CSO’S Damning Reports on Governorship Poll: Kogi Governor Impugns Integrity of Observers

A civil society group, Centre for Transparency Advocacy tackles Yahaya Bello, Kogi State governor, and challenges him to name election observers who approached him for logistics support for election monitoring.

For discrediting the process of the election that gave him a second term in office and calling for its entire cancellation, incumbent governor of Kogi State and candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, Yahaya Bello, has launched verbal attack on civil society organizations that gave damning verdicts on the November 16 poll, impugning their integrity.  In their separate assessment of the election, the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room and YIAGA Africa said the election was marred with violence, votes buying, voters’ inducement, intimidation, and harassment. The Situation Room, a coalition of over 40 civic groups, described the Kogi election as “a major dent to Nigeria’s democracy”.

Yahaya Bello Photo
Yahaya Bello

At a press conference in Abuja on Sunday, Clement Nwankwo, convener of the Situation Room was worried that if this election was allowed to stand, next year’s election in Ondo State, and the 2023 general elections, would be a bloodbath. Nwankwo said the “Situation Room is disappointed with the procedure of the two governorship elections that held in Kogi and Bayelsa States, and worries that the elections fall below the standards expected for a free, fair and credible elections…Election day turnout was however marred by violence and activities of political parties and security agents leading to disruptions of polls in several areas”.

Indicting the security agencies deployed on election duties, Nwankwwo lamented that they watched incidents of ballot box snatching, violence and abuse of the electoral process, adding that “the claimed overwhelming numbers of deployments by security officials should ordinarily provide enough security for the elections”. The Situation Room regretted that the commercialisation of Nigeria’s elections in the form of vote-trading appeared to have reached unprecedented height. It noted that “political parties and their agents operated openly and with impunity distributing money in purchase of votes and it appeared that there were no efforts to stop them. Sums paid at the polling units ranged from N500 to N6,000”. Nwankwo also accused politicians of open exploitation of persons with disabilities (PWDs) who cashed-in on their level of poverty to buy their votes.

Returning a similar verdict, YIAGA Africa, tasked INEC to conduct a thorough investigation of the conduct of the Kogi governorship and senatorial elections and to conduct new elections that would give voters a genuine opportunity to exercise their right to vote, positing that violence and malpractices challenged the proper conduct of the elections. Hussaini Abdu, the Board Chair, YIAGA AFRICA, said the group received a total of 69 incident reports of election infraction, snatching and stuffing of ballot boxes and papers, as well as reports of voter suppression manifesting in the form of denying voters access to polling units by political thugs. He blamed the challenges in the Kogi elections on failure of security, particularly the activities of the police, political parties, the major candidates, and the state and non-state accomplices.

 Abdu stated pointedly that “the stakeholders deliberately worked to undermine the election; they appeared to be more concerned about electoral victory than the credibility and legitimacy of the process”. Consequently, YIAGA Africa said “we are deeply worried and concerned about this emerging trend in electoral manipulation and the deepening culture of impunity. Failure to institutionally and decisively act could undermine our democracy”.

The verdict the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, was even more damning. The advocacy group said it recorded the killings of at least 10 people and over 129 cases of electoral malpractice during the governorship elections in both Kogi and Bayelsa States and prayed the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to “redeem the sanctity of the ballot”. At a press conference in the aftermath of the two elections, CDD lamented to journalists that “on November 16 in Kogi and Bayelsa States, the very foundation of our 20-year-old democratic order came under a grievous assault. Enthusiastic citizens trooped out to vote for candidates of their choice, but they were absolutely disappointed”. Idayat Hassan, director of CDD, regretted that “many voters were disenfranchised as a result of a constant threat to life and limb throughout the process”. Hassan who said in Kogi alone, her organization deployed over 300 observers to areas with a higher number of registered voters and where irregularities were expected, described as shocking beyond description, “the sheer magnitude of the violent assault on the sanctity of the ballot” asserting that “the outcome of such a process that was so criminally subverted should not actually be allowed to stand”. She said “at the last count, our observers in Kogi State have recorded the death of 10 people in various shooting incidents and attacks across the state”. According to her, over 79 incidents of malpractice were recorded in Kogi, ranging from hijack of electoral materials to kidnap of ad-hoc staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), vote-buying, attack on observers and journalists, and so on. Corroborating the position of Situation Room and YIAGA Africa on the complicity by security agencies, Hassan submitted that the large deployment of security agents for the elections did not translate to the improvement of security in Kogi, saying that “In some places, they actually turned their faces while the onslaught was going on, while in some, they were completely overpowered”.

Hassan concluded agonizingly that in both Kogi and Bayelsa States, what the CDD saw on the field “defies reasonable logic,” especially coming after the 2019 general elections, opining that the conduct of the polls was “indicative of an electoral process that is fast deteriorating”. Miffed at the figures of turnout of voters declared by INEC in some local governments, Hassan described them as “suspicious” when compared with figures from previous elections from 1999. She gave an example of Okene in Kogi State where she said as many as 87 percent (114,001) of the total registered voters were accredited, “an incredible increase of around 69.1 percent” compared to 2015 figures. CDD, therefore, called for a robust, multi-stakeholder response in rescuing Nigeria’s electoral process, declaring that “we dare not choose the convenient path of silence”.

Like the civil society groups, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA was also not satisfied with the conduct of the Bayelsa and Kogi elections. The NBA in its review of the exercises on Sunday said they fell below the minimum standard of a credible election. In a 20-page report by its Election Working Group headed by its chairman, Afam Osigwe, the body of lawyers said “the credibility of the entire process was put in issue by the overwhelming incidents of harassment and intimidation of voters and electoral officials, destruction of electoral materials, snatching of ballot boxes and votes and the killing of persons”.

In its conclusion, the NBA stated that “In the light of the large-scale acts of violence, disruptions of the electoral process, snatching of electoral materials by armed persons, some of whom were dressed in police uniform, coupled with sporadic gunshots that scared voters away from voting centres, as observed by the NBA EWG, the elections in Kogi State failed to meet the minimum standards of a credible election”.

But in spite of the unanimity of opinion by CSOs and other election monitors adjudging the election a charade and significantly flawed, Governor Yahaya Bello insisted that the election that returned him for another term in office was free, fair and credible. Speaking on Channels Television breakfast programme, Sunrise Daily, the governor said “the conduct of the election was quite very, very credible. A level playing field was provided. And it was free and fair”. He, however, admitted that there were issues but was quick to add that these pockets of issues could not really be used to judge the general conduct of the election. Taking umbrage at the pronouncements of the CSOs, Bello insinuated that he was a victim of blackmail because he refused to play ball when some of them approached him.

 Questioning the integrity of some of the election observers and monitors, the governor said “… the only advice I have for the civil society organizations and umpire which is the INEC  is that when next they are selecting people who are supposed to observe, monitor this kind of very all-important exercise, I think they should look into the credibility of some of those people and their antecedents and background because in a situation where you send someone to go and monitor or observe an election of this nature and they go around meeting those they are even supposed to monitor or observe, asking for one form of logistics or the other, when you decide to decline or what have you, they decide to take it out on you. It is most unfortunate. You know, some of them, we know where their loyalty stands”.

 Arguing that they were entitled to their own opinions, the governor demanded to know “the parameters which they are judging this particular election. How many polling units did they visit out of over 2,548 polling units, 239 wards, and 21 local governments all across the difficult terrains of this particular state?  So, how many people have they reached out to? And there are over 600,000 votes cast; have they interviewed all the electorate? So, what is the yardstick? So, they are entitled to their opinion”.

But Nwankwo, convener of the Situation Room, refused to react to the allegation by the governor when reached by the magazine Wednesday. His brusque response was “I have no comment please”. Faith Nwadishi of the Centre for Transparency Advocacy, however, challenged Bello to name those who approached him for logistics rather than tar all monitors and observers with the same brush. According to her, her organization did not ask anybody for logistics “and if there were people who came to meet him to ask for logistics, he should call the names of the people so that they will be called out and people will know the observer groups that came to ask for logistics”. Speaking further, she said, “you know when things happen like that politicians will always look for people to blame”.  She insisted that “the CSOs and monitors reported what they saw and can defend them. Some of them have evidence; people experienced some of those things themselves. So, all those things he’s saying, they know what they did at that election”.

She, however, pointed out that it was not only politicians who were culpable. “We also have security agents who didn’t do what they were expected to do”, adding that most of the issues that happened during the elections wouldn’t have been if the security personnel had done what they were supposed to do. “For instance, if you know Kogi very well, I drove from Lokoja to Okehi, to Okene to Ajaokuta. Do you know that the whole length and breadth of that road, no single police check-point, no Road Safety check-point, no Civil Defence, not even Army check-point on an election day? So, there was free movement for the thugs. From Lokoja to Ajaokuta – no checkpoint! This is the first time I am going to observe elections and I would travel for three hours and I didn’t see one check-point. And this is the same state where people reported that there would be violence. Whatever he (Bello) is saying is just to justify whatever they did. We have called for the cancellation of that election. Unfortunately, the law does not empower INEC to cancel an election and that is why we are calling for election reforms so that we can find ways on how we can empower the INEC to be truly independent and call a spade a spade when they need to”.

Jibrin Ibrahim, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the CDD, agreed with Nwadishi. He noted that security agencies, despite their responsibility to protect citizens and the rule of law, were complicit in disrupting the elections and allowing attacks at polling units. “Specifically, we are concerned about the direct contradiction we saw of massive police deployment, over 50,000 for both Kogi and Bayelsa states; but on the ground, that massive deployment was not visible to the eyes”. Like Nwadishi, Ibrahim said “we went through a lot of the key roads leading out of Lokoja and there were no checkpoints. And precisely because the police was not there to check, those who were moving around were armed thugs in Hilux vans, carrying weapons, and moving systematically from polling unit to polling unit. This is a direct indication that there was state complicity in what happened”. Aligning with Nwadishi’s suggestion, he urged Buhari to set up a panel to probe into why state agencies failed to act appropriately during the elections, stressing that democracy was gravely endangered by current happenings in the country.

“CDD calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to urgently provide the leadership needed to rescue the electoral process, and by extension, the entire democratic system from imminent collapse”, Ibrahim said. He explained that “this call becomes imperative because Buhari was only able to ascend the presidency through the historic 2015 elections because the electoral process allowed the votes to count. That watershed was a culmination of the electoral reform initiated by late President Umaru-Musa Yar’adua and former president Goodluck Jonathan. At the moment, Nigeria’s electoral process requires similarly bold and courageous leadership to chart a way forward and resolve the lingering challenges threatening to derail it. President Buhari owes this duty to all Nigerians. He cannot stand by and allow the continuous degeneration of our electoral system”.

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