December 13, 2015

The battle for the soul of Bayelsa shifts to Abuja

The battle for the soul of Bayelsa shifts to Abuja

Timipre Sylva and Seriake Dickson

By Samuel Oyadongha, Yenagoa

Southern Ijaw local government area has again proved its uniqueness in Bayelsa State socio-political configuration. The council area, the biggest in the state in terms of landscape, has a coastline of approximately 60km on the Bight of Benin. It also had the highest number of militant camps in the Niger Delta at the height of militancy in the blighted region.

The council area, which is a vast swathe of mangrove swamp, had the unsavory reputation of hosting 14 militant camps which were  disbanded in the wake of the Federal Government amnesty to the then agitators.

This was the period the warlords held sway in the creek, wielding significant influence while traditional institutions and values were undermined as the militant leaders called the shots.

Sadly, when many had thought a new dawn was in the offing for the once troubled area, a new form of criminality took the centre stage as crude oil thieves and illegal refinery operators not only bled the nation’s  economy but also devastated the fragile environment with the illicit trade.

It was, therefore, not surprising when the council again, penultimate Saturday, relapsed into its infamous past. It was a theatre of war as armed political thugs and militias practically sacked the constituted authorities.

Oporoma, the headquarters of Southern Ijaw council area, was turned into a battle ground by gun totting youths loyal to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and rival All Progressive Congress, APC.

Residents, according to sources, were forced to scamper to safety while election materials and staff were locked in the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC’s office, a development that prompted INEC to postpone the Bayelsa gubernatorial election in the council to the next day, Sunday.

But the police, through the Deputy Inspector General of Police,  Hashimu Argungu, at a briefing, in Yenagoa, the state capital, on the day of the rescheduled poll, described as untrue the claim that some persons lost their lives in the orgy of violence that trailed the botched poll at Oporoma.

Argungu urged voters and residents of the local government area not to entertain fear as the security agencies were on top of the situation.

On why election could not take place  in Southern Ijaw, he blamed the development on logistics even as he confirmed the arrest of ten persons by security operatives and recovery of some dangerous weapons.

He also said five AK47 rifles and one pistol were recovered from some hoodlums.

The DIG, while assuring the people of their safety during the rescheduled election, said ‘two Commissioners of Police, 2 Brigade Commander, 5 Battalion Commander and Deputy Commander of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps NSCDC had been deployed in Southern Ijaw council area to ensure hitch free exercise.

Despite the assurance, however, the rescheduled poll in the council area was marred by widespread irregularities with the military accused of taking sides with one of the political parties.

Already, the PDP candidate in the election, Governor Seriake Dickson, had won six of the seven council areas with a commanding lead of 105,748 votes as against the APC candidate’s Chief Timpre Sylva’s 72,594 votes.

Accordingly, the contending parties saw in Southern Ijaw local government area, with 120,827 registered voters, the second highest after Yenagoa with 135,025, the key to the coveted Creek Haven, the seat of power in the predominantly riverine state.

While the APC was banking on its alleged victory in the contentious council to cancel the PDP lead, INEC put paid to  its  permutation by voiding the rescheduled poll.

Announcing the cancellation, the Bayelsa State Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC, Baritor Kpagih, said there were reports that the poll in the LGA was “substantially” marred by violence, ballot box snatching and hostage taking of electoral officers.

The pronouncement came immediately after the state Returning Officer, Prof. Zana Akpagu, told newsmen and election observers that he would not be able to take a final decision on the exercise until the result of the Southern Ijaw election was received.

Prior to the announcement, the state REC and some top security officers had held what was tagged ‘a security meeting’ at the INEC office in the state capital over the situation in Southern Ijaw.

Sylva kicks, threatens legal action

The APC candidate, Sylva, described as unacceptable the cancellation of the Southern Ijaw council poll.

The former governor, who spoke to newsmen in Yenagoa, accused INEC of colluding with the PDP to cancel the rescheduled poll because his party was coasting home to victory.

He insisted that he won by a large margin that made him the winner of the election, adding that if the commission must cancel the election in Southern Ijaw on flimsy excuses, justice demanded that it also cancelled the poll in Ekeremor, Nembe, Sagbama and other LGAs.

The APC candidate said the REC had no power to cancel election that had taken place, noting that it was only the state Returning Officer that had the power to announce a cancellation.

Sylva said the APC was going to collate all results in Southern Ijaw local government area and head for court.

Groundswell of support

Timipre Sylva and Seriake Dickson

Timipre Sylva and Seriake Dickson

14 of the 20 political parties that fielded candidates for the December 5 governorship election in Bayelsa, in the meantime, threw their weight behind the INEC decision to cancel the poll in Southern Ijaw.

The state Chairman of Independent Democrats, ID, Prince Elemah, who addressed a press conference in Yenagoa, on Wednesday, condemned what they called “electoral fraud” that characterized the exercise in Southern Ijaw, observing that INEC personnel and materials were hijacked by hoodlums, with connivance by security operatives.

The press conference was attended by the chairmen of Social Democratic Party, SDP; African Democratic Congress, ADC; Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN; KOWA, Progressives People Alliance, PPA; Peoples Party of Nigeria, PPN; Democratic Peoples’ Party, DPP; Democratic People’s Congress, DPC; African Peoples Alliance, APA; New Nigeria Peoples Party, NNPP; Mega Progressives Peoples Party, MPPP; United Peoples Congress, UPC; and Peoples Democratic Congress, PDC.

Separately, a group, South South Peoples Assembly, SSPA, called on the Chief of the Army Staff, Lt General T.Y. Buratai, to probe the role of military personnel in the violence and electoral fraud that marred the Bayelsa governorship election.

The group stated that though the deployment of the military was to prevent breakdown of law and order in the election, particularly in the contentious Southern Ijaw, the decision of the personnel to allow open display of lawlessness and participating in electoral fraud in the area was criminal and should be investigated.

In a statement in Yenagoa read to newsmen by the Secretary-General, SSPA, Chief Ayakeme Whisky, the group demanded that the investigation should cover issues of alleged involvement of soldiers in the hijack of election materials, provision of cover for electoral offenders and standing by while militia groups engaged in orgy of violence in most of the council areas including Southern Ijaw.

The group, however, faulted the decision by the INEC and security agencies to conduct the rescheduled governorship election in Southern Ijaw despite unfavorable security report.

Yenagoa grounded

Angered by the decision of INEC to cancel the governorship poll in Southern Ijaw, thousands of APC supporters, on Wednesday, took to the streets in Yenagoa in protest.

The protesters, who carried placards and sang anti-INEC songs, caused traffic gridlock on the major roads in the state capital as they marched to the INEC office along Swali Road to register their grievance.

This was the second protest in town in spite of the police ban on street procession.

Supporters of the PDP, mainly women from Southern Ijaw, had earlier staged a peaceful protest close to the INEC collation centre calling for the cancellation of the election in the council, alleging widespread irregularities.

Some of the APC protesters placards read: “REC does not have the power to cancel an election already declared by the returning officer,” “INEC should declare Southern Ijaw results now!” “INEC must declare results of SILGA or also cancel Ekeremor, Sagbama and Yenagoa”,   “We say total no to injustice and executive rascality,” “Dickson must be disqualified for violating Electoral Act”, and “Bayelsans reject the cancellation of Southern Ijaw results: We demand INEC to declare the results”.

Police stop protesters

At the state INEC office along Imgbi Road, it took the swift response of mobile police men to keep the protesters about 100 meters away from the premises of the state commission, with an Amoured Personnel Carrier stationed within the premises.

Mr. Famous Daunemugha, an APC chieftain, who spoke on behalf of the protesting supporters said they were on a peaceful demonstration to send a message to INEC in respect of the cancellation of the election in Southern Ijaw.

Appeal for calm

Addressing the protesters, a top official of INEC in the state and Head of Operations, Victor Agbowaneten, thanked them for conducting themselves peacefully.

He appealed to them to remain calm as the REC was in Abuja to  meet with the commission over the matter.

According to him, the decision to cancel the Southern Ijaw poll did not emanate from the state REC but was a collective decision of the National Commissioners that supervised the election.

He said, “From reports, it was the three National Commissioners that reviewed all the things that happened and decided on the matter.

“The statement was only read by the REC on behalf of the commission and did not emanate from Bayelsa State INEC.

“We have taken note of all that have been said and we will send the report to the commission.”

In Abuja, battle goes on

The National Chairman of INEC, Professor Yakubu Mahmood, it was learnt, has launched a probe into the role of the Bayelsa REC, Kpagih, and other officials of the commission in the electoral crisis that led to the inconclusive status of the December 5 governorship election in the state.

The INEC, as part of its investigation, according to a source, ordered the Collation Officers and Returning Officers in the local government areas, particularly those involved in the disputed rescheduled governorship election in Southern Ijaw, to submit their reports to the commission.

It was gathered that the INEC will investigate cases of compromise to frustrate the smooth conduct of the election.

It was also gathered that the directive may not be unconnected with the petition submitted by the APC to the commission, alleging bias, bribery and corruption against some officials of the state office of INEC and the alleged  illegality of the cancellation of the governorship election in Southern Ijaw.

Only time will tell which of the candidates would emerge victorious at the end of the bitter contest. While the PDP supporters are optimistic that they would triumph, the APC supporters are confident that, in spite of their losing in six of the seven councils where the election result has so far been  released, the Southern Ijaw council result would swing the pendulum in their favour.

One of the drawbacks of the governorship election is the widespread voter apathy   with only about 40 per cent of registered voters turning out in the seven councils where the election had been concluded. It would, therefore, be a miracle if the story is different in Southern Ijaw.