Killing Nigeria’s democracy with ­­military involvement in polls

One of the soldiers attacked by alleged PDP thugs at Obio/Akpor Council in Rivers State.

The Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Yakubu Mahmud, disclosed that having a successful election depends to a large extent on proper legal framework, stressing that a review of the 2019 election would help to sketch a roadmap for the 2023 polls. The chairman, who made the observation in his opening remarks at the presentation of certificates of return to federal legislators, assured that his commission would work with the lawmakers to review and strengthen the country’s electoral law.

But despite the assurances from him, most Nigerians continue to cringe at the level of violence, especially the militarization of the electoral process in the 2019 general election. Intriguingly, the soldiers were reported to be at the beck and call of politicians to skew the outcome of balloting in most cases, a situation that led to voter apathy and diminution of the country’s democracy.

Rivers’ onslaught
Elections in Rivers State have often been marred by violence, fueled by fierce rivalries among political actors who create their own private armies of youths to unleash violence and snatch election materials. But in the 2019 general elections, the most outstanding perpetrators of electoral violence and malfeasance were the security agencies, particularly the army, which has been accused by INEC and observers of disrupting collation of election results.

Three days to the presidential and National Assembly elections, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chieftain, Ferdinand Anabaraba, raised the alarm that the army, for inexplicable reasons, had occupied his country home in Abonnema, headquarters of Akuku-Toru Local Government Area.

Similarly, a former Nigerian ambassador to South Korea and DirectorGeneral, PDP campaign council in the state, Desmond Akawor, had also claimed that the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army and Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS), were going to be used to destabilise, rig and abort the 2019 elections in Rivers State.

Although it was easy to dismiss those claims as sheer propaganda days before the polls, the worst of the doomsday worries came to pass on the fateful day of presidential and National Assembly elections. In Abonnema, attempts to resist the snatching of electoral materials from the Registration Area Centre at Abonnnema Girls Secondary School resulted in a bloody confrontation between APC and PDP members. The army, which had allegedly provided cover for APC supporters, decided at a point to take sides by repelling PDP supporters. In the fierce gun battle that ensued, an army lieutenant and over 40 persons, according to Red Cross, were killed in Abonnema. The Acting Director of Army Public Relations, Colonel Sagir Musa, claimed the army only killed six persons.

Military personnel reportedly cordoned off collation centres across the state, as politicians allegedly attempted to foist fake election results from INEC electoral officers, with the most glaring incidents being in Ikwerre and Okrika Local Government Areas.

INEC’s electoral officer for Ikwerre LGA, Mrs. Mary Imawuya, had revealed after the presidential and National Assembly elections, that military men stormed INEC’s office at Isiokpo and laid siege. She said they first blocked the gate and prevented electoral officials from leaving the premises.

She said based on the tensed political atmosphere, exacerbated by fierce altercations between APC and PDP supporters, she sought the permission of the State Resident Electoral Commissioner for collation to be done at the commission’s office. With approval secured, she contacted all Supervisory Presiding officers to bring their presiding officers to INEC office and do their collation there.

“As the presiding officers came, the collation officers identified them,” she said. “In the process, the military invaded the office, chased everybody out of the premises, chased all the corps members away; it was raining. INEC materials were scattered all over the premises. The evidence is till there. I did not touch anything and I did a recording of that.

“At that moment they were asking for my collation officers. I instructed my collation officers to go into my office, which they did. So at the end of the day, everybody was chased out and some party officers still stood in the office insisted, brought a result sheet which was not mine and insisted that I should collate and I said no.”

Due to the interference by the military, collation was stalled. She, however, managed to retrieve all INEC’s collation sheets from the collation officers and returned them to the commission’s headquarters in Port Harcourt.

Similarly, INEC Electoral officer for Okrika, Leo Okon, also accused the military, who he said pointed guns at him and threatened to kill him for carting away electoral materials including smart card readers away.

Okon had narrated in Port Harcourt that as they began collation in Okrika after the presidential and National Assembly elections, a team of armed soldiers, led by one Captain Inuwa, invaded his office and asked him why the process was slow.

“I explained to him that please we couldn’t collate because of the gunshots. So corps members had to run back to this place for safety. I said he should give us the time to complete the RA collation and we would move onto the local government collation, which is at the multipurpose hall in Okrika. He moved out, but a few minutes later he came in with more than ten armed soldiers and ordered us to carry everything concerning the elections in the local government.

“And so when they packed everything, they drove everybody away. All of our documents, both sensitive and insensitive materials, were spilled all over. He packed some of the card readers and he carried away all form EC, AB series, C series and they shot into the air and drove away in Army Hilux van.”

Barely 24 hours to the governorship poll, masked gun-trotting soldiers and policemen invaded King Ateke Tom’s residence, killing one person and vandalising his property in Okrika.

A day after, while observers, party agents and journalists were expecting the arrival of results from the local government areas, more military personnel stormed INEC’s office on Aba Road, Port Harcourt, and attempted to take complete control of the security of the premises, leading to a fierce altercation with the police.

At a point, the military personnel were seen screening results from collation officers returning from the various LGAs. This triggered outrage among INEC officials, which eventually led to the suspension of the polls in the state.

Former Rivers State governor and Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, meanwhile commended the police, the military and other security agencies for keeping the peace in the state during the elections.

According to him, “We have held elections in Rivers State, where over 15 to 20 persons were killed, but this is the only election that has recorded peace and it is because of the presence of the military. The militants have fled, because of the presence of the military.”

Akwa Ibom theatre
Many indigenes of Edemaya, hometown of APC candidate in Akwa Ibom State, Obong Nsima Ekere, in the March 9 elections are still recovering from the horror that engulfed the community during the Governorship/House of Assembly elections. The peace of the otherwise serene suburb was unsettled the night before the elections when truckloads of soldiers were spotted plying through the community to the country home of the APC strongman.

What could be the task assigned to the soldiers in Edemaya? No one could say, but by the next morning after election day, none of the three wards in Edemaya escaped the traumatic experience, with Ward 2 being the worst hit. Voting was disrupted in five of the six units that make up the ward. In Ward 3, voting was similarly disrupted in three of the seven units of the ward. Ward 2, Ekere’s own ward, appeared to have been the least hit, but with voting was disrupted only in one of the six units.

However, even the result in Ekere’s own unit was eventually cancelled by INEC, as the number of votes far outnumbered the number of accredited voters as later revealed by the card reader. It would be recalled that during the Presidential/Parliamentary elections held earlier, hired thugs halted voting in four of the six units of that same ward.

The soldiers in question, for instance, arrived Ward 3, Unit 001 barely 30 minutes after the election started and started shooting in the air and thus sent voters who were already on the queue for the voting exercise, into the bush. In frenzy, they started picking up and beating people – mainly youths – identified for them as ‘trouble makers.’

Meanwhile, all was calm and peaceful until the soldiers arrived. In an operation that lasted for over half an hour, over 20 young men were left on the ground, some had injuries while others were simply beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Perhaps, satisfied that they had delivered their message, they zoomed off.

It took some time for order to return and even more persuasion for the voters, particularly the elderly women, to agree to return to the voting queue. Unfortunately, not quite an hour after the rampaging soldiers left, another set arrived, about eight of them in a Hilux Van. These soldiers turned out to be deadlier, as they shot endlessly and rounded up more young people, mainly PDP supporters. In fact, as they arrived shooting, the crowd in the ensuing melie, pulled down whatever was left of the voting structures. At the end of the day, election was finally disrupted as voting materials littered all over the primary school, INEC’s ad hoc staff having fled for dear life.

In the end, the soldiers took away some young men who were later dumped at the police cell in Ikot Abasi Division that night at about 11.00pm. As it turned out an APC stalwart from the neighbouring village later allegedly arrived to gather the remains of the voting materials and INEC’s ad hoc staff to Obong Nsima Ekere’s residence in Ikot Oboroenyin, but they ran out of luck as officials of INEC on routine patrol caught up with them and recovered the materials. Expectedly, the unit had no result. The police in Ikot Abasi later moved two of the boys taken away by the soldiers to the state’s CID in Ikot Akpan Abia in the state capital.

In Ward 2, unit 006, the mode of operations by the soldiers was different. According to eyewitnesses, the soldiers arrived after the voting exercise was almost completed and started shooting sporadically into the air to scare away people. They hijacked the voting boxes with little resistance by the mainly PDP officials on duty at the unit. As the shooting was going on, one reportedly threw bundles of N500 notes in the air and as everyone scrambled for the money, the ballot boxes were gone while soldiers threatened anyone who attempted to obstruct their way, and snatched people’s mobile phones as they drove away.

Still at another location, in the same Ward 2, the soldiers arrived when the voting had ended and started shooting and throwing money in the air; they carted away the ballot boxes and other election materials. In all, their destination allegedly remained the country home of Mr. Ekere, APC governorship candidate.

As at the time of filing this report, people were still counting their losses, as most families were either crying over their children who were thoroughly brutalised and taken away by the soldiers in their presence. For others, it was beating and loss of items, particularly mobile phones. Others were seen nursing their wounds, considering that such humiliation came from someone who they ordinarily should have looked up to for succour in their community.

It would be recalled that early signs of Edemaya people’s rejection of Ekere emerged two weeks before the elections when the Presidential/Parliamentary elections clearly showed the people’s preference for PDP as against APC for which Ekere is the standard bearer.

But the larger Edemaya community was angered by Ekere’s refusal to bring any developmental project to the community despite the opportunities he had in the past, first as AKIPOC and NDDC, from where he was sacked to pursue his insatiable quest for power to govern the state.

Aside the disruption of voting across the community, the activities of the soldiers, who acted like militants, tore the community apart. PDP has continued to accuse APC of inviting the soldiers to the voting scene in an election that was peaceful and without provocation.

Imo fracas
In Imo State, the alleged military, police and other para-military agencies’ involvement in aiding candidates during the general elections was real in all nooks and crannies of the state. There were also accusations and counter-accusations of both fake military and policemen in uniforms barricading various areas and intimidating voters as well as electoral officials and, in most cases, carting away election materials.

Such cases happened in Ngor Opkala, where suspected fake military and policemen stormed a polling unit, while shooting sporadically and snatched and carted away ballot papers, result sheets and other materials.

Also in Ideato South (Imo West) Senatorial District, during the presidential and National Assembly polls, there was the reported case of combined security personnel allegedly abducting the Returning Officer in the area, Prof. Innocent Ibeawuchi. A day after, he was forced at gunpoint to declare the result, in which Governor Rochas Okorocha of APC purportedly defeated Jones Onyereri, the current chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Currency and PDP candidate.

Ibeawuchi, who addressed journalists in Owerri, explained his terrific experience in the hands of his abductors, adding that his life and those of his family have been in danger since then. Okorocha has since debunked the allegation that he masterminded the abduction. The state’s Police Commissioner, Galadanchi Dasuki, confirmed the arrest of fake military and policemen.

Angered by the alleged involvement of the military, scores of women in their thousands from the 12 local councils of Imo West, stormed the 34 Field Artillery Brigade, Obinze, near Owerri, protesting and accusing some soldiers of aiding some candidates to carry out electoral malpractices.

Clad in black clothes, the women also marched to INEC’s office, police headquarters in the state, and Department of State Services’ (DSS) office. Led by Mrs. Uju Ihejiagwa and Mr. Nwandi Anyasinti, the protesters stated: “Governor Rochas Okorocha committed electoral fraud by using the military, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad and thugs to intimidate, harass and maim unsuspecting and unprotected Imo voters.

“He connived with some staff of Independent National Electoral Commission to subvert the wish of the masses by manipulating the outcome of the election and ensuring the announcement of fake results.

“We also protest the brutal assassination of two of our sons, killed at Ejemekwuru in Oguta LGA, during the governor’s campaign rally in the area. The governor used security agencies to harass, intimidate and rig the elections in the February 23 election. Collation agents were intimidated and molested. Electoral materials were stolen and fake results written, submitted and announced, with the aid of INEC.

“We hereby request that the military and other security agents desist from being used to rig elections anymore in Imo State. We call on the Brigade Commander of 34 Field Artillery Brigade, Obinze, to warn and caution his boys to desist from getting involved in electoral fraud.”

Benue blueprint
Before the commencement of the elections, some Nigerians supported the idea of deploying troops by the Nigerian Army to stave off electoral violence. For several others, doing so would only provide an opportunity for the ruling party to manipulate the process, using the military to favour of its candidates.

Notwithstanding the argument for or against the propriety or otherwise of such deployment, which dominated the polity, the presidency stunned citizens when it reiterated President Muhammadu Buhari’s comment that anyone who dares to snatch ballot boxes during the elections would be doing so for the last time.

It said Mr. Buhari’s comments should be seen as a strong message against the long history of “savagery associated with elections in the country.”
The president’s remarks at a meeting of the ruling All Progressives Congress was roundly criticised by many, who argued that such declaration could lead to mob justice and arbitrary killing of innocent persons.

Ironically, however, that scenario did not play out in Benue State. It is necessary to underscore the point that the deployment of soldiers to Benue rather aided in putting a thaw over what would have turned out as a theatre of war given the volatile nature of parts of the state.

Massive disruptions owing to reported incidents of thuggery among others in Logo, Gwer-West, Vandeikya, Guma, Buruku and Gboko Local Governments Areas, where the card reader were allegedly not to have been put to use forced the state returning officer, Sebastian Maimako, of INEC to declare the governorship election inconclusive.

One of the scenarios that played out was in Guma, where political stalwarts, especially in the opposition party, APC, in the state raised concerns over how their agents were chased away and election materials diverted and ballot papers thumb-printed.

INEC also reported that 41 polling units in a particular local government did not use the card reader. Members of PDP, the ruling party in the state and opposition APC in Benue State before the declaration of the process as inclusive by INEC also traded words of accusation over issues of violence and alleged polls fraud.

Oyo departure
Various security agents, including the officers of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), State Security Service (SSS), Economic and Finance Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Nigerian Army and others helped provide security for the 2019 general elections.

Of more concerned was the involvement of the officers of the Nigerian Army, which attracted criticisms across the country. However, the case is not the same in Oyo State. The military officers operated in the state with the highest level of professionalism and respect for the rule of law.

Largely, the officers, who were not close to voting areas, were seen in some strategic locations such as junctions, inter-community roads and others in the state. Their presence helped to maintain decorum and orderliness.

At Omitowoju, Inalende and Oke Padre areas of Ibadan North West Local Government Area, the officers helped quell crises that would have engulfed the communities. Some thugs and hoodlums had invaded the areas with the sole aim of disrupting the process and snatching ballot boxes, but with the arrival of the military officers all the hoodlums quickly fled.

The Public Relations Officer of Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Comrade Segun Ogungbayi, said even though the involvement of army officers was an aberration, their professionalism was commendable.

He stated: “Their involvement is an aberration. There can’t be anything good in aberration. It is an unusual situation. Notwithstanding its improprietary, the officers were neutral and fair. They didn’t support anybody. They were not intimidating anybody. They did well. Their involvement didn’t have influence on the outcome of the elections.”

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