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Weaponizing electoral geography: Thugs and the vote in Bayelsa and Kogi

Having witnessed the elections last weekend in Kogi, I am extremely worried about the impact of the abuse of powers of incumbency and thuggery in…

Having witnessed the elections last weekend in Kogi, I am extremely worried about the impact of the abuse of powers of incumbency and thuggery in undermining electoral democracy in Nigeria. State Governors in particular have been abusing their excessive powers to determine electoral outcomes irrespective of who the majority of citizens would have voted for. The new trend in our electoral democracy is that violence has become the principal asset for determination of electoral outcomes.

The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) report on the Kogi election drew attention to the fact that at least 10 people were killed by the end of election-day activities. Subsequently, the Woman Leader of the PDP was tracked home where she was burned alive in a horrific manner. The CDD Election Analysis Centre (EAC) had accredited non-partisan observers, including trained roving journalists who reported over 79 critical incidents across the Kogi elections. Incidents ranged from the hijack of electoral materials by thugs, the kidnap of INEC ad hoc staff, vote buying, attacks on observers, intimidation of voters, under-aged voting, widespread stuffing of ballot boxes, ballot snatching and multiple voting. In other words, the elections were a sham.

The destruction of the integrity of the elections was done in a careful and coordinated manner. The perpetrators knew the lay of the land – that is those who would vote for and against them. The first elementof their tactics was voter suppression. Songs and messages were disseminated in all opposition areas warning people that if they come out to vote, they would be killed. Both INEC and the Police admitted that they had credible information of arms stockpiling ahead of the election. The Police said they were sending 35,000 extra police officers to keep the peace so that voters could exercise their civic duties. In key opposition areas people stayed at home until mid-morning when it appeared there would be no violencebefore going out to vote later. Suddenly, late in the morning, thugs starting turning up at polling stations shooting into the air and carting off voting materials. They targeted the largest polling units in such opposition areas.

Our team and gone to Ajaokuta from Lokoja and we were surprised that there was not a single police or military check point on the entire highway. Very clearly, the security personnel were withdrawn so that the armed thugs could have free access to the polling units. Either they had been compromised or had received instructions not to disturb the thugs. This means state authority was complicit in disrupting the polls.It was areas with high voting populationsthat were targeted in Lokoja, Kabba-Bunu, Ijumu, Okene, Ajaokuta; Dekina and Olamaboro LGAs. The Kogi West Senatorial District had the highest level of disruptions.

While opposition areas witnessed violence and voter suppression accompanied by the theft and reuse of ballot papers and result sheets, there was a massive turnout in areas where the State Governor had support such as in Okene and Adavi local governments. The other element witnessed was vote buying before and during the elections. In addition to recording the distribution of gift items such as Ankara textile materials and rice in many local government areas, we also noticed the massive inducement of INEC Supervising Presiding Officers (SPO) across the 21 Local Government Areas of the State. They were being induced with bribes USD1,000 to buy them over. The CDD team was able to confirm from Bureau de Change (BDC) Operators within the State that many people were turning up with envelopes containing $1,000 for change into Naira.

These elections are taking place nine months after the 2019 general elections. Our expectation was that the key lessons learned would have been used for improvement of the process. But instead of improvements in the integrity of the ballot our observers have witnessed the most brazen roll back of the modest gains made since 2010. The reality  that the political class is no longer ready to give INEC a chance to continue the process of improving the electoral process. They were ambushed in 2011 with a new credible register and in 2015 by the card reader. Now they flood the voting centres with thugs who would ensure the card readers are not used and voting materials are stolen and re-used with protection from security agencies. By the time collation occurs, INEC itself is ambushed with manufactured results it does not have the capacity to reject. This is because the Electoral Act is clear that once a result has been declared by the polling unit president, EVEN WHEN IT IS DONE UNDER DURRESS, that results stands. The judiciary has confirmed and accepted results in situation in which INEC has complained that the returning officer was forced to announce at gun point. The case of Senator Okorocha is still fresh in our minds.

It is important to recall that democracy collapsed following the massive rigging and thuggery that followed the 1964 elections. The same thing recurred after the 1983 elections. Nigeria today appears heading back to those dark days when electoral outcomes were determined by thugs and rogue security officials. Everybody knew guns were being purchased for the Kogi elections and there were plansfor financial inducement of voters and election officials yet the President and the Senate approved the payment of 10 billion Naira to the Kogi Government just days before the elections.

It is a serious indictment on our national capacity that two decades after the advent of the current democratic dispensation, we still cannot deal with the threats to the right of citizens to make their democratic preferences in an atmosphere devoid of fear. Citizens have the basic right to have a say in determining who governs them. This right is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended. Section 14(2a) clearly states that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government derives all its powers and authority. In 14 (2c) the Constitution goes on to direct that the “participation by the people in their government shall be ensured.” Therefore, the recurring violations of the electoral process amount to an assault on the Constitution of our country. If constitutionally-sanctioned opportunities presented by the electoral process to enable citizens elect their leaders continue to be violently denied by desperate political actors, the consequences for democracy is grave.

The weaponization of electoral geography has become very scientific. They derail the opposition by frightening them into staying at home during elections. Those brave enough to come out are attacked by thugs thus suppressing their votes. Meanwhile, security and electoral officials are compromised with a combination of threats and bribes. These forces then buy votes from those willing to sell. Finally, result sheets are taken by force to write desired outcomes. This is the culture of elections that is emerging today. This culture contradicts our laws and Constitution. Nonetheless, political actors are engaging on this path with reckless abandon. We need to urgently begin to change our ways.

The threat to democracy has become acute and the President needs to intervene. As Commander in Chief, he needs to deal with the Police for allowing thuggery to define the elections in Kogi and Bayelsa States. He needs to get them explain why they announced huge deployments for elections, get paid for it and they are not seen during the elections. The Chief Justice of Nigeria needs to demand of judges why they make crazy and contradictory judgments hours before elections creating great difficulty for INEC that has responsibility for organization.

We also have a terrible culture of impunity for electoral offences. Successive governments have resisted the immediate creation of an Electoral Offences Commission, which would have the sole mandate of holding to account all those who commit infractions against the process. Nigeria must return to the key recommendations of the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee and restart the campaign for electoral integrity. President Muhammadu Buhari should immediately set up a Public Panel of Inquiry to unravel the immediate and remote causes of the failure of security in the build-up to and during the Kogi and Bayelsa elections.


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