Bayelsa: Remembering the Electoral Warfare

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One year after the Bayelsa governorship election which drew global attention, echoes of the exercise have continued to reverberate in the state as attempts to document what many aptly described as a warfare takes shape. Emmanuel Addeh writes

It was a contest like never before seen in the annals of the state. Compared to the election that saw to the ouster of then Governor Timipre Sylva in 2012, considering the interplay of various forces, including ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s Abuja’s, the election held roughly a year ago, would forever remain a reference point in the history of the state.

With none of the two major parties viz: the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) unwilling to yield any ground to each other, the election hit a dead end more than once.
For a state that does not play in the big league in terms of population and land mass, many were shocked that a contest that should ordinarily be rounded off within 24 hours stretched for over a period of 30 days, precisely 35 grueling days.

Indeed, to sound a bit hyperbolical, the Bayelsa gubernatorial exercise took place in two whole years, from the first time ballot was cast on the 5th of December, 2015 to the 10th of January, 2016 when the final results were eventually announced consequent upon the resolution of the Southern Ijaw impasse.
Though there were 18 other gubernatorial candidates in the contest, they were quickly relegated to the background by the sheer animosity that characterised the poll, which was a straight fight between Mr. Seriake Dickson, the incumbent and his arch rival, Chief Sylva. Ironically, their aliases betrayed what could actually have been a political game between two brothers of Ijaw descent. While Dickson was nicknamed ‘Ofurumapepe’ the Great White Shark by his supporters, Sylva’s sobriquet was ‘Opu Abadi’, which in Ijaw dialect is interpreted to mean the Great Ocean.

To many observers, nothing between the duo during the election portrayed the eternal peaceable relationship between the shark and its habitat, the ocean. If anything, it was the direct opposite. Allegations of violence, ‘thuggery’, ballot snatching, intimidation of voters and outright killings, equally weighed, became an integral part of the political exercise.

In the end, the Returning Officer for the election, Prof. Zana Akpaogu, declared that Mr. Dickson polled 134,998 to defeat Sylva who scored 86,852 votes. The litigation that ensued has since gone through all the levels of the Nigerian judiciary which eventually put to rest the contentious issues.

All that would appear to be in the past now! But a few days from now, when the state kicks off the activities to mark what it has severally described as a ‘war’, the events leading to the victory by the incumbent are likely to be resurrected.

“This election that brought me back for the second term was not just an election,” Dickson recently recalled. “It was more than an election and more like warfare. Getting through it was actually like surviving a war”, he alleges.
The governor adds: “We were against a full display of the totality of power at the centre, deployed to the fullest. All elements of national power were displayed to take over Bayelsa by force and my opponent’s campaign was appropriately nicknamed ‘Operation Takeover Bayelsa’.

“He called it a ‘takeover mission’, a tag he said appeared innocent at first “but in retrospect, we now understand what it meant from day one.”.
For a start, efforts to fully document the entire political impasse by some actors who were in the thick of the action may have fully taken off.

Indeed, in the next few weeks, the Bayelsa State Government would be remembering the first anniversary of the second term of Governor Dickson, who won the keenly contested poll.
Perhaps, no other person better qualifies, at least from his own perspective, to preserve in writing what happened before, during and by extension the entire gamut of court cases that followed, than the governor’s Chief Spokesman, Mr. Daniel Iworiso-Markson.

The governor’s Chief Press Secretary believes that this generation would be doing a disservice to the next if there is no conscious effort to document the happenings for posterity. Being an active participant in the entire process, and a close watcher of events and especially the politics of the state, Iworiso-Markson posits that regrettably, there were “complex webs of intrigues” which characterised the governor’s re-election in 2016.

“As part of the activities lined up to commemorate the anniversary celebration, I have endeavoured to write this book to promote democracy in the country because as the reader would also discover, and corroborated by Governor Henry Seriake Dickson convincingly, what took place in Bayelsa was more than an election; it was war.

Titled ‘Bayelsa’s Landmark Election: How Dickson Deployed Peoples Power to Defeat Federal Might ‘, the governor’s Spokesman says ‘the government at the centre and her candidate acted out a script that transformed a mere election into a warfare and perpetrated acts of violence against public morality, violation of human rights, kidnapping, shooting, maiming and intimidation under the rubrics of elections’.

“The Operation Take Over slogan of the federal government-backed candidate was put to real action but scuttled by the greater will of the people,” Iworiso-Markson argues.

On key lessons learnt from what occurred during the exercise, he says: “It is to show how the people could help themselves to reject political imposition by being active in the defence of their votes as Bayelsans did, even having to throw their bare bodies to challenge armoured tanks on the day of election when it was clear that the army of occupation was desperate to rig the election”.

“Democracy is still very much on trial across board”, he opines, adding: “And it is our collective responsibility as active and patriotic citizens to save the situation because the development of the nation’s democracy has an important relationship with our economic development”.
According to him, the conscious attempt to rig elections resulted into the mayhem that engulfed the state during the exercise.

“We were helplessly shocked to see such loss of lives and property. But this shouldn’t have been the case in a democracy. It is an issue which hopefully will continue to be reflected upon by all concerned”.
Politics itself being an avenue for service, he says, should not lead to killings and destruction, but should be about superiority of argument in a peaceful atmosphere and driven by sane people, who are fired on by the common good.

In line with this, Iworiso-Markson boasts that even if the governor had decided not to run again in the last election, he could actually say he had already put his footprint on the sands of time in Bayelsa State.
“Recession or no recession, Governor Dickson is intent on making a difference. Indeed, he has made such a huge difference in the last four years and it was on the strength of his very impressive and remarkable performance in office in his first term that made Bayelsans to return him back to office for the second time”, he maintains.
According to him, the governor’s manpower-development through his free and compulsory education, scholarships, health, job creation and the very broad plans for the diversification of the state’s economy are testimonies that politics should be about service to the people. Aside the book, which he admits is only a minute part of the events mapped out for the occasion, some of the plans put in place to mark the anniversary are the commissioning of completed projects.

Billed for inauguration, it was learnt, are the state archives, museum, language centre, new secretariat annexes, the magnificent new governor’s office complex, the impressive Government House Hospital Complex, the pharmaceutical storage and distribution centre as well as the world class Diagnostics and Forensic centre.

Added to the above is the ongoing construction of an airport in the state and the renewed emphasis on the Agge Deep Seaport. In the estimation of Governor Dickson, his aide opines, the successful completion of these two projects would speed up the quest for a diversified and vibrant economy, thereby making oil just one of the sources of income for the state.

“The airport and seaport would jumpstart the state economy so much in terms of massive job-creation, boom in trade, leading to a huge leap in income for the state and of course a new lease of life for the people”, the governor’s spokesman explains.

But from whichever perspective whoever is telling the story of the 2015/2016 governorship poll chooses to see it, what is certain is that the violence that characterised the last year’s political contest ran contrary to civilized behaviour. Both the major parties, namely the PDP and APC, which have continued to trade blames over the anomalies during the election, may also need a few lessons in civility and proper conduct during the next round of general election scheduled for 2020.

As a mark of honour to those who died during the poll and to the many more who were maimed, suffered psychological trauma or had their properties destroyed, their only consolation might just be to be assured that such overt display of barbarism during electoral contests would not reoccur in the state in the future. The governor appears to have recognised the essence of healing after such a brutal political contest as he has continued to preach peace and togetherness publicly.

As he keeps reminding those who care to listen, “Now that elections are over, we must strengthen the synergy between citizens, the state government, leaders and security agencies to recapture the peace and security that prevailed prior to the elections”.

But beyond the call for unity, many believe, there must be genuine and conscious efforts at reconciliation if indeed Bayelsa truly has to emerge the Glory of all Lands.

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But from whichever perspective whoever is telling the story of the 2015/2016 governorship poll chooses to see it, what is certain is that the violence that characterised the last year’s political contest ran contrary to civilized behaviour. Both the major parties, namely the PDP and APC, which have continued to trade blames over the anomalies during the election, may also need a few lessons in civility and proper conduct during the next round of general election