…urge FG to protect over 10 million voters in region
BY TIMOTHY AGBOR, BENEDICT NWACHUKWU, MAYOWA SAMUEL AND BRIGHT JACOB
With just 34 days to the first ballot of the 2023 general elections scheduled for February 25, the electoral exercise in the South East geo-political zone is on tenterhooks, owing to spiraling insecurity, The Point’s investigation has shown.
Also, notwithstanding the persistent reassurances by the Independent National Electoral Commission that the exercise would hold, doubts and cynicism are increasingly getting the better part of stakeholders across the country.
Stakeholders, including politicians, lawyers, civil society organizations and political analysts, have therefore called on the Federal Government to ensure that the growing insecurity in the South East is curbed to pave the way for peaceful and acceptable elections in the region.
They asked the Federal Government to double its security presence in the region and ensure that nobody is disenfranchised.
They said unless urgent steps were taken by the Federal Government, more than 10 million voters may be disenfranchised in the 2023 general elections.
Data from the Independent National Electoral Commission showed that the South East has 10.9 million registered voters.
It was however gathered that a new set of voters were unable to collect their Permanent Voter Cards by INEC, owing to the sit-at-home order imposed on the residents by the separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra.
The Nnamdi Kanu-led IPOB had earlier ordered the every Monday sit-at-home as part of the group’s strategies to persuade the Federal Government to free Nnamdi Kanu, who is in incarceration in Kuje prison from where he has been standing trial in court on charges bordering on treason. Hoodlums have, however, since then been enforcing the sit-at-home, attacking and killing people for coming out on Mondays.
An elder statesman and former Nigerian Ambassador to the Philippines, Yemi Farounbi, in an exclusive interview with The Point, however, warned the Federal Government to exercise caution in increasing military intervention, saying such action may be counterproductive and snowball into severe chaos that the country may not be able to contain.
He argued that since the South East was the ethnic base of Peter Obi, the Labour Party presidential candidate, it would be an invitation to a worse crisis, if elections were not conducted there.
Farounbi advised the Federal Government to consider a negotiated consensus that could lower the temperature of the political climate, and generate more light than heat, stressing that the increasing wave of violence poses threat to election credibility in the zone.
“It’s true that the increasing wave of violence in the South East must give serious concern to those who know the critical importance of free and fair elections to the democratic process.
It’s more frightening because INEC installations and those of the security agencies are primary targets of these acts of violence. Safety of electoral personnel and those of voters who can become soft targets to the perpetrators of acts of violence become a sore issue.
“In 2015, we had instances of violence perpetrated by Boko Haram only in seven LGAs across two states. INEC considered that serious enough to postpone elections by six weeks. Now, we are talking of five states of the South East and an increasing number of LGAs across the country. This poses tremendous danger to the democratic health of this country. Imposing a state of emergency on a major ethnic nation that has been clamouring for secession is an invitation to chaos and crisis.
“Inability to conduct elections in an ethnic nation that claims it is their turn on the basis of rotation is an invitation to crisis. Being unable to conduct elections in the ethnic base of one of the candidates will be an invitation to a crisis worse than the one created by the boycott of federal elections by the Eastern Region in 1964.
“It is because of possibilities like this that Chief Afe Babalola called, in April 2022, for an Interim Government. And the call for an Interim Government is also increasing. This is evidence of the fear of some people that a constitutional crisis may be one of the options ahead of Nigeria,” Farounbi noted.
Proffering a way forward, he said, “Government must find a decisive way of dealing with the frightening insecurity in the South East. One of the ways is to examine carefully and pursue the political option that Governor Soludo has been sermonizing on. Another option is to decisively deal with the insecurity, something the government hasn’t been able to do in seven years. Actions taken in the past have only stimulated increasing violence and insecurity.
“Another option is to consider a negotiated consensus that can lower the temperature of the political climate, generate more light than heat. It would appear that a declaration of a state of emergency or increasing military intervention may generate more heat than anticipated. There can be no alternative to talking; bargaining; negotiating a consensus that will make people happier; something that can strengthen the democratic fabric of the country and not sink us into a greater abyss. To behave as if the security situation is a non-issue is like Nero playing the fiddle while time was simmering,” he warned.
A political analyst, Kizito Opara, while speaking to our correspondent said that the possibility of elections not being held in the South East was “dangerously high”.
According to him, the arson attacks on INEC facilities and on human lives in the zone are testaments to “anarchy, making a mockery of government’s efforts” in addressing the situation.
Opara also wondered how the South East could suddenly become a “soft target” for such brazen attacks and was of the opinion that it could either be because of the emergence of Obi as a presidential candidate from the region who could spring some surprises at the polls, or the continued incarceration of Nnamdi Kanu, or even both.
He patted President Buhari on the back for his war against insecurity but argued that more had to be done in that frontier.
He also knocked the president for pampering security chiefs who had been performing abysmally.
“The possibility of elections not being held in the South East is dangerously high. I mean, look at the pandemonium taking place in the region of late. It’s like anarchy has been unleashed and is making a mockery of the government’s effort in addressing the situation.
“Come to think of it, why should the zone suddenly become a ‘soft target’ for these attacks? Does it have anything to do with Peter Obi who is from there and could spring a surprise or two? Or, could it be an offshoot of the Nnamdi Kanu question? For all my worries, it may even be because of both.
“You see, I understand that Buhari is trying his best to address the security challenges, but must do more to correct the situation.
“And come to think of it, why haven’t we heard of people getting fired because of all the attacks? Nigeria is the only country where security chiefs are pampered for their woeful performance.
“I am truly sorry for the country. All these danger signs truly leave no one in doubt about the election running into a roadblock,” he said.
ELECTION FEASIBLE – ANALYSTS
However, other stakeholders who spoke with The Point in separate interviews said there was no need to fear and contemplate a state of emergency in the region, adding that security agencies should be on top of their game and restore peace to the troubled zone as the INEC had just about a month to the general elections.
Another lawyer and political analyst, Tunji Ogunyemi, urged INEC to ensure that its facilities were well replaced, saying that the electoral umpire could make use of other less-volatile neighbouring states in the region to store its sensitive materials during the poll.
Ogunyemi said the violence in the South East was not significant enough to warrant a possible state of emergency or foreclosure of elections in the region, adding that if elections could be held in the North East during Boko Haram insurgency, then there should be elections in the South East.
According to him, once there is a significant breakdown of law and order in the East, then the Federal Government and INEC would take the necessary step.
“The rule does not say there must be peace in all parts of Nigeria before elections will happen. There is no such rule. There is only a rule that says if the President is convinced that there is a significant breakdown in law and order in any part of the country, the underlined words are significant breakdown in any part of the country, then, he may take steps. Ditto for INEC. In the part of the country where we have problems, there have been disturbances but there have been elections there. There were elections there in 2011. There were elections there in 2015, particularly in the North-Eastern part of Nigeria. There were elections there in 2019,” he stated.
On whether there might be a state of emergency before the elections and possibility of constitutional crisis greeting the polls in case elections didn’t hold, Ogunyemi, a lecturer at the Department of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, said, “it is hasty to call for a state of emergency in the South East. There is no constitutional disenfranchisement of a people who for reasons of insecurity, elections could not be held amongst them. The reason is that the lives of Nigerian citizens are prioritised in Section 14, sub-section 2, paragraph B. That is what our constitution says. Election is inferior to the safety of the lives of Nigerians and their property.
“So, for the reason of keeping the people safe, of course, if there is a significant breakdown of law and order, elections may not be ordered, at any rate, it’s actually not true. It’s only in some of the urban centres in the South East and there are not many of the urban centres in the South East. I know the Igbo, their culture, history and their traditions; they are essentially prevalent in the rural areas. Most of their dwellers are in the villages and most of them are not urban dwellers. So, it’s only in the urban centres that you have that kind of hype. But the urban centres are also very important centres. The truth of the matter is that at least in three quarters of the states, and the local governments that are contained in the South East, elections can be held.”
Asked if the INEC facilities destroyed in the region would not pose a challenge for umpire to organise polls in the South East, Ogunyemi said, “Once those facilities, if you like, those documents are not critical, they call them sensitive documents for elections, elections can be held. In fact, alternative offices can be created in the states that are in proximity to the South East. Don’t forget that the whole of the South East is a very small area. It’s just about 27,000 square kilometers. That is the size of Kogi State alone. If you put all the states in the South East in Kogi State, there will still be space. That is to tell you how small it is.
“So, you could put election facilities and offices in Benin, in Asaba and conduct elections perfectly in Anambra State. Asaba is just a stone’s throw to Onitsha, separated only by the bridge.”
Also speaking, a lawyer, J.P. Jones, called on the government to double securitya efforts in the zone and ensure that those who created havoc in the region were smoked out from their hideouts before the elections.
Jones said, “I think the issue of whether elections would be held or not is the prerogative of the government. So, the government knows what to do and at the right time. So, basically, what will happen is that the election will hold and the only thing that will happen is that the government will double the security forces in that zone. That’s just what will happen. You will see that the election will take place because the people causing all this chaos and unwarranted circumstances are humans too. They could be in hideouts but they can be traced and smoked out and arrested. They can be overpowered by the Nigerian Armed Forces because they are just a little fragment and elections can’t be stopped because of them.
“Personally, I have been to the South East and we can say the insecurity there is topnotch but I believe the government there has a big role to play and they can do that speedily before the general elections. They are to protect the officials that will be conducting the election. They are to protect the citizens who will be coming out for the elections, so, once they double up security in the zone, then election will hold and if they fail to do the needful, they will have themselves to blame because it will affect the outcome of the general elections.”
“There is no how it won’t affect it if they do not do the needful on time because once a state of emergency is declared in such a place, you know what it means. It means that the election would be inconclusive and the government too would not want to do anything that would make the agitators have more power or score cheap political goals over the government. So, I think everything will work out, I am just being optimistic and positive that things will work out for good by the special grace of God,” he prayed.
“Inability to conduct elections in an ethnic nation that claims it is their turn on the basis of rotation is an invitation to crisis. Being unable to conduct elections in the ethnic base of one of the candidates will be an invitation to a crisis worse than the one created by the boycott of Federal Elections by the Eastern Region in 1964”
CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS LOOMS WITHOUT ELECTION
In his own opinion, Nurudeen Kareem, a lawyer, said there would be a constitutional crisis if some parts of the South East are disenfranchised because of insecurity.
Kareem said it was not feasible for INEC to repair and put in place necessary structures and facilities that had been destroyed in the zone, saying that the inability of such would jeopardize the conduct of credible polls that might result in a constitutional crisis.
“There will definitely be a constitutional crisis if elections are not held in the South East. Though, I hope that before elections eventually come, INEC would have put all necessary facilities in place to ensure the election takes place in every part of the country, because in a situation whereby a whole state or two states don’t have the opportunity of participating in election, it’s more or less a denial of their franchise and it will form a constitutional crisis in the country.
“You know it has never happened that a region would not vote in a general election in this country, so, it’s going to be a novel issue. As things are going, I don’t see the feasibility of the INEC doing the necessary repair or substitution of some facilities that have already been destroyed in those parts of the country.
“I doubt the possibility of President Muhammadu Buhari declaring a state of emergency. I don’t think the insecurity in Anambra and other neighbouring states has gone to the extent of warranting a state of emergency. I am not saying there is no crisis there but what I am saying is that the depth of the crisis has not called for a declaration of state of emergency,” Kareem opined.
A human rights lawyer and social critic, Remigius Lambert, argued that the forthcoming election could produce a candidate who might not win in his state but in an opponent’s state.
The human rights activist condemned all forms of attacks in all parts of the country and the lukewarm attitude of the Federal Government to getting the culprits arrested and prosecuted and argued that the government’s attitude was forcing Nigerians to believe that the insecurity is state sponsored.
‘NO EXCUSE WILL BE ACCEPTED’
National Publicity Secretary, Pan Niger Delta Forum, Ken Robinson, told The Point: “Let me make it clear that the concerns of INEC and Nigerians are not misplaced but they can’t say elections can’t be held in the South East or in any part of Nigeria. Remember that in 2015, Borno State and adjoining states like Yobe and Adamawa were infested with Boko Haram, who were destroying communities, killing and kidnapping people indiscriminately. A number of local government areas were under the control of Boko Haram, but elections were held and the results that came from Borno State were almost the same with that of Lagos State, and there was no record of violence.
“So, they don’t have any excuse to say that they will not hold election in the South East or any other part of Nigeria. There were the same concerns ahead of the Anambra election that it would not hold because of violence but elections were held, results were announced, the governor was declared winner; he is in office now. So, those are just gimmicks that some persons with particular interests are trying to make voters scared of going out to vote during the election. “As the dates get closer, those working with us, we’ll put out enough information to enlighten our people and they’ll turn out massively to vote. They (INEC) can’t try that, they will not.”
Governorship candidate of the Labour Party in Ebonyi State, Oko Splendour Eze, emphatically rejected the suggestion of elections not holding and the possible declaration of a state of emergency in the region.
“To start with, elections will be held in the South East. I’ve been carrying out sensitisation programmes to our dear youths. When you talk about insecurity, it’s as a result of joblessness. When someone graduates from the university and can’t feed himself, talk more of feeding his family, he will get frustrated, and any little thing will make him get violent. If we have a good government that provides jobs for the youths, automatically, this issue of crisis will be reduced drastically.
“Let me tell you another cause of this insecurity. Somebody will remain in a particular position forever, and he or she doesn’t want to give way for others to benefit. You can imagine somebody being a senator for three terms, each tenure is four years, like Ike Ekweremadu. Have you seen how many houses he has? Do you know there are youths on the streets that can’t eat three times a day? If you were in the shoes of those jobless youths, how would you feel? I’m saying that our leaders are the architects of this problem,” he stated.