15 Apr 2007
More than two hours into the time when elections should have commenced on Saturday, I made two telephone calls from Douala in neighboring Cameroon to friends in Nigeria. The first call was to Enyioma Ekpebegh in the commercial city of Lagos. “Everything is calm but elections are yet to commence at the polling station where I am supposed to vote”. She said. The next call was to Ndife Chinedu in Port Harcourt (the main city in the violence prone and volatile Niger Delta area). “The situation is tense and there are reports that two police stations have been burnt. I have received phone calls from friends advising me to stay indoors because of the insecurity”.
The late arrival of election materials at different polling stations and sporadic though limited violence were to characterize the Saturday polls reflecting the responses I got from my friends. About 60 million registered Nigerian voters went to the polls to elect governors and members of the state houses of assemblies of the 36 states of the Federation. This is the first phase of elections that will be followed by the election of the president and members of the national assembly at the Federal level in seven days time.
Prior to the elections the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), prof. Maurice Iwu assured Nigerians that the elections would be free, fair and credible. Appealing to his compatriots to demonstrate a sense of maturity, Iwu reminded them of the “strategic importance of Nigeria in global affairs”. Adding; “We must not lose sight of the great expectations that the world requires of us”.
As the elections proper commenced and complaints about the process started pouring in, the INEC officials were forced to be more combative in deflating some of the baseless or exaggerated claims of malpractice. Many of the complaints were initially linked to logistics. Later, as the exercise progressed, fraud allegations started to surface. At 2pm Saturday, prof. Iwu addressed a press conference to counter some of these allegations that were loud enough to overshadow the reality on the ground. “This system is credible, transparent, free and fair” Iwu said while strenuously trying to defend the conduct of the elections. “When we succeed as a country we should say that we have succeeded. It must not be the negative things that must always be said”. Iwu said in a combative tone.
This lecture did not stop politicians that were losing elections from complaining nor did it prevent some of their supporters from taking to streets in such states like Bauchi, Kebbi and Edo. An aggrieved AC opposition governorship candidate in Katsina State said the election was characterized by “unprecedented massive outrageous fraud”. In Rivers State where the ruling PDP was winning, opposition leaders called for the cancellation of elections claiming malpractices. The same call also came from losing candidates in Cross River State. Of the states where the INEC has declared results, the ruling PDP has won in ten while the opposition has won in two. INEC has cancelled the governorship elections in Imo. Allegations of hijacking electoral materials, intimidation, violence and taking INEC officers hostage were rife in Imo. The INEC commissioner for information, Philip Umeadi told the press after announcing partial results at 6pm on Sunday that he will meet the press on Monday at 10 am to continue releasing more results.
The Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo described the elections as “very satisfactory” He acknowledged that there was some violence which he said was “very unfortunate”. He attributed the violence in Kano to be linked to religion while that of Rivers State was caused by “criminal gangs”. Police sources claim that about 21 Nigerians died from electoral violence.
Governorship elections in Nigeria have always been a ‘do or die’ affair. Governors wield a lot of power and they control a substantial amount of resources because of Nigeria’s revenue sharing formula. It is therefore expected that there will be a lot of contestation by the losers of Saturday’s polls in the days to come.
The success of Nigeria’s democratic transition is not only important to Nigeria but to the whole West African Sub region. By virtue of her economic size and population, any instability in Nigeria can pull down over a dozen of her neighbors.
Njei Moses Timah