How ‘militarisation’ forced suspension of Rivers guber polls

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Many saw it coming. They predicted the Rivers State governorship and House of Assembly elections would be deadlocked, given the voter apathy and violence that trailed the exercise. Their forecast was validated yesterday as INEC announced a suspension of the polls.

In what has now become a routine for election observers, journalists and party agents, many had left home early and headed to the office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on Aba Road, Port Harcourt, to monitor the collation of results from the Local Government Areas (LGAs). Men of the Nigerian army however barricaded the entire stretch of Aba Road with armoured tanks and other vehicles, preventing commuters from plying the route.

While seeing the military and police has become almost normal during elections, what happened yesterday was different; it was a siege. Although INEC officials and accredited observers, including media and party agents were allowed access into the INEC office, the gate remained heavily manned by soldiers. For hours, observers waited for the collation, scheduled for 9:00 a.m., to commerce.

Besides the absence of the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Obo Effanga, the inability of the INEC officers present to give any update on the collation heightened tension. Patiently, observers waited; resigning themselves to the fact that Rivers State flows with its peculiar peculiarities.

A crisis soon erupted at the gate between the military and police officers, forcing the observers to scamper to safety. A policeman had tried to gain access into the office. The soldiers however stopped him, resulting in a protest by other police officers. The situation was eventually brought under control.

No sooner had the atmosphere cooled off than news of the suspension broke. An INEC official, who spoke under anonymity said: “The election has to be suspended because a lot of our officers are under threat. Collation centres are under siege. There’s no way we can continue with the process. INEC has issued a statement to that effect and it stands.”

About an hour after the announcement, the soldiers drove their armoured vehicles away but retained some tanks and men at both ends of the Aba Road. Officers of the Nigeria Police also continued to keep watch at the premises.“I feel so embarrassed and frustrated because this is far bellow our expectation. The REC had given us the confidence that this election would be peaceful and that they want to change the narrative. But against those expectations, the worst has happened. The presidential election was postponed on the day it was supposed to hold. Now, we are having a suspended election. As an observer, I will say that democracy is weeping in Rivers State,” said Emmanuel Okeyamu, president of the group, Nigeria Votes Count.

Describing the situation as disappointing and frustrating, Mr. Christian Leke, the State Collation Officer for the ADC said: “Whatever has happened needs to be investigated. Between yesterday and today in Rivers, there has been a harvest of deaths.“Even when we were being checked by the security, I saw military men invading INEC office. I heard a captain, who led the army, here, showing great disrespect, to an Assistant Police Commissioner. I was so worried; I began to wonder the kind of relationship they have.

“Ordinarily, they have a committee where they are supposed to work together. But for the army officer to openly disrespect an Assistant Police Commissioner is worrisome. Why would the army try to undermine the powers vested on the police as an institution mandated to lead the electoral process?”On his party’s reaction to the suspension, he said, “ADC is not my private enterprise. As the State Collation Officer, I will report back to my party. Whatever decision we will take is going to be collective. But I must assure you that we will not quit. We have invested so much in this election. We believe we have a stake and the votes of Rivers’ people must count.”

Victor Christopher, an ADP agent at the collation centre condemned the deployment of soldiers for the election, saying the situation was responsible for the voter apathy. “What’s the role of the police? Why are we deploying soldiers for an election? We are not at war in Rivers State. They should deploy soldiers to Borno State and other troubled areas like Sambisa Forest, not Rivers,” he said.

Meanwhile, women dressed in black took to the streets, denouncing what they termed militarisation of the polls. Brandishing placards, they stormed the popular GRA Junction, chanting protest songs, even as soldiers flanked by tanks remained at alert.Indications that collation might be thwarted emerged at the early hours of yesterday after security personnel allegedly invaded centres at Obio-Akpor, Eleme, Akuku-Toru, Asari-Toru, Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni and others.

In Okrika and Ogu-Bolo Local Government Areas, people resisted moves by soldiers to access the centres till the early hours of Sunday. In Ogu-Bolo, particularly, dozens of half naked women protested the activities of the military.At about midnight on Saturday, Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike stormed the collation centre in Obio-Akpor. Seeing this, APC members were said to have sent a distress call to their own leaders. At about 1:00 a.m., Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi and some military personnel arrived at the centre. The soldiers used their van to force the gate open. But the governor and his team had already left.

At Bori, the headquarters of Khana LGA, the police allegedly shot one Dr. Ferry Gberegbe. Also, at INEC office, yesterday morning, three persons, Marvin Lezor, Raymond Ledogo, and Lenebari Saro, sustained serious injuries. Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, president, Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) said the reports of violence cast doubt on the integrity of the process.

“The MOSOP is concerned about reports of opening of fire on unarmed citizens and teargasing of people allegedly by security agents particularly at the Ogoni towns of Kpor, Bori and Ogale and the resultant death and wounding of several persons including the shooting of Dr. Ferry Gberegbe and teargasing of Dumle Maol, all of whom are MOSOP officials. This is indeed a setback on our democracy,” he said.

“MOSOP urges the Independent National Electoral Commission to process the tallying of votes with transparency and integrity and in strict compliance with the legally established requirements and calls on government to prosecute all actors including security agents, electoral officers and agents of political parties that were involved in the electoral violence that took place in Ogoni land and other areas,” said Legborsi.

Senator Magnus Abe, who represents Rivers South East senatorial district, said what happened fell short of Nigeria’s standard for elections. He urged the Federal Government to ensure the rights of the people are protected.

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