With critical pre-poll discourse, enduring democratic and progressive issues apparently thrown to the dogs, the September 19 governorship election in Edo State has spawned justifiable concerns that core issues of integrity, security and associated due processes may be seriously undermined.
THE CONCLAVE notes that political participation is one of the most important indicators of the democratic quality of elections and a prime criterion for defining democratic citizenship. This reality cannot be overstressed.
Unimpeded voter turnout in a free and fair election is the most important form of political involvement and crucially also it is an important indicator of the state of health of any democracy.
Curiously, even cautionary warnings by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to declare a state of emergency if the condition of violence scales up has failed to check increasing impunity by the gung-ho gladiators.
We recall that despite the stern warning by the police, as expressed by the State Commissioner of Police, Mr Johnson Kokumo, and other security agencies, pretty few people have actually been brought to book as acts of violence and counter violence spiral. The emerging perception is that the politicians have scripted their own rules and are operating by a weird standard of justice and self-help.
Mindful of the implications of the spiraling violence for his realm and larger Edo arena, even the venerable Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, penultimate week, rebuked politicians in the state, particularly Governor Obaseki of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and his key challenger, Pastor Ize-Iyamu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), for the pre-election violence and belligerent electioneering utterances, threatening to tear the state apart ahead of the September 19 election.
“The utterances, statements and activities that I hear are most immature,” the monarch had told the two leading candidates and their promoters, including former governors, John Odigie-Oyegun and Adams Oshiomhole, during a peace meeting he convened in his palace.
His words: “I have noted that Benin’s politics has been in the news for quite some time for all the wrong reasons. I have been having sleepless nights for some days. We are all from Edo State. We are no strangers.
“Why do you want lives to be lost by arming thugs who will later hide the guns? Enough is enough. Let the September 19 governorship election in Edo State be peaceful. Be mature and be proud of Edo State. Do not make Edo State a laughing stock.”
Recalling the 2015 presidential election, Oba Ewuare noted that Jonathan’s conceding victory to Buhari changed the prediction of the international community that Nigeria would break up due to the 2015 elections.
In their responses, Obaseki and Ize-Iyamu respectively assured the worried monarch that they would promote peace and promised to ensure their supporters conducted themselves in a peaceful manner henceforth. Then both gladiators embraced each other – a gesture many felt was purely stagey and changed little from what appears a weaponised contest.
Any form of voter suppression, outright targeted violence/deaths, palpable weaponization of the electoral space, targeted inflation of poll figures, ballot box snatching and a laundry list of other malfeasances must not be tolerated in the upcoming Edo State governorship election. The candidate that loses must not be given a leeway to latch on the excuse of lack of process integrity. But there must be genuine efforts to ensure all loopholes are plugged.
If an intimidated electorate with a deepened sense of “my vote doesn’t count” – avoids electoral participation – it hardly needs a behavioural scientist to predict the negative backlash and diminution of the poll’s legitimacy.
More, according to YIAGA Africa, an election observation group, which, penultimate week, issued a preliminary report on the pre-election period titled “2020 Edo Election: An Election Defined by Strongman Tactics and Violence,” the pre-election period has been characterised by “violent, verbal and physical attacks, hate speech, identity-based violence” and things of that nature.
It further observed that from the forcible removal of opponents’ campaign posters through name-calling at campaign rallies to vandalism and the burning of the houses of targeted political opponents and wanton deployment of thugs, the period has been one long nightmare for the citizens of the state.
Even more specifically, the YIAGA Africa Report has listed, “potential hotspots and flashpoints of violence”. These include: Etsako West; Etsako East; Etsako Central; Owan West; and Akoko-Edo in Edo North Senatorial District. That widely reported acts of violence have transpired in these areas suggests their susceptibility during the election period to further acts of violence.
We recall that some 48 hours after the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, postponed the 2019 presidential and National Assembly elections – and subsequent polls by a week – President Muhammadu Buhari declared that “Anybody who decides to snatch boxes or lead thugs to disturb the election, may be that would be the last unlawful action you would take.
“I have given the military and police the order to be ruthless. I am going to warn anybody who thinks he would lead a body of thugs in his locality to snatch boxes or to disturb the voting system; he would do it at the expense of his/her own life.”
Currently, the extant electoral laws contain details of infractions and concurrent punishments but we concede that the September 19 governorship poll in Edo State certainly needs such tough talk to rein in potential trouble makers. While Buhari’s directive to the military and security agencies then was clearly unconstitutional as Section 33(1) of the Constitution guarantees the right to life, we hold that a tweaked version of that directive may well serve to protect the threatened integrity of the Edo poll.
Even if it means deploying soldiers, not to stifle the electoral space, but to man the boundaries and stay some good distance away from the polling booths which will be manned, of course by the Police, Civil Defence Corps, et cetera.
Ballot box snatching is comparable to robbery. This illegality plus a laundry list of other electoral infractions clearly constitute thwarting the will of the people. They must not be accommodated – whether coming from the incumbent governor, his main challenger or others.
It bears repeating that free and fair elections have been acknowledged as a cardinal pillar of a democratic political system. This is particularly so where polls satisfy acceptable democratic standards.
Clearly, the task of rescuing Edo State, besides the security agencies, also falls on the elite of Edo who must raise the bar and insist on civilized conduct from all the key players and also demand that electoral outcomes must flow from constitutionally-prescribed processes.
After 20 years of unbroken civil rule, the emerging consensus is that no extra-judicial triggers should be pulled to truncate the bracing journey to genuine nationhood because as according to Kenya’s Prof. Lumumba, if Nigeria gets it right, Africa will get it right too. And coming back home, if the INEC gets it right with the Edo election, it will confidently move on to replicate the same feat with the October 10 Ondo governorship election. The beautiful experiences could well be veritable reference points for all future elections in the country.