A platform to examine the role of journalists in promoting non-violent elections in Rivers State turned tense, following disagreements over the purported role of the army in carrying ballot boxes and rigging elections.
The disagreement exploded the moment the former president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the lawyer, Ledum Mitee, declared that the situation is now too bad, with soldiers getting involved in electoral violence and rigging.
Mitee seemed to stir a hornets’ nest when he said a top political appointee visited him a few weeks back, escorted by seven truckloads of soldiers.
The army representative thundered back, saying it was not possible, emphasising that ‘solders’ do not guard civilians, no matter how highly placed. As the matter hung in the balance, the Rivers State Commissioner of Information, another lawyer, Emma Okah, supported the notion that soldiers are involved in the unwholesome act and gave telling testimony.
“I saw a man with a bullet in his chest which he got from electoral violence, trying to carry ballot box for a paymaster. After all, the news headlines he got, his master left him and would later not even take his calls. All he needed was N3million to extract the bullet, but nobody has looked his direction, to this day.
“Just N3m kept the bullet in his chest. He has now joined the campaign against electoral violence because he now sees there is no future in it. He has realised that when something goes wrong, you are on your own. He now advises youths not to take the bullet for politicians. It is not worth it”, he laments.
“This is part of the reasons why we formed the Initiative for Credible Election, an NGO, to press against youth violence in elections. We found that youths armed by politicians during elections do not return the guns after election. They rather keep them and become a threat to all of us.”
He said the role of the media is clear. “There is a new menace in electoral violence. The security agencies have a role and the media have a big role.” He said violence starts before elections. “Violent language starts the process and it incites the populace and the supporters. Statements like; ‘We will crush the opposition.’ When you use such violent words, what do you want the youths to understand?”
He urged journalists to see how violence is encouraged; regretting that even when the INEC issued a report after the PH Constituency-3 by-elections earlier this year and said security agents and INEC officials caused violence, nothing has happened so far. Use and abuse of security agents in elections is too bad.
“We even see political appointees escorted by soldiers. One top political leader visited me last week with seven truckloads of soldiers. I even asked him if that was needed, just to visit me?”
On credible elections, he said, “if public security agents (soldiers or police) are now with your opponent helping him, you may be forced to seek self-help. It is intimidating to the opponent. That is how violent confrontations start.”
For journalists, he said; “Show what led to the violence. Alert INEC and security agents through your stories on violence. The Electoral Act makes only the INEC chief the one to deploy soldiers, not IGP and this is only for the distribution of electoral materials.
He tasked the media to make life difficult for those who govern, not to ease it, else, it would amount to being complicit. “You are not mere recorders of history. Stories must not be on the surface, let them go deep to uncover the reasons for the violence.”
He said INEC faces violent actions of thugs. “Unauthorised security operatives doing evil is a rampant scenario. The army and police would say those were not their men. Some persons act outside the police commissioner in a state. Also, report good things that happen and so encourage others.
The representatives of the Army, especially the Army Public Relations Officer, Aminu Ilyasu, said the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is clearly non-partisan. He rather said small arms are circulating everywhere and there have been two seizures at Onne sea port of containers of uniforms.
He said: “Soldiers are not to come near polling stations and the Chief of Army Staff has made it abundantly clear what the role of the army at elections is; just to protect the areas, not to touch ballot boxes. We leave the polling stations to other security agencies. The army is apolitical and there are announced sanctions on anyone who goes against it. The rule is, stay away from politics or retire.
“The story of seven vans of soldiers escorting a politician is surprising because the rules are clear. Look, soldiers do not guard civilians. He gave out numbers with which to contact the Army in the event of such sighting of soldiers doing things outside the law, but warned that some persons now put uniforms on them.
Emma Okah: Commissioner of Information
In his submission, the Commissioner said: “The Police in Rivers State is hell bent on rigging elections for the APC. Allow a contestant to fail elections, next time, they would find out what made them fail and work harder. No nation makes progress the way we are going. Often, the APC says PDP did bad in the past too, but must APC also do it?
“INEC, look, when you ask us to behave, we do not take you seriously anymore. The problem facing Nigeria about elections is huge. More evil will happen ahead, based on the things we hear and see every day. Let us collectively begin to build a true nation, let’s make sacrifices. Let us do something well for once.
He told the story of a soldier who acted well at elections and was rather punished with transfer to Degema if not Borrno State. “The only enterprise going on now seems to be election; we move from election to election; what about industries, agriculture, etc?
“The problem we have is the failure of leadership at all levels to what is right.
“Others said soldiers are compounding things at elections. Nigeria is in trouble. Soldiers are sharing uniforms with those who sew them. They are busy chasing ballot boxes instead of chasing thugs and their guns. Integrity of soldiers is important.”
Chapel chairman, Ernest Chinwo:
The chairman of the Federated Correspondents Chapel of the NUJ, Enerst Chinwo, said elections have come again and threats and violence are back. “The people are suffering it but journalists are targeted too. There is need to brainstorm on how to protect journalists.”
NUJ chairman: Stanley Job:
“Stop promoting perpetrators of violence; always condemn them. Assault of journalists, especially in Rivers State is getting more frequent; we have instances. We need a safe environment to operate. Government must not gag journalists. INEC should allow journalists to operate. The press in Rivers State must be security conscious. If things won’t stop Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) won’t stop either. The media must help out by factual reporting.”
Chairman: Chika Onuegbu:
Former TUC head in the state, Chika Onuegbu, a resource fellow in oil and gas economy, seemed to moderate and tone down the anxiety and clashes. He said journalists must highlight the good that agencies and personnel are doing too to encourage them. “Report and follow up, so that the oppressors will know that the matter will not end soon, just like the Khassoggi issue. “Commercialisation makes reporting press releases to have upper hand, thereby playing into the hands of governments and groups. Journalists are now vulnerable to corruption due to cost issue. There is poor training and remuneration plus poor equipment.”
Journalists must prove that they are not just mere independent recorders of history. Striving to be neutral is even bad because it makes the offender to hide.
, Rivers State