2019 polls: Stemming the tide of violence – Punch

Already dripping with blood, Nigeria’s knife-edge election landscape failed to atone for its vicious past when violence flared up during last Saturday’s Presidential and National Assembly elections, claiming lives. On Monday, Reuters, an international news agency, quoting Nigerian sources, put the number of people killed in election-related violence across the nation at 39. While official figures were still being expected, another report from the Situation Room organisation, a coalition of 70 civil rights groups, put the number at 16. The Nigeria Police Force says 128 offenders were arrested.  So far, the bloodbath has cast a shadow over the elections. It should be stemmed.

Whatever the authentic number might be, it is unacceptable that what is supposed to be a non-violent civic responsibility by peace-loving citizens has turned into a harvest of killings, maiming and intimidation. As usual, the political violence fits perfectly into what Timothy Sisk, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, USA, describes as “acts or threats of coercion, intimidation, or physical harm perpetrated to affect an electoral process or that arise in the context of electoral competition. When perpetrated to affect an electoral process, violence may be employed to influence the process of elections—such as efforts to delay, disrupt, or derail a poll—and to influence the outcomes: the determining of winners in competitive races for political office.”

The ruling All Progressives Congress and the main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party, are to blame for the bedlam. Some predatory politicians have turned the country to a war theatre where the promise to deliver a given number of votes to the party is a matter of life and death. This is why institutionalised incompetence and corruption undermine good governance.

Before the polls, relevant authorities, including INEC, the Nigeria Police and the Nigerian Army, had reassured the citizens of a violence-free election. But despite their efforts, the polls were significantly marred by bloodshed.  The root of the violence has always been attempts to tamper with the outcome of the polls. On Saturday, while there were widespread claims of vote-buying and intimidation, ballot boxes were also snatched and electoral materials burnt by thugs. These were noticed in Lagos, usually a relatively peaceful place during elections in the past, Rivers, with a notoriously violent history of disrupting elections, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, and Oyo, where somebody was reportedly shot dead. In many other states, bloodshed and accusations of foul play tainted the polls.

But elections provide a means by which competition in society can be channelled into a constructive process with common rules to choose representatives of the people. Robust democratic institutions are usually understood as the ultimate guarantor for social peace. However, since electoral processes are intrinsically about the attainment of political power, often in high-stake contexts, a European Union report on Elections, Violence and Conflict Prevention says, elections — as a process of competition for power — can be catalysts for conflict. The violence-riddled exercise is once again a reaffirmation of the belief that the stakes are always too high in Nigerian politics and something urgent needs to be done to make the occupation of political office less alluring, as is done in other democracies.  Virtually every attempt to organise a free, fair and peaceful election in the country has ended up with a blot on the landscape as thugs, backed to the hilt by their political paymasters, unleash mayhem on innocent voters and INEC officials.  Even state security agents are not spared by these non-state actors as an army officer was reportedly killed in Rivers State while on official duty.

So far, a lot of other things went wrong. The late arrival of electoral materials at many centres and the confusion in which materials meant for one section of the country found their way to other places contributed to vitiate the quality of the polls and portray Nigeria as a country incapable of handling a matter as simple as organising elections. In a state such as Akwa Ibom, also with a history of violent elections, it was reported that 18 members of the National Youth Service Corps were kidnapped, after which 14 others were later released, leaving four. It is a very appalling and dreadful way to treat young people who were out to render service to their nation. The Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room describes INEC’s outing as “a step back from the 2015 general elections.”

The more elections are conducted in Nigeria, the more they remain the same. Logistic challenges, adduced as one of the reasons to shift the polls from February 16 to 23, remained an incubus. Though polling was supposed to start simultaneously by 8 am in all the voting centres, reports showed that by 11 am, electoral officials were not at their duty posts in some areas, due to INEC’s poor planning and shabby management. A delay for one hour causes damage to the entire process, and much more when three or four hours are lost.

There were also shortages of electoral materials as usual in many parts of the country. Though the simultaneous accreditation and voting helped to speed up the voting process, the failure of the Smart Card Reader machines remained a conundrum in many centres, without a spare for immediate replacement.

INEC should rectify these glaring lapses before the governorship and state assembly polls. The essence of locking down the country and closing the borders is defeated if election officials and materials still arrive late at polling centres. The security agencies should review the response time to distress calls and swiftly bring to book their agents found compromising. They must be transparently neutral. Yet, the cycle of election violence might not end until the security agencies are able to arrest and bring electoral offenders to book. The Nordic African Institute, a think-tank, says that the benefits of winning elections – and the disadvantages of losing them – must be reduced to avoid the violence that a winner-takes-all situation can trigger.

The fact that they are election offenders does not make them special; when a person has killed another person it does not mitigate the seriousness of the offence because it happened during elections. In the same manner, the disruption of lawful public gathering or destruction of government property as was done on Saturday does not make the offence lighter because it took place during elections. People have to be apprehended and made to face the law, no matter the situation.

Further bloodshed should be avoided. It is worth repeating that the life of even one innocent individual is not worth expending for an exercise that is carried out in other parts of the world with minimal discomfort.

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