Reporter’s Diary: Imo governorship election was between electorate and Ohaji Boys

Ward 1, unit 1 at Ogboko Village in Ideato south, Imo state, Election process yet to start.INEC officials are still setting up the Centre, addressing the voters.
Ward 1, unit 1 at Ogboko Village in Ideato south, Imo state, Election process yet to start.INEC officials are still setting up the Centre, addressing the voters.

On Friday, March 8, PREMIUM TIMES’s report hinted on the possible outcome of the race to Government House in Imo State, South East Nigeria. And what the report projected came to pass.

But the victory of Emeka Ihedioha of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was not without drama. Like a distressed pregnant mother, whose baby must come to earth through the knife, the conduct of the March 9 election in Imo State was very delicate and precarious.

Ignore the huge number of 70 candidates on the ballot, there were only two dramatis personae; they were Imolites versus a group of violent armed thugs popularly known as Ohaji Boys. INEC as an umpire could best be described as the movie director.

The Ohaji Boys are so named because their hideout is in the state’s oil-rich Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area. They are a combination of notorious youth from across the state. They include those regarded as Oguta Boys and those from Douglas Road and Aladinma in Owerri.

The Aladinma Boys are mostly students of the Imo State University (IMSU) who have colonised the back street of their campus. They live in private hostels opposite Owerri Club. Aladinma residents confirmed their constant confrontations with the police.

While the other major political parties relied heavily on the mass of the electorate, the Action Alliance’s (AA) support base was the incumbency power and the marauding beasts known as Ohaji Boys.

Since Governor Rochas Okorocha allegedly made good use of them during his reelection bid in 2015, the boys had grown wings and became the lord of the Imo streets in the last four years.

Anyone who tells you that Owerri is safe may be telling a lie. Every car on the street appears to have hi-tech security and an average Owerri resident knows when and how to move. Lagos is far safer than Owerri that I visited. But the election atmosphere may have compounded the problem.

Now that Governor Okorocha was fighting the political battle of his life, especially against a determined mass of people, unleashing the bad boys was on his card. The emergence of his son-in-law and AA’s candidate, Uche Nwosu, as his successor, was his last hope to hold on to the state’s political soul.

He was much more interested in the governorship election than his senatorial election in which he was declared the winner “under duress.” And ahead of the poll, the boastful conducts of both the governor and his errand boys, and the determination of the opposition had clearly shown that the election would not be a walkover for any party.

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Uncertainty Fills The Air

On Wednesday, March 6, when I arrived Owerri, right from the tarmac, the atmosphere smelt of uncertainties. Everyone seemed suspicious of each other. The cab drivers were making brisk businesses, hiking fares without pity. A distance that could not cost more than N3,000 in Lagos was N8,000 in Owerri.

The one that agreed to pick the reporter to Aladinma for N6,000, hinted me on the reasons behind the hike: drivers were making their last “dough” because they suspected the aftermath of the election would be unfriendly for business for a number of days.

As soon as I entered Mayor’s car, he opened discussions about many things at a time; from nightlife in Owerri to violent cult attacks, Okorocha’s many sins, and what Imolites would want a new governor to do differently. He said so many things in less than one hour of the journey.

I began to pick interest in Mayor’s uncoordinated gossips as soon as we reached a bad spot along the Owerri-Aba Road, which was under construction. A very deep ditch had been dug and what looked like a culvert was being constructed, and I asked; “Is this a federal road or state-owned?”

“Oga, Mba o! Na federal government dey repair this road o,” He answered quickly. He followed up with a long description of how to differentiate between the governor’s work and the federal works, code-switching between Igbo, English Language and pidgin English.

He said; “When you see Owelle’s works, you go know. Owelle own na to tar with one layer and spend one year to remove and add.

“Rochas go build today, demolish tomorrow and rebuild again. One road, he dey do am 10 times because na him be engineer, carpenter, architect, and everything.”
When we entered main Owerri town, he showed me many roads with various arcs, metal covers and adorned with Christmas lights, which he described as the wasteful style of their governor.

As soon as we reached IMSU junction, Mayor pointed at different roads where flood had already claimed parts of the kerbsides and said; “These are Rochas’ roads. All these ones have been reconstructed more than four times since he became governor. That statue in the middle has been built many times. Depending on which sides of the bed he wakes up, he would change road designs as he likes.”

Mayor’s complaints are similar to what almost everyone I met in Owerri told me about a governor they once adored.

In fact, a serving councillor at the Owerri Municipal Local Government was discussing among his friends at the local government secretariat on Sunday morning, the day after the election, and I eavesdropped. He complained of the governor’s autocratic rule.

He said; “Na because I be councillor, but that one no mean say make I no talk true. Our oga no do well at all. He go just wake up, then give order. when he say he want demolish Ekeukwu market many people warn am but he no gree.

“See that chapel you see there, na so we get am for all the local governments. People never get offices you say make we dey build chapel. For wetin now?”

All these issues are what infuriated the people of Imo against Mr Okorocha. They cursed the day they voted for him. And they did not hide their hatred for him and for anything that shares a relationship with him.

Hope Uzodinma of the All Progressives Congress (APC) was a victim of Mr Okorocha’s many sins. Even when the people knew Ifeanyi Ararume defected from APC to the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) just three months to the election, they still tolerated him. He came third in the election with an appreciable number of votes.

How The Election Went

My conversations with Mayor showed the people’s resolve to displace Mr Okorocha, no matter what it would take them. It really heightened the tension.

Ahead of Election Day on Saturday, Steve Uzoechi, Chairman of the state’s correspondents’ chapel, a very thoughtful man, coached me on the dos and don’ts of election coverage in Imo. He helped to hire a driver after many said they were not ready to risk their cars to monitor elections.

I later learnt it was not just the drivers that deserted. Many INEC ad-hoc staff, especially corps members, also ran away from their duty posts.

On Thursday, Nnamdi Nsorum from Isu Local Government and a loyalist of Mr Okorocha’s opponent in the controversial Imo West Senatorial contest, Jones Onyerreri, was sprayed with bullets.

Before Onyeka agreed to drive me around on election duty, he gave a caveat. He reeled out his conditions: N30,000 fare, and places like Orlu, Ideator, Mgbidi, Nkwerre, would not be on the itinerary. He later agreed to take N25,000.

Mr Onyeka’s fear stemmed from his experience during the presidential election when he took Premium Times’ reporter to Okorocha’s “den” in Ideator where the Ohaji Boys accused them of trespassing and taught them a good lesson. No reporter, except on visitation by the head of the den, the governor himself or his associates, could visit on such election days. Even the police confirmed this.

A Daily Trust correspondent in Awka, Titus Eleweke, who heard I was in town called to move with me. And that settled what could have been a language barrier.

On the day of the election, we moved from Owerri to Emekwukwu, Enyi Ogugu to Awaka, and the story everywhere was about the late arrival of voting materials. But surprisingly, in Mbutu, the PDP’s candidate’s village, materials arrived even before the time. Ballot boxes were almost filled to the brim as early as 10 a.m. at PU 010, Mbutu Town, Aboh Mbaise LGA, where Mr Ihedioha voted.

Violence Breaks Out

Shortly after Mr Ihedioha voted, we received the news of ballot box snatching in Ngor Okpala Local Government Area and we moved straight to its headquarters in Umuneke Ngor village. We met INEC staff who were already distraught after witnessing what they described as a horrific experience. The affected polling units were many.

Other political parties’ representatives accused an ally of Mr Okorocha of being the brain behind the attacks.

Security men including soldiers who later visited the local government expressed their helplessness. They complained of poor personnel and narrated how the boys operated. As soon as they found out I was a journalist, the soldier ordered my phone seized by one of his men.

“Bring that phone,” one of them yelled at me. He asked me to open all the contents, including the gallery. After I begged like a baby, he said he would have smashed my S8 Samsung phone if he had seen his boss’ picture anywhere on the phone. But I was lucky, I was just about clicking the camera when I was caught.

A similar thing happened to me at Owerri Municipal LGA secretariat, where angry party agents swooped on me. I was rescued by the police, who warned me very sternly.

“Even as you see us, we know when to run. If we do anyhow, they also knock our heads. So someone like you from Yoruba would not be pitied at all. You need to be careful,” a police officer at the scene later told me.

Collation Officers As Endangered Species

Unlike the current fad of young boys looking for female pants, what Ohaji Boys were looking for in Imo during the elections were returning and collation officers. In the previous elections, they had their ways in Imo West where we learnt they abducted collation officers and handed them prepared results for their signatures.

This time, the INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner, Chukwuemeka Ezeonu, was determined to hide the identity of his collation officers. He brought in some from neighbouring Abia State but they failed him just like their Imo State counterparts.

A day before the poll, as soon as the Ohaji Boys learnt new collation officers were in town, they ransacked many hotels and those they saw reportedly received dollars and entered into a covenant to deliver their wards to AA. But INEC busted them and terminated their appointments.

The collation officers were not dispatched until the night of the election, and that alone caused a delay in result collation. Across the 27 local government areas, collation at ward levels did not start until Sunday. Polling officers were meeting their collation officers for the first time on Sunday but this gimmick did not deter the Ohaji Boys from ambushing and abducting many collation officers.

Governor Okorocha personally moved to Ideator South Local Government Area’s INEC office, allegedly drove out all other party agents and reportedly wrote and handed the result over to the collation officer.

In Mbaitolu Local Government Secretariat, the INEC office almost caught fire on Sunday as armed thugs threw a handmade petrol bomb which failed to ignite. Security operatives quickly intervened and saved the situation.

Ngor Okpala Local Government’s INEC office was also not spared by arsonists. But it did not affect the result sheets.

Despite the heavy security presence across the local government collation centres, the Ohaji Boys still penetrated to smuggle in results but the people rose in defence of their mandate. They swooped on them anywhere they saw them.

Very late into the night on Sunday, collation commenced at the INEC office in the state capital and the atmosphere was really charged. Mr Okorocha’s men had impersonated many of those small political parties. They were easy to identify as other agents ostracised them. They called them names and taunted them. Majority of the people at the collation centre was determined to see to Mr Okorocha’s end. Even journalists and observers were up in arms. Many spoke openly against his administration and craved a new order in the state.

The disruption at the collation centre by Mr Okorocha’s men and the PDP agent led to the suspension of activities for more than five hours. But when the centre reopened around 10 a.m. on Monday, the Returning Officer, Francis Otunta, had become very ruthless and threw anyone with bad conduct out of the centre.

The police, soldiers and the NSCDC men were very swift and orderly. People spotted foul play easily, and it was not difficult to know that both the collation and electoral officers for Ohaji Egbema Local Government, Kelechi Ezirim, and Chris Ogbuadu, had compromised. Their result did not tally and they said the Ohaji Boys replaced the result and they cooperated. Mr Otunta promptly ordered their arrest.

When it was around midnight on Monday and the final results were announced, everyone heaved a big sigh of relief and the whole place erupted in a frenzy. The Ohaji Boys who had surrounded the INEC office shortly before the announcement could not do much. They only broke a few windscreens and shot in the air many times, before the people took to the streets and chased them away. Posters and banners bearing Uche Nwosu and his political godfather were defaced before the morning, and surprisingly normalcy returned earlier than expected.

It may take Mr Okorocha and his allies many election cycles to fully recover.

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