As stakeholders continue to express fear ahead of the November governorship election in Kogi State, DANIEL AYANTOYE x-rays the rising political tension in the state, which may mar the exercise
A few months before the Kogi State governorship election, the atmosphere in the state is filled with tension amidst accusations and counter-accusations of attacks by the opposition and the ruling parties.
In the state that prides itself as the Confluence State, politically-motivated violence and attacks on opponents seem to be taking a new turn. With the governorship poll scheduled for November 11, 2023, the tension in the state has been on the rise with no hope of a violent-free election. After the various parties’ primaries held between March 27 and April 17, 2023, the Independent National Electoral Commission on June 9, 2023released the final lists of candidates contesting the seat of the governor alongside their running mates.
Some of those cleared to contest the election are the Action Alliance candidate, Olayinka Braimoh; his counterpart in the African Democratic Congress, Leke Abejide; the ruling All Progressives Congress candidate, Usman Ododo; his counterpart in the Peoples Democratic Party, Senator Dino Melaye; New Nigerian Peoples Party’s candidate, Mubarak Musa; Labour Party’s candidate, Okeme Adejoh; and the Social Democratic Party’s candidate, Murtala Ajaka.
Though the incumbent governor of the state, Yahaya Bello, will not be participating in the election as he is in his final term in office, he is strongly supporting his anointed candidate, who was his local government auditor-general, Ododo.
The state has been a flashpoint of violence since the country returned to democracy in 1999. The last governorship poll in the state was held in 2019 with no fewer than 10 deaths, 79 cases of violence and election malpractices recorded across the 21 local government areas of the state as recorded by the Centre for Democracy and Development.
Some of the electoral flaws observed during the exercise included voter intimidation, hijacking of electoral materials by hoodlums, attack and kidnap of INEC officials and observers, vote-buying, ballot box snatching, and under-aged and multiple voting.
Two persons were killed by stray bullets when hoodlums tried to snatch ballot boxes at the Adankolo polling unit during the 2019 election. The most shocking report was the killing of the PDP women leader, Salome Abuh, who was burnt alive at Ochadamu, while her killer, one Ocholi Edicha, was subsequently sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison by a High Court sitting in the state.
Recently, the state police commissioner, Akeem Yusuf, announced that another notorious criminal linked to the death of the PDP women leader, Kabir Bala, had been killed. Recall that Bala was pardoned by the Kogi State Government in October 2018. The development has generated mixed reactions among citizens.
Similarly, violent events were recorded in the state during the February 2023 presidential election. There were reports of interference of thugs in some polling units in Anyigba and Dekina in the Kogi East and Mopa in the Kogi West as well as parts of Kogi Central, where voting materials were allegedly carted away by thugs.
A voter simply identified as Akayama was reportedly gunned down at Anyigba in the Dekina Local Government Area of the state by thugs, who invaded the town to cart away electoral materials. However, following the commencement of the campaign for the governorship poll on June 14, 2023, the recurring violence began to rear its ugly head with opposition parties making several allegations of attacks.
A worrisome development is the ongoing war of words by the camps of Governor Bello and the SDP governorship candidate, Muritala Ajaka, whose convoy was allegedly attacked by gunmen, while his party’s campaign office located around the Paparanda Kpata Market was also vandalised by suspected thugs, who destroyed billboards.
A similar attack on the convoy of Bello in which some aides of the governor were said to have been injured was reported. The violence spree was also heightened by the attack on a radio station, Radio Kogi Ochaja, where property worth millions of naira was looted and destroyed by gun-wielding hoodlums after beating up the staff members and security guards.
Speaking on Arise TV, Ajaka accused the state government of victimisation, saying, “The problem of the state is the state government. They are not allowing freedom of speech and freedom of choice. Democracy is about allowing the people to choose the person of their choice, but what the state government is doing is that they are forcing people. If you are not supporting the candidate of the governor, they treat you as an enemy.”
On his part, Bello, while speaking on the convoy attack said, “Let it be the first and last an antelope will cross the lion’s way. Next time, there will be no warning.”
With the trend of violence, some stakeholders expressed concern and warned of an impending crisis ahead of the election.
In line with Ajaka’s claim, members of the Igala/Bassa Socio-cultural Association, an umbrella body of all Igala/Bassa associations, during a protest at the Defence Headquarters, Abuja, in June, described the political atmosphere in the state as tense.
They accused the state government of victimising political opponents.
The leader of the group, Jacob Okpanachi, said, “People cannot come out to own up to the party they belong to. Killings have been going on in Kogi State, most especially during elections.”
But the governor, through his Commissioner for Information and Communications, Kingsley Fanwo, debunked the allegations of killings in the state, assuring that the state would be peaceful during the forthcoming election.
In a statement, Bello said, “Our people should go about their normal business without let or hindrance as Kogi will be made safe before, during and after the poll.”
Concerned by the violence, the Council of Elders in Kogi East raised the alarm over the tension being generated in the state, even as it called on the relevant authorities to intervene in the situation to save the people from being killed.
The Chairman of the Kogi East Elders’ Council, Gabriel Aduku, said, “We have not enjoyed a peaceful election since the current leadership came into government. There have been attacks here and there. One cannot find major things he (Bello) has done for the state. It pains some of us because we cannot go into the election with fear.”
The elders warned against violence given several killings recorded in previous elections.
Speaking in an interview with Saturday PUNCH, the Labour Party Publicity Secretary in the state, Idakwo Emmanuel, stated that some politicians in the state were desperate for office. “There is a lot of tension on the ground looking at previous elections that we have had, especially that of 2019 where there were reports of ballot box snatching and we have people in our security apparatus who are supposed to defend the sanctity of the electoral process involved in causing the mayhem.
“Observing the election proceedings so far, I can see that some politicians are desperate and desperation leads to violence. They want to get what they want by all means necessary. This is what we must all reject. I think if your motive for the people is pure; if it is to rescue the people and ensure a positive impact, you will not want to hurt and take the lives of those same people.”
Emmanuel said lack of education and increased rate of poverty were contributing to the level of violence in the state, adding that poverty had been made a weapon in Kogi State.
“Poverty has been made a weapon in the state and it has been used to keep the people down and that’s why some youths are being used to perpetrate violence. In the Labour Party, we ensure that we educate the people about all these happenings to guide them against violence,” he added.
Speaking on the situation, the state SDP spokesman, Faruk Adejoh-Audu, accused the Bello-led government of failing to provide a level playing field for other parties in the state, saying, “The anxiety is there. The violence in Kogi State has always been one way; it comes from the governor to other people. Check the trajectory from the time he came on board till now, has anyone supporting him or a member of his party ever been killed or victimised? These things only happen to members of other political parties or those not supporting him.
“The fear of attacks is there; Bello can get away with violence because a lot of institutions of democracy have been doing his bidding. All we are asking is just a level playing field and an end to violence. People are missing and people are getting killed.
“The Nigerian state must protect its image; the forthcoming election must not be based on desperation. The Nigerian state must demonstrate that nobody is allowed to appropriate maximum power for personal use. If you win an election by force of arms, what you have done is a coup d’état. You are not different from soldiers who shoot their way to power. If you are using arms to win an election, you are guilty of treason. What is happening in Kogi is open treason by officers of the state.”
On his part, the governorship candidate of the Labour Party, Okeme Adejo, said, “In Kogi State generally, I don’t really see the anxiety that much. I can only say that people are just excited about the forthcoming election and how the political demography is turning out. I have gone to all the nooks and crannies of the state, I have never been attacked and I have never been victimised.”
He attributed the underdevelopment in the state to a failure of leadership, resulting in a rise in the poverty rate due to the government’s inability to pay workers’ salaries.
Also, the PDP Kogi East senatorial candidate in the February 2023 general election, Dr Victor Adoji, described the current situation in the state as worrisome. He stated that instances of people losing their lives, either accidentally or intentionally had created fear in most residents, adding that there might be voter apathy if nothing was done to reduce the tension before the election.
He said, “We are all witnesses to what happened in 2019 and what has happened till now. So, it is reasonable for any individual who is interested in Kogi State’s political sphere to be apprehensive because even the current posture shows that the state either inadvertently or deliberately has been regionalised politically to the extent that people have divided into several camps and this is how the tension has been created everywhere.
“In the course of the election people have been killed either accidentally or deliberately. Lately, we heard that the commissioner of police said a young man was killed and they said he (the young man) had committed several crimes. Of course, the man who was doing their bidding all this while and they refused to see until he was no longer useful to them. This is the situation in Kogi State. So, it is reasonable that there is tension.
“I want the authorities, the executive, the legislative and all the statutory agencies responsible for maintaining peace to ensure adequate security of lives and property during the election and ensure that justice is served. Justice here is allowing people to elect their choice without hindrance.”
He stated that some of the politicians were deliberately sponsoring violence in some regions to instil fear in the people and cause voter apathy during the election.
Adoji added, “If you analyse the spread of tension, it is to a large degree limited to one and a half regions in the state; one degree in the east and the half is in the west. The central is relatively calm. So, it could be a benefit that is working out for the strategist involved.
“Anybody empowering himself in a desperate bid to win an election is simply weak. I kept telling those who are my admirers that I will never under any guise whatsoever empower anyone or thug to empower my cause. I only hope that the authorities will do what the taxpayers’ money was paid to them to do during the election.”
Regarding measures put in place to prevent a recurrence of violence during the election, the PDP Chairman in the state, Dr Sam Uhuotu, stressed that parties must engage in public enlightenment and desist from engaging in violence.
He said, “If people become more enlightened, there won’t be violence. Attacks do not just come from anywhere; they are orchestrated by people. Let people know the problems involved in engaging in violence. I don’t know what the other people are planning but in the PDP, we are not planning any form of attack; it is not a do-or-die affair. Let Kogi people decide for themselves. I want the people to know that in this election, the narrative is different from the previous narrative; the incumbent governor is not going for another term of four years since the constitution does not allow for a third term.”
Supporting Uhuotu’s views, the governorship candidate of the National Rescue Movement, Bala Dirisu, said allowing the people to decide freely during the election would further change the narrative of elections in the state and advised the security apparatus to up its game to curb all violence-related issues that could disrupt the election.
“They (the government) need to ensure that there is a level playing field for all parties and to ensure that the people decide freely for the best man for the job. Elections are better won when they are violence-free. A peaceful state is a state where development can thrive,” Dirisu stated.
Perhaps, in a bid to ensure that the tension in the state is doused, the Assistant Inspector-General of Police, Zone 8, in charge of Kogi and Kwara police commands, Babatunde Ishola, warned politicians against violence.
Ishola, who recently held a stakeholders’ meeting on peace and security ahead of the poll at the headquarters of the state police command in Lokoja, said, “There should be no violence of any form either before, during or after the election. There should be no destruction of billboards, posters of political parties and no snatching of ballot boxes during election.”
However, with the rising political tension in the Kogi State, only time will tell if troublemakers will stay away from the governorship poll for the first time.