Today, the destiny of Edo State will not be in the hands of politicians

EVERYTHING that has a beginning surely has an end, says an axiom, which is as old as creation. No matter how long a journey is, it terminates at a designed destination. So it is with the contentious, touchy and edgy politicking in the most sapping and snapping gubernatorial race ever witnessed in the history of Edo State and even in that of its forbearers – the Mid-Western region and the defunct Bendel State.

The take-off gun for today’s poll was fired on February 6, 2020 when the Independent National electoral Commission (INEC) prompted the horses in the race for the occupation of the Dennis Osadebey Avenue seat of power come November 12, 2020 to hit the tracks.

According to the octogenarian Esogban and Odionwere of Benin Kingdom, Chief David Edebiri, at the signing of a peace accord by the belligerent contenders, never has any election – since the first election was held in the ancient city of Benin in February 1952 – been like this year’s. That the contenders and their parties were made to sign the peace accord, a covenant of good behaviour and conduct before, during and after the election, underscores one thing: violence in its raw form.

From the blast of the whistle to very dawn of the election, Edo State has been sitting perilously on a keg of gunpowder with an impulsive detonator precariously holding the box of matches and ready to ignite a conflagration which many had predicted would envelope the state. Every action and inaction of the major gladiators in the contest has put a lie to the age-long saying, “Ishan does not fight Edo (Bini).” Unfortunately, and sadly, too, the two major duelers are sons of the soil and as the Esogban put it: “The two leading contestants are from reputable families. We have children of people who have ruled here in peace and tranquility contesting.”

Even those with undomesticated sanguinary propensity have had cause, especially in the last five weeks, to wish that the election had come earlier than scheduled and be done with so that those who intend to drink water could do so in peace. The amount of tension, fear and violence injected into the Edo political firmament has been perplexing.

As it played out on Tuesday, September 15, when the former Head of State, General Abdusalami Abubakar’s National Peace Committee (NPC) brought the message of peace to the state, the two leading parties, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), have unarguably been at the centre of the war that has characterised the politics of the once peaceful state in the past months. Little wonder therefore that out the 14 political parties that are participating in the election, only the candidates of these two parties, Governor Godwin Obaseki and Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu of the PDP and the APC, respectively, were made to sign the peace accord. The 12 other political parties whose representatives were present at the ceremony were mere invited guests. Their participation at the event ended with photo ops, their affectation notwithstanding.

 

The dawn of the D-day

Today, Saturday, 19 September, 2020, Edolites woke up to the long-awaited moment of reckoning. The D-day is here and the dice is cast. Between 8.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m., the destiny of Edo State will not be in the hands of politicians. The electorate will, within six hours, make or mar the future of the state with what they do with their ballots. For those hours, the heat will turn on the political class and there lies the beauty of democracy. The people, nay, the voting class, for once in four years, will decide what becomes of the political actors.

 

Proving doomsayers wrong

In the last 72 hours, the general feeling in the state tended towards a never-to-be September 19. The edgy nature of the politicking, campaign and the perfidy that have been witnessed and the trauma that has been unleashed on the psyche of the people and the state in the course of the game have made a lot of people believe that the eschatological judgment of the Abrahamic epoch, as contained in the Holy Book, will become a reality come this day.

The situation was so bad such that the custodian of the culture, custom and essence of Edo people, the Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II Oba of Benin, had to summon the major actors to the palace on Wednesday, September 2, to impress on them the need not to set the state on fire. The traditional ruler did not mince words in making the following declaration to the warring parties: “Benin politics has been in the news for the wrong reasons. I must admit that I have had sleepless nights that such is happening among people of the same stock. Enough is enough. Let us surprise everybody that when the election comes, it is peaceful. You are part of this great empire and you should be proud of it. Your activities must be mature. I am very sad about what is happening. This is the worst-case scenario.”

Three weeks later, at an expanded stakeholders meeting involving INEC, the police, the political parties and religious leaders, the Omo N’Oba reiterated his appeal for peace when he called on the political actors to prove prophets of doom wrong by ensuring peace during and after the election. He stressed that “this election is a test for all of us and Edo people want peace.”

 

Taming the tempest of violence

That Edolites are filing out in an atmosphere of peace today to elect who governs the state for the next four years is not a feat achieved by mere exchange of handshakes across the table. To tame the “lions and tigers” and “lion and tiger head hunters” who dominated the politicking that resulted in today’s poll is a no mean achievement.

At the centre of the concerted effort which has given Edo people a peaceful day like this are the primary law enforcement agency, the Nigeria Police and other security agencies like the Department of State Security (DSS), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Nigerian Immigration Service, Nigerian Correctional Service, Nigeria Customs Service,  Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and the military – army, navy and air force – all combining to the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCE). The election umpire, INEC, sits atop the collaborative effort.

 

INEC as an unbiased umpire

Within a space of two weeks, the chairman of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, visited the state to assure the people that the commission would observe all rules and play by the dictates of neutrality as expected of an organisation like it the world over.

Speaking at the expanded stakeholders meeting on Monday, the INEC boss said: “I wish to renew my appeal to all political parties, candidates and their supporters for peaceful conduct. Your votes will count. Polling unit level results will be uploaded for public view. However, this will not happen where the process is disrupted by violence or malpractices. The commission is determined that no one will benefit from impunity or rewarded for bad behaviour such as vote-buying, ballot box snatching and stuffing, multiple voting, hijacking and diversion of election materials, disruption of collation, falsification of results, attack on INEC officials or compelling them to declare unofficial results. The people of Edo State must be allowed to freely vote for their preferred candidate without inducement or harassment. We have been assured by the security agencies that thugs and their sponsors will not have the freedom to move around to disrupt the election or collation of results.”

On Election Day, Professor Yakubu said: “The national headquarters of INEC will monitor the election throughout Edo State. Our Zoom Situation Room will receive live reports from the field. Accredited observers and the media will also be invited to join at intervals. By doing so, the commission will receive firsthand information as the election is going on. The Smart Card Readers will be used for voter verification and authentication. This is a mandatory requirement and where it is deliberately avoided to undermine the integrity of the electoral process, the result for the affected polling unit will be declared void in line with the commission’s regulations and guidelines.”

And to allay the fear of fake result sheets, he added that the result sheets for the election have many unique security features just like the ballot papers such that no one will be able to clone the result sheets, in a bid to make the election credible.

 

A political police as essential ingredient for peaceful poll

Riding on the precedent set by the INEC chairman, the Inspector General of Police, Malam Mohammed Adamu, said the success or otherwise of the poll “is dependent on the level of the national passion exhibited by all actors.” He then pledged that “the police shall remain impartial, firm and professional” before, during and after the election. To underscore that commitment, the number one police officer of the federation disclosed that “the police have been directed to arrest all policemen who are not on election duty and are seen on the day of the election moving around either in uniform or not. We have also ordered the withdrawal of policemen from the escorts of all politically exposed persons until after the election.”

The IGP added: No one will be allowed to wear politically branded materials to any poling unit. No person will be allowed to move around with security personnel around any poling unit. Everyone is enjoined to vote and return to his or her house; no movement from one polling unit to another; no praise singing, dancing or drumming; no sales of alcohol or beverages around polling units; only INC accredited election monitors are allowed to move around; only accredited journalists are allowed to cover the election and no branded vehicles of any political party are allowed to be deployed on any election assignment.”

 

ICCE as harbinger of peace

The IGP, in walking the talk of a peaceful Edo State gubernatorial poll a step further, had initiated the ICCE, a collaboration of all the security and quasi security agencies in the country under the leadership of a Deputy Inspector General of Police, Mr Adeleye Oyebade. At a conference where all the agencies were represented, the DIG said the collaboration was informed by the nasty experiences in past polls.

He said: “Elections in Nigeria have often been marred by plethora of election malpractices and violence. Violence during elections can exceedingly debase the very essence and foundation of our jealously guarded nascent democracy. Election marred by violence and other forms of malpractices cannot be said to be free and fair.”

The DIG noted that besides dehumanising the nation in the comity of nations, violence in elections could also breed fatalities and cause injuries to the psyche and physical bodies of the victims. He explained that the objective of the security collaboration “is to provide an enabling environment for a free and fair election that will remain a reference point in election security.” He added that previous elections might have had their challenges but “it is our resolve to improve on them and make the 2020 Edo State governorship election freer, better, more inclusive, safer and more credible.”

He gave the assurance that adequate police personnel have been deployed, just as security threat analysis has been carried out and all vulnerable entry and exist points mapped out for security coverage.

“Let me at this juncture assure the good people of Edo State that the officers deployed for this special assignment will be apolitical, neutral and professional in their constitutional responsibilities. The police officers and their counterparts from sister agencies who are involved in the election will be posted to polling booths by name and they would wear identifiable tags for easy identification,” he said. Oyebade promised INEC staff, permanent and ad hoc, electoral materials, the electorate, party agents, local and international observers, candidates, journalists and other stakeholders adequate security before, during and after the election.

And to show that ICCE will bark and bite, the police topnotch sounded “a note of warning to would-be miscreants and other political thugs who might want to be holding clandestine, diurnal or nocturnal meetings to foment trouble with the motive to disrupt the election and scuttle the democratic process to desist from such act as the arm of the law will certainty catch up with them.”

 

When a General and a bishop sold peace to warring parties

Perhaps Edo people and the entire nation owe the duo of General Abdusalami Abubakar (retd) and Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah, a Catholic Church cleric, loads of gratitude for the peace that has made today what it is. The two, through their National Peace Committee, poured water to the fiery flame that had hitherto engulfed the political terrain during the electioneering.

Speaking at the ceremony held at the Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre, where 10 out of the 14 political parties on the ballot for today’s poll endorsed the peace accord, General Abdusalami noted that since the beginning of the present political dispensation in 1999, “elections have been conducted with various degrees of violence and that necessitated this committee.”

He noted: “As you we all are aware, since 1999, democratic elections in Nigeria have been conducted with varying degrees of violence. The tension and anxiety around elections necessitated the setting up of the National Peace Committee whose mandate is to support peaceful election processes and cultivate a culture of peace. The NPC has since 2015 successfully intervened in the general elections to ensure a peaceful outcome.”

The Minna, Niger State-born General reiterated that “giving peace during and after the election is a priority and it must be done. We as a people should aspire to see Nigeria where people feel safe to come out of their homes to cast their votes without any fear of intimidation.” He added that without peace, election could not hold and urged “all contesting parties to adopt a code of conduct that will remove confrontation among them.” According to him, the NPC was in Edo State to support the process, not just the signing of the peace accord by all candidates. It said the committee was also there “to encourage you all to accept the outcome of the election no matter the result.”

He told the gladiators that by agreeing to sign the covenant of peace, “all of you are committing yourselves to ensureing an enduring peace in Nigeria and Edo State before, during and after the election and agreeing to look beyond short-term political gains, sectoral interests or narrow party advantage and accepting nothing but for the development of Edo State.” Then he pleaded with “all the stakeholders and key people here present to commit to the spirit of this accord, while also remembering that the violators of this accord are putting their integrity on the line because you are signing this as ladies and gentlemen who are to be taken for your words.”

 

 The political class and the lesson learnt

While the political class, especially the cantankerous hordes from the PDP and APC divides, should be made to take responsibility for the tension in the political  firmament of the state, their somber dispositions towards peace as the D-day drew closer was noticeable. It was gratifying to note that in the week preceding this day and particularly after the intervention of the Omo N’Oba, the two leading actors and their followers limited the skirmishes to rhetoric of outlandish accusations and counter-accusations such that the that they rolled out press statements on a daily basis.

Respond to the peace initiative of the General Abdusalami Abubakar-led NPC, both Governor Obaseki and his main challenger, Ize-Iyamu, pledged their commitment to a peaceful conduct while the poll lasts.

Speaking after signing the peace accord document, Obaseki said: “I want to say on behalf of myself, as a candidate of the party and my party, the PDP, that we are fully committed to ensuring that we have peaceful election. I have no choice, because in addition to being a candidate, I am also the governor and the Chief Security Officer (CSO) of the state. I want to commit publicly, once again, that I will live by the letter and spirit of the accord that has just been signed.”

He followed up the vow with a call on the NPC not to end its work with the signing of the peace accord, “because there are other actors in the political space who have influence and exercise influence in the political space and also elections. You can reach out to them, if not to sign this accord, to persuade them about the importance of the accord we have just signed, because the responsibility for peace should rest on everyone and particularly the candidates and also some non-direct political actors, so that we can ensure that this exercise is total.”

And drawing inference from the Gospel of Peace he preaches as a pastor, Ize-Iyamu said: “Let me reaffirm our commitment to what has been signed and to assure Nigerians and particularly our people in Edo State that we will talk to all our supporters and we will conduct ourselves peacefully. We will do our best to ensure that the election is peaceful. We support free, fair and credible election. We believe that is the only way that we can sustain our democracy.”

 

The great expectation

There is no doubt that the attention of the entire world is on today’s poll. As a pointer to that fact, the United States of America, in the course of the week, announced a visa ban on election riggers not only in Edo State, but also in the equally combustible neighbouring Ondo State where the people will be going to the poll in October to either elect a new governor or retain the incumbent.

 

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