ELECTION AS THEATRE OF VIOLENCE

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Saturday comment2 

The 2019 presidential and national assembly elections are wide off the mark, writes Demola Abimboye

For many months before February 23, 2019, the world had focused attention on Nigeria as the country inched towards its crucial elections. At the local level, tension was high as to whether or not everyone would adhere to laid down provisions for the 2019 general elections, and thus ensure a free and transparent process.

The government of President Muhammadu Buhari took critical decisions in this respect, especially the president’s order that ballot box snatchers should be shot on sight. Thus, few days to the D-Day, hundreds of thousands of security agents from the Nigeria Police Force, Nigerian Army, Department of State Services, (DSS) and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission  (EFCC) were dispatched across the length and breadth of the country, especially flashpoints, to ensure smooth operations. 

But in Nigeria, nothing, except death, is guaranteed. The popular prayer phrase among some Christians – “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end,” best describes the violence, intimidation, arson and killings often witnessed across Nigeria during elections. Like all the previous elections the February 23 election was characterised by violence and vote rigging.

The Presidential election was supposed to be a straight fight between incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Alhaji Abubakar Atiku of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) despite the motley crowd of contestants. But killings, ballot box snatching and technical hitches badly affected polling in many states of the federation.

Before the D-Day, pundits had identified some flashpoints. Among these were Kano, the commercial nerve centre of northern Nigeria; the Boko Haram terrorist ravaged states of Borno and Yobe; the politically restive states of the South South region especially Akwa Ibom and Rivers; Lagos and the wild, wild west and the South East geo-political zone. Also, analysts had pin-pointed Kwara, home state of Bukola Saraki, the Senate president; Benue, Taraba and Plateau.

On the eve of the elections, some of the predictions came to pass. Crisis erupted in Kano, February 22 when supporters of the APC and PDP clashed in Kofa town, Bebeji district of Kano. Two people were killed, while 40 vehicles, 12 motorcycles and houses were burnt.

At the end of polling on Saturday, February 23, the casualty figures were high. Aside a Boko Haram attack that killed more than a dozen people in Yobe, the civil society monitors said the death toll during Africa’s biggest election was higher than that of the 2015 poll which attracted some localised violence. Clement Nwankwo, convener of the Situation Room, comprising over 70 civil society groups, said 16 people were killed in election violence across eight states, while the Lagos-based consultancy, SBM Intelligence, cited 35 deaths.

In many states, the card readers malfunctioned, thereby disenfranchising many registered voters. Indeed, many people complained that the entire election was fraught with irregularities and manipulations. The card readers, some said, were configured to suit the manipulations, rigging and over-voting in some states.  In Zamfara State for instance, the PDP said no voting took place and there was no single result sheet in any polling unit in the entire state. There was an arrest in Shinkafi Local Government, where an APC member was caught thump-printing ballot papers inside his house.

In Rivers State, security men were involved in ballot box snatching while armed soldiers stormed collation centres in Ikwerre, Emohua and Okrika Local Government Areas, stole electoral materials while INEC Electoral Officers simply concocted results.   

But the Army arrested dozens of suspects on suspicion of electoral offences. Colonel Aminu Iliyasu, its spokesman, said the suspects “include an army major and four policemen, a serving commissioner and a local lawmaker in the state.” They, addition to some thugs recruited by politicians to cause disturbances during the polls were handed over to the Police.

In Lagos, there were allegations of deliberate disenfranchisement of the Igbos who have a considerable voting strength. In one instance, a mob attacked the leader of the Odua People’s Congress, (OPC) in Okota over alleged ballot box snatching. Electoral materials were burnt in some polling units in this densely populated area of the state.

In Anambra State, 14 suspects were arrested by the state’s Police Command, for various electoral offences including ballot box snatching, disruption of elections, malicious damage.

Due to electoral malpractices, many political agents refused to sign election results sheets. In a particular case, the agent at the collation centre for Kwara Central Senatorial District, Isiaka Magaji, rejected the results of the election as announced by INEC. “The report that I got from our agents in the four local government areas that made up Kwara Central said there was massive electoral fraud in some polling units, especially in Ilorin West Local Government Area,” he said.

Against this background it was not surprising that the main opposition party, PDP, rejected the results being announced by INEC.

Could INEC have done better in this crucial election? Will it improve on the current lapses as the nation moves to the next elections – governorship and houses of assembly – slated for March 9, 2019?  While no one can provide a straight answer, it is noteworthy that Nigeria’s democracy is endangered.

As a foreign group of observers noted, “for a better election process, the functionality of card readers must be fully tested and properly calibrated before deployment to the polling units before the elections to reduce the use of manual voting which takes time and might be exploited.”