By Olisemeka Obeche & Amaechi Okonkwo
Tension literarily reached boiling point on Sunday as the independent national electoral commission (INEC) announced indefinite suspension of the governorship and House of Assembly elections in Rivers state over alleged widespread violence and vote rigging.
According to an official statement signed by INEC’s chairman, information and voter education committee, Festus Okoye, the suspension was based on reports from its officials in the field over alleged widespread disruption of elections the state.
The reports read: “These initial reports suggest that violence occurred in a substantial number of polling units and collation centres, staff have been taken hostage and materials including result sheets have either been seized or destroyed by unauthorized persons. In addition, safety of our staff appears to be in jeopardy all over the state and the commission is concerned about the credibility of the process.”
The suspension was announced hours after soldiers and police clashed at the head office of the commission in Port Harcourt, over who should be in control of the main collation centre. The dramatic power-play had earlier kicked off when troops of the Nigerian Army took over the INEC office, displacing the police and their Nigeria Security and civil defence corp (NSCDC) officers.
Several armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and hilux vans were deployed to cordon off the entire Aba-Port Harcourt expressway leading to the INEC office, diverting traffic into both parts of the government residential area, on one end and into Olu-Obasanjo way on the opposite end.
The entire stretch from GRA junction, through the office of the Niger Delta development commission NDDC down to waterlines bus stop was taken over by armed security personnel who also restricted access to pedestrians along that route.
INEC entrance in-between was flooded with policemen, men of the civil defence and the Nigerian Army creating a siege atmosphere.
At about noon it was discovered that INEC officials led by the state resident electoral commissioner Oboh Effanga, expected to commence the announcement of collated results left his office because of pressure from the security agencies.
Some of the results that earlier arrived the INEC office were reportedly not received by INEC office while some that have been received were not announced.
A source inside INEC explained that the officials had to leave the office temporary because of pressure from the soldiers to accept every election materials the military brings in from the field.
Outside the office the army personnel refused journalists and party agents access to the INEC office without any explanation. One of the soldiers told some members of the correspondent’s chapel who drove out in their bus to get lunch that they would not be allowed to return after leaving the place.
Edwin Enabor, INEC HOD, voter education and publicity claimed that “throughout the elections we had many reports of insecurity, molestation, harassment and assault on our staff and adhoc staff and the disruption of the electoral process throughout the state; in all the local government areas with the consequence that yesterday evening we were unable to see the results.
He went further: “the office is under siege by men in military uniform, Army uniform and uniform of the Air Force and the Police have taken over the INEC office. They are stopping and screening people and clearing results before they enter the office to the extent that up till now, no collation had been done. So, that is the situation now.
“We don’t understand where the people are deployed from. We are not accusing the Nigerian Army or Air force but what we say is that the people in the office right now are wearing the uniforms of the Army and Air Force. So, if they are not from them, we are therefore calling on them to come and ratify the situation and allow our officers to enter with their results without molestation, intimidation and harassment”.
The Rivers state government in reaction alleged a move by the Nigerian Army, Police and the independent national electoral commission (INEC) to subvert the will of Rivers people by declaring concocted results for the Rivers state governorship election.
Addressing journalists at the government house Port Harcourt on Sunday, Rivers state commissioner of information and communication, Emma Okah said that soldiers and SARS personnel storm collation centers and hijack already collated results.
He said soldiers, SARs personnel working with APC leaders go ahead to mutilate the results to the advantage of a political party. “They have stopped PDP agents from gaining entrance into the collation centre at ABA Road. Movement has been restricted and free access given to APC leaders. Members of the PDP have been expelled from the collation centre. They want to deny the people of Rivers state their choice. Collated materials have been hijacked and some already announced results will suffer mutilation. If this continues, the will of Rivers people will be tainted “, he said.
The Rivers state government urged INEC to insist only on results from card readers, saying that any other action will be at variance with the votes cast by the people. He stated that the desperation to alter the results is part of a grand conspiracy by the Army, Police, APC and INEC to declare a particular candidate.
Out of 23 local government areas in the state, only the results of six had been brought in as of the time this report was filed. The elections created tension for Rivers residents. Last week, soldiers raided clubs in Port Harcourt, arresting fun seekers. On Wednesday, soldiers broke into the residence of Tamunosisi Gogo-Jaja, Rivers state commissioner of education, and arrested him alongside some of his family members. Civil society groups and observers have condemned the involvement of the military in elections.