By Omeiza Ajayi

Nigeria’s South East and South South geopolitical zones have recently come under increasing attacks by violent gangs who went on the rampage attacking security agencies and personnel as well as Custodial Centres of the Nigeria Correctional Service NCoS.

However, the situation soon assumed a political dimension following targeted attacks on facilities of the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC.

While there have been no reports of arrests of those who attacked offices of the electoral umpire, the Prof. Mahmood Yakubu-led INEC has been meeting with various stakeholders with a view to halting the trend which he fears could derail preparations for future elections, including the 2023 general elections.

There have been speculations that the facilities were being attacked by criminal elements who just wanted to throw the states into chaos. But there are political analysts who have also come up with a theory that some people are afraid of losing in the next election and that perhaps, they want a situation whereby the elections would be postponed in order for them to remain in power for an extra time.

Whatever the case is, the government has a duty to take out those responsible for this misfortunes. Like security facilities, INEC offices should be declared “red zones”.

Timeline of attacks

According to INEC, it has suffered no fewer than 41 violent attacks in the last two years.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of the Interagency Consultative Committee on Election Security ICCES, Prof. Yakubu said; “In the last two years, the Commission has recorded a total of 41 incidents involving deliberate attacks on the Commission’s facilities. Nine of these incidents happened in 2019 and 21 cases in 2020. In the last four weeks, 11 offices of the Commission were either set ablaze or vandalised. Two of these incidents were caused by Boko Haram and bandit attacks while 10 resulted from thuggery during election and post-election violence. However, the majority of the attacks (29 out of 41) were unrelated to election or electoral activities. In fact, 18 of them occurred during the EndSARS protests in October last year while 11 attacks were organised by “unknown gunmen” and ‘hoodlums’.

“Although the Commission is assessing loss of materials during recent attacks, our preliminary assessment so far indicate that we lost 1,105 ballot boxes, 694 voting cubicles, 429 electric generating sets and 13 utility vehicles (Toyota Hilux). By working together with the security agencies, we can stop these attacks and the wanton destruction of critical electoral assets”.

However, what started as perhaps, isolated incidents in Akwa Ibom state on the eve of the 2019 General Election has suddenly become a pattern.

On the eve of the said election, INEC’s newly constructed prototype local government office in Ibesikpo Asutan was burnt down while two more offices in Mkpat Enin and Eastern Obolo LGAs were bombed.

Sunday, May 2

On this day, INEC decried the attack on its office in Essien Udim Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom state, saying if the trend is left unchecked, it could derail its preparations ahead of the 2023 general elections.

INEC in a statement said its Resident Electoral Commissioner REC for Akwa Ibom State, Barr. Mike Igini, had reported that its office in Essien Udim Local Government Area had been set ablaze.

“The recent attack on our facility after we have just concluded the inventory of electoral materials nationwide in readiness for the 2023 General Election is worrisome. If unchecked, these attacks may constitute a setback on the Commission’s preparations, including the ongoing conversion of Voting Points to Polling Units, the forthcoming Continuous Registration of Voters (CVR) exercise and the conduct of polls”, the Commission said. 

National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee of INEC, Barr. Festus Okoye in a statement said the incident occurred in the early hours of Sunday 2nd May 2021.

While the security guard on duty escaped unhurt, the destruction to the building and property therein was extensive.

Items destroyed included 345 ballot boxes, 135 voting cubicles, megaphones, water tanks and office furniture.

According to Okoye, the police, which has also been battling with attacks on its facilities and personnel in the area, is aware of the incident and has commenced investigation.

Sunday, May 9

On this day, INECs office in Ohafia Local Government Area of Abia state was set ablaze by hoodlums.

INECs Resident Electoral Commissioner REC for the State, Dr Joseph Iloh had reported that the Commission’s recently renovated office in the local government was set ablaze that night.

“There are no casualties on the part of our staff on guard duty but the building was virtually destroyed. Apart from furniture items, all electoral materials and office equipment were destroyed”, he stated.

Again, INEC has expressed anxiety about the impact of such attacks on electoral activities, including the ongoing expansion of voter access to Polling Units, resumption of the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), pending bye-elections, end-of-tenure elections and ultimately the 2023 General Election.

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“The latest incident in Abia State is one too many. This is not the first attack on the Commission’s facilities in the State in recent times. Five months ago on 13th December 2020, the INEC LGA office in Aba South was completely burnt down while that of Arochukwu LGA was vandalised and ransacked in October 2020.

“These facilities are national assets, which must be protected. Accordingly, the Commission is convening an emergency meeting of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) next week to discuss this disturbing trend”, the commission had stated.

Thursday, May 13

On this day, arsonists registered their presence at the INEC office in Udenu Local Government Area in Enugu State, according to the Resident Electoral Commissioner for the State, Emeka Ononamadu.

The tragic incident occurred around 8:40pm on that day.

Again, INEC said the latest destruction of the Commission’s physical infrastructure and electoral facilities in Enugu State calls for an immediate review of the measures necessary to secure INEC’s assets across the States.

Sunday, May 16

This was perhaps the most dating of all the attacks as the previous ones focused on local government offices of the commission.

On this day, the hoodlums attacked the State headquarters of INEC, setting the foyer and six vehicles ablaze, while destroying two other vehicles.

According to INEC, some unidentified persons overpowered the security personnel on duty around 9pm and tried to set the entire building ablaze.

“The attention of the security agencies as well as the Federal and State Fire Services in Enugu was drawn to the unfolding situation and they responded swiftly.

“The attackers set the foyer ablaze, vandalised some offices in the main building and caused extensive damage to some of the Commission’s movable assets within the premises.

“Six utility pick up vehicles (Toyota Hilux) were burnt down while two more were smashed and damaged. The security agencies who were at the scene have commenced investigation”, INEC had stated.

Tuesday, May 18

On this day, two more offices in Ebonyi and Ezza North Local Government Areas of Ebonyi State were burnt down.

At a meeting with RECs the following day, Prof. Yakubu again decried the continued attacks on INEC offices in some parts of the country, saying while the spate of arson has developed into a crisis, the situation could derail its preparations for future elections.

He said, although there were no casualties, the damage to the physical infrastructure and electoral materials was total.

“Nothing has been salvaged from ballot boxes and voting cubicles to generating sets and office furniture and equipment.

“The facilities of the Commission are there to serve the local communities for the most fundamental aspect of democratic governance, which is elections. Therefore, targeting such important national assets and repositories of electoral materials that took time and enormous resources to procure cannot be justified”, he stated.

Yakubu lamented that the spate of arson and vandalism targeting the Commission’s facilities and property has become profoundly worrisome, adding that the attacks are no longer freak events but appear to be quite orchestrated and targeted at INEC.

The commission is understandably concerned about how it will replace the facilities in the prevailing economic circumstances, lamenting that the situation will adversely affect electoral services in the same communities.

According to the INEC Chairman, the Commission will certainly work with the security agencies to deal with the perpetrators of these heinous crimes according to the law.

While INEC is also partnering with communities, the commission is elated about the attitude of certain communities towards it.

Apart from having donated lands for the construction of some of the offices now being attacked, they had over the years supported electoral activities in their areas.

Even in the recent events of arson and vandalisation, many of them have demonstrated exceptional willingness to support the Commission, said Yakubu.

For instance, following the vandalism of INEC offices in Osun State during the #EndSARS protests in October last year, the Ikirun community in Ifelodun Local Government Area and two communities in Ede South Local Government Area offered to contribute to the repairs of the offices and promised to work with the Commission to protect them in future.

In the same vein, in Nnewi North in Anambra State, the community has also offered to repair the INEC Local Government office destroyed during the #EndSARS protests.

Implications

The implications of the current wave of attacks are not far-fetched.

Before the next general election, there are several upcoming electoral activities, particularly the Continuous Voter Education CVR exercise which INEC plans to undertake continuously in 2,673 centres nationwide for a period of over one year.

For the exercise, INEC will deploy 5,346 officials for the exercise. Those centres need to be secured in order to inspire confidence among electoral officials and potential registrants.

Thankfully, the commission has almost concluded work on the conversion of existing polling units in each state to polling units.

What is left is to finalise the newly established Polling Units in order to update its registration software to make them available to registrants.

Yakubu is concerned that the attacks, which initially appeared as isolated and occasional actions, have now become more frequent and systematic, targeted at demobilising and dismantling critical electoral infrastructure in the country.

“This will not only undermine the Commission’s capacity to organise elections and other electoral activities but will also damage the nation’s electoral process and democracy. Indeed, these attacks on the Commission’s facilities should now be treated as a national security emergency”, he stated.

Ahead of future elections, security agencies have their jobs well cut out for them. What is urgent now is to do a security risk assessment of INEC offices nationwide with a view to immediately securing them.

INEC also has a duty to immediately initiate the procurement processes for all that it has lost.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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