Rivers State has once again captured the attention of the world as the main arena of conflict and violence during elections. The current battle for supremacy among major political actors and parties is no less a deadly one, writes Ernest Chinwo
During the February 23 presidential and parliamentary elections, Rivers State occupied the centre stage in violence. While several people were killed across the state, the attention of the world was drawn to a shoot-out between the army and hoodlums, especially at Abonnema, headquarters of Akuku-Toru Local Government Area of the state.
While the people counted their losses after the elections, one thing that became clear was the full involvement of the military in the elections. They saw a familiar but elevated trend in elections in the state. In the past, the police were the ones accused of meddling in the electoral process, escorting desperate politicians to cart away election materials from polling units and collation centres.
But during the recent polls, the people saw that the game has changed and that indeed, it was time for the faint-hearted not to be involved in the slapdash of warriors.
Perhaps, the tone for the new order was set by the Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, during the February 12 Presidential Rally of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), at the Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium, Igwuruta-Ali, Port Harcourt, where he said the party would claim Rivers State at all cost.
The minister lamented that he and his party men were dealt a raw deal in 2015, when the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Governor Nyesom Wike, used the full complement of “Federal Might” to ensure that the state remained a PDP stronghold.
Amaechi, who was also the Director General of Buhari Re-election Campaign Organisation, accused Wike, of lobbying to be returned as governor for a second term.
He said: “Whatever PDP wants in Rivers State, we are equal to the task. In 2015, the army tried to arrest me as a sitting governor. Now, we have a governor, who is trying to negotiate with us, asking us to give him governor and in return, he will support us for President. He is afraid, isn’t it? We will battle him till the last.
“On Saturday, we are ready for them. They used Federal and State institutions against us. They used to kill our people every day. Because they want to deny us the right to choose our leaders, they ran to a state High Court judge to give them judgment. Saturday is our day.”
In 2015, Amaechi, who was then governor of Rivers State, as the Director General of the Muhammadu Buhari campaign organisation, conquered the entire nation for the APC and Buhari became president. But he failed to conquer his home state, Rivers. The APC did not get up to five per cent in the presidential election and Wike also defeated then APC governorship candidate, Dr. Dakuku Peterside.
The party blamed its woes on violence allegedly perpetrated by the PDP under the protection of then President Goodluck Jonathan. But same day during an interactive session between Buhari and traditional rulers in the state, Wike replied that Rivers people would never support violence as being orchestrated by leaders of the state chapter of the APC.
Referring to Amaechi, who sang a war song in Igbo Language at the APC Presidential Campaign Rally, Wike said leaders who have imported war songs would not succeed.
“Rivers State does not believe in violence and we will not support any dance for violence. Those who sing other people’s song for violence, they know what they achieve. They know what they gain,” Wike said, assuring Buhari that “Rivers State is a peaceful state. It will never be a violent state. I will not support violence and Rivers people will not support violence.”
In his address, Chairman of Rivers State Council of Traditional Rulers, King Dandeson Douglas Jaja, urged Buhari to ensure that security agencies act professionally during the elections and that the security agencies should not join the fray and complicate the issues of electoral violence.
The Traditional Rulers called for free, fair and credible polls in Rivers State and appealed to the president to check the tide of violence in the country.
President Buhari however promised that law enforcement agencies would be asked to respect Nigerians and that elections would be free and fair. He added that nobody would be allowed to intimidate people. He also said nobody would be allowed to intimidate people and that the snatching of ballot boxes would be discouraged.
But it later seemed those were mere rhetoric as events during the elections proved. The APC wanted to win the state or get at least 25 per cent of the votes in the presidential election at all cost, using every arsenal it could garner, including the military.
On the other hand, Wike and the PDP also wanted to retain the state using everything it could muster.
While the APC succeeded in narrowing the gap, it did not get up to 25 per cent of the votes and it appeared that Wike would be coasting to victory easily in the governorship elections as the Supreme Court had sealed the fate of the APC that it would not be on the ballot.
But determined to make a political statement, the Amaechi-led APC adopted a relatively unknown governorship candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Awara Biokpomabo, two days to the elections as its candidate of choice, and directed its supporters to back the AAC candidate.
In addition, the APC and its supporters mounted a campaign: Operation Kick Wike Out, almost a declaration that if the APC candidate would not get it, Wike must not be allowed to remain in The Brick House. This, of course, set the stage for the governorship and State Assembly elections on March 9. While the APC wanted to oust Wike and appropriate the state for itself to redeem its image, the PDP was set to resist at all costs.
While the actual election was relatively peaceful compared to the violence that followed the Presidential and National Assembly Elections, there were reports of ballot snatching by politicians aided by armed men in military uniform. Indeed 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 took flight.
But mayhem was let lose at the collation centres when men in military uniforms tried to snatch election materials. At some centres, people were killed and scores injured.
Indeed while commenting on the elections after voting in his native home, Rumueprikom, Wike noted that the turnout during the election was affected by the illegal activities of the military.
“The way the military acted discouraged people from turning up. The role of the military is to provide security. But it is unfortunate that they directly participated. Police have no role in the elections. The military appears to have taken over police duties,” he said. Also commenting on the conduct of the elections, Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Emma Okah, expressed dissatisfaction with the involvement of the military in the elections. He noted that thugs in military uniform, aided by soldiers, were going round the area scaring voters away and carting away materials.
“If the military will be playing this disruptive role in a democracy, let them take over so that we know we are in a military government. But, what the APC and the army want to achieve is impossible. The people will not allow it,” Okah said.
While the activities of soldiers or men in uniform scared people, it also affected the INEC, as the commission’s staff were forced to flee the headquarters on Sunday, March 10, because of siege by the army. Senior officers of the commission surreptitiously left the commission at about noon when the military took over security, rendering the police to remain as mere by-standers.
Head of Department, Voter Education and Publicity of the commission, Edwin Enabor, said they had to leave, because of siege to the office by men in military uniform.
Addressing journalists before leaving the state headquarters, Enabor said: “In fact, throughout the elections we had many reports of insecurity, molestation, harassment and assault on our staff and ad hoc staff and the disruption of the electoral process throughout the state; in all the local government areas with the consequence that yesterday evening (election day) we were unable to see the results.
“Now, it is about 1:00pm, the office is under siege by men in military uniform, Army uniform and the Police, who have taken over the INEC office. They are stopping and screening people and clearing results before they enter the office to the extent that up till now, no collation had been done. So, that is the situation now.”
On the identity of the men, he said, “We don’t understand where the people are deployed from. We are not accusing the Nigerian Army but what we say is that the people in the office right now are wearing the uniforms of the Army.
“So, if they are not from them, we are therefore calling on them to come and rectify the situation and allow our officers to enter with their results without molestation, intimidation and harassment.”
Same day, citing widespread disruption of elections in the State, INEC announced the suspension of the process in the state. In a statement signed by the National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee of INEC, Festus Okoye, the commission said it determined that there was widespread disruption of the elections in the state.
The commission set up a fact-finding committee to assess the situation and report back within 48 hours.
The battle then shifted to the boardroom as well as propaganda and outright falsehood by the dramatis personae to sway the commission and the electorate on what should be done to ensure the success of their positions.
But ultimately, the battle for Rivers State is the struggle of control of the treasure base of the nation. But beyond that, it is an ego war between Amaechi, and Wike, over the control of the political space of Rivers.