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Perpetrators of electoral violence should be tried yy ICC, says Peterside

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Sofiri Joab Peterside


Co-founder of Initiative for Credible Election (ICE) and sociology teacher at the University of Port Harcourt, Dr. Sofiri Joab Peterside told KELVIN EBIRI that no efforts should be spared in ridding the country of electoral violence, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) should prosecute perpetrators.

Why does the political class constantly resort to use of violence in order to remain relevant?
It is because there is a very high premium placed on power. Power in this case is not desired to bring happiness to the greatest number of the people like Jeremy Bentham would say. In the Nigerian case, it does appear it is that desire for primitive tendency to accumulate state resources that drives the political class. It is clear to all that power has become a veritable means of accumulation of wealth as people that were never people of means suddenly become people that thrive in ostentatious lifestyles, which is at variance with their previous conditions. With this kind of position, they are able to dominate other people.

So, access to state resources is where the main problem lies. Those who used to be in government, but who are no longer in government; those who have tasted the perversity of office would want to get it and get it at all means. And those who are currently holding state power and realising what benefit there is from power also want to keep it perpetually. That is why the contest for power assumes this dimension because power is just required, desired for personal enrichment and not for the generality of the people. Otherwise, you cannot mobilise to annihilate those you want to govern; you cannot mobilse to snuff life out of youthful population of those you want to govern, the very age bracket that ought to constitute the workforce. You cannot mobilise to decapitate those young persons that ought to be the engine of your economy.  What you see here is what I call booty capitalism, booty democracy.

What does deploying the army to influence the outcome of elections (as was the case in Rivers State) portend for democracy?
Honestly, I feel so sad because whatever gain we have made since Nigeria returned to democratic rule seem to have been eroded. The militarisation of the political process here, and even in the Niger Delta region was what led to the emergence and proliferation of non-state armed groups in the region. And so by the time the Federal Government proclaimed amnesty, and also tried to pacify some of these agitators, we began to have some element of peace. But what we see is that the tendency to use the military to influence electoral process creates an opportunity for people to want to resist what I call the rampaging security apparatus of the Federal Government. We have also been informed, in fact, there is an allegation that these persons are not military persons and that is why you see in the narrative ‘men in military uniform.’ What we are saying is that if there are men in military uniforms blackmailing the military, it means that there is a problem in the intelligence unit of the military, which should be alive that kind of responsibilities.

However, what is worrisome is that some of the military personnel that led some of these operations are people that can be identified. In fact, the international observers- those who raised the alarm insisted that their presence and their participation in that process created very serious credibility crisis.  We are not in a police state. It is the responsibility of the Nigerian Police to manage issues of internal problems.  For election purposes the Nigerian Police ought to be (from what the electoral guideline says), the unit to provide security and when they are overwhelmed, the military can be called in.

But what we saw in Rivers State was like there was a grand design by all forces of the state, both uniform and out of uniform to effect a regime change. That shouldn’t be. So, you see a circumstance that people are chosen without voting. This should have been a time (if the people in the state perceive the present government as not doing well), to mobilise the electorate via campaign and alternative programmes to change the government. But when people are denied that access; when citizens who ought to be defended by state security forces are those that are attacked, then there is a problem.

Why are elections in Rivers State and the Niger Delta so contentious?
Rivers State is a very important state in our country just as Akwa Ibom State is.  If you look at the revenue that has actually come into this state since previous administrations, you will see that Rivers State and Akwa Ibom State have got a lot of revenue from the Federation Account. So, every other politician is interested in what is happening here, particularly in terms of businesses. Any party that has Rivers State will be perceived to be doing well in terms of financial and other types of support. But more important is the fact that in Rivers State you have key persons (politicians) who are also playing active role in the current Federal Government and they desire so much also to create the impression, and demonstrate the fact that they are also in control of the state.

That is another way of shoring up their bargaining strength, power and recognition at the centre. Therefore, the contest to reclaim this power was very strong. Remember that that in the Niger Delta region, apart from Edo State that has gone the way of the dominant political party, the rest of the core Niger Delta states are in the opposition party. So, that creates the impression that the dominant political party don’t have a foothold in the Niger Delta and so there was concerted efforts by politicians from this zone to also demonstrate that they are in control, or that they possess the capacity to mobilise support for the party at the centre.

In doing so, every power at their disposal was deployed to consummate that goal. The utterances of the politicians on all sides created the impression that unless something is done urgently, we may be relapsing into the situation we found our state in the rerun elections. The marketability of Rivers State is being adversely impacted; the kind of image we get is that of violence. When you go out of this state people don’t even believe you are alive or there is nightlife here. 

Considering the carnage that took place in Abonnema for instance, will you suggest that politicians who instigate violence be arraigned before ICC?
Unless that happens, things won’t change. That is why I was enthused when the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court also addressed Nigerians politicians that if you take actions that are tantamount to war crimes; that result in the death of people, the ICC will not spare you and I think that unless that happens, Nigerian politicians will not learn any lesson. All those who are harbingers of violence; all those who are custodians of violence; all those who unleash violence on innocent citizens, the international community needs to take very serious action against them. I love it when I listen, and read that some foreign governments are saying that those implicated in election violence may not have access to their assets, or may not even visit their countries.

Until the international community begins to take such actions things will not change, even though those in authority are beginning to say that it amounts to interference in our sovereignty. In this globalised world, there is interdependence of states. If you say they are interfering in times of crisis, these are also the governments that are giving support in the fight against terrorism. These foreigners who are alleged to interfere in the electoral process are those that are also funding this process. In a global village, which the world is now, it is an international matter for lives of innocent citizens to be taken. The international community needs to take serious actions because these politicians are known, they cut across all divides, especially in the dominant political parties, so they are know.

By your assessment is Nigeria’s democratisation process advancing?
We are not advancing. Prof Claude Ake would say in his own kind of analysis, rather than democracy, Nigeria or African brand of democracy bringing power to the people; empowering the people, what you see is democratisation of disempowerment. He was of the view that the people are even more disempowered by the brand of democracy we practice. So, if you ask me, Nigerian politicians are actually disempowering our people through this democratisation process. The worst that I have seen is the violence that characterised these last elections in Rivers state, which was on a very high scale that even foreigners are those who are raising the alarm.

However, one thing that is so important and interesting in this militarisation of the political process here is the role that women have played. In some areas where you see men in military uniform unable to cart away electoral materials they were stopped by women who came out in their numbers, without arms, only singing praise songs and sitting down. It happened in Okrika, it happened at Bolo, in Opobo, and in Abonnema, where they also raised alarm over insecurity.

What is the implicit implication of the toga of violence in the country?
Violence presents the country in a very bad light. It is that kind of image that made us come together to start a campaign- Initiative for Credible Elections (ICE) that the state should not always be known for violence because there is a better part of this state. We think that this state is not essentially what people think it is, this state used to be a safe environment for businesses, for individuals and tourists. The kind of image this state now has is made worst by the just concluded elections. I have the impression that certain persons don’t want peace in this state because most industries have moved from here and returned to Lagos. Even oil companies have refused to relocate their headquarters to this state and these oil companies are paying taxes where they are currently located. There are several variables involved in trying to de-market the state and political violence is one such major instruments.

Violence is not a good image for our state to present to the world because we will continue to suffer the economic consequences of the crises. Sometimes I think these things are designed by those at the centre to make sure that these businesses don’t return to this state.  The politicians here have not deployed their powers to bring happiness to the greatest number of people.

 


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