Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
To many Nigerians, only June 12, 1993 Presidential election could perhaps be compared with the September 19, 2020 Edo State governorship election in the recent past judging by the level of acceptance.
Endless encomiums had continued to pour in for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over what many considered a near perfection in conducting a relatively free, fair and credible election.
Tension, at fever pitch, had enveloped the length and breadth of Edo State. There was heightened anxiety, dreadful security reports and risk assessment came from various security agents of impending fracas and breakdown of law and order within and outside the state just as many feared that blood will flow like the rivers.
There were allegations of unleashing of local and imported political thugs and counter claims of the readiness of the two major political parties to fraudulently outsmart each other. Supporters of the major parties were constantly at daggers drawn, clashing endlessly, hence worsening the security tension in the state.
The pre-election security temperature portends ominous signs of danger. From the traditional institution, the religious leaders to the ordinary citizens, the apprehension was not whether the blood flow will be averted but how many souls that will be casualties.
In fact, high risk assessment led to security formations massively deploying personnel that ran into tens of thousands. Not even the signing of the Peace Accord nor the appeals from the Oba of Benin could assuage or reduce the tension.
But, surprisingly, the tide subsided from the morning of the Election Day. The security agents took total control of the situation at the polling stations. There were limited reported cases of electoral infractions, minor incidences of ballot box snatching, ballot box stuffing, mutilated result sheets, limited numbers of vote buying, disruption of voting and intimidation of the electorate.
For most Nigerians, the votes by the electorate actually counted in the Edo governorship election. Edo, in the rating of many political watchers, was successfully credible that even the threat of litigation from the APC candidate was not based on the outcome of the election, but on the credibility of the credentials of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate and winner of the election, Governor Godwin Obaseki.
From the various local and foreign election monitoring/observer groups, the opposition party, major and minor stakeholders, to the ordinary Nigerians, there was unanimous commendation of the electoral body.
Expectedly, INEC became the biggest beneficiary of the electoral outcome, resulting in a marginal improvement in its profile and hitherto trust deficits after struggling to unshackle itself from the toga of conducting few inconclusive elections.
According to analysts, many factors were responsible for the feat. The first was the perceived neutrality of President Muhammadu Buhari and by extension, the security agents, while the second was the repeated threats of ban from the international community, USA, UK, EU, on any political leader involved in any electoral malfeasance.
The others were the novel z-pad technology that uploads polling unit level results on a dedicated portal (INEC Result Viewing – IReV) deployed by the electoral umpire and perhaps the intervention of the Gen Abdulsallam Abubakar-led peace committee.
But few weeks after the success recorded by INEC in Edo, history seriously beckons on the electoral umpire once again to replicate the feat in this weekend’s Ondo State governorship election. The electoral umpire may have admitted pressure but it has however assured and reassured Nigerians in general and Ondo indigenes particularly of its optimism that this Saturday’s poll will be better than Edo.
For a state with nasty volatile historical record of electoral violence, it remains to be seen how the electoral umpire would replicate the Edo governorship poll success in Ondo this weekend.
Already, drums of warfare have sounded even louder than they did in Edo. Several pre-election death cases have been recorded. Political thugs have continued to run riot, maiming, killing and wreaking havocs, leaving in their trail sorrow, agony and blood. Campaigns and political gatherings have been disrupted.
There is high proliferation of arms and light weapons in the hands of the thugs that are already using them for wrong reasons. There was even worst case scenario of an inferno that consumed thousands of Smart Card Readers configured for the poll.
Political parties have pressed the panic button, expressing fears of a possible violent poll and doubts over the outcome of the election. In fact, only on Monday, the state leadership of Zenith Labour Party (ZLP) had during the INEC-organised stakeholders meeting in Akure accused the APC of unleashing trained political thugs on other party members.
“We have no problems with the other political parties. APC is our biggest problem. Only recently at both Owo and Ondo, thugs suspected to be working for the APC disrupted, tortured and even killed our members during political rallies. They have made lives unbearable to the members of the other political parties.
“We have reported the cases to the police but nothing was done. In some cases, police made arrests but once they receive calls from certain quarters, they would release those arrested. The thugs will even boast to us that they are above the law and that police cannot do anything to them.
“We have cancelled many political gatherings because of fears that police cannot protect us anymore from the thugs,” ZLP state leadership complained to the Inspector General of Police at the stakeholders meeting.
But, despite the war drums, INEC had after a review of Edo, assured that in its determination to improve on the Edo governorship election outcome, the Ondo poll will not only be peaceful but will be free, fair and credible.
To achieve that, according to INEC, it has identified 16 areas of improvement, including logistics, prompt response to Smart Card Reader glitches, menace of vote buying and compliance with COVID-19 protocols, to help make the Ondo poll even far much better.
“The Commission has reviewed the last governorship election in Edo State. We are determined to continue improving on our performance. For this reason, we identified 16 areas of improvement, including logistics, prompt response to Smart Card Reader glitches on Election Day, the menace of vote buying during elections and compliance with COVID-19 protocols.
“In response, we have engaged with land and maritime transport owners for forward and reverse logistics to and from land and riverine locations. We have engaged additional 104 Registration Area Technical Support (RATECHS) staff to respond rapidly to issues with Card Readers on Election Day. We had useful discussions with the security agencies and anti-corruption agencies on how to deal with vote buying during elections.
“Working with health authorities, we will continue to enforce safety measures at polling units, including the compulsory wearing of face masks and the provision of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as hand sanitizers and infra-red thermometers at polling locations and collation centres.
“All eligible voters will have equal opportunity to exercise their right to vote. In order to ensure greater awareness and effective participation of all citizens in the electoral process, the commission is deploying magnifying glasses and braille ballot guides to assist Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) to vote unaided.
“For this reason, the Commission has translated and published the policy on conducting elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the Voters’ Code of Conduct into braille. We have also produced posters to guide hearing-impaired voters,” INEC boss, Prof Mahmood Yakubu had promised.
Again, as part of the arrangements to improve on the Edo poll, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu Abubakar, read the riot act to the electorate, political stakeholders and the troublemakers, warning them to desist from their proposed plans to ferment trouble.
Dishing out the warnings, the IGP said: “Accordingly, you are all enjoined to conduct yourselves within the dictates of the Electoral Act and other relevant laws in order to avoid pitching yourselves against the law enforcement agents.
“In this regard, and for purpose of emphasis, you are all to be guided by the following on the Election Day: No one is allowed to wear any cloth, emblem or colour signifying any political party to the polling units. No person is allowed to move around with security details around the polling units.
“Indeed, appropriate directives have been given for the withdrawal or scaling down of such details around politically exposed persons and other personalities in the state until after the elections.
“Everyone is enjoined to vote and return to their respective houses or remain peacefully within approved perimeters of the polling centres. No one is allowed to move about from one polling unit to another as there shall be restriction of movements on the day of the election.
“Only INEC accredited election monitoring/observers are allowed to move around for the purpose of election monitoring and they must all wear their INEC accredited tags. Praise singing, drumming and dancing around the vicinity of polling units are not allowed. Vehicles branded in any political party colour or emblems are not allowed to be deployed on any election assignment.
“Selling of alcohol beverages around the polling booth and collation centres is totally banned. It is to be additionally emphasised that aside these sets of guidelines, any person that violates any components of the Criminal Laws including being in possession of weapon of violence of any description either on the streets or around the polling units.
“Engaging in corruption inducement of the electorate, or threatening public peace in any manner before, during and after the elections shall be apprehended and charged under the appropriate sections of the law,” he warned.
The cautioning is interestingly laced with messages of assurances and hopes from both the electoral umpire and the security agents with the promises to restore the confidence of the voters.
According to the INEC boss; “Our commitment is to ensure that the choice of who becomes the next governor of Ondo State is entirely in the hands of the voters. I wish to assure all eligible voters that every vote will count and only the choice made by the people of Ondo State will determine the outcome of the election. I assure the electorate that the Ondo election will be better than Edo State.
“I want to also assure political parties and candidates that we will remain focused on our processes and procedures. Let me reiterate to all stakeholders that the Commission will not take any action to the advantage or disadvantage of any political party or candidate,” he promised.
In the area of securing the election, the IGP had while announcing the deployment of forces said: “In order to mitigate the identified threats, we shall be deploying, aside our intelligence assets, a total of 33,783 police personnel on election security duty. This will comprise of 30,933 conventional police personnel and 2,850 Special Police Units.
“The Police deployment will be complemented by an additional 3,500 manpower that will be drawn from other Security Agencies. The Military will be engaged for the purpose of securing the Inter State borders while the Nigeria Police Airwing will provide air surveillance.
“The rationale for these deployments is purposeful and strategic. Firstly, we are drawing from the experiences garnered in the recently concluded election and proactively responding to the outcome of the intelligence analysis arising from our election threat assessment of Ondo State governorship election,” IGP noted.
As the countdown zeros in hours, expectations have heightened that apart from the arrangements and assurances, the poll will not be marred by voter apathy, rigging, violence and intimidation.
With 1,478,460 electorate cleared for the Saturday poll, Ondo State has date with history. Yes, this is certainly another litmus test for INEC, but the final outcome of the election is highly dependent on the neutrality of the security agents and positive interpretation of President Buhari‘s body language.