TOMORROW in Rivers State, it is a fresh opportunity for the electorate to choose national and state assemblies members in re-run elections ordered by various election petition panels. The elections are holding because appeals against verdicts of the petitions ended at Appeal Court. Otherwise, the Supreme Court would have reversed the verdicts and thereby denied voters the very essential peaceful atmosphere to exercise their rights.
The value of tomorrow’s exercise is that in the expected peaceful atmosphere, whichever side, claimed to have won or petitioned that it would have won the 2015 elections, now has the chance to prove that claim. In short, those who have anything or indeed everything to lose tomorrow are those who may be truly rejected by the voters.
A week ago, contingent of heavily armed police and soldiers was dispatched to Rivers State to create a peaceful atmosphere. How times have changed. Exactly a year ago, the story was completely different and opposite. On the eve of the gubernatorial elections, the then Inspector-General of Police, Abba, was ordered to withdraw police hierarchy from Niger Delta but specifically from Rivers State, a decision which created the atmosphere of anarchy under which the elections were held and the results understandably sharply disputed. Till today, no official reason was given for the ordered withdrawal of police under the leadership of Assistant Inspector General Tunde Ogunshakin only hours before the commencement of the Rivers State elections.
Apparently because of the juicy outcome of the brigandage, which marked the 2015 elections in Rivers State and the less than honourable decision of the judiciary in hanging on to legal technicality that the crime of murder, arson and violent disruption of voting upheld by election petition panel(s) in nullifying the election results, was not proved beyond reasonable doubt, violence on a scale worse than last year’s, continued in Rivers state as widely reported in local and foreign media. The prospects were that even tomorrow’s repeat elections would be marred by that violence. In fact, the worry in the past few months was why the Federal Government was indifferent to the insecurity of lives and property in Rivers State. Responsible prominent citizens of Rivers State have had to either keep quiet or have re-located to Abuja, Lagos or even abroad.
It was, therefore, a relief when security forces moved to Rivers State to ensure peaceful elections tomorrow. That decision was compelled by the prevailing violence in which innocent Nigerians of Rivers State were among others decapitated and their heads carried away, corpses burnt or families of three or four massacred, witnessed by other lucky surviving orphans, all for no reason(s) other than belonging or suspected of belonging to rival political parties. Whichever side might be responsible, there was no way acceptable elections could be held in that atmosphere. What is more, the latest violence intensified only because if the violence, which marked last year’s elections produced any consequence, such was that the victims died in vain and the culprits went unpunished. Hence, the situation of anarchy in Rivers State.
Again, President Muhammadu Buhari’s confirmation (to Nigerians resident in Equitorial Guinea) of the steps he already took to contain the violence in Rivers State attracted critical comments. The decision to draft police to Rivers State specifically to combat the violence and ensure free and fair elections in the state was already taken and announced to that effect before he (Buhari) travelled to Equitorial Guinea. Like the international community, Nigerians in Equitorial Guinea, obviously with relations in Rivers State, were anxious about the deteriorating situation in Rivers and he (Buhari) simply acquainted Nigerians in that country that the situation was under control.
What could he have told Nigerians in Equitorial Guinea? Should Buhari have told them to return to Nigeria and ask him that re-assurance? Or should he have hidden from them information on the drafting of security forces to Rivers State, a fact already released to Nigerians at home and the outside world before he travelled to Equitorial Guinea? Inquiring Nigerians abroad are equally entitled to information on how government is run, as much as Nigerians at home.
And once such necessary information is already known to Nigerians at home, why must such be denied to Nigerians abroad, especially when they were querying the man who should know?
There is an irony or change of fortune in the drafting of security forces to Rivers State to ensure law and order throughout tomorrow’s elections. In the build up to governorship elections in Osun and Ekiti states about two years ago, the PDP stoutly defended the decision on the ground that it was aimed at ensuring peaceful elections. On the other hand, the APC sharply criticised the step as aimed at intimidating APC supporters and leadership. And truly, police and soldiers were improperly employed to arrest, threaten and bar APC leaders, including the then Rivers State governor and current Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, from entering Ekiti State for campaigns.
Today, APC leaders, especially Rotimi Amaechi, are defending the deployment of security forces to Rivers State to ensure peaceful elections tomorrow. On the other hand, the PDP led by Rivers State Governor Wike, is very critical of the presence of armed security forces for tomorrow’s elections.
There is, however, a noticeable difference. So far, security forces have not in any way hindered willing PDP leaders from entering Rivers State to campaign for the elections. Neither has any PDP leader been arrested. That is a fair standard, which the police and army hierarchy must jointly maintain throughout the elections. Any detraction from such will be a violation of fundamental rights of freedom of movement, association, assembly and expression all guaranteed under Nigerian constitution.
The two major political parties are dueling for tomorrow’s elections in Rivers State and neither should be unduly worried. Nigeria of 2015 is gone. Security forces were in Ekiti State for the elections and PDP won. Security forces were in Osun State. Yet, APC won. Security forces were in Bayelsa for the governorship election and PDP won. Security forces ensured law and order for Kogi governorship election and APC won even though the winner, Prince Abubakar Audu, did not live to learn the result, owing to natural causes.
The security forces are, therefore, on trial for tomorrow’s elections in Rivers State with the optimism of Nigerians that those we expect to ensure the necessary atmosphere for peaceful elections do not exceed or fall below their professional limits. The first of the limits of the security forces is to stem any violence from any quarters. Afterall, any of the competing sides so sure of its popular support should not engage in violence or intimidation of voters. The second professional obligation of the security forces is not in any way to guarantee the defeat or victory of any of the competing political parties. In either case, that is the exclusive prerogative of voters.
However, the security forces have the responsibility tomorrow and at whatever cost, to guard against any of the notorious components of election rigging. Disappearance of election materials, swapping of election results, violent disturbance at polling stations or election result centres, such as exhibited by ex-minister Godsday Orubebe during the announcement of the results of the 2015 presidential elections, attack on rival candidates, disappearance or kidnapping of election officials and all forms of intimidation. If the law can be enforced to guard against all these, only candidates supported by majority of voters will emerge winners.
There was concern all along in the build up to tomorrow’s elections when anarchy reigned throughout the state. Dispatch of security forces halted all such concern. All peace-loving indigenes of Rivers State must, therefore, co-operate with the law enforcement agents. The Federal Government had no choice but to move in security forces since it was obvious that the state government either lost control or deliberately allowed anarchists to reign supreme. Even if they were anarchists, it is still the responsibility to assist the police to arrest and prosecute the culprits. The first duty of any government – federal, state or local – is to guarantee security.
Tomorrow’s election in Rivers State is surely a saving grace for the government. The election offers a relief. Without the elections, and breakdown of law and order continued, it is the duty of the Federal Government under Nigerian constitution to declare a state of emergency, suspend the state government and install an administrator.
This alert is necessary because violent events in Rivers State are vividly replicating the 1962 political crisis in the defunct Western region, for which Tafawa Balewa’s federal government had to declare a state of emergency.
Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State blamed rival cultists for the murders, arson and all form of violence in the state. Even then, there is no law in Nigeria, which provides cover for cultists to murder fellow citizens. In 1953 in Lagos, cultists conspired and murdered a Muslim preacher, Alhaji Bisiriyu Apalara. They were all arrested and eleven of those found guilty were hanged at Broad Street Prison, opposite General Hospital, Lagos.
That law still exists to deal with the murderers in Rivers State. After tomorrow’s elections, any dissatisfied party or parties should go to the tribunal. With the mass dismissal of election petitions by Nigerian bench and the general perception that the idea of petitions after elections had been barred, no law court has the authority to enact any law. The duty of the courts is to interpret. Otherwise, the Electoral Act was not passed without a purpose.
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