Excesses of overzealous soldiers undermined credibility of elections
— CSOs, elder statesmen, lawyers, etc.
Deployment of soldiers to secure elections dangerous to our democracy
It is wrong to say electoral process was militarised—Lt Gen Tukur Buratai
By Mike Ebonugwo & Charles Kumolu
ALTHOUGH the 2019 general elections have come and gone, the jury is still out on the question of whether the entire process was credible based on how those assigned different roles by law and the relevant authorities conducted themselves. On the dock are the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC; the different political parties that took part in the elections, the security agencies, including the Police, the military and others.
But while some aggrieved parties and politicians are already gearing up to contest the outcomes of the elections in the law courts, the major talking point in many quarters is the involvement and conduct of the military in the entire exercise. And the questions is: Did the military interfere in the last electoral process? In the court of public opinion dominated by retired soldiers, elder statesmen, the civil society, lawyers and religious leaders, the military, especially the Nigerian Army, has questions to answer with regard to the conduct of soldiers deployed to security duties in parts of the country during the elections.
In the front burner of public discussions are eyewitness accounts and media reports of how some overzealous soldiers acted in a manner deemed to have undermined the credibility and sanctity of the elections. They have been accused of having in a show of brute force invaded INEC collation centres in different parts of the country, chasing away accredited political party agents, election monitors and news men. It was a development that was confirmed by Mr. Edwin Enabo, INEC Head of Voter Education and Information in Rivers State. According to him, some soldiers allegedly invaded INEC office on Aba Road, Port Harcourt and soon embarked on a partisan, selective screening of voters. This claim of forceful interference of soldiers in the electoral process was later corroborated by independent witnesses in the state.
Some observers also said soldiers were also complicit through their excesses in the outbreak of violence that claimed many lives during the elections as was the case in Rivers State which has become a sad reference point. For instance, according to the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, headed by Mr. Clement Nwankwo, no fewer than 58 Nigerians were reportedly killed during the election, with Rivers State accounting for 30 of this alarming number.
Speaking as a guest on The Verdict, Channels Television’s special broadcast on the elections, Nwankwo specifically faulted military involvement in the elections, especially as it borders on participating soldiers not taking directives from INEC officials. According to him: “We went through 13 years of brutal military dictatorship and we are at the point today where for the first time since 1999, the army is playing such an incredibly direct role in our elections.
“Even when General Abdulsalami Abubakar conducted elections as Head of State in 1999, we did not have the military used in the way it is being used today. This is destroying our democracy; this is not the democracy that we saw when we went to vote in 2015 or in 2011.
“This is very dangerous to our democracy. If this country has to survive and this democracy has to survive, then this country must take a stand on what to do about military involvement in elections. If the military is not able to take directives from INEC, the law should be amended to ensure they are immediately removed from involvement in any way in elections.”
Mr. Nwankwo was not alone in this observation. Some other local and foreign observers also passed a damning verdict on the roles played by the military during both the February 23 Presidential and National Assembly elections and the March 9 governorship and state House of Assembly elections, they said fell short of international best practice. For instance, the unanimous position of the European Union, EU, Election Observation Mission Nigeria 2019; the joint international observation mission of the International Republican Institute, IRI; the National Democratic Institute, NDI; Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD and the Integrity Friends for Truth and Peace Initiative, TIFPI, in their preliminary reports, was that the way the elections were conducted fell short of standard in many respects, made worse by the partisan involvement of the military.
Partisan involvement of the military
Speaking on this, the Executive Director/Lead Observer, TIFPI, Livingstone Wechie said: “TIFPI observed the alleged involvement of men in Army and other security uniforms in the elections in Imo, Rivers, Zamfara, Kaduna, Akwa Ibom, Edo, Ogun. The Army high command had earlier assured that the military will provide security and not interfere in the process.
“TIFPI observed the wave of men in Army and other security uniforms who sought to disrupt and indeed disrupted the election process in some states and we opine that there must have been also the use of fake soldiers and infiltration of some of the security formations. Hence, the Army authorities should fish out any of its men that may have interfered in the election in any of these states, including possible infiltration in their circles”.
Also expressing deep concern over the development, the British High Commission in Nigeria had in a series of tweets decried report of military interference in the election in Rivers State in particular, saying that it does not bode well for democratic process as it would affect the ability of INEC staff to conduct an impartial election.
On its own part, the umbrella body of opposition parties in Nigeria, the Conference of United Political Parties, CUPP, pointedly accused the APC-led Federal Government and the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, of using the militarisation of the electoral process to reintroduce military rule in the country. In a statement issued by its national spokesperson, Mr. Ikenga Ugochinyere, the coalition said: “We condemn in unequivocal terms President Muhammadu Buhari and his Chief of Army Staff’s attempt to overthrow the electoral process in Rivers State with APC thugs and security agents.
“We hereby say without mincing words that the undemocratic activities of the military and other security agencies in Rivers State are tantamount to treasonable felony and should be viewed and treated that way.”
Some other observers prefer to trace the excesses of the soldiers deployed to elections duty to a comment credited to President Muhammadu Buhari where he ordered security to shoot those who dared to snatch ballot boxes during the elections. Speaking during an emergency meeting of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Abuja, shortly after elections were postponed by INEC, the President was quoted as saying: “Anybody who decides to snatch (ballot) boxes or use thugs to disturb it – maybe this will be the last unlawful action he will take”, adding that anyone who tried to interfere with the elections would be doing so “at the expense of his life”. It was an ordered PDP spokesperson, Kola Ologbondiyan likened to ”a license to kill”.
Ironically, the heavy presence of soldiers during the elections did not deter thugs and other undesirable elements from running wild in many places where they unleashed violence with impunity. This was the observation of the CDD in its own assessment of the elections. It specifically decried what it described as the weaponisation of the entire process which aided the harassment, intimidation and assault of election officials, observers, journalists and voters. According to a report signed by its chairman, CDD-EAC, Prof. Adele Jinadu and CDD Director Idayat Hassan:
“The weaponisation of the election and abductions of INEC staff and the ad-hoc staff is worrisome and constitutes a drawback to the progress we have made so far. INEC officials were kidnapped and later released in Benue, Katsina, Kogi, Imo, Akwa Ibom and Rivers during voting and collation of results, with Katsina alone recording 20 cases of abductions.”
“We reckon that these attempts are aimed at undermining the system usually to favour the perpetrators. Our monitors on the ground did not only report cases of intimidation but were victims, too. One of our observers was arrested by soldiers in the Mile 2 area of Lagos on his way to cover the protest over non-payment of allowances by ad-hoc staff. Political thugs slapped and abducted our observer in at PU 2 Afaha Nsit ward of Akwa Ibom and later requested a ransom.
“Our observer was abducted by political thugs for reporting and sharing photos and permanent voter’s card of underaged voters in Polling Unit 15, Ward 04 of Shendam local government area of Plateau state. He was later released. In a related incident, a politician slapped a BBC journalist in Lagos in a brazen show of power”.
It would also be recalled that two civil society groups, the Save Democracy Women and Impact Future Nigeria had on March 6, staged a protest against the militarisation of the 2019 elections, beginning with the Presidential and National Assembly elections of February 23. The protesters said they could not understand why troops were deployed for elections which ordinarily should be regarded as a purely civil engagement. The protest obviously failed to achieve its purpose as the governorship and state houses of assembly elections that followed on March 9 turned out to be more militarised, with arm-wielding soldiers holding sway in different parts of the country, especially Rivers State.
However, in its own defence, the military, especially the Nigerian Army, has continued to maintain that its men performed creditably during the elections in line with the rules of engagement which define their conduct. According to Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, Acting Director of Defence Information, DDI, the military’s role in election is contained in Section 271 of the 1999 Constitution which stipulates that the military can be deployed to “assist the police in maintenance of law and order during elections”. He did not stop there.
“In carrying out this onerous task, the Armed Forces of Nigeria is guided by the code of conduct and rules of engagement that have been provided for military personnel deployed to maintain security during elections. We assure Nigerians that in tandem with our mandate, we will continue to complement and support the efforts of the Nigeria Police in ensuring that all abiding citizens of this nation and members of the international community go about their legitimate duties and obligations in an environment devoid of violence and insecurity.”
Also reacting in defence of the military, especially with regards to the deep concern expressed by the British High Commission in Nigeria over the overbearing, partisan involvement of troops in the elections , the Army had through its acting Director of Public Relations, Col. Sagir Musa, described as baseless allegations that its men compromised the integrity of the elections in Rivers and some other states. He reiterated the neutrality of the Army during the elections, while accusing politicians of confusing members of the public by giving military uniforms to hoodlums to perpetrate violence during the elections.
According to Col. Musa: “Foreign interests are enjoined to be mindful of interfering in our national internal affairs, especially when there is no credible evidence. Any allegation against the NA must be confirmed from appropriate quarters before jumping to conclusions.
“The NA, as a responsible organisation, wishes to debunk such misrepresentation in order to set the record straight. Similarly, it is on record that the NA has been globally applauded by many individuals, foreign and local elections observers, for its sacrifices/roles in creating an enabling environment for a secure, transparent and peaceful conduct of the elections.”
The Nigerian Army has since set up a nine-member committee to investigate all allegations of misconduct against its personnel during the last general elections. Although mixed reactions presently trail the announcement, the PDP in Rivers State see it as a welcome development and hoped that it would successfully probe all the allegations of misconduct, including the assassination attempt on the state governor, Nyesom Wike, by soldiers
According to the state chairman of the party, Felix Obuah: “We wish to assure the Chief of Army Staff that the PDP will appear, present and prove before the committee with facts and evidence, the atrocities committed by his soldiers against the electoral process and the people of Rivers State before, during and after the 2019 general elections.
Abduction of electoral officers
“In the same vein, we wish to call on the acting Inspector General of Police, Mr. Abubakar Mohammed Adamu to institute a similar panel to probe the brazen involvement of the Rivers State Commander of F-SARS, Mr. Akin Fakorode and his gang of police operatives in the organised invasion of polling units, collation centres, abduction of electoral officers and the shooting and killing of innocent persons during the general elections at Khana, Gokana, Ikwerre, Eleme, Tai, Oyigbo and Ogu/Bolo local councils”.
But some other observers are not particularly impressed with the setting up of the probe committee which they see as a mere smokescreen to hoodwink undiscerning Nigerians on the alleged despicable use of soldiers to deepen political partisanship within the rank and file of the Nigerian Army. It would be recalled that the Nigerian Army had in October 2015, set up a Board of Inquiry with a mandate to investigate alleged malpractices and involvement of its personnel in Ekiti and Osun states during the 2014 gubernatorial elections. It went further to inform thus: “The essence of the investigation is to prevent future unprofessional conduct by officers and men in the performance of constitutional roles. It is also to strengthen Nigerian Army’s support to democratic values and structures in Nigeria”.
It remains to be seen what the nine-member committee will come up with. But while Nigerians await its investigation and report, several opinion leaders contacted by Vanguard to speak on the contentious issue of the militarisation of the 2019 elections have since submitted their verdicts. They are published as part of this report.