In Rivers, echos of deadly electoral violence

Protesters protesting irregularities in the just concluded Rivers rerun elections

Andrew, a taxi driver, is based in Rivers State’s capital Port-Harcourt, less than two hours’ drive from his native Bera village, Gokana local government area. He is especially proud of his Ogoni heritage, being a kinsman of late Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist hanged by the Sani Abacha junta; and belonging to an oil-rich region.

The later stokes some supremacist sentiments in him, convinced the rest of Nigeria depends on the Niger Delta.

But he has one regret: his state has an unfortunate reputation of deadly electoral violence.

“People aspiring for political positions here are thugs,” Mr. Andrew, who has an ordinary diploma, said in his cab on a return trip from Gokana to listening of passengers who nodded and spoke in concurrence. He was trying to explain why elections are characteristically violent in the state.

“It is not possible to win election in Rivers without arms and boys (referring to armed youth mobilized for violence),” he said. “All of them (politicians) prepare for elections like say na war, do or die (as if it were a war); so, violence cannot be prevented,” he lamented.

PREMIUM TIMES’ encounter with Mr. Andrew was on December 10, the day the rescheduled federal and state legislative rerun elections held in Rivers State.

The exercise had earlier been conducted in March but it was marred by violence, forcing the Independent National Electoral Commission to suspend it midway.

After the suspension, INEC said it would only return to Rivers if security was guaranteed.

In the first place, the rerun polls were held because the court invalidated 21 federal and state legislative elections conducted in Rivers during the 2015 general elections.

When the rescheduled exercise eventually held – December 10 – the police deployed 28 thousand officers, supported by soldiers and naval staff manning the coastal areas.

It was the largest deployment of security operatives for any isolated election, and it was commensurate with risk assessment taken. Yet, the exercise witnessed widespread violence that claimed uncertain number of lives including police officers, and blatant irregularities that would leave barely all the results disputed by losing parties.

Even so, the December 10 elections across 21 constituencies, were the most peaceful electoral exercise Rivers State has witnessed in recent history, residents, journalists based in the state, and observers said.

“Rivers elections must be violent; boys must kill. There cannot be election in Rivers without death. But this one (December 10) is not violent at all,” said Mr. Andrew even as he just maneuvered his vehicle to avoid a body with broken head on the deserted road around Bori.

“Yes, this is the least violent elections we have seen; it is the most violence-free,” said Gbenga Tella, Liberty TV Correspondent who has been living in Rivers State since 1997.

But the Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Soibi Max-Alallibo, could not say if the last exercise was the least violent categorically. He believed elections in Rivers have always been violent because of the motive of the political actors which he said was not service-driven and by “vested interests from outside the state.”

Thus, in his analysis, Mr. Max-Alallibo said there is vested interests support candidates in Rivers State to get rewards from the resources of the state after elections, thereby necessitating resort to crude, brutal and illegal methods in political slugfest.

Biased, compromised INEC, Police, Military

That the December 10 electoral exercise was marred by widespread violence and irregularities is no longer subject of debate. Already, the Abuja high offices of INEC and the police have suspected their respective staffs to have been involved in misconducts during the elections, and have set up probe panels to investigate what happened.

Five days after the elections were held, INEC was only able to announce final results of 12 constituencies, including the three senatorial districts; and as of December 26, the electoral body is yet to announce all the results, INEC’s spokesperson for the state, Tonia Nwobu, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES.  It has blamed widespread violence.

The post-election report by CLEEN Foundation, a civil society organization, fingered the Police, Army, SSS in multiple cases of violence and malpractices that characterized the exercise.

“The way and manner in which the election was conducted is a validation of the outcomes of the Security Threat Assessment report, and justifies the concerns of various stakeholders that the outcome of the election will not reflect the will of the people,” CLEEN said.

“There were serious cases of electoral violence orchestrated by the Police, Army and DSS in Ward 3 Bodo community in Gokana and Khana Local Government Area. This led to the shooting to death of Mr. Mbari John MeeBari.

“At Ward 12, Unit 5, Abonnema, Akuku Toru, Police shot sporadically to scarce away voters. At Sara 1, Sara 2 and Kalakama (Ward 12), Okirika LGA electoral materials were hijacked by the Army and officers of SARS at gunpoint.

“INEC, Police, Army and DSS provided overt and covert support for one of the political parties during the poll at Isiokpo INEC Collation Center, Ikwerre LGA, Ngo in Andoni LGA, Bonny LGA and Ahoada, INEC Staff and security agencies especially the army and police were observed openly aiding a political party,” CLEEN further reported.

The 6 division of the Nigerian Army, Elele, denied bias towards any of the political parties; but interestingly, the statement through which the denial was made was circulated through “”.

More damning was the election day’s scene inside the Bera, Gokana residence of Magnus Abe, the APC’s senatorial candidate and eventual winner of Rivers Southeast, suggesting voting took place inside the compound.

Then, an audio recording emerged in which Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers admitted to giving money to some electoral officials and threatened to kill them if they did not act to instructions.

Politics of Investigative Panels  

At least three bodies – Rivers State government, INEC and the police – have separately announced decisions to investigate the violence and irregularities since the much-discussed elections held.

For Rivers State, Mr. Wike constituted a “Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the killings and other violent acts/matters that occurred during the December 10 rerun and supplementary elections in the state.”

The Governor’s move followed the public notice by the police high command to set up a panel of inquiry and, particularly, to subject the ‘Wike leak audio’ to forensic analysis.

He rejected the police probe and described it as a “booby trap to indict PDP members” after “killing our people”.

While Mr. Wike rejected police’s probe efforts, his rivals, APC also dismissed the governor’s too as “mockery of civilized procedure and bad omen.”

By having the “effrontery to set up a parallel Commission of Enquiry on the rerun elections, APC said, Mr. Wike “has clearly crossed the line and should be put in his proper place by the Federal Government whose powers he is brazenly challenging.”

As it is, APC, INEC, military, police and other security agencies accused by Mr. Wike and the PDP of working together to perpetrate the violence and irregularities are not likely to submit to the governor’s probe panel headed by Chiwende Nwogu, a state’s judge. Similarly, the governor and the PDP may not submit to the police, a federal body.

So, except perhaps that of INEC which is principally about its staff who came under suspicion of misconducts, the odds are against any chance the other probe efforts will yield real fruits that can see culpable politicians and security operatives face the wrath of law.

At any rate, some see the probe efforts as a ruse.

“We unfortunately in our country use committees and panels to stave off matters that require decisive action,” said Nwangu Ezenwa of the Partners for Electoral Reform. “What is needed is a concerted effort to shut down the industry of violence run, funded and managed by the elites of Rivers across political divides.”

How the ‘violence industry’, as Mr, Ezenwa said, would be shut down by elites who benefit from the violence remains matter unknown.

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