By Emmanuel Onwubiko
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln:
“When one with honeyed words but evil mind Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.” – Euripides, Orestes:
In Nigeria right from the first Republic, elections and violence seems intertwined and interconnected in such a way that there is hardly any election that has happened since recorded political history in Nigeria that many citizens have not been killed by armed political thugs and members of the security forces purchased by the highest bidders for political offices being contested.
For this ugly part of our history, it is shocking that even with the high fatalities from election related violence, the killers have always had their ways and have never been subjected to the full weight of the law.
Also, it has become one of the few wonders of the World that although election related terrorism has become a constant and ever present phenomenon, but the relevant law making body such as the National and state Assemblies have spectacularly failed to legislate into existence a mechanism for enforcement of stiff legal sanctions against those who often constitute kegs in the wheel of Nigeria’s electoral progress.
And so Nigeria is stock in the vicious circle of election violence as if to say there is a DEUX EX MACHINA that has held us spellbound never to be willing and capable of checking the spread of killings before, during and soon after elections sponsored by desperate politicians.
Again, even when extant laws on murder are ever present, the relevant state and federal government have so far not found the political will to arrest and prosecute for murders, those responsible for the kinds of extremely high fatalities that Nigeria records from elections. Thus demonstrating a nexus between those who kill during elections for politicians to those who eventually turns out as victorious during such cantankerous elections.
Now we are in another electioneering season towards the year 2023 general election and as we know, the levels of violence all around Nigeria are unprecedented. Organised crimes such as terrorism, kidnappings, mass murders and armed Fulani killings have dotted all parts of Nigeria and became worst since the last 7 years of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. And uniquely, President Muhammadu Buhari is known for not taking any known and transparent steps and measures to rein in these armed non-State actors who have gone mad with mass killings and so, the coming general election if we are not careful, may become just like a civil war going by the freedom that armed non-State actors have enjoyed under the current administration.
If therefore want to measure the levels of fatalities from the next election we need to expect, then we must look back at what happened during the 2019 general election particularly in such flash points like Rivers, Lagos, Edo and Kano State. The killings were catastrophic but sadly not one of those killers was ever punished and Nigerians moved on as if those killed were mere chickens.
The case of Rivers and Lagos are particularly worrisome because just from the governorship election in 2019 no fewer than seven people were feared killed in Rivers State even as low voter turnout marred elections in the state.
One Michael Abedinigo, who hails from Upatabo community, was killed in Akinima, Ahoada West Local Government Area of the state. He was said to have been shot by thugs while resisting attempts to snatch electoral materials. In Luawii, Khana Local Government Area, four persons were killed in the early hours of Saturday. However, sources said the victims lost their lives in an inter-cult rivalry.
Also, the Special Adviser to Governor Wike on Gender Matters and former Chairman of Andoni Local Government Council, Mrs. Emilia Nte, was feared dead when she was shot at and abducted from her home town, Unyeada. A riot police officer attached to Ward 6 at Unyeada in Andoni LGA was also shot. He was said to have been rushed to an undisclosed clinic in Bori where he later died.
Shockingly, news report said despite the casualties, elections in the state was relatively peaceful compared to the violence that characterised the state during the Presidential and National Assembly elections.
For instance, news report stated that elections in Abonnema in Akuku-Toru Local Government Area as well as in Bonny and Okrika areas witnessed large scale violence that led to the suspension of elections during the Presidential and National Assembly election held. There were reports of ballot box snatching by politicians aided by armed men in military uniform. At Elele in Ikwerre Local Government Area, one politician was said to be going round the polling units with two Hilux vans and military men disrupting elections. At Omerita Unit 3, Ward 5, Elele, military men in two Hilux vans were about carting away materials at about 1pm when they sighted journalists approaching. They quickly entered their vehicles and fled. The case was almost the same in Lagos whereby armed thugs were sent by the All Progressives Congress to disrupt voting exercises in places dominated by Igbos for fear that All Progressives Congress may lose to the PDP.
The major factor that precipitate violence during elections is the fact that political offices make the holders very powerful because the institutions for Democratic and lawful checks and balances such as the Courts, the law enforcement agencies, the anti-graft institutions are very weak and are deliberately made weak by politicians so there won’t be accountability and transparency in government. Even though there are provisions of the law in the Grund Norm for SEPARATION OF POWERS as stated in sections 4, 5 and 6, politicians have found a way to sabotage the enforcement of these provisions.
To buttress my fact, a foreign news agency that was reporting the governorship election in 2019 titled their story as follows- “Nigerian voters return to the polls on Saturday to elect powerful state governors, two weeks after Muhammadu Buhari secured a second term in a delayed presidential vote”.
The election, the foreign media said then was for 29 of the country’s 36 governors, who are among the most influential politicians in Nigeria, which is Africa’s biggest oil producer and has the continent’s largest economy. Many of them control budgets larger than those of small nations.
The foreign press then went on thus: “With so much at stake, many previous governorship elections have been marred by violence including shootings and armed gangs snatching ballot boxes. Some results are expected to emerge on Sunday.
Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), beat Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in last month’s presidential election with 15.2 million votes to 11.3 million, though on a turnout of just 35.6 percent.:
“Situation Room, a monitoring mission comprising over 70 civic groups, said 39 people were killed in election-related violence on the day of the presidential poll. In one incident, a gang shot dead two soldiers in the southern oil hub state of Rivers, prompting fears of more violence there on Saturday.”
That foreign media quoted the Armed forces of Nigeria as follows: “The Armed Forces of Nigeria, as a professional and reputable institution, wish to reassure the public that no reprisal attack will be carried out by any military personnel,” a military spokesman said. But this is just mere propaganda because in virtually all past elections except that of 2015 whereby the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan refused to use the military to rig his way through, all others have done exactly the opposite by using armed security forces to manipulate votes.
The army in 2019 election that recorded high fatalities had said it would work with the police to ensure people would be able to vote in “an environment devoid of violence and insecurity”.
However, the fact is that now more than ever even going by the reports of the foreign media, the Nigeria’s security forces have been stretched in the last few years by an Islamist insurgency in the northeast as well as by communal violence and banditry in other areas.
For instance in 2019 poll, hours before polls opened for the presidential vote, explosions rocked Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, epicentre of the insurgency. In neighbouring Yobe, residents of the town of Geidam fled a militant attack around the same time. That election was delayed by a week after the electoral commission was unable to get ballots and results sheets to all areas on time. Legislative elections were held Feb. 23 at the same time as the presidential poll and Buhari’s APC secured key victories over the opposition PDP in many areas rocked by violence.
There is really no doubt that the 2019 election recorded some of the highest fatalities going by documentary evidence by election observers who are credible.
The report says: ”At least, 626 people were said to have been killed between the start of the campaign in October 2018 and the final election in March 2019, ” the coalition observer group said.
According to the report, the North-west region recorded the highest number of deaths with 172 killed during the elections, while the North-east followed with 146 fatalities.
Also, the report revealed that the South-south and North-central had 120 and 111 fatalities respectively.
Sixty-three people were killed in the South-west, while 14 were killed in the South-east.
The organisation also revealed that Benue, Borno, Kaduna, Rivers, and Zamfara led with the highest casualties during the elections.
There were election violence in states like Benue, Ebonyi, Imo, Lagos, Kano, Rivers and Akwa Ibom.
Only a few of the perpetrators of the violence were arrested by security agencies who seemed overwhelmed.
Rivers State has been notorious for electoral violence since 2011.
Apart from killings that occurred during the 2019 polls, there were also many incidents of ballot box snatching, assaults, abductions, and harassment.
Also, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) in its 2019 election report published in June, said about 150 people were killed in election-related violence in different parts of the country.
”The elections became increasingly marred by violence and intimidation. This harmed the integrity of the electoral process and may deter future participation.
”Around 150 people died in election-related violence during the campaign period and over the election days. INEC reported attacks on its offices, and also fatalities, abductions and sexual assault against its officials.” the EU report stated.
The report said besides the number of killings, the elections at both the federal and state levels witnessed problems such as thuggery, rigging and vote-buying. While the federal elections witnessed a voter turnout of 35.6 per cent, the state-level elections saw an even lower turnout.
“The inability of the political parties to play by the books contributed in no small way to heating up the polity during the elections,” it said.
The organisation, however, suggested that INEC and security agencies should ensure accountability for acts inimical to the integrity and credibility of the polls especially individuals complicit in the burning of INEC offices, election materials, snatching of ballot boxes and other electoral offences. INEC and Security agencies have yet to take steps to bring perpetrators of election violence to justice.
But it doesn’t appear like INEC, the armed forces and President Muhammadu Buhari are willing to take preemptive steps to check the level of fatalities that would occur from the year 2023 poll which has started by way of electioneering campaigns. This is because the government has failed to check the ever expanding frontiers of terrorism waged by series of armed non State actors aided in some ways logistically by some compromised heads of the internal security institutions who share same Fulani and Islamic affiliations with majority of the terrorists terrorising Nigeria who move to different parts of Nigeria from the North West unhindered.
And as political parties conclude their presidential primaries ahead of the 2023 general election, efforts by Nigerians to obtain their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) has reached a fever pitch with reports of armed thugs attempting to halt the massive efforts by Igbo voters resident in Lagos State to obtain their Permanent Voter Cards.
This signposts the deadly violence that may play out during the campaigns and the polling proper.
The massive scale of enthusiasm by youths to become politically active is a threat to the political principalities that have used bribes and force of arms and violence to corner electoral victories to themselves and their cronies. There is fear that these political godfathers who are themselves running for offices may provide more weapons of mass killings for their armed political thugs to kill opposing politicians and their supporters.
Media report says that from Lagos to Ogun, Oyo, Enugu and other states of the federation, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are battling to cope with the number of people who turn out daily to either collect their PVCs or be registered by the Commission.
There is a belief that the sudden upsurge in the number of people seeking to be registered, as well as those who want to collect their PVCs to enable them participate in the 2023 elections, was the result of the emergence of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as presidential candidate of PDP, Bola Ahmed Tinubu as flag bearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Mr. Peter Obi as the candidate of Labour Party (LP).
However, INEC’s Director of Voter Education and Publicity, Victor Aluko said that additional registration machines would be deployed to ease the surge at some of the congested Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) centres across the country.
While blaming Nigerians for the recent surge at registration centres, he urged the public to disregard reports in some quarters that officials of the Commission were collaborating with politicians in some areas to disenfranchise some Nigerians.
He said: “It is also good to ask Nigerians what they have been doing for the past one year we started this programme. Why didn’t they push before now? There are days we don’t see anybody in our centres and now they are complaining as if they didn’t know that the registration was on before.
“Despite that, the Commission is trying to deploy more registration equipment to where they are needed. We are going to put additional machines where they are needed because it is not everywhere that we have crowd.
“At last Thursday’s meeting with Resident Electoral Commissioners, the officials gave reports on where more equipment are needed and the Commission has taken note of that.”
Aluko, however, added that the rush for PVCs portray the level of confidence Nigerians have in the Commission .
“By the time we finish completely, it would be a reflection of the confidence people have in INEC. By so doing, we believe that the large turnout now also is a positive development.
While assuring that INEC will not disenfranchise anybody, he said, “You know naturally, people are impatient. These same people who did not come in the past 11 months are the ones blaming our officials now. When there is crowd, people need to wait and at that process, they become inpatient and start saying all sort of things just to put INEC under pressure,” he added.
INEC’s Chairman of Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, confirmed Aluko’s assertions when the disclosed via a statement recently that the Commission has deployed additional 209 registration machines to the five Southeastern states as well as Lagos and Kano states.
He noted that the Commission was aware of the challenges faced by citizens across country, hence the deployment, adding that in some states, the sudden turnout of prospective registrants was overwhelming.
“Consequently, the Commission convened an urgent meeting with all the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) on Thursday, June 9, 2022 to review the situation so that eligible Nigerians who wish to register are able to do so. The necessity to urgently deploy more voter enrolment machines to ease the congestion at the registration centres was identified as a priority.
“In response, the commission has immediately released additional 209 machines deployed mainly to the five South Eastern States, Lagos and Kano where the pressure is most acute,” he stated.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop alleged disruption of the registration process in some parts of Lagos State, which is highly populated by Ndigbo, Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council Worldwide (OYC), has called on Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to call the hoodlums to order.
The group was reacting several videos circulating on the social media, which show several youths being attacked by political thugs where they had gone to obtain their PVCs.
The victims could be heard wailing in the video that despite closing their shops for that purpose, some hired thugs had prevented them from being registered.
Reacting to the development in a statement by its President-General, Mazi Okwu Nnabuike, the group said: “We have already been pushed to the walls; what they are doing now amounts to pushing Ndigbo beyond the walls and the consequences could be drastic.
“The two major political parties in the country cannot deny the South East their presidential tickets and at the same time deny them the opportunity to exercise their franchise. This is a call for total anarchy in the land and we are urging the security agencies to rise to the occasion.
“We are saying this because Bola Tinubu has serious hatred for Ndigbo, which he demonstrated by shunning the entire South-East during his consultations with delegates ahead of his party’s primary election.
“We do not begrudge him as it is within his right to choose who to interact with. However, what we will not condone is the mindless and unprovoked attack on Igbos resident in Lagos State.
“If those behind this mayhem are not doing his bidding, he should come out and condemn their actions in strong terms. The same goes for the Lagos State Governor, who is the chief security officer. He must ensure the protection of every resident of Lagos State no matter where the person comes from.”
I think these observations by this platform aforementioned must be looked into to stop this violence from snowballing into bigger conflagration.
Then by way of conclusion, the key steps to take to stop the fatalities that may occur beginning with the ongoing election-related activities is for all the political parties fielding candidates to begin widespread media and face -to- face sensitization campaigns against election violence just as the heads of the armed forces must be made to reflect federal character Principles of Nigeria rather than how it has been dominated by only Northern Moslems.
President Muhammadu Buhari must appoint Christians into key internal security institutions to bolster confidence in the hearts and minds of Nigerians because the status quo depicts a government that is PRO-ISLAMIC.
This is unconstitutional and the President must make hay whilst the sun shines to stave off the possible high fatalities that could happen as election hots up.
Already, the Army Chief recently raised the alarm concerning rising tensions related to the 2023 poll. The only way to assure Nigerians that there is no Islamic agenda by President Muhammadu Buhari is to rejig the leaderships of the armed forces to reflect the FEDERAL CHARACTER OF NIGERIA so no one ethnicity can dominate the internal security institutions.
In the last 7 years, there is evidence that armed non State actors of Fulani origin have been armed and left by these heads of security institutions to run riots all over Nigeria killing, maiming and destroying lives and property of Nigerians. These terrorists have been building up humonguous cash from payments of ransom by relatives of victims of their daredevil activities even as the military is complicit in all of these crimes because the heads of much of these security forces are of same ethnicity with the terrorists.
Another step is to set up the election crimes tribunal and a commission to identify persons manipulating the elections and sponsoring violence so they are prosecuted. We can’t afford to continue to revolve around the barber’s chair in a movement without motion or progress.
EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and was NATIONAL COMMISSIONER of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.