Natasha Akpoti, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate in the just concluded governorship election in Kogi State, recently granted an interview to Arise TV, where she accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the police of sabotage. She also accused the police of using helicopter to aid in rigging the election in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC). AKINWUNMI KING monitored the interview and brings the excerpts:
The election has come and gone, how do you feel after the declaration of Yahaya Bello as the winner as well as the fall out?
I feel extremely sad because it is quite unfortunate. At this time of our democracy, we have got deteriorated to a civil war. It is unfortunate that we have watched the stakeholders responsible for ensuring a free and fair election actually collaborating with the APC in Kogi state to put up such manipulation and violence. It is saddening and brings us to ask what next and what is the hope of democracy in Nigeria. Are we even progressing? Have we gone back hundred years in time?
During the election, you reported that you were assaulted and that the security officials did nothing to assist you. What exactly happened?
If you want to talk about the campaign, the unfortunate saga actually started the moment I emerged as the SDP candidate for the gubernatorial election. I was disqualified and had to fight through the court and it was just nine days before the election that I won the case. So, I had only five days of campaign. So I had gone through a whole lot, which I call a political conspiracy to sabotage my civil rights just to create an easier path for the governor and APC candidate to emerge victorious in the election.
So by and large, when I got to the field, I think it was on a Sunday, I got to Kogi state but the first unfortunate episode that faced me was the destruction and vandalism of the SDP secretariat. And that very night, which was a night of Sunday through Monday, the SDP secretariat was burnt completely by these same Yahaya Bello-sponsored APC thugs. It is quite unfortunate that the police station was just a few metres away and these goons stood there for two whole hours not allowing anyone come close to save the building and then watched the building burnt down while shooting sporadically with machine guns. Around them were men dressed in security agents’ outfits. We don’t know whether they are fake or real policemen.
At about 11.30 or 12pm, I drove to the venue of the meeting between candidates, INEC and security agents. I had some doubts going to the venue because my instinct first told me there was going to be danger. So before then, the SDP chairman and the national legal counsel went to the venue and they told me that I should come. They said the IG of police was there, the chairman of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, was at the venue. So, the place was secured and that I should come and that there was no danger. So I drove down and there was a barricade, which stopped me from going forward, which stopped my security and my car from driving up. But I looked at the environment and pretty much, there were over 500 security men of all kinds, the DSS, the police.
So I walked up there and just before entering the hall, I saw these men in mufti, some of them had this APC mufflers and GYB face caps and T-shirts and they started booing me and calling me all sorts of unprintable names. My campaign manager, together with the DSS lady attached to me, held my hands and whispered to me that I should walk briskly to the venue. So as I picked up pace, walking towards the door, I was faced with another set of thugs. These ones were about 15 and they just walked up to me and said that I am not welcomed at the venue. Some of them were actually speaking the Ebira dialect, which is mine. They were accusing me of trying to sabotage Ebira’s chance, raising their fingers that it is a four by four agenda. And right there, one tugged at my handbag and I almost lost balance. The lady attached to me came to me. Then suddenly, there was a push at my back; there was a hit at my neck. Then I fell. And because I am a lady, what got to my head initially was my composure. I had to adjust my scarf; I didn’t really feel any pain. While I was adjusting myself and gaining my footing, the attacks came again. I fell a second time. At that point, my campaign manager beckoned on the policemen who were just standing in their numbers. And these men and women who were heavily kitted with guns, helmets and bulletproof vests just stood there. Not one of them asked them to stop.
So when I realised that there was not going to be help from them, I decided to rush through the door because I was closer to the door of the hall than closer out of the gate. So as I tried to rush through the door, five of these same men, the thugs, walked straight in front of me and I could not touch the handle of the door. One of them raised his shirt and I could see a dagger. At that moment, the DSS lady attached to me, God bless her soul, whispered to me and said ‘madam, just leave this place, you are better off alive’. At that moment, I knew I was going to apply wisdom. I quickly turned around and walked out. While I was walking out, these same men booed me, walked me out, called me unprintable names and nobody did anything. When I got into my car, these same men, about 30, did not stop. They walked to my campaign car and broke the head of my driver and vandalised the vehicles while in front of the policemen and they were even talking about setting the car on fire.
What I am saying in essence is that it is actually a shame on the police and all the stakeholders who, like I said earlier, were responsible for ensuring free and fair election and the safety of lives and property throughout the campaign and the election season. It is unfortunate that they stood there serving as willing accomplices to whatever happens to me and the SDP and my supporters. This is not right. In as much as I do not know the principles and policies that they are guided by, I know basically it is their duty to protect me and every Nigerian. And till today, it will interest you to know that not the police, nor the APC, have actually put forth an apology to what happened to me. It was only INEC that put up a shabby acknowledgement of a report, saying that when they were in the hall, they heard about the attack and they sent their legal officer to get me.
What would like to see INEC do because there have been reports of what happened on the day of the election?
It will interest you to know that in as much as I was cleared by the court, there was still a continuous sabotage by INEC. The entire result sheets across the state did not carry the SDP name. What I was told was that they were advised to just write it with a pen or a pencil. Now, only a few polling units, which actually had their agents, remembered to inscribe the SDP. That’s why you see that when the results were being called out, some polling units in some local governments did not even have a single vote recorded for SDP and that is a sad occurrence. What we also noticed was that the 2015 ballot papers were used. Before, we heard by rumour, but there is always an iota of truth, especially when the words come from people who are close to the governor. I was made to understand that most of the ballot papers were in government house where they were thumb printing. So from the 2015 ballot, they had excess of the ballot papers. What happened on the field was just a mere exercise. All the thumb printed ballot papers were later taken in and rigging was perfected whereby the real 2019 papers were stuffed in.
The violence, it was actually a civil war that took place. I was ready to go to the polling unit to cast my vote by 8am but each time I tried to step out, I could just hear gunshots and I had to move back in. Then my security aides just had to call for a larger backup. So, at the time I went to cast my vote, I had nothing less than 50 men from the civil defence and the police who did a good job.
There was a lot of violence and people in the field could attest to the fact that there were no SDP agents anywhere. Once they see anybody with an SDP tag, they would just beat the person up. It was outright intimidation and not an election whatsoever.
In Lokoja, we had people who lost their lives. We also saw the police helicopter aiding the rigging that was taking place on the ground. What happened is that they would hover round the air of a particular polling unit that they want to rig and if they see that the thugs cannot steal the ballot box or disrupt the election, they would throw teargas. We have videos of that. We also saw when the governor’s car was actually participating in manipulating and rigging in the polling units. What am I asking INEC to do? This is not an election but injustice. It should start from outright cancellation. That election does not represent the true intentions of an average Kogite. It is really worrisome that the APC national body will seat and watch Yahaya Bello destroy its image. I say this because I have a lot of friends who are in APC and they do not accept or condone what Yahaya Bello is doing. He should understand that he is not just a man himself; he is a governor and member of the APC, which has the president. I am calling on the presidency to put a halt to INEC’s acknowledgement of the validity of the election. We have seen international observers who have put strong words against the conduct of the election. I call for the outright cancellation of the election because this will go a long way in rebuilding the trust Nigerians have in INEC.
You also claimed that Yahaya Bello planned to assassinate you. What is the story behind this?
There are ways I get information but I can’t actually put that out not to endanger the lives of the persons who actually notify me of these plans. Some of these often come out from people who are actually close to him, commissioners and special advisers, who have soft spots for me but somehow find themselves around him. I woke up to about 10 messages and missed calls that my life was in danger because I was a candidate at the election and from the same district as the governor and the governor actually perfected his rigging plans utilising our own local governments, Okene, Adavi and Okehi, where he upped the numbers and was able to drown the votes from other local governments and they know full well that I have plans to go to the tribunal and challenge the validity of the conduct of the election. He knows that my voice against his emergence can cause him his victory. He knows well that of all the candidates that participated, I am more of a stronger force, one that cannot be compromised and he knows. That is why he decided to take me out. I have written a letter notifying the IG of police and DG of DSS about the threat and I do hope they will step aside the partial zone and assume the position of neutrality and treat me as a citizen of Nigeria and offer me the best protection and also call Yahaya Bello to order.