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Thursday, May 23, 2024

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    Elections In Nigeria And Security Challenges: A Rivers State Personal Case Study

    The following is first person narrative from  Mitterand Okorie who was a member of the INEC group that conducted the just concluded election rerun in Rivers State.

    I don’t care much for politicians or what they say. The inciting nature of their pre-election comments, as seen especially from people like Oyegun, Amaechi or Wike makes for a terrible prelude to a highly important democratic process. Again, politicians I know. But you, you who claim to be human, you who claim to be knowledgeable and rational, it is you I truly call the scum of the earth.

    You come on Facebook to become echo-chambers of politicians calling for ‘fire for fire’, ‘matching violence for violence’, ‘killing one of their own if they kill yours’, you who sit in the comfort of your wretchedly cosy homes to promote strife, it is you who truly are the filth from the filthiest gutters. You have NYSC Corpers, University lecturers, professors and accomplished academics, alongside other INEC permanent staff who are out there making sure the electoral process exist, these are the people you put in harm’s way. Not the armed political thugs who are often appropriately armed. Not the military. Not the police.

    At few minutes past 12 midnight yesterday, those were the people the army was out there trying to save from the infamy of your lips, and from those you’ve asked to lust for the blood of others. I know, because I was there too, and just like them, gripped by the terror of a terrain one does not know. You idiots think this is a game. May you or your loved ones not be in the field someday, wondering, at the crack of every gunshot, if this was how it ends. Ndi iberibe. You stay on-line cheering for violence. You who cannot stand a dog chasing you in your sleep.

    Since 2011, INEC incorporated the efforts of Nigerian University academic staff in conducting elections. These academic staff work either as Returning Officers (ROs), Local Government Collation Officers (CO, LGA) or Registration Area/Ward Collation Officers (RACOs). They work with other INEC permanent/technical staff in the field. The collation exercise moves along a bottom-up continuum.

    So the RACOs (most likely a junior academic staff) collates the results from the Polling Officers (usually NYSC Corpers) and aggregate the scores of each party in the INEC form before them. They make sure to tally the total number of votes in each polling unit. They look at the summary of each polling station by consulting the Card Reader, and ensure that the number of accredited voters are not more than the number of total votes cast.

    They comb for errors, especially mathematical ones, because any error made at this point (especially when the polling officer may have gone) would become more complicated when things move up the chain. You don’t want to be writing a report on miscalculation that did not begin with you.

    Normally, a ward Collation Officer collates the result of about 2-5 wards depending on how much man power is available. After then, he moves his summary to the Collation Officer at the LGA level (most likely an academic with a doctorate degree). This person then aggregates the result of all the wards which were submitted to him/her by the RACOs. After doing so, he moves it up to the Returning Officer. The Returning Officer (most likely a University Professor) summarises the result submitted to him by the LG Collation Officer, and announces a winner in that particular LGA.

    So, my University was chosen this time, just like University of Ibadan was chosen to help organise the Ondo elections. And on Wednesday last week, I received a message from my Dean informing me of being among those selected from my College. It is not mandatory, and at this point, you can decide to opt out. There is no obligation to go. You could ask someone else to go in your stead, or you could simply decline and stay home with no consequences whatsoever.
    I accepted to go. And received the necessary training alongside others, which took up an entire day. INEC technical staff are always on hand to support you, so I would say a day training is relatively sufficient. On Facebook, everyone I knew was thanking God for having left Port Harcourt on the eve of the election. Yet, here was I going the opposite direction.

    I really wanted to go, if only to say “I fucking did it!” I honoured a call for national service, and I know what it feels like to participate in an election as an INEC official. “I wish it wasn’t Port Harcourt, but this opportunity may never come again”, I said to myself. I know Port Harcourt. I know how violent it can get. Still, somewhere in the deep recess of my mind, I still felt, my childhood and teenage years in the vicious late 90s in Aba had prepared me for survival anywhere. I knew the risks, but I still wanted to go.

    On Saturday morning, we head out to Okirika LGA headquarters, with a hilux of four armed MOPOL men containing election materials, and an INEC Official bus conveying the rest of us. Okirika opens up in the fog in all its riches and decay. There is more than 3 kilometres of oil tankers lined up for gas. You see the fire tower in the air that tells you there’s a gas refinery here.

    The air itself was thick, heavy with gas that, unless you live here, you may struggle to breathe easy for a while. Pipelines crisscross the road, the walkways, beneath and across houses. There are more of shacks than mansions here. The irony of Nigeria’s wealth sitting alongside mass privation has never been so glaring.

    When we got to the LGA HQ, there is a sea of Policemen, MOPOL and a good number of Army men. It gives you a sense of safety, until you discover which party each is working for. That’s when you start sweating profusely. That’s when you start feeling this whole thing wasn’t properly explained to you.

    At the LGA Headquarters, a young, loquacious Mobile Policeman wouldn’t stop talking. He tells me how long he’s been in Okirika. How Ateke is the most revered man here, with at least 500 boys who have their personal assault rifles. Not the AK-47 he’s carrying, but high grade riffles that can fire 20 rounds in a second. How he’s never seen any place like this in his life; where human life feels like nothing, and where violence could easily be unleashed on a scale and level that is frightening.

    “They don’t fear death here. They are not afraid of the police, or the army, or anything. They almost beat up an Airforce man at the ATM somewhere around here last week. You have to plead with them, not try to jump the queue because you wear a uniform. This place is not like any other place. Our madam, from Abuja, she addressed us earlier. She said, these are my people, and I must warn you, stay alert, and look out for yourself well. Here, the people have their hearts at their back.”

    It was in the middle of that discussion that an INEC official in one of the polling stations ran into us sitting in the Electoral Officer’s cubicle, screaming in fright. “Them almost burn me for there. See my body, see my neck, dem pour petrol for my head, na only God know how I take escape. All the Corpers them run, we lost the card reader, the police wey dey there no hol’ gun. As I talk say I no go release election materials to them, everybody run, dem come hol me.” Indeed, the man, who may well be in his late 50s did smell of fuel. He looked shook; thoroughly frightened.

    This happened at about 1:15PM but the man never left that cubicle until midnight when we all were set to depart. I wonder what was going through his mind. His ordeal however would give me a brief picture of where I was, and how things could easily escalate here.

    In areas that proved restive or volatile, the military were called in to guard the ballot to the LGA Headquarters. In a case like this, the army would no
    rmally fire warning shots as they approach the gates of the LGA building. This, I believe, was to stave off any attempt by anyone lying in ambush to snatch the ballots.

    On one particular occasion, and this was one of the last ballots that were returned (around 3PM) there probably was miscommunication, and the MOPOL men inside the building believed the shots were enemy fire. One saw these men rushing into a certain room, hastily throwing on their bullet-proof vests and corking their guns.

    At this point, confusion rented the whole place. I am staring at the INEC officials I met on ground to explain what was going on. Were we under siege? Are we to start running for cover somewhere? Where was one supposed to run to anyway? From what, and from whom? What was one supposed to do? The fact that they too were equally confused served to heighten my own apprehension, and that of my colleagues who were in that block.

    No ammo-vest, no firearm of your own. Can’t leave the building, not sure where to hide either; we just couched in the room, hoping that whatever was happening was not serious.

    Thirty minutes later, we were moved to the collation hall, where the returned ballots were to be summarised. And that was where we knew we were in for a long night.

    At the collation hall, APC party agents would turn the place into a Babel of sort. They would shout and harry us, slamming on our desks, with an abrasive and imposing air. Their ID, NNPP, LP, and PDP counterparts stand aside shocked at this total lack of decorum. They would disagree with any and every result. They would say they say “we won’t take it!” They would say the results were cooked.

    First, we were not at the polling station; we are collation officers and are there to enter whatever was returned to us from the polling officers so long as the number of accredited voters were not more than registered ones.

    The polling officers were there themselves to answer to the allegations of cooked results, and they defended what they brought very well. Okrika is a PDP stronghold, its Mama Peace’s Local Government too. One didn’t need to be a professor of aerodynamics to see why APC was likely to be trounced here.

    Besides, all party agents sign the polling results before the close of polls. And in all of the results, there is an APC man appending his signature to signify that the process was free and fair. So why exactly were they preventing us from recording the same results? Of course, they were there to cause trouble!

    One saw young men with glints of darkness in their faces, they had a strong scent of gin and whisky oozing from them as they hollered and shouted. You had a feeling you were probably dealing with militants without guns. But when we really knew shit had hit the fan was when we kept asking the Police to intervene and stop them from obstructing us, they scoffed at us.

    The police sat in their seats, looking the other way, pretending to be oblivious of the commotion in the room, or the disturbances of those party agents. An INEC official next to me finally whispered what I too was beginning to think: “I think these policemen are compromised”, he said.

    By 6PM, we were almost done with summarising the ward results. It had become clear at this stage that PDP had commanded a very wide lead, literary leaving the other parties for dead. Someone came into the hall, I strongly suspect, a PDP man. For whatever reason, he came up to where we were and told a colleague he had 1.2M Naira with him and since there were 6 of us there, we can split 200,000 each.

    I don’t know how others felt, but I felt a chilling panic run through me. My colleague next to me whispers if I’m seeing what he’s seeing. I ask him if this man was trying to get us killed bringing that kind of money here. I have a lot of problems I can solve with 200,000 but I’m certainly not suicidal. It was bad enough that APC agents were accusing us of entering cooked results, to be seen receiving any sort of cash from anyone whatsoever, let alone someone that could be identified as PDP was a death wish. Frankly, what dominated our minds at that point was to simply complete our assignment and go home.

    Clearly, for whatever reason he brought that money, perhaps, because he was certain his party had won, perhaps he was acting on some instruction, perhaps he was overjoyed, perhaps he was a Father-Christmas of sort, his presence there, with that wad of cash was endangering us. The police themselves had begun to look at us in a not so pleasant way. We tell the man we felt troubled by his continued presence there. And seconds later, we see a tinted Toyota Highlander leaving the premises, with a concealed number plate.

    It is few minutes past 10PM. One of my colleague is restless. He’s so restless, his despair is near contagious. He speaks with his wife on phone every five minutes. “I don’t know what I was doing here. I don’t know why I waited here till it got so dark, and became so late. There is no way to get out of this place right now. I’m just going to wait and see how the police or army are going to help us.”

    He blames himself some more as he drops the phone and turns over to me. He tells me he has a two year old son. And the way he calls him Daddy is the best feeling in the world for him. He said he shouldn’t have fallen for the disruptive tactics of those APC agents. That he should have abandoned the work altogether and made sure he left earlier in the day. Actually, without those disruptions, our jobs would have ended at most by 6PM.

    But one of us got threatened, they said they’d kill him if he dared entered one of the results from the poll centre. It was from the previous suspended elections, but the result itself had been quarantined and not cancelled, so by INEC laws, were valid votes. APC agents would not agree. He too became very agitated at some point and told them to go to hell. That’s when they told him he won’t get out of there alive. We all got sucked up in the delay because we couldn’t just leave him there all on his own. We came together, even though as things looked—everyone was now set to answer their own names.

    Pressed for options, I called Malik Shabbazz Abdulmalik. If you were trapped in a jungle, there are few people who could be as resourceful as Malik to get you out. After expressing shock at my current location, he forwards three numbers to me almost immediately, one, which he said belong to Ateke himself. “I’m heading out with Asari Dokubo somewhere now” he tells me, “I am very far, but call any of these numbers. Tell them it’s (*** ***) and they will help you to safety. Why didn’t you tell me you were in Rivers State? That place is not safe, but call any of those guys, they’ll come for you.”

    I wasn’t confident stepping out of that gate with anyone I did not know personally. If Malik wasn’t coming himself, I said in my mind, then I’d just sit here and see what next happens. I just sit and watch the clock tick itself into midnight. Some arguments were still going on in the hall; to announce the winner of the LGA there or not to. I roam outside the hall for a while, wondering how a calm, serene morning turned into such a bad night.

    An Army Major leads our evacuation from the premises. The winner will be declared in the City Hall back in Port Harcourt and not in the Local Govt’ Headquarters. The Major warns that it was the only measure to ensure our safety. At the gate of the premises, there are so many bodies; it’s hard to make out who is who. But they start dispersing as the convoy of Hilux vans approach the gate.

    At the back of a Hilux truck, I am cramped together with about 6 Mobile Police men, each, armed to the teeth, complete with helmets and bullet-proof vests. One of them says something about me being big and occupying so much space
    and him not being able to position himself properly. One sits above my head, on the edge of the roof holding a powerful rifle. I don’t know what it is, but it certainly looked bigger, and more sophisticated than an AK-47. “You go fit handle that thing so, abi make I come handle am?” the one by the other end asks him. He thinks he has a smaller weapon, an ordinary AK-47 and occupied a position that appeared rather too exposed. “INEC”, one of them calls me, “carry that your bag, cover your chest”. At this point, you begin to understand the difference between a Nollywood scene and a real time conflict situation. I try to imagine it was all a dream, but my phone starts ringing, and then I admit, it’s all real. All of it. And it is me, truly, sandwiched in between armed men. They all start cocking their guns as the convoy of Hilux vans make their way to the gate of the Local Government Area building. And you are just there, praying that this is all precautionary, and you don’t end up in a firefight. Suddenly, everything they said about elections in Rivers State was true. It is the hell they said it was.

    Few metres outside the gate was where one of the military men spots me squeezed at the back of the Hilux with MOPOL men. He tells me there’s an empty military truck beside us and that I should quickly run into the back seat. There, I could finally breathe normally again. I lay down flat in the backseat, as the whole space now belonged notoriously to me. It was just me, the driver and one other soldier who occupied the car.

    We were barely started on our way before we discover that up to 700 metres of road ahead had been laced with all kinds of roadblocks; big stones, planks, tires, metal drums, sticks, just anything you can think of. The military men jump down and split themselves. While some shot into the void, others cleared the roadblocks, as the convoy advance slowly. Two cars were spotted ahead, a Pathfinder Jeep and a Mercedes coupe. The occupants were forced out of the car, and asked to start running, as the army men kept shooting in the void, careful, I suppose, not to shoot at anyone. “Bad boys! Bad boys. Look at them, all bad boys”, one of them shouts.

    At this point, I even notice that some of the guns were not firing properly. Hard to tell why, since the AK-47 is big on reliability. Perhaps bad ammunition, or simply old and worn rifles. Some of them had to drag something by the side of the rifle (not sure what it is) for the spent cartridge to pop out before they continue firing. Imagine one was in an ambush situation, such inefficiency would prove very costly.

    In the back seat, I peep out for a second, I lay back for a minute. Despite whatever danger one may face, it’s hard not to want to know what’s happening around you. I could still see from my position the yellow twinkling of gunshots in the dark like Christmas stars. But gunshots are gunshots, each one sounds in your belly and remind you of the sound of death.

    About a kilometre away after the roadblock, the officer on the passenger side points us to a dead, mutilated body, cut to pieces. “I pass here one hour ago, I no see this thing o! Why this people dey like this, nobi the same election dem hol’ for Ondo and Edo State?”

    On approaching Eleme Junction, a most unfortunate accident nearly occurs. We see a Fulani herdsman from afar struggling to keep his cattle in line. And as if sent on a mission, one of the cows jump from the other end of the road and nearly runs into our Hilux. The driver, possibly preempted it and dodged appropriately to avoid collision. One wonders what cattle were doing on the road thirty minutes past midnight. “Walahi, if na for Maidugiri, I for shoot that cow!” the officer barks angrily.

    After about 8-10 more kilometres, Port Harcourt city opens up to us, as the cars screech at the gates of the INEC Office. Everyone comes alive again.

    I check into a hotel, and spend almost an hour in the hot shower. Its been nearly two days since my last bath. I don’t recall that ever happening in my life.

    I just sit there, wishing somehow, that this hot bath is capable of washing off all that one had been through. Hoping to achieve some sort of cosmic cleansing; that the water splashes away the very last of Okirika’s greasy sweat off me.

    I step out of the bathroom, and everything starts playing back.

    “Rat! Baggars!”
    “Rat! Baggars!” The words of the army men, as they emptied their clips, clearing the roadblocks in the dead of the night.
    Somewhere inside of you, you struggle to accept that all of it was real and not some bad dream one could’ve simply woken up from.

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