Last week Monday, November 19, 2018, officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), the media and civil society activists converged in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital, to discuss security as it affects the forthcoming 2019 general elections.
The event was the opening ceremony of the 2018 Media Week of the Correspondents’ Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Rivers State Council with the theme: “Promoting Security in the 2019 Election: The Role of the Media.”
Setting the tone for discussion, the keynote speaker and Director-General of the Initiative for Credible Election (ICE), Barrister Ledum Mitee, said history of elections in Rivers State has been one characterized by electoral fraud associated with political tension, crisis and violence.
Mitee said: “As indicated earlier, the history of elections in Rivers State in the recent past has been one characterized by electoral fraud associated with political tensions, crisis, and violence perpetrated by some political actors and unprofessional conduct of some few INEC staff and security agencies.
“The result is that the outcome of elections has been the subversion of the democratic process rather than its consolidation. Indeed the INEC Report into the last Rivers Legislative Re-run elections indicated that apart from politicians, some security operatives and INEC officials that were expected to protect the electoral process, subverted it.”
He said the starting point to these electoral violence in Rivers State could be traced to violent languages and hate speeches by political leaders even before the elections without regard to violent actions of their followers.
The ICE Coordinator said: “The starting point in festering these violence is obviously before the elections when violent languages and hate speeches by political leaders are deployed without regard to the implications for violent actions by followers.
“The media’s role in stemming the effects of such behavior must therefore start with ensuring that information that exposes such threats are provided and reported in a timely, equitable, fair and balanced manner. Politicians who use or whose followers use such language capable of inciting violence must be exposed and condemned.”
Mitee, who is former President of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) accused security agents of working with politicians to commit electoral fraud, thereby leading to violence.
He said: “In the same way, when the police or army accompanying a politician to an election venue, most times to manipulate the electoral process are resisted and violence erupts, the reporting at times are framed as being in defence of public property and to restore peace and order.
“Reporting security issues and violence by armed security agents as failures of INEC reinforces the clearly unconstitutional roles by such security agents that threatens free and fair elections. What, for instance do we expect the unarmed INEC officials to do in the face of such armed invasion?
“The situation becomes more disturbing in the face of evidence that tends to show that the security agencies that have variously been accused of subverting the electoral processes act outside established security institutional frameworks. They are , according to various accounts, not usually part of the security personnel officially deployed for election duties.
“They are often said to be those accompanying politicians and those operating outside established routine duties. If SARS is the acronym for Special Anti-Armed Robbery Squad, why shouldn’t we ask what armed robbery duties are they on on election days?
“In any case, why should the media not interrogate and question the establishment and maintenance of SARS and IGP’s Monitoring Squad by the Inspector-General of Police outside the control of the Commissioner of Police in the state?”
To the General Officer Commanding, 6 Division, Nigerian Army, Major-General Jamil Sarham, soldiers do not guide civilians and electoral materials during, before and after elections in the country.
Sarham, who was represented by the Commander, 56 Signals Brigade, Brigadier-General Basset Etuk, said the Nigerian Army does not get involved in electoral activities but only support the Nigerian Police and other security agencies involved in the process.
He said: “You will all agree with me that the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai, has done a lot since he assumed command and administration of the Nigerian Army. His vision is to have a professional and responsible Nigerian Army in the discharge of its duties.
“On many fora, he has said that the Nigerian Army is an apolitical one and this has transcended to all men and officers of the Nigerian Army. When troops are called out for internal security operations, it is as usual with the authorization of the Commander-in-Chief and we have our rules of engagement.
“The Nigerian Army does not have any business with elections. All we do is to support Police and other security agencies that are normally deployed for such elections. So, of you see a soldier escorting a ballot box, that order must have been passed illegally.
“You cannot see a military man involved in electoral activities. I make bold to say that soldiers do not guide civilians.”
To the INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Mr. Obo Effanga, there is the need for the media to be objective and transparent in the reportage of the forthcoming 2019 general elections in the country.
Effanga, who was represented by the Director, Voter Education and Publicity, Chief Edwin Enabor, said the electoral umpire will be transparent in all its dealings with the media and the electorate.
He said: “Considering the role of the media and strong influence of the Correspondents’ Chapel of the NUJ, which is the umbrella body of journalists practising in the country, the commission wishes to use this opportunity, once again, to appeal to you to assist in ensuring the transparency of the electoral process through correct reportage of events in the country.
“The media should downplay issues capable of having negative effect on the system by engaging within the confines of their profession and the code of conduct for election reporting.
“As the 2019 general election is fast approaching, we have just 90 days, the commission urges you exhibit unbiased reporting before, during and after the elections to avert a breakdown of Nigeria’s democracy.
“The commission on its part pledges to be transparent in its dealings with the media and the electorate throughout the period of the election and beyond. We will continue to regard you not only as critical stakeholders but as partners in progress. We all should work for democracy and ensure that democracy works in our country.”
To Hon. Emma Okah, Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communication, the Nigerian journalist can hardly report the nation’s volatile politics fairly because he is also affected by the challenges in the country.
Okah stated that the precarious situation the Nigerian journalist faces as a critical stakeholder in enthroning credible election is further aggravated by poor remuneration.
Presenting a paper, a senior lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, Rivers State University, Professor Godwin Okon, canvassed for immunity for journalists practising in the country.
Okon described election period as a defining moment in the history of any country, saying that the 2019 election will be a defining moment for Nigerians.
He said: “Election period is always a defining moment in the country’s timeline. The 2019 election will be a defining moment for Nigeria and it is better we rise up to the occasion.”
Welcoming participants to the event, Chairman of Correspondents’ Chapel of the NUJ, Chief Ernest Chinwo, said tension is building up as political parties and all relevant stakeholders step up activities towards the advancement of their interests during the 2019 elections.
Chinwo said: “Expectations are high and tension is once more building up as political parties and all relevant stakeholders step up activities towards the advancement of their interests during the 2019 general elections.
“Some people are once more scared considering their experiences during the 2015 elections: some lost loved ones, some were maimed while others escaped by the whiskers in the violence that characterised the last elections. Indeed, prophets of doom are already predicting bloodshed and all forms of harm in the forthcoming elections.
“While the electorate suffered untold hardship and violence, the greatest victims were arguably journalists whose duty it was to report the goings-on in the various polling units across the length and breadth of the state.
“Their conditions, in most cases were not helped by security agencies as most operatives saw the journalist as a threat, out to expose their involvement in electoral fraud.
“Thus journalists are an endangered species in the electoral process in Nigeria because inasmuch as they are expected to inform the populace of the electoral process, they are neither protected nor equipped to protect themselves while discharging their responsibilities.”