By Owei Lakemfa
THE failed attempt on April 28, to recall Kogi West Senator, Dino Melaye in which the ‘Recallists’ scored a miserable 5.3 per cent, is not my focus. My mind is on matters arising which are likely to feature in the 2019 general elections.
In the “Statement of Results of Verification for Recall” signed by the Electoral Officer for the Karaworo South Open Space in the Lokoja/B registration area, the advertised result showed that the number of signatories for the recall was 850, the number of signatories present for verification was 35 whereas the number of signatories verified was 39. In other words, the number of signatories verified or counted was higher than the number of signatories that were actually present.
That reminds me of an experience I had years ago when I worked at the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC. One day, we received a request from an affiliate, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, to which all journalists and editors in the country belong. The body asked that the NLC sends an officer to conduct its national elections. I was given that task.
On arrival, I was warmly received by the out-going NUJ President. As he briefed me about the preparations, he said: “My elder brother, how is it that you are the person the NLC sent?” I asked him to explain and he said: “We already have a new President; the elections are already won and lost.” I thought it was a boast and I said: “I am aware there is more than one candidate unless your candidate has been returned unopposed.” The NUJ President said no, but that he was assuring me that his candidate had already won. I said, “Supposing the other candidates spring a surprise or are you thinking of rigging the elections?” He said “Yes!” I was shocked. The NUJ President was my junior in the profession when I was a practising journalist and I chided him. I called his name and said; “You are telling me that? You are so bold?” He replied: “ I am sorry my elder brother, but that is why I regret you were the one the NLC sent to conduct these elections. They will be rigged.”
I assured him that as the presiding officer at the elections, they will not be rigged. He shrugged his shoulders. At the elections, I put the ballot boxes on the table in front of me and replaced the electoral assistants the NUJ had provided me with people I knew I could trust. Since the NUJ printed the ballot papers, I went through the painstaking process of signing them to ensure that only ballot papers I signed were used.
At a point during the voting, the lights went out or were switched off. I had anticipated this and got all around me to be ready to switch on their cell phone torch lights. Then in the twinkle of an eye, someone snatched one of the ballot boxes, I ran after him and seized him from behind. Behold, he was a former NUJ President! He had some already thumb-printed ballot papers he obviously wanted to stuff in. I expressed surprise that an editor of his stature and former leader of journalists in the country would be engaged in rigging elections. He smiled sheepishly.
I was certain my assistants and I had done a good job but when the ballots were counted, in some cases, the cast ballots were hundreds higher than the number of accredited voters! The votes for the Presidential slot, were the most scandalous. Given the hostile environment including the agitated supporters of the purported winner, I could not cancel the elections. However, in announcing the results, I made it known that they cannot pass the most basic test of free and fair elections. I told the conference that my report to the NLC will reflect what had happened and assured those who lost the elections in such unfair circumstances that if they decide to challenge the elections in court, I as the officer who conducted them, will be willing to testify.
The NLC agreed with my submissions. I encouraged the main Presidential challenger to go to court and promised to turn up the marked ballot papers I had seized from the former NUJ President. The challenger agreed and informed me papers were being filed. After some months, the challenger stopped picking my calls and refused to challenge the rigged elections.
A few days after the failed attempt to recall Senator Melaye, I had a discussion with a friend who is from the Senatorial district. He told me a story that sounded unbelievable. He had travelled to his home town from his Abuja base and was surprised that a new house was springing up in his homestead. He questioned his uncle who was building the house where he got the money from. The uncle claimed that people who identified themselves as agents of the Kogi State Government came to the town shopping for voters who were willing to sign the recall register. They were ready to dispense quite some cash. The uncle said after collecting the money offered and signing, the cash hawkers expressed frustration that many voters were reluctant to sign despite monetary offers, so he helped in persuading more voters to sign and collect the huge sums offered as the money was from the coffers of the state which has refused to pay salaries or pension. The uncle, he said, told his kinsmen that signing for the recall does not mean they will actually vote to recall Senator Melaye. For his invaluable ‘assistance,’ the cash hawkers further handsomely rewarded him, so he had quite some money to build a small house.
My friend said on the verification day, he called his uncle who said he did not leave his new house for the exercise and he would never vote for the recall.
My friend quoted his uncle as saying that many voters in the town were quite happy that the recall failed while the town was additionally awash with money generously distributed by the state government. So they are praying for many more ‘Recall’ exercises that will provide them more money.
State Governor, Yahaya Bello has a reputation for throwing money at the crowds on the streets. Recently, his chauffeur-driven car ran over his leg while he was engaged in one of such philanthropic gestures, fracturing it. This, however, is not a strong enough basis to conclude that his government engaged in vote buying to recall one of the stalwarts of his party. As a journalist, I am trying to get the Governor’s side of the story. When he obliges me, I will bring it to readers.