Among the major snags in our practice of democracy, the ever-present threat of violence casts a dark shadow on the prospects of attaining its brighter benefits. The right to choose by voting for candidates and parties is too often subjected to manipulations that renders it unreliable as a test of popular endorsement for election purposes. The curse of rigging afflicts the optimists as well as the pessimists and even goes further to bewitch the perpetrators with drugged dare devilishness and wanton destruction of lives and property that consumes them too.
This is the unfortunate scenario confronting us today. As the election draws nearer, it also raises the level of apprehension, fuelled by reports from all over the country of violent clashes between rival political groups and the arrests of thugs with all manner of dangerous weapons. Two people died in a bloody clash between suspected political hoodlums at a campaign rally in Igboora area of Oyo state.
The police in Jigawa said they had arrested 10 suspected political thugs for fighting after a political gathering in Gwaram local government area of the state. Three were killed in Warri and about 20 others sustained various degrees of injuries as rival gangs clashed in the Effurun area of Warri metropolis in Delta state.
A typical case that captures the disturbing dimensions of the situation was recently reported in Sokoto by the Nigerian Army spokesperson, Brig-Gen Sani Usman. He said, “Suspects were arrested armed with 27 axes and 16 customised sticks. While still conducting the search, a prominent politician in the state and a serving senator came to the scene and ordered his mobile police escorts to release them. In the process, the Department of State Service operative was molested and his clothes torn. The patriotic and professional officer still held on to the seized weapons. Similarly, another prominent politician from Zamfara state had earlier tried to influence the investigation of arrested armed political thugs. These undue pressures and attempts to interfere with the conduct of the exercise for selfish reasons are indeed worrisome and will not be tolerated”.
The fact that a serving senator and a prominent politician have no qualms about throwing their otherwise distinguished status behind armed thugs to the extent of ordering their mobile police escorts to release them from the custody of DSS operatives in such a brazen manner spotlights the level at which the threat to democracy is sponsored and facilitated. It serves as a pointer to the complexity of whatever process will be adopted to eliminate the scourge. It would take much more than apprehending armed thugs if there are big-time politicians and “distinguished” lawmakers whose stake in our democracy is propped up by brigandage and mayhem.
In the face of such a frightening reality of looming threat of violence linked to elections, there must be immediate concerted efforts across the strata of society to at least deter sponsors and perpetrators while also strategising to combat unavoidable outbreaks.
The new acting Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, has commendably taken the right initiative by deciding to set up a Special Elections Investigations Team which will hopefully end the culture of merely talking about election violence but doing nothing to check it, even when there are no lack of evidence and suspects!
Despite the heavy loss of lives and widespread destruction of property witnessed during election violence, it is absurd that the culprits who are regularly caught on camera and arrested are hardly ever prosecuted or sanctioned. Rather, law enforcement and security agencies come under intense pressure and veiled threats from influential politicians and elected officials turned devils’ advocates, demanding their unconditional release. It is this same attitude of defending the indefensible that confers on gangs of murderous thugs a virtual license to kill, maim and destroy at the slightest opportunity.
People must be held accountable for their misdeeds regardless of their perceived influence or nuisance value, especially when they commit crimes against humanity with impunity. The Nigerian Army could set a good example in this direction by naming and shaming the serving senator and influential politician it mentioned in its report quoted in this article and then prosecuting them, as deterrent to those planning similar escapades in the forthcoming elections.
Other factors which contribute to election violence such as hate speech by political leaders, drug abuse among delinquent youth and the do-or-die mindset of so-called professional politicians will be better checked only after the deterrent actions against perpetrators of election related violence have been sustained to achieve effective reversal of the rising trend. The ritual of signing peace accords stands little chance of producing desired results given the hypocritical complicity of political leaders and the deliberate drugging of their thugs which makes them uncontrollable zombies of destruction once unleashed.
The majority of responsible citizens who participate in elections just to choose their preferred party and candidates have a greater stake in ensuring that they demand and support firm deterrent action by law enforcement agencies against the insane minority whose unbridled excesses give democracy a deadly twist. All political parties and politicians who maintain and sponsor thugs under various guises should be held accountable for any acts of brigandage, killings, arson and other threats to law and order linked to them during and after elections while possession and public display of dangerous weapons of any sort at anytime should also be mercilessly penalised. It’s never too late to protect innocent citizens, uphold law and order and ensure free and fair elections to make democracy work for the people.
Okemeke writes from Port Harcourt, Rivers state.