This article is part of our #FirstWord series to provide context on trending news
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has suspended all elections in Rivers State till further notice. In a press statement signed by Festus Okoye, the National Commissioner, Information and Voter Education Committee, the institution said the governorship and state assembly elections witnessed widespread disruptions in different polling units in the state.
“Based on reports from our officials in the field, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has determined that there has been widespread disruption of elections conducted on the 9th day of March 2019 in Rivers State.
“These initial reports suggest that violence occurred in a substantial number of polling units and collation centres, staff have been taken hostage and materials including result sheets have either been seized or destroyed by unauthorised persons.
“In addition, the safety of our staff appears to be in jeopardy all over the state, and the commission is concerned about the credibility of the process,” INEC said.
According to the electoral body, the elections were so marred by violence that nearly every local government area had been affected and the commission could not get any results to the state collation centre, revealing that the INEC office was still under siege on Sunday afternoon.
The election in the state is keenly contested between the incumbent and candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Nyesom Wike, and the candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Biokpomabo Awara. The All Progressives Congress (APC) was struck out of the election following an order from the Supreme Court, and ended up adopting the candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC) Awara Biokpomabo. Notably, the absence of a proper APC candidate did not reduce the stakes at the poll.
In fact, it seems to have increased it.
Rivers State has a notorious history of electoral violence and vote buying. On the day of the election, 9th March 2019, Michael Abedinigo was killed in Akinima, Ahoada West Local government. Abedinigo was said to have been shot by thugs while resisting their attempts to snatch electoral materials.
Nyesom Wike’s special adviser on gender matters, Emilia Nte, was also shot and abducted from her home town, Unyeada, a day before the elections.
Similarly, during the Presidential and National assembly elections on the 23rd February 2019, the state witnessed large scale violence. In Abonnema (Akuku - Toru local government), for example, violent ballot box snatching was orchestrated by armed men in military uniforms on behalf of politicians. The situation was so messy that 15 people died.
In a way, the violence should have been anticipated as videos surfaced days before the elections of people fleeing certain parts of Rivers for fear of a repeat of the violence seen during the presidential polls. We had earlier highlighted the appaling official voter turnout in Rivers State during these elections, with total votes more than halving from 2015 amid the violence.
Nobody is happy
Considering all the above, including alleged kidnap of INEC staff in the state, the commission has established a fact-finding committee to access the situation of things in the state and report their findings. Until the committee is back with details of the disruptions in the state and possible ways to address them no one is sure when the elections will hold.
Neither the APC nor the ruling PDP was happy with the INEC's decision.
The PDP released a statement suggesting that the APC had orchestrated the violence in tandem with the security officials to "enmesh the Rivers state governorship election in controversy, seeing that there is no way they can take away victory from the PDP". In taking this stance, the ruling party is playing a simple game, forcing Nigerians to question why they would want to disturb the election seeing as some considered it a free pass in the absence of APC candidates.
Meanwhile, the APC countered by suggesting that the INEC decision to suspend was illegal as Section 26 of the Electoral Act only permits postponement before elections actually begin. They called on INEC to release the results of LGAs where elections have already held and claimed that the results would show that the AAC gubernatorial candidate and House of Assembly candidates supported by the APC were "cruising to victory".
Moving aside the contentions raised by the APC, the INEC decision was at least consistent with the INEC regulations and guidelines. Section 47(e) says:
“Where the Commission determines that violent disruptions occurred at a substantial number of Polling Units before the announcement of the result, a fresh date for the election in the affected Polling Units shall be announced by the Commission.”
Whatever grievances either party has, they should both be familiar with the document.
And everyone else? Well, international observers have condemned the activities. And the prevalence of smartphones and the videos circulating have given many Nigerians a snippet into the military era. For older Nigerians, they are chilling reminders. The brazen militarisation of the elections was stark.
A few days before the weekend elections, Rotimi Amaechi had praised the heavy deployment of military officials in Rivers State, arguing that it would ensure the security of the elections.
The brutal irony.