was shocking.
The fact that the hoodlums operated with impunity, even in the presence of security agencies, gave clear indications that Rivers State runs the risk of fratricidal political war, with unforeseen consequences next year.
The now contentious Port Harcourt Local Government Area constituency 111 (PHLAGA) 3 seat by election had been necessitated by the resignation of Mr. Victor Ihunwo, who is now the chairman of the Port Harcourt council, as a member of the State legislature to contest in the last June council polls.
Though four political parties participated in the botched poll, it appeared as a straight electoral contest between just two major candidates namely, Chiemeka Merukini of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Mr. Dickens Worlu of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
For the conduct of the election, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had deployed 800 ad hoc and 200 staff to the 140 units in the constituency.
On its part, the police deployed some 1500 personnel to collaborate with other sister agencies, such as the Civil Defence, Immigration, Special Anti Robbery Squad and the Army to provide security.
Electoral materials had arrived early on that fateful Saturday and the election commenced peacefully, when unexpectedly some armed youths allegedly supported by security agents invaded some polling units, specifically at Obaziolu Street, Mile 3.
They started shooting sporadically before snatching ballot papers and boxes.
The Mile 3 axis of the constituency, where the violence started is considered the stronghold of the PDP candidate, whose father, chief Azubike Nmerukini, is a former member of the State legislature.
The violence later spread to the Rivers State University gate, Egede Street, Ikwerre Road and other parts of Diobu area.
Afterwards, echoes of gunshots were heard from St. Andrews Primary School premises, which is a Registration Area Centre (RAC).
Out of the 142 units in the constituency, electoral processes were disrupted in over 100 polling units.
When the INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner for the state, Mr. Obo Effanga, sensed that the situation might degenerate to full blown violence leading to possible loss of lives of its personnel on the field, he abruptly suspended the process.
The widespread violence, including ballot snatching amid sporadic gunshots, had already tainted the electoral process.
Effanga said: “Midway into the election, miscreants and hoodlums, accompanied by security personnel, stormed the various polling units and registration areas.
They disrupted voting activities, carted away election materials, including smart card readers and ballot boxes.
“In addition, many electoral officials were manhandled, injured and held hostage. The widespread disruption of the electoral process as reported by our supervisory presiding officers.”
Also reacting to the suspended by-election, the governor, Nyesom Wike, expressed grave concerns about the implications of the violence.
He said if the Police could not secure and guarantee the peaceful and successful conduct of election in a single state constituency of eight wards, what would happen in 2019 when they would be contending with 319 electoral wards and 4442 polling units across 23 Local Government Areas of the State is a matter of conjecture.
The governor fingered some APC chieftains and police for unleashing the violence that marred the by-election, stressing that instead of providing security for voters and INEC officials, the Police brazenly colluded with APC thugs to subvert the democratic process.
Wike also blamed what he described as the entrenched interest of the police in the politics of Rivers State for its insouciance to stem the violence, adding: “The consistent sabotage of the electoral process by the Police amounts to a declaration of war against the people of Rivers State and their solemn rights to freely and fairly choose their leaders and representatives.”
However, Mr. Zaki Ahmed, who is the seventh Commissioner of Police in the state since 2015, denied that the police actually colluded with politicians to compromise the election.
Ahmed: “Police did not at anytime collude with any political party to discredit the political process as alleged in some quarters. Election commenced peacefully in all the areas with accreditation.
Voting ended peacefully in many areas as reported by the various D.P.O’s deployed to oversee security at the wards.”
However, the Akwa Ibom REC, Mike Igini, who represented the National Commissioner, South-South, May Agbamuche-Mbu, said politicians used security agents to compromise the election.
Igini disclosed that a staff of the commission was stabbed, others brutalised and held hostage, saying the leg of a National Youth Service Corps member was fractured.
While stressing that the entire incident was disgraceful Igini added: “At ward 10, unit 8, the ballot box was stolen and emptied on recovery. Individuals and elites were going around with platinum of security personnel from polling centre to polling centre.”
Sour taste of APC, PDP rivalry
The violent outcome of last Saturday’s by-election did not come to many as a surprise.
It was apparent that APC intended to use the poll to obliterate the notion that it is already a crumbling party that has lost its political relevance after losing a string of rerun polls, both national and state legislative, in 2016.
And buoyed by the prospect of the APC encroachment into PDP stronghold, the party chairman, Ojukaye Flag-Amachree, boasted that power would be wrested from Governor Wike and the PDP in 2019.
He said: “We must state clearly that we have heard the voices of Rivers people on Saturday, our assurances are with them as a party: to kick out the Wike-led corrupt government that has left our beloved state in darkness.
In our partnership to kick Wike out of Government House come 2019, it is our pledge to do all we can with the help of God that no life would be lost.”
The APC chairman had also urged INEC to immediately conclude the process by announcing the winner without further delay, stressing that the commission has no option than to announce the results immediately or meet the party in court.
Flag-Amachree said: “It does not lie in the hands of INEC to determine the outcome of elections, it is for INEC to announce the outcome of election as determined by the people.”
Reacting to the development, the convener of Initiative for Credible Elections (ICE), Ledum Mitee, told The Guardian that the by-election “is merely a dress rehearsal of what to expect in 2019.”
“It vindicated our concerns. What happened is very sad to all those who value democracy.
People of the state deserve more than what we saw. What happened is a foretaste; it is like a leaked question paper and so we know what to expect next year,” he said.
Mitee warned that the violent nature of the election might lead to voter apathy in 2019, remarking that those who felt overwhelmed by superior violence will naturally have cause to fortify their own war arsenal before the next general election.
“If you were a voter and you saw the level of violence in Saturday election, you will not want to come out and vote in 2019.
So this will lead to voter apathy. And for those politicians, who were overwhelmed, they will want to take measures to counter any future violence,” he added.
While Mittee commended INEC for its comportment, he urged all stakeholders to support the commission to achieve its mandate of ensuring free, fair and credible election.
Similarly, a political analysist, Bernard Oluwo, told The Guardian that the seeming resort to gun violence for a mere single legislative seat, which the tenure will terminate in nine months, has further pushed Rivers State to the brink.
He said: “Having observed the political trend in Rivers State since 2013, I can tell you that the use of armed political thugs and security personnel to tilt the outcome of a by-election is merely a foretaste of the level of violence that would be unleashed during the 2019 polls.
Let no one delude oneself, the most violent side will claim electoral victory.”
There is general apprehension that the 2019 elections might turn out to be a fratricidal political war, with unforeseen consequences between members of the PDP and the APC.
Already, the PDP chairman, Felix Obuah, has warned that the party shall no longer tolerate any wanton disruption of subsequent election, stressing that the restraint by PDP members and supporters should not be misconstrued as an act of cowardice or sign of weakness, as no person or group has monopoly of violence.
“The PDP has sufficient capacity to contain such lawless acts and would use all legally available means to protect its members and the electorate from wanton molestation and naked exhibition of electoral violence,” he said.
Felix expressed apprehensions and concern that the mayhem that characterised the by-election was a pointer to the evil agenda for the 2019 poll in Nigeria.
“APC knows it cannot freely win in 2019, the resort to violence does not guarantee electoral victory,” he declared.
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