Three weeks to Bayelsa governorship election: The fears, the expectations
EBIOWEI LAWAL writes on the implications of the botched stakeholders’ meeting organised by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) ahead the governorship election taking place in Bayelsa State on November 16, 2019.
The national leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is not under illusion about the difficulties in conducting elections in Bayelsa State. And for the governorship poll that is about three weeks away in the state, the chairman of the commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, has consistently expressed concern on the risk of the main actors not playing by the rules.
At a recent interaction with traditional rulers in Yenagoa, Professor Yakubu, recalled, “In 2015, in up to the eight local government areas in Bayelsa State, we conducted elections conclusively and made declaration of results only in one local government area, Kolokuma-Opokuma. I have been asking all my friends in Bayelsa what makes Kolokuma-Opokuma thick. Today, I have the opportunity finally to actually visit Kolokuma-Opokuma and I was in Kaiama and the staff assured us that just as it happened in 2015, it will happen again,” Yakubu said.
Citing Kogi State as another state prone to election-related crises, the INEC boss added: “The eyes of the entire country and the world would focus on both elections for a number of reasons. This coming election would be the first major election since the conduct of the general elections that would help us to improve on forthcoming elections. Secondly, and to be very candid with you my royal fathers, Bayelsa and Kogi are not easy states when it comes to conducting major elections, particularly governorship elections.
“The challenges are not only geographical in terms of the terrain and, therefore, it has an impact on electoral logistics. But another big challenge is the attitude of particularly the political class which has been a major concern to the commission. We are all witnesses to what happened in the party primaries for the nomination of candidates. Now that campaign for votes has commenced, it would continue for one month until 24 hours to the elections,” he said.
The ugly trend during elections in the state also formed the focus of a research by Ifeanyichukwu Otodo, of the University of Uyo, entitled, Political Violence and its Socio-Economic Consequences on the Development of Bayelsa State (2017). He submitted that the study discovered that political violence had negatively impacted on the state as it discouraged both local and foreign investment. “Therefore, the study recommends among others that political leaders should play a role in building effective government through their constitutional duties and mandates”, Otodo said.
According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, high level of violence in Bayelsa in the last elections caused a huge loss of lives and destruction of properties. Among the factors responsible for such violence, the report stated, included the “win or die” attitude of many politicians, acrimony between the two major parties in closely fought contest, distrust of security agencies, misgivings about the INEC’s neutrality and the prevalence of conflict and deadly criminal violence in communities.
It was with this background by Professor Yakubu that the impression that was created during the recent botched meeting the INEC chairman held with political stakeholders in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, was that some form of extraordinary effort would be needed to ensure a peaceful, free and fair governorship election in the state on 16 November, 2019.
Another impression that has become troubling for the INEC, security agents and political stakeholders in Bayelsa is that a peaceful, free and fair election in Nembe Local Government Area is near impossible, if what the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) described as an act of terrorism allegedly perpetrated by members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) during the last Presidential and Assembly elections is not resolved.
The meeting had in attendance the INEC chairman, Professor Yakubu, chieftains of the two main parties in the state, the PDP and the APC and their supporters, as well as heads of all security agencies in Bayelsa State. The venue, the Lady Daima Event Centre, was filled to the brim by people who had hoped to witness a fruitful deliberation. However, a heated debate between the chairman of the Bayelsa Elders Forum, Dr Francis Doukpolagha, representing the PDP and Mr Dennis Otiotio, representing the APC, brought the meeting to an abrupt end.
Speaking for the PDP, Doukpola said: “We are busy talking about improving on the 2015 governorship election and we forgot that we had an election in 2019. The presidential and the National Assembly elections in the state were one of the worse elections ever organised by the INEC. Because of the elections, the people of a part of a community are living in internally displaced camps (IDPs) in some parts of the state because they do not belong to a particular party and the INEC has not done anything about it. I am talking about the people of Nembe Bassambiri.”
Doukpola was yet to finish speaking when Otiotio interjected without permission from the moderator, Professor Yakubu. The APC representative at the meeting interrupted Doukpola as he said: ‘You are lying. Are you from Nembe? Were you in Nembe on the day of the election? Why not talk about your Sagbama situation during the election and let Nembe people handle their issues, if there is any, to worry about.”
The verbal confrontation between the duo went beyond control at that point as it created an atmosphere for commotion. Some supporters of the APC in the hall joined the verbal war against the supporters of the PDP who stood their ground too. The altercation became heated that the presence of the INEC chairman and the deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of operations who represented the Inspector General in the meeting, could not douse the tension. This forced the electoral body to bring the meeting to an end as the INEC chairman and other dignitaries, including top security agents hurriedly took their leave from the venue.
The pertinent question is, what happened in Nembe Local Government Area during the 2019 elections? A background check revealed that the Nembe/Bassambiri saga began when the chairman of the PDP, Mr Moses Cleopas, during a live broadcast on the state-owned radio and television stations, alleged that members of the PDP were chased out of Bassambiri by thugs led by an oil surveillance contractor, simply known as Kodjo.
During the broadcast, Cleopas also alleged that the said Kodjo, operating at the behest of former Governor Timipre Sylva, also sacked the mobile policemen and operatives of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corp (NSCDC) deployed to Bassambiri and Nembe for election duty.
The state chairman of the PDP claimed that the attackers, allegedly aided by some soldiers, dug trenches and mounted barricades in Nembe and Bassambiri to harass innocent people and stop the law enforcement agents from entering the community.
Cleopas said it was frightening that the attackers, whom he alleged were working for a Bassambiri-born politician, could be allowed to sack the members of the community who were not supporters of the APC. He had also said the siege on Bassambiri created a sad situation where thousands of innocent residents became internally displaced persons seeking refuge in Yenagoa and the nearby Ogbolomabiri.
However when a team of reporters visited the troubled riverine community, some leaders in the area debunked the claims by the state PDP chairman as they said elections were peaceful in the area. The youth leader in Bassambiri, Theo Iruo, asserted that nobody was chased out of the community and insisted that it was possible that those who killed a young man a day before the presidential polls were on the run.
Iruo explained that as a youth leader who was apolitical, having been duly elected by members of both parties in the community, he could not take side with any of the contending sides. “Everybody voted for their preferred candidates. There was no report of violence. Most of the things you hear in Yenagoa are mere rumours,” he had said.
When the INEC went on to announce the results of the election in Bayelsa East senatorial district, comprising Nembe, Brass and Ogbia, the PDP grew furious, calling on the commission to reject the outcome. The party chairman, Cleopas, demanded the cancellation of the election in some local government areas and asked the INEC to conduct a rerun in the affected councils.
Many PDP leaders in the state, including the chairman, Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Kemela Okara; Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Kombowei Benson, a member of the House of Representatives and senatorial candidate, Douye Diri, among others, marched on the streets of Yenagoa to protest the result. However the protesters were stopped by soldiers, who had mounted a barricade with two Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) at the entrance of the road leading to Swali, where the INEC office is located
The defence put up by the APC at the time was that the PDP was only crying foul, not because election did not take in the area but because its senatorial candidate, Izagara Ipigansi, lost to the APC candidate, Chief Biobarakuma Degi, who is said to be a more popular political figure in Bayelsa East senatorial district.
The leadership of the main opposition party further explained the PDP lost the election in the area because it did not field a candidate based on the zoning arrangement between the people of Nembe, Ogbia and Brass from 1999 till date.
It was learnt that the arrangement is blind to party affiliation and it is usually a single term of four years for any of the local government area in the Senatorial district since the inception of democratic dispensation. Reports had it that several persons that attempted to break the arrangement in the past failed and suffered dire political consequences. It was also learnt that even with the support of strong stakeholders from the area, it is always difficult for anyone to alter the rotational arrangement among the three local government areas that make up the senatorial district.
In 2015, the then senator representing Bayelsa East, Clever Ikisikpo, made an attempt to break the jinx as he sought to go for a second term. But he was rejected as he was defeated in the primary election of the PDP, despite being a close ally of the then President Goodluck Jonathan. When Senator Ben Murray-Bruce, also from the senatorial district, attempted to go for a second tenure in 2019, he envisaged his defeat and abandoned the race.
In the 2019 National Assembly elections, the candidates of both the APC and PDP who are indigenes of Nembe, the local government area which was to produce the next senator, came out to contest the election. However, the PDP encountered a major problem as it was that it fielded a candidate who had defied the party’s internal zoning arrangement.
According to the stakeholders, the PDP is fielding Izagara, who is from Okoroba Community, a community many argued was not next in line to produce the next senator and that several efforts by the people to convince the PDP leadership to field a candidate from Bassambiri failed. Faced by Governor Seriake Dickson, who was bent on fielding Izagara as the candidate of his choice, against the wish of the people, majority of the electorate from the area voted for Degi who hails from Bassambiri to win the election, in spite of all strategies deployed by the PDP.
For pundits in Bayelsa State, what happened at the botched INEC meeting goes beyond uncivilised public display of emotion and anger. To them, it is an indication of what may likely happen, even as the people are made to believe that Bayelsa East senatorial district is a falshpoint ahead of the governorship election coming up in November 2019.