By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“Democracy is too good to share with just anybody.” - H. L. Mencken
IF you are voter in Edo State who believes that your vote should and must count, you must be wondering whether it is safe to exercise your right to decide who becomes Governor of the State this coming Saturday.
Certainly, it will take the bravest of citizens to venture out either on campaign trails or to vote, given the intimidating mobilisation of security personnel, particularly soldiers, reportedly in their thousands for the Saturday elections. It will be safe to say that the bullet will be as important as the ballot in determining who is announced as winner in the elections.
All the indices that the elections of a Governor on the 14th of July in Edo State will be a bitterly-fought affair have been evident for quite some time. Edo State has historically been a major battleground. If forms the core of the Midwest region, carved out with muscle and clout of the northern influence in the first republic. Subsequently, it remained the barometer for judging the balance of power between the West, and political parties with a heavy dose of northern and minority influences such as the NPN and PDP.
The loss to either has been seen as a major setback, and the stakes have never been higher than they are. The Action Congress of Nigeria of Governor Adams Oshiomhole and the People’s Democratic Party which straddles the nation’s political horizon like a colossus are locked in a bitter battle to show who is the dominant influence in a key state and region.
A win by Oshiomhole will weaken the PDP’s stranglehold on the south-south, and may very well signal the political end of some of the most powerful fixers of the PDP. A loss by the ACN will represent a major setback for a party which wants to claim that quality governance can take it beyond narrow ethnic boundaries in Nigeria.
Deployment of security personnel
The most visible and obvious indicator that the voting is unlikely to reflect the popular will is the massive deployment of thousands of soldiers and other security personnel days before the elections. In the absence of clear signs that voters and election officials are likely to face serious threats which a deployment on this scale alone can mitigate, the question has to be asked what all this militarisation of the voting process seeks to achieve.
On the basis of experience, Nigerians know that the visible presence of heavily-armed soldiers scares voters from venturing out to vote. Low turn-outs create opportunities to manipulate ballots and result sheets. Soldiers intimidate voters and observers who want to exercise their rights to keep the entire process in sight.
The militarisation of the voting process tends to generate its own image. Interests that cannot mobilise the military in their favour resort to their own use of violence as a political tool. Long before elections, campaigns become violent and dangerous affairs; communities are torn by rival armed gangs; simple folk are warned in advance of the consequences of voting one way or the other; and the whole community arms itself to the teeth using money from politicians. Arms used to intimidate the public will be retained after the elections. They will be turned against the same politicians who bought them, or against the community later.
Compromised electoral process
The electoral process will be severely compromised in this type of atmosphere. Allegations of intimidation, ballot stuffing, results without voting or use of violence at polling stations will be made. Agents will allegedly be chased away, and whole communities or voters will complain that they were prevented from going to polling units or collation centers.
These may very well be the reasons why this type of mobilisation of armed security personnel is being made. Whoever is declared winner after the Saturday elections, there will be another loser: the citizens of Edo State who will never be sure that the results genuinely reflect their will, or the will of a few fixers and professional election riggers.
For the rest of Nigeria, the elections in Edo State this weekend are also very important. What happens in this particular election will indicate whether the government and INEC have learnt any lessons from previous elections. It may give a hint on whether President Jonathan and his party, the PDP are willing to test their popularity in open, free and fair elections; or they will continue with the tradition of muscling results out of the system.
Even at this stage, Nigerians should demand that the Edo gubernatorial elections coming up on Saturday must be demilitarised. If there is evidence that some people intend to use violence or some other illegal means to influence the outcome of the elections, the police and other security agents should deal with this threat, not thousands of soldiers. INEC should demand a freer and less intimidating environment, openly and specifically, because it cannot claim to conduct a free and fair election in an environment where voters are having to choose between ballots and bullets.