Having covered several elections in Nigeria, starting from the June 12, 1993 presidential election, and the build-up to that landmark election, I resolved, this time around, to drop my ‘journalist’ garb and don the vest of an INEC accredited election monitor. In that new role, I naively thought I would not be under pressure to meet any newsroom deadline; that I would just don my fancy branded vest, with cap to match, and one of those billboard-size identification tags dandling on my neck, and just be leisurely strolling from one polling unit to another. And standing before a battery of cameras, microphones and recorders, to address the press. How wrong I was!
The election monitoring job is no tea party, especially, when I recall that I had to use all the guile (and tact) I could muster, to extricate myself from a group of voters, who were just whiskers away from getting physical with me at a polling booth in a Yenagoa suburb. Angry that the card-reader suddenly stopped working after only about five people had cast their votes, and it was already past midday, one of them, who identified himself as a lawyer, turned on me and began to rain abuses, meant for INEC, on me, having presumed I was an INEC official – because of my vest (which clearly identified me as a ‘Domestic Election Observer)’. He told me to ‘get lost’, and physically pushed me away from even engaging the INEC staff, who was fiddling with the ‘faulty’ card-reading device. He was cheered on by others around him. He began to quote how the Electoral Act provides that manual accreditation be used in situations where the card-reader failed to function. He would not even listen to my explanation about non-use of the controversial Incidence Form. He would then go into tirade about how ‘you people (INEC, me inclusive) allow them to do manual voting in the North and use card reader to disenfranchise us in the South’, insisting that was why the North always turned in higher figures at election. I had to cleverly slip away as he and his gang became more agitated.
Then, there was the case of hearing rapid gun shots every now and then, and still managing to get to the scene of the shooting. This, I’m told, is worse in the Niger Delta states, where voting is largely done with guns, and not the voters card. And then, there are also the security operatives, whom you can’t really tell if they are for you or against you. But that’s not all the risk. When the thugs do their business, they’re also careful to destroy evidence. So, the observer also becomes a target, a possible collateral damage. Incidentally too, not all the INEC staff on ground are as friendly and tolerant as they appear on TV. For sometimes, the ‘observer’ may also get in the way, if the INEC staff want to do brisk business.
But if I thought I was going to just contend with only the baggage of the election observer, I was dead wrong. The journalism bug is one stubborn malaise that once it has bitten you, there is no cure. So, on getting to the field and seeing what was happening, and seeing the posts on the social media (and, at least, two national television stations) that everything was going on peacefully, I did not know when I threw off my “observer” garb and replaced it with my journalism cap, and started reporting. For starters, contrary to the claim that there was peaceful voting and few incidences of violence, the reality is that there was plenty violence and few incidences of peaceful voting.
Back to my observer duties. I began ‘observing’ from the day I arrived Yenagoa to discover that I could not get a hotel room. Many of the hotel rooms, like boats, cabs and boats in town, had been booked – in some cases, three months before election day. So, you got to hotels, saw empty rooms, which had been paid for, but remained unoccupied throughout the period. Yes, in a riverine state like Bayelsa, one of the strategies politicians use to undermine themselves is to pay boat operators, and book for boats against election day. Though the clients really have no use for such boats, they succeed in denying their opponents use of the boats and frustrate their movement into the more riverine parts of the state. This time around, the strategy was extended to buses, taxis and hotel rooms.
Yes, a lot of monitors, observers, security agencies and all manner of organisations were involved in the poll and needed hotel accommodation, it was curious that many of the rooms remained unoccupied.
I also ‘observed’ that many young boys – teenagers in most instances – in Yenagoa actually live in hotels. Everywhere I turned in the hotel, I was assaulted with sights of dreadlock-wearing, knicker-sagging, rough-looking boys. They were boldly smoking something with a familiar smell in the hotel’s reception and bar. Meanwhile, several men of the police and civil defence, who were also quartered in the same hotel, were just moving in and out, minding their own business.
I was so scared of the security situation that I had to leave that inner-street hotel, where I finally got a room, to go squat with a friend in an otherwise safer hotel in the centre of town. But that hotel was not any better. Some 18, or so, young men were housed in the three rooms after mine. And for the two days that we were neighbours, I became a passive connoisseur of Bob Marley’s ‘tobacco’. That was not all. Intermittently, a stream of boys (sometimes, as many as 20 each) would either file into one room, or file out of another, clutching small bags of what looked like currency notes. It was to my relief, therefore, when, on the eve of the election (and very early on election day) they loaded themselves into buses and headed in different directions. As I write this Sunday afternoon, they are yet to return to their rooms. In fact, the hotel manager called to offer me one of the rooms before I left for my election monitoring duty. But, isn’t it curious that anyone would check into a hotel, stay for two or three days without as much as a change of clothes? Wearing the same jeans pants and top for three days! Well, I did not ask anybody for his ID cards or party affiliations, but the mischievous redhead in my subconscious keeps telling me that these boys were either locally based thugs or mercenaries from outside Bayelsa, but I refuse to buy that idea. They might just be honest businessmen, who came to relax for a few days in the hotel – days which happened to coincide with the governorship election.
I also ‘observed’ that election in Nigeria is a huge racket for military and paramilitary agencies, as well as monitors, observers and all. But I’ll excuse the ‘observers’, not because I was one, but because, they are usually not funded by government.
As for the government agencies, I’m beginning to suspect that one of the reasons our elections have become a sort of war is necessarily because of desperate politicians, but because some of these agencies encourage the crises in order to create a role for themselves, and grab a slice of the big-budget venture that our elections have become. There is police, Army, Navy and even the Air Force (which, has had to fly sensitive materials at some elections). Others include DSS, Civil Defence, Road Safety, and even, Police Service Commission. There were also several other uniforms, which I can’t now place – whether Immigration, NDLEA, Customs, Vigilante. The tragedy of it all, however, is that, right under their nose, a handful of thugs would come, shoot into the air, shoot at voters, disrupt voting and either go away with the ballot box or destroy everything right there, and go away without any arrest.
Meanwhile, the way those at the roadblocks would harass genuine voters and observers, you would think a fly would not go through the checkpoint without answering a few questions and subjecting itself to comprehensive frisking.
At one checkpoint, my team and I had to beg and beg before we were allowed to drive on – our offence was that we did not have a security operative in our vehicle. Meanwhile, the thugs drive through the roadblocks, and are not stopped. In fact, less than 12 hours to the opening of voting, a report came through that a known militant and his group were on the waters so the way to Nembe, floating in their gun-boats and going nowhere. The police, which said it had deployed eight gun-boats for the election did nothing. By the morning, we heard that voting material meant for some parts of that area were hijacked on the waters, and that the road leading to the area had been blockaded. My team, which was detailed to cover the election there, was advised by soldiers, at Ogbia, to go back, as the area was too dangerous. Don’t ask me if the soldiers were not there to secure the place for election to hold.
Prince Deji Adeyanju, renowned rights activist, whose team insisted on still going to Nembe, later told me they were forced to turn back when they saw a police team, escaping from the town, in a thoroughly vandalised police vehicle.