By Ugonnabo Ngwu
One of the beauties of off-season elections in Nigeria is that they parade pitfalls in our electoral laws which must be fixed for a better general election. Unfortunately, most Nigerians are no more concerned if the off-cycle is not for a gubernatorial seat. All lovers of democracy know that district bye-election such as the one in Aba North /South Federal Constituency presents better thermometer with which to gauge the health of elections in the country. This is because if there can be devil-may-care irregularities in such an isolated election, then the challenges bedeviling our country are bigger than we thought.
That poll in Abia State last weekend threw up some issues that must not be glossed over. The lawlessness, thuggery and brigandage that marred the process call for concern. The poignance of the circumstance can be seen in the fact that while the election was called on the basis of the winner’s 10,322 votes, his major opponent is alleging that over 10,000 thugs were used to scare voters from exercising their franchise and compromise the election.
Little wonder only 16,017 votes were recorded in the 497,000 voting strength city. This means that the election witnessed a paltry 3.29 per cent turnout! Before you dismiss this as being another manifestation of the infamous political apathy and indifference of the Igbo, know that the people had been quite enthusiastic about the polls but stayed away to spare their lives and limb, just how political terrorists wanted it.
And so it was that substance suspected to be a bomb, exploded at the Umuola Hall, Ward 8, Ogbor Hill, Aba North council in the heat of the polls. While voting was ongoing, gunmen abducted Engr. Mike Ozoemena, the collation officer and campaigner for one of the major candidates, Mascot Uzor Kalu. He was kidnapped from his ward, Industrial Ward 2, Aba North. The situation was so dire that even the Resident Electoral Commission, Prof Joseph Iloh was not spared. He was reportedly manhandled by thugs at the Aba Polytechnic.
Traders were threatened with text messages to keep away from polling units or lose their lives. The able-bodied men made good their threat on the election day as they invaded voting centres where they reportedly chased away security officials and had a field day compromising the election. That law enforcement personnel on election duty joined the civil populace in scampering to safety when thugs invaded polling units shouldn’t come as a surprise. No, the security operatives were not cowards. They only ran for dear life because our extant law rendered them handicap in the situation.
“On no account should personnel deployed to the inner ring of the venue of political events or voting centres/polling booth be assigned with any lethal weapon except baton”. This provision of the law is one that breeds the sort of brigandage that characterized the Aba North/South Federal Constituency election. It bears stating that this provision has at best outlived its usefulness. Laws are supposed to be organic and grow with trends in the society. The law cannot be static while societal realities are organic.
The act that prohibits security personnel from bearing fire arms at polling booth may have worked in the past when there was self restraint among political actors, not any longer when politicians seek to win at all costs and threaten voters with the onomatopoeic “tatatata” chant. As things stand currently, barring security operatives from bearing arms in the inner ring has failed to achieve the voter confidence that it was meant for. Instead, it has become a major reason voters stay away from the polls since they know that it will take more than a baton for security personnel to guarantee their safety when what is feared transpires. And politicians who are adept at exploiting loopholes go ahead to breed thugs who they deploy to violently shoo off the electorate and unarmed personnel during elections in order to do their master’s bidding.
The National Assembly must therefore rise to the occasion and end this Hobbesian disenfranchisement of the citizenry. Such travesty as witnessed in the election for the Aba North/South Federal Constituency seat must not be allowed to repeat itself for the sake of the nation’s democracy.
Nigeria is currently grappling with severe insecurity ostensibly orchestrated by erstwhile thugs who use the arms given to them by use-and-dump political overlords to perpetrate criminality and banditry. This trend can be checkmated when the Electoral Act allows the deployment of armed personnel to the inner cycle of polling unit. This deployment can come from the elite crop of security agencies who would be courteous yet firm and strictly operate within the bounds of the rules of engagement.