By KOLA KING
The recent simultaneous attacks on the offices of Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC in Abeokuta, Ogun State and Ede, Osun State is as though a dagger thrust through the heart of democracy. Apparently, the perpetrators of that dastardly crime described as arsonists were acting on the prompting of their political paymasters. Whoever is behind those attacks are enemies of democracy. All these portend ominous signals for our democracy. Also, Nigeria’s democracy may be imperiled judging by the litigious propensity of politicians to dispute the outcome of every election. Due to this proclivity on the part of political actors, INEC is saddled with hundreds of electoral cases across the country over the election of candidates in the party primaries, even as it prepares for the 2023 general elections. Specifically, the Chairman of INEC, Professor Mahmud Yakubu, said recently in Abuja that the commission is currently facing 600 court cases that arose over the nomination of candidates for the 2023 general elections. This is outside cases that arise from election petitions from State and National Assemblies to gubernatorial and presidential elections.
The INEC chief who spoke at a seminar organized by the Court of Appeal for Election Petition Tribunal members billed to adjudicate on election disputes for next year’s general elections stated that the situation was worrisome when a political party served 70 court summons on the electoral body in one day on the same issue.
“From experience, he said that INEC has found that most politicians and political parties are litigation-happy, dragging the electoral body on frivolous and vexatious issues,” he stressed. The INEC Chairman said that most of the cases seeking an order of court to compel INEC to accept their nominations were instituted after the closure of time allowed by law for nominations. Despite the enormity of the court cases, Yakubu assured that the electoral body would obey and abide by all valid court orders at all times.
Notwithstanding, Professor Yakubu assured that the 2023 general elections would witness improved outcome, being the first to be conducted after the repeal of the 2010 Electoral Act and the first since the advent of the 2022 new Electoral Act that gives legal backing to the use of technology in the conduct of elections in the country.
From all indications, democracy bequeathed to us in 1999 by the military government of General Abdulsalam Abubakar after almost twenty years of military rule is on tenterhooks. A former head of state Chief Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the president after being pardoned for his conviction for an alleged coup plot by the General Sani Abacha regime. Obasanjo spent two terms in office and helped stabilize democracy. So far, we have had almost 24 years of unbroken democracy.
Now the resort to violence and arson has added a toxic mix to the political process. Several years after the military returned to the barracks operators of the democratic system have created a toxic environment that is not conducive to the sustenance of democracy. Politicians have done so much to scuttle democracy. Apart from the hundreds of cases that INEC has been involved in across the country, there’s a growing level of political violence as well as several cases of attacks on the offices of the electoral body
Clearly, Nigeria’s democracy has been able to withstand the push and pull forces tugging at its heartstrings not because our politicians have behaved themselves but because of the vigilance of the guardians of democracy namely the judiciary, press, civil society, and the electoral management body, and to some extent the people. In a word, politicians are the worst enemies of democracy.
More often than not, during all election cycles, politicians have demonstrated that it’s either their way or the highway, so to speak. By their general conduct and comportment, they are prepared to go to extremes to achieve their goals if events don’t go their way. Most often, they would rather bend or break the rules in other to have their way. They lack the temperament and spirit of sportsmanship that is the hallmark of more mature democracies. That’s why thuggery, rigging of elections, ballot-snatching, vote-buying, arson, assassination, and general lawlessness have been pervasive in our democratic journey. Only last week the standard bearer of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s convoy was attacked by hoodlums while on a campaign rally in Maiduguri, Borno State.
It is this obvious lack of respect for basic rules of democracy that has characterized our politics since independence that inadvertently led to the fall of the first republic. The second republic also fell for the same reason. Over the years, nothing has changed even as we savour 24 years of democracy. At the moment, politics both at the local, state, and even federal level is replete with high-handedness, and the political space is filled with politicians with giant-sized egos, while there’s an obvious lack of fairness and inequity, plus the process is devoid of respect for the rules of the game. Moreover, the introduction of incendiary politics to the game has further raised the stakes and heightened fears for the well-being of our democracy.
It will be recalled that on Thursday, November 10 hoodlums set an office of INEC at Abeokuta South Local Government Area, Ogun State, on fire leaving a total of 65,699 Permanent Voter’s Cards (PVCs) destroyed. News reports said the hoodlums, numbering about eight, scaled the fence to gain entry into the premises of the electoral body. A security guard at the facility, Azeez Hamzat made a distress call to the police around 1 am. The registration area and conference room were razed by the fire. With Thursday’s attacks, the INEC has suffered 47 attacks on its facilities and offices since February 2019. Observers believe that the attacks are deliberate attempts to scuttle the 2023 general elections.
Similarly, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Osun State, Dr. Mutiu Agboke, reported that the INEC office in Ede South Local Government Area was attacked and set ablaze simultaneously. The attack was blamed on arsonists. Though Head of the Department of Public Education of the commission, Ayoola Balogun confirmed the incident but said that the fire did not affect important documents.
Irked by the growing wave of election-related violence across the country, President Muhammadu Buhari has warned politicians about the consequences of their actions, asking them to call their thugs to order or risk commensurate backlash from law enforcement agencies. Buhari declared that the federal government is concerned about the resort to violence by politicians, saying within a space of one month, 32 such incidents have been recorded.
Also, the Independent National Electoral Commission decried the spate of violence in the country, particularly in relation to electioneering ahead of next year’s general election, saying it has tracked 50 incidents of campaign violence in 21 states. INEC Chairman Mahmud Yakub said the spate of attacks during electioneering campaigns by political parties is increasing rather than decreasing. While the damage in the attack in Ede South was minimal, that of Abeokuta South was extensive. Materials destroyed include 904 ballot boxes, 29 voting cubicles, 8 electric power generators, 57 election bags, 30 megaphones, 65,699 uncollected Permanent Voters’ Cards PVCs and a host of other assorted items such as stamps and stamp pads, Mahmud disclosed.
“The Commission is taking urgent steps to repair the damage to the building and replace the facilities in the Ede South Local Government Area so that the office becomes functional again immediately.
“For Abeokuta South Local Government Area office, the destruction was total. Consequently, the Commission is relocating our staff to the old State office (also known as INEC Office Annex) in Oke-Ilewo area of Abeokuta. All activities involving the 15 Registration Areas (Wards) and 445 Polling Units in Abeokuta South Local Government Area will henceforth be coordinated from the new location in Oke-Ilewo,” Mahmud said.
Already the Resident Electoral Commissioner REC for Ogun State has been directed to compile the Voter Identification Numbers VINs of all the 65,699 Permanent Voters Cards PVCs lost in the attack from INEC’s database and submit the record for immediate reprint. Mahmud has assured affected registered voters in Abeokuta South that no one will be disenfranchised as a result of this dastardly act.
According to Mahmud, “These unhappy occurrences are coming just a little over one month into the election campaign which is scheduled to last for about five months from 28th September 2022 to 23rd February 2023 for national elections (Presidential and National Assembly) and from 12th October 2022 to 11th March 2023 for State elections (Governorship and Houses of Assembly).
Furthermore, INEC has declared that most of the attacks on its facilities were orchestrated by hoodlums and unknown gunmen, while some were results of post-election violence and thuggery during elections. The commission said there were 18 attacks on its facilities during the #ENDSARS protests last year and 11 attacks carried out by gunmen. Similarly, there were six incidents of thuggery during elections and four incidents of post-election violence, INEC said.
Describing the nature of the attacks, INEC said 20 cases of vandalization, and 18 arsons occurred during the period. It also categorised three incidents as “arson and vandalization.” Of the total number of incidents, the commission said 21 attacks occurred last year across nine states. This year, assailants have staged 11 attacks across seven states. Meanwhile, nine incidents occurred in four states during and after the general election in 2019.
The spiraling violence orchestrated by politicians and perpetrated by thugs, hoodlums, and sundry criminals on political opponents, as well as the attack on critical assets of the electoral body gives cause for concern and is extremely worrisome because if left unchecked, it may lead to a backlash by anti-democratic forces. Politicians will do well not to play into the hands of fifth columnists that are waiting in the wings to scuttle democracy.
Despite the shenanigans of politicians and their foot soldiers, the INEC continues to perfect its game by adopting cutting-edge technology which has made it extremely difficult for politicians to cut corners and subvert the will of the people. For democracy to thrive and survive, it presupposes that there must be eternal vigilance on the part of all stakeholders in the democratic process. All said, the guardians of democracy must keep the light of the watchtower on to prevent a descent into chaos and darkness.