By Ogaga Ifowodo
THE horror! The horror!” so might Kurtz, Joseph Conrad’s fictional character, have cried were he to come out of the pages of Heart of Darkness—that widely misunderstood but powerful anti-imperialist narrative—and witnessed the Rivers State legislative re-run elections eleven days ago. “The horror! The horror!” I cried, far from the electoral killing fields. The images that horrified me (anew) did not depict a civic act—electing state and national legislators—but bloody warfare. There was the photo that haunts me even now: a freshly beheaded man, his torso propped up by his mourners, as if hoping that by raising the still-warm corpse up its severed head would be magically reattached and the man would live again.
I would not have believed it, would have dismissed it as a wicked photo-shopped trick by any party hack desperate to discredit the opposition. Only that beheadings had ceased to be news with the decapitation of Franklin Obi, an APC ward chairman, after first being shot dead alongside his wife and 18-year-old son. The gruesome scene was witnessed by his daughter “lucky” to live to tell the tale and be forever haunted by it. But then a month before Obi’s beheading, twenty-five persons had been killed, “with many of them beheaded,” according to the PM News report “APC chieftain beheaded in Rivers, wife, son murdered” of 7 March 2016. Around the same time, another party stalwart and his pregnant wife were also murdered. And there was also the shocking image of one Tambari Ntoto, said to be a PDP agent, allegedly shot dead by a soldier, blood oozing out of his head to form a rivulet in the sandy street where he lay. On re-run day alone, at least five citizens were sacrificed to the Moloch of elections in Rivers State, the electoral beast of the east, including a youth corps member drafted to war. Two days earlier, four soldiers, including a major, were killed when they ran into a roadblock allegedly set up by militants in Abonnema.
But the casualty figure of five on rerun day could easily have been six if the APC governorship candidate and newly appointed Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Security Agency (NIMASA), Dr. Dakuku Peterside, had not narrowly escaped assassination. A statement issued by Peterside and yet to be rebutted gives details of the attempted murder. His would-be assassins, he said, trailed him in two sport utility vehicles owned, allegedly, by Emeka Woke, Governor Nyesom Wike’s chief of staff who, reportedly, was later arrested. The incident gives further proof, if any were needed, of the sheer extent of impunity driving the murder and mayhem in Rivers State. So assured of no consequences were the would-be assassins that they did not abandon their mission when Peterside, lucky to be nearby the vicinity, fled to the offices of the State Security Service for his life. On the contrary, they opened fire and engaged “the SSS men on guard . . . for more than 30 minutes.”
IMPUNITY. Meaning, “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action,” according to the Oxford English dictionary. The carnage and brigandage that irredeemably marred the rerun election were a replay of what happened on 11 April 2015 when a war was fought in Rivers State in the name of electing a governor. Local and international observers were unanimous in condemning the sham and calling for a cancellation. That call fell on deaf ears. INEC, which had by and large sprung all the traps laid for it and generally done a credible job, merely asked aggrieved candidates to petition the electoral tribunal. And for a while, that seemed to be an agreeable way of cleaning the mess. The tribunal and the Court of Appeal annulled the charade and ordered a fresh governorship election. Not so fast, said the Supreme Court which, with the full authority of its God-like status in judicial matters, rewarded impunity-writ-large by reversing the lower courts.
In my column of 10 February 2016 entitled “The Will of the Supreme Court as the Basis of Government,” I expressed my very dim view of that decision. I can only wonder now what might have happened during the legislative rerun if the Supreme Court, instead of rewarding impunity under the cover of narrow and technical interpretation of the electoral act, had affirmed the lower courts and sternly reprimanded the perpetrators of electoral brigandage. It might not have eliminated violence altogether, but might that have served as a check to the brazenness, the sense of untouchability, nurtured by an assurance of lack of consequences that the foregoing demonstrates?
Nearly a year after the violent and rigged elections that led to the even more violent and rigged rerun, no single person has been tried or in any way held accountable for his or her crime. If the rivers of blood in Rivers State are ever to dry up enough for INEC to return to conduct free and fair elections there, if the state is henceforth to live up to its motto of Rivers of Possibilities, the perpetrators of murder and mayhem and sundry electoral crimes must first be tried and jailed. There must be (dire) consequences for electoral crimes else we give up the foolish dream of a truly representative democracy.