EMEKA NZE examines militarisation of 2019 general elections and summed up that it was undesirable and could have led to voter apathy in the March 9 state elections
At the various inter-agency consultative meetings with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) prior to the 2019 general elections, there was never a time dedicated to to the discussion on the military taking part in the election.
More often, at such consultative meetings, the agencies which participated were the police, the Department of State Services (DSS) the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and sometimes the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC).
At various fora, Chairman of INEC Prof Mahmood Yakubu had always drummed that the police was the lead agency in the maintenance of law and order during elections in concert with world best practices in any democracy .
Prelude to the elections, however, the INEC chairman had instituted two ad-hoc committees to oversee both logistics and the National collation Centre. The second committee- Logistics which had Air Vice Marshal Mua’zu as chairman was made up of military and para-military agencies.
Although according to Yakubu at the inauguration of the committees, the logistics committee was formed to liaise with relevant agencies to facilitate the movement of election materials to designated points. The duties of the AVM Committee was not supposed to go beyond that.
Few days into the elections, only the Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed made public appearances during which he briefed Nigerians on the security arrangements towards the elections. In all of these, there was no contemplation that the army would function as election personnel to patrol the town or guide the ballot.
Thus the appearance of National Security Adviser (NSA) to President Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Mongunu at wider consultative meeting at the Abuja Sheraton Hotels preparatory to the elections was not only stunning but portrayed some ulterior and inimical motives which was not too clear at the time.
The NSA had threatened to clamp down electoral offenders, should there be any during the polls proper.
While many were still contemplating and pondering the import NSA’s threat in the election matter, President Buhari himself ordered a shoot at sight on any ballot box snatcher thus opening up a debate on the possible deployment of the military during elections.
It was not surprising, therefore, that some states saw the heavy presence of the military especially during the state elections that held last week.
For instance, soldiers were said to have been instrumental to the disruption and consequent suspension of electoral processes in Rivers state.
The European Union Observer Mission during its assessment of the elections said, “However electoral transparency was limited by restrictions on journalists and observers.
“In five states, journalists from respected media houses were obstructed from reporting in certain areas. Civil society groups reported that military and security agents denied citizen observers access to eight collation centres in three states, and that they were further denied access in a number of others by INEC personnel or threatening groups.
“EU observers were prevented from entering the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) office in Rivers, apparently by military personnel. On 10 March, INEC suspended all electoral processes in Rivers citing widespread violence and disruption to the elections.”
Two lobby groups, the Save Democracy Women (SDW) and Impact Future Nigeria (IFN), staged a peaceful protest in Abuja on Wednesday over what they called “the militarisation of the 2019 general elections”.
IFN convener May Uneku blamed last month’s low voter turnout — just 35 percent — on the heavy presence of troops in the streets.
“We condemn in totality the involvement of the military in our elections,” she was quoted as saying in local media on Thursday.
“During the just-concluded polls, people were killed. The elections were a total charade because there are video and pictorial evidence of people screaming for their lives, military men were harassing and shooting people.”
The February 23 vote, which also chose legislators for the National Assembly, was marred by violence that claimed at least 53 lives and many more wounded.
Civil society monitors said they also recorded instances of soldiers blocking voters from getting to polling stations in the south.
The main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), whose beaten presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, is challenging the result, has also questioned the use of troops.
The army has no official role in providing election security but can provide armed back-up to the police if required.
– ‘Ruthless’ –
In the runup to the vote, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered soldiers to be “ruthless” with ballot box snatchers.
The 76-year-old former military ruler warned anyone who tried to disturb voting risked his life.
That ruffled feathers in the opposition camp, sparking accusations that it was a “licence to kill” and calls for the order to be withdrawn.
But army chief Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai said his men would obey their commander-in-chief.
The PDP cautioned Buratai against dragging the military into politics — a sensitive issue in Nigeria where there have been six successful military coups since independence in 1960.
It described Buhari’s order as “an aberration of Nigerian laws and a recipe for crisis”.
Buhari insisted his directive was meant only for trouble makers and election riggers. Buratai has again repeated the military is “apolitical”.
In southern Rivers and Bayelsa states in the heart of the oil-rich but volatile Niger delta, an army officer and three soldiers were killed, sparking fear of reprisals among the people.
In one instance, Rivers governor Nyesom Wike accused the military of complicity in the killing of 16 people in Abonnema while dozens have been arrested.
He said soldiers had laid a siege on the riverine town, forcing thousands to flee to Port Harcourt, the state capital.
Tensions ran high in Rivers, which has a history of political violence, after the Supreme Court ruled that candidates from Buhari’s All Progressives Congress could not run because of procedural irregularities.
Analysts and activists though still question the rationale for deploying troops for purely civil matters.
Security consultant Don Okereke said the deployment of soldiers was “an aberration”.
“We have seen a situation where soldiers have been accused of extra-judicial killings. In Rivers, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom states, many people were killed on election day in skirmishes with soldiers,” he said.
The military’s role was to protect the sovereignty of the country against external aggression.
“We are not in a war situation. So why deploy soldiers for election matters? This is the job of the police and other para-military outfits,” he said.
Okereke said the courts have also previously ruled against the deployment of soldiers for elections.
Buhari has already been accused of acting beyond his remit, stoking fears of authoritarianism, by suspending the chief justice, who is charged with corruption.
The potential use of soldiers against the opposition would not help the situation, he added — “Such a practice is not good for our democracy. It should be discouraged.”
It is not out of place that one of the factors leading to low turnout of voters was the heavy presence of soldiers in the streets which could have instilled fears in some electorate thereby preventing them from coming out.