Election as War: How Dickson Defeated Sylva

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Daniel Iworiso-Markson, Bayelsa’s Landmark Election: How Dickson Deployed People Power to Defeat Federal Might. Abuja: Image Heart Concept Ltd., 2017, xxiv+ 330 pp.

Asobering reality of the Nigerian democratic experience, despite the more than 16 years of return to democracy, has been sadly the continued treatment of elections as war, with politicians threatening to make an election a “do-or-die” affair, or a “shoot-on-sight” phenomenon. Oftentimes, political opponents therefore boast about “conquering” the incumbent’s seat, or that they will “take over” power by any means possible. If the contest is between a candidate who belongs to the ruling party at the centre, and another, the Manichean division is more pronounced, and it is not unusual to hear such phrases as “Federal might”, or the power of “Abuja forces” determining even local council elections.

This desperation for political power and the break-down of elite consensus invariably results in violence before, during and after elections, with hired thugs playing a major role, with so much psychological and physical violence inflicted on the people and perceived opponents. In many cases, institutions of state, which are supposed to be impartial umpires, are sucked into this organized assault on the people’s sovereign right to choose their leaders. There is a certain gradation involved from one election to the other, and from one administration to the other, but so much would seem to depend on the leadership that is provided by Abuja, where given Nigeria’s skewed Federal system, there is an over-concentration of power and authority, which can either be deployed for good or ill.

The extent to which the foregoing affirmations are true was clearly demonstrated during the December 5, 2015, Bayelsa state Gubernatorial election, following the completion of the first term of the incumbent Governor, Hon. Seriake Dickson of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Although there were other candidates seeking the position, Dickson’s main challenger in that election was Timipre Sylva, a former PDP Governor of Bayelsa state, for five years, who was running on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). In the 2015 general elections in Nigeria, the PDP had lost its control of the power-centre in Abuja. The Presidential candidate of the APC, Muhammadu Buhari defeated the then incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP. This changed the power dynamics and the tone of electoral politics.

Once the PDP thus lost its pre-eminence, which it had enjoyed for 16 unbroken years, the party became embattled as many of its members defected to the new ruling party whose members boasted about their determination to crush the PDP completely. With a population of about 3 million, eight local governments, 663, 748 registered voters, 1, 806 polling units and 105 wards, Bayelsa state, a PDP state since 1999, was confronted with an opposition and an election like no other in its history.

The Nigeria Police deployed 14, 000 policemen, and for the re-run that took place in Southern Ijaw and 101 polling units on January 9, 2016, 5, 000 policemen were again deployed. Helicopters were sent to the state to conduct aerial security surveillance. More soldiers than were required relocated to Bayelsa state. The APC candidate, Timipre Sylva, allegedly reminded everyone that he had the support of the Federal Government; his campaign was codenamed “Operation Take over Bayelsa.”

What followed was a bitter, and acrimonious drawn out fight between the APC and the PDP, and the break out of violence in parts of the state. It all ended with Seriake Dickson being declared winner with an overwhelming margin, but the APC candidate Timipre Sylva did not accept the results. He went to the Election Petitions Tribunal. He lost. He went to the Appeal Court. He lost. He headed for the Supreme Court. He lost, with Dickson’s victory affirmed at every level.

When the entire process was all over, Dickson’s comment on his experience was however, telling: “This election that brought me back for the second term was not just an election. It was more than an election and more like warfare. Getting through it was actually like surviving a war.” In his acceptance speech, Dickson further noted that although the election had been won and lost, “we can’t celebrate because people have died.”

Daniel Iworiso-Markson has now offered us in a book titled Bayelsa’s Landmark Election: How Dickson Deployed People Power to Defeat Federal Might, a detailed even if impassioned account of the nature of that warfare of 2015, the challenges and the travails that Governor Seriake Dickson faced, and how the election was determined. Iworiso-Markson is Governor Dickson’s Chief Press Secretary. It is understandable that he is unapologetically partisan since, in any case, even with the writing of this book, he is, as they say, doing his job. It is part of his loyal duty to defend his employer’s interest and promote his political agenda, and for this reason, the book comes across in many parts as an attempt to settle scores with everyone who tried to stand in the way of the PDP and Governor Seriake Dickson, by seeking to seize power through “crude means.”

Nevertheless, the author offers an excellent case study of the nature of politics in a developing context such as Nigeria’s, focusing extensively on the reckless abuse of state institutions. This is the account of an insider-participant, with a privileged ringside view, and Iworiso-Markson uses this advantage to maximum effect. He has produced a reporter and an analyst’s account with a multi-perspective depth – herein lies the value of this book as a field-report on the challenges involved in the Nigerian electoral process.

Ironically, Iworiso-Markson begins his narrative with the intrigues within the PDP authored by those who opposed Dickson’s interest in having a second term in office, and as it turned out the dramatis personae were persons either based in Abuja or with strong Abuja connections. Other aggrieved Bayelsa politicians who felt that the Governor was opposed to their own political interests also championed the “Change Dickson campaign.” Some of these politicians left the PDP to join the APC. But Dickson whose expression of interest was unshaken, despite the conspiracy, eventually won the party’s nomination, with overwhelming support from not just the Bayelsa PDP, but also the national PDP establishment – whatever remained of that establishment by September 2015.

Iworiso-Markson attributes this for the most part to Dickson’s grassroots popularity wi, h the people, and his achievements under the umbrella of his spelled out Restoration Agenda. What the author overlooks is the fact that the PDP’s loss of the March 2015 general elections, and the eventual departure of the PDP from power at the centre, automatically turned surviving Governors like Seriake-Dickson into the cornerstones of the party. The PDP could not afford to sabotage its chances of retaining Bayelsa state, especially in the face of threats by the triumphant APC to “take over” every possible position occupied by PDP members. The December 5, 2015 Governorship election in Bayelsa state was therefore a kind of national election for both the PDP, seeking to remain relevant, and the APC, wielding Federal might.

There was another side to this dynamics. Bayelsa being the home state of former President Jonathan, looked like a state that the APC needed to win at all costs, in order to humiliate the former President, and the new power-brokers made no bones about this. In addition, Timipre Sylva who had been removed from office by a Supreme Court Order in 2012, had an axe to grind with the Jonathans and also particularly with his successor, Seriake Dickson. By winning, and shutting out Sylva and the invasive Federal Government machinery, Dickson saved the face of the PDP. His victory also prevented the APC from marginalizing the former President in his home state.

Iworiso-Markson prefers however to focus more extensively on the persona and the legacy of Governor Dickson in his first term. This book offers a detailed portrait of the Restoration Agenda and the achievements of the Dickson administration particularly in education, public health, tourism, provision of infrastructure, human capital development and community empowerment, the Governor’s charismatic politics as well as his deep connection with the people of Bayelsa who refer to him affectionately as the “talk na do Governor”, “the countryman Governor,’” the “Ofurumapepe” (The great white shark) and “the Valentine Governor.”

Special attention is also paid to Dickson’s campaign strategy for his re-election. Although he was convinced that he had achieved a lot for the people’s benefits, he nevertheless did not take the election or the people for granted. Apart from the threat of the APC Federal might, this was also about the first time, a real, competitive election would take place in Bayelsa since 1999. The Governor therefore adopted a “country-man approach”, going from one community to another, visiting every part of the state, re-selling his candidacy to the people, mobilizing them afresh.

Iworiso-Markson contrasts Dickson’s persona, record and campaign strategy to that of Timipre Sylva, and the politics of other key players in the 2015 election. He dismisses Sylva as an unfit, ill-prepared, unorganized power-seeker who had nothing to show for his claim to power other than his association with the ruling party, a former Governor without a legacy and a candidate with no strategy other than propaganda, Federal Government support, bully tactics, and a mastery of the art of violence and deception. Sylva is thus portrayed in this book as a villain, seeking power opportunistically. But he is not the only one. Timi Alaibe is dismissed as a “serial governorship aspirant” and an overrated Bayelsa politician. Moses Siasia is said to be a young man just seeking attention; Heineken Lokpobiri is put down as a mere Assistant Minister.

The late Chief Sam Inokoba, the former state Chairman of the PDP who defected to the APC, the author tells us, collected money from Governor Dickson for a medical trip abroad, but rather than attend to his health, he probably saved the money “to obtain Governorship candidacy form in the APC.” I consider this the unkindest cut in the book. But Iworiso-Markson in writing this book prefers to wield a whip against the opposition. Nobody escapes, not even security officers like Major Sanni who ordered Governor Dickson, the state’s Chief Security officer, out of Oporoma based on “orders from above”, and Police DIG Hashimu Argungu who is accused of using the police to help the APC. APC chieftain Orunimigbe Tiwei also receives some lashes of Iworiso-Markson’s whip.

Partisan as this author maybe, he is however honest enough to admit that the media was a major theatre of the war that occurred in Bayelsa and that the Dickson team also endeavoured to match the Sylva team, propaganda for propaganda, doing their best to paint Sylva and the APC with a dark brush. The Governor himself was in the forefront, constantly engaging the media and speaking up as part of a calculated strategy to stop the subterfuge of “Federal Might.”

There is no doubt that the publication of this book rather than put an end to this battle for the mind of the Bayelsa people may well deepen it. The book may also end up being controversial. It is after all, one of the first full-length assessments of the management of Nigeria’s electoral process under the watch of the APC and President Buhari and the conclusions here, are unflattering, a tone that is set even more graphically in Governor Peter Ayo Fayose’s scathing foreword.

A few final points: Iworiso-Markson enthusiastically says the 2015 Bayelsa Gubernatorial election witnessed the “worst violence in the nation’s history.” He exaggerates. Where would he place the 1964/65 Federal election crisis and the 1983 Ajasin-Omoboriowo imbroglio in Ondo State? In his acceptance speech, Governor Dickson also promised that the culprits responsible for the killings during the 2015 election “will be identified and brought to justice…The government will be undertaking”, he says, “a full account of what happened.”

This book probably serves the latter purpose but how many of the culprits have faced justice, one year later? Was there a formal report asking for the investigation and indictment of Major Sanni, DIG Argungu and all such umpires who tried to impose the “Federal might”? Or the Governor simply chose to forgive and forget? Point is: until Nigeria begins to bring electoral offenders to book, the reign of impunity during elections will continue.

There are many important takeaways, however: one, the underdeveloped nature of Nigerian politics and electoral process; two, the further need for electoral reform; three, the failure and complicity of state institutions; four, the opportunism of the power elite, five, the need for greater emphasis on service delivery and performance; six, the power of the people and the determination of the Bayelsa people to be masters of their own political destiny; and seven, the need for the leadership in Abuja to commit to the integrity of the electoral process. All things considered, students of Nigerian politics, professional politicians as well as researchers will find this book useful as a primary source of information and as a campaign strategy source book. I recommend it.

––Dr Abati originally read this review at the presentation of the book, Bayelsa’s Landmark Election: How Dickson Deployed People Power to Defeat Federal Might by Daniel Iworiso-Markson last Tuesday in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State