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BAYELSA POLLS: A genuine contest halted by flawed values

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By Lindsay Barrett

THE eagerly awaited Bayelsa State governorship contest proved to be every bit as hotly contested as the main rivals promised in their campaign speeches.

The consequence of the unprecedented competitiveness of the contest is the inconclusive verdict pronounced by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC earlier this week.

However, no matter how the final outcome plays out, no one will deny that the first round of polls on December 5 proved to be the most genuine contest of political rivalry seen in the state since its founding in 1996. Although the incumbent governor Henry Seriake Dickson, of the Peoples democratic Party, PDP, held on to six out of the eight local government areas in the state he did so with greatly reduced majority figures.

As the voting progressed it became increasingly clear that fears that he had expressed over the indiscipline and violence that his main opponent, All Progressives Congress, APC’s Timipre Sylva might provoke in an attempt to undermine the stability of the state were not unfounded.

Brutal attacks

In the Brass Local Government Area, Sylva’s home constituency and the only one won by the APC, according to INEC’s results, members of the PDP were subjected to brutal attacks starting on the eve of the elections. The Acting State Chairman of the PDP, HRH Serena Dokubo-Spiff, a Brass indigene, sought protection in a police station when a rampaging mob attacked his residence. Several PDP members were forced to escape into the forest and to abandon any attempt to vote. Several of those who attempted to cast their ballots were attacked and wounded. In the aftermath of the exercise, the APC has accused the PDP of similar acts of brigandage against its own members in some parts of the state, but it is widely acknowledged that in the course of the exercise the most visible signs of interference with the process involved acts of protest and challenge mounted by the APC.

Timipre Sylva and Seriake Dickson
Timipre Sylva and Seriake Dickson

It is not really surprising that the above should be the case. The PDP enjoyed virtually unchallenged supremacy in Bayelsa State for more than 15 years. This ascendancy led to the installation of the state’s own son, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as President. The historic political defeat of Jonathan in the presidential polls set the stage for a bitter contest between the Governor, who is supported by the former President and Sylva, who has made no secret of the fact that he believes his earlier fall from political grace was engineered by Jonathan.

In preparing for the contest, the two sides traded bitter exchanges that made it obvious that the tournament would be extremely hostile. However, the level of violence unleashed on the PDP supporters, especially after it began to be known that the party was retaining its hold on power took most people by surprise. Serious analysts have x-rayed the actual incidents and come to the conclusion that much of the provocative outrages that eventually led to the cancellation of the polls in the largest Local Government Area, Southern Ijaw, arose as a consequence of planned acts of destabilization. This conclusion has arisen from a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence suggesting that collaboration between agents of the Federal Government and highly vocal supporters of the Sylva campaign organization in Southern Ijaw was a reality.

For example when members of two militant gangs led by former insurgent warlords who have publicly pledged their allegiance to Sylva attacked Oporoma the LG Headquarters in what was clearly an attempt to disrupt the polls on the morning of Election Day the army units there melted away claiming that their duty was merely to protect INEC materials.

Protection of INEC materials

The attack was repulsed by a brave small band of policemen and citizens but the elections could not be held.

That was the first sign of serious organized violence against the process in that LGA and it led to protests that caused the Governor to visit the area, in his capacity as Chief Security officer of the state, on Sunday morning. During this visit, an army officer (a major) virtually insulted the Governor claiming that he should not be there but in his home LGA of Sagbama.

This officer’s attitude seemed to suggest that he entertained partisan sentiments since he seemed to have lost sight of the fact that even during the election the Governor was still a serving official of the state and had the right to continue to supervise the affairs of the government in every corner of the territory. This altercation might explain why Governor Dickson went on air on Monday morning to warn against interference with the democratic process by the security agents who, he said, should remember that they were in the state to protect rather than to direct the peoples’ right to exercise their electoral mandate freely.

Shortly after the Governor’s broadcast, INEC announced the cancellation of the Southern Ijaw election because of widespread irregularities and violence. This decision vindicated the Governor’s earlier show of apprehension and concern and brought some serious anomalies in the process to light.

Actions taken by the APC stalwarts in the LGA indicated that they had expected to be allowed a free hand to mobilise what they claimed to be the largest number of accredited voters in the state. Southern Ijaw is an almost totally riverine territory and covers an area that is four times larger than any other LGA in the state.

Whereas in all the other LGAs, the trend had been a low turn-out of accredited voters, with nowhere fielding up to 50 per cent of registered voters, supporters of the APC took to the airwaves on Saturday evening and Sunday morning claiming that they had evidence to prove that in Southern Ijaw LGA out of 120,000 registered voters about 107,000 would show up for accreditation.

This claim was posted by the APC supporters on social media and in e-mails to correspondents in the field with alacrity and suggested that this one LGA could wipe out Dickson’s majority in the six other LGAs, if Chief Sylva won an overwhelming victory there. The argument they put forward was that since Sylva’s running mate Chief Wilberforce Igiri was from Foropa (one of the remotest riverine communities in the LGA) the ticket would pick up an almost total victory there going against the trend in the rest of the state.

However when voting that had been postponed on Saturday began on Sunday the first results that began to come in told a different story as Dickson continued to lead.

Remote communities

It was after this was known that reports of further attacks by the warlords loyal to the Sylva train on convoys carrying election materials to the more remote communities of the state forced INEC to reconsider and eventually to cancel its operations in the LGA. This exercise has illustrated the fact that the major obstacle to a fully democratic process in Bayelsa State is not the lack of will of the people but rather the imposition of flawed values.

Deeper analysis of what occurred on the first day of the elections may reveal more anomalies perpetrated both by the incumbent party and the challenger but last weekend’s exercise has clearly been aborted because of flaws in the process provoked by the response to results which showed that Governor Dickson had managed to fend off a genuine challenge from the APC.

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