Philemon Kingoli, Chairman of Okrika Local Government Area of Rivers State aptly described what happened in the March 9th governorship and house of assembly elections in the state as a coup by the military, in which he said soldiers overran his local government and took charge of polling.
Though the Nigerian Army has denied taking sides in the elections, there is strong evidence that men in the green uniform played ignoble roles in the elections, particularly in Rivers State where the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, suspended collation and declaration of results to save the credibility of the process.
Reports from across Rivers State said that troops of the Nigerian Army were involved the disruptions of the processes and direct involvement in the diversion of election materials at the polling units and collation centres. In several cases they aided the manipulation of the process, held election officials hostage and intimidated voters; and disfavoured politicians from exercising their franchise.
There was the story where armed soldiers drove out party agents from a local government collation centre and allowed in only agents of a certain political party. It was like a war situation in many areas as the military had confrontations with locals over access to election venues.
This story was corroborated by INEC’s initial official reaction to the situation in Rivers State when Festus Okoye, INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman of it information committee said, “These initial reports suggest that violence occurred in a substantial number of polling booths and collation centres. Staff have been taken hostage and materials including result sheets have either been seized or destroyed by unauthorized persons.”
It was for this reason that the electoral commission said it decided to suspend the process in the state and investigate the complaints it had received before taking a final decision on the election in Rivers State. The prognosis was right there that the military was going to get in the way of the March 9th election in Rivers State. The army had lost a lieutenant, who was the head of its operations in Abonnema in Akuku Toru Local Government Area of the state during the presidential and National Assembly elections on February 23. It got so incensed by that affront by some local boys that the army counterforce killed 15 youths to retake control of the town.
Not done, the army went after prominent members of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the area who they declared wanted for their alleged role in the attack on the army. Prominent among those declared wanted was Rowland Sekibo, the Chairman of Akuku Toru Local Government and leader of the Peoples Democratic Party in the area.
The battle line was actually drawn between the army in Port Harcourt and the Government of Rivers State shortly after the presidential election, which recorded heavy casualties. The Governor, Nyesom Wike, who is the leader of the PDP in the state, had accused Jarmil Sarham, a Major-General and General Officer Commanding the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army, of plotting to kill him. While the army denied this allegation, it accused the governor of attempting to bribe its officers and men that arrested and detained officials of the state government during the presidential election. It was clear that there was no love lost between the PDP government in Port Harcourt and the army as they moved into the governorship and house of assembly elections on March 9th, 2019, in which Wike was a contestant.
Two days before the election, the army moved in on perceived leaders and supporters of the government in Port Harcourt. It raided their homes and arrested those it could. Ferdinand Alabraba, the Chairman of the PDP Campaign Council in Rivers State said the move by the military was to keep safely away, people that could swing votes for his party and intimidate the voters. Ateke Tom, a former Niger Delta militant leader and associate of Wike had his home and guest house in Okochiri, Okrika Local Government Area ransacked and vandalized by soldiers. He escaped. They also went for Asari Dokubo, another ex-militant leader in his hometown in the Kalabari area. But they could not take him away because of the tension the mission raised. A meeting of PDP leaders in a hotel in Port Harcourt was raided and some of those at the meeting arrested. The army did not only keep perceived opposition leaders away, it stationed men and armoured personnel carriers within range of their homes and communities to indicate they were ready for battle.
On Election Day there were reports of armed men in the Nigerian Army uniform hijacking materials and commandeering electoral officers in many areas. Many polling units where voters eagerly waited to exercise their franchise could not receive their election materials as a result. One of such areas was Okujagu and Isaka in Okrika Local Government Area whose materials were said to have been seized by military men in a gunboat stationed between Kalio and Abuloma.
In most of the areas where polling commenced normally, the music changed towards the close of polling. Soldiers moved in to secure and move materials and personnel to collation centres, even before the 2pm official time for the close of polling. It was at the collation centres that tensions rose. In Eleme, local government area collation centre, soldiers cordoned off the centre and kept even party agents away. For several hours, soldiers had to fence off hundreds of youths who tried to break into the centre. The situation turned tragic, however, in Khana Local Government Area, where a lecturer at the Ken Saro-Wiwa Polytechnic, Bori was shot dead at the collation centre.
Aside from the violence and disruptions, some stakeholders in the election blamed the low turnout of voters on the day of election on the intimidating posture of the military. Wike, who however, voted at Rumuepirikom, Port Harcourt said, “The way the military acted discouraged people from turning up. The role of the military is to provide security. But it is unfortunate that they directly participated. The military appears to have taken over police duties.”
The army has also received serious bashing from the international community, which condemned its role in the events leading to the suspension of the electoral processes in Rivers State. The British High Commission in Nigeria had alleged that the conduct of the army during the election put undue stress on election officials thus making it difficult for them to carry out their duties normally. But the army warned the Brits to mind their own business and refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of Nigeria. Sagir Musa, the acting Army Public Relations, said any information about the army that was not confirmed with the army authorities should be disregarded.
The police by convention was supposed to be the anchor of security during elections in Nigeria. This was confirmed by Usman Bele, the Commission of Police in Rivers State, who said the police force deployed 15,500 men for the elections with the support of about 3,000 personnel from sister agencies including the army. But like Wike said, the army had dislodged the police in providing security for the election and assumed roles direct roles for themselves.
Casca Ogosu, the Chairman of the Police Community Relations Committee in Rivers State, lamented that even after the army took charge of the situation, the tragedy was that the army authorities refused to respond to complaints of the excesses of its men in the field. “The police were helpless as they could not restrain the soldiers,” Ogosu lamented. And very often when complaints about soldiers seen carting away election materials and beating up voters, the army authorities denied, alleging that such people could have been thugs clothed in army uniforms by politicians.
Musa said, “The NA has also drawn the attention of the public to mischievous activities of some selfish individuals who recruited thugs dressed in military uniform and armed to harass and intimidate their opponents. In some cases, as reported, and as indicated in various intelligence reports, hoodlums dressed in military fatigue snatched ballot boxes and other electoral materials. Some INEC staff were reportedly abducted.”