2023: Arsonists at INEC’s jugular

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is currently battling the test of time as it has faced the heat from the current security challenges in the country, Group Politics Editor, EZEOCHA NZEH, reports

INEC could be said to be the worst hit, especially in the South East and South, where its facilities and electoral materials have been constantly targeted by arsonists

Barely 48 hours after the attack on the commissions office at Obollo Afor headquarters of Udenu Local Government Area of Enugu state was completely raised down by fire, had the state headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission come under heavy attack by same identified gunmen on Sunday, May 16, 2021

The commission has reported the Enugu attack as the 21st targeted casualty on the country’s electoral umpire since 2019 with regrettable losses in facilities and materials.

A breakdown of the incidents showed that the most affected states are Akwa Ibom with four incidents; Abia, three; Anambra, two; and three in Imo state.

Other states that witnessed fire incidents between February 2019 and May 2021 are Borno, Ebonyi, Jigawa, Kano, Ondo, Plateau and Rivers. The Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was also not left out.

The commission in recently reported that in the past two years, at least 41of its offices have been attacked across Nigeria by armed non-state actors.

The attacks occurred in 14 states between February 2019 and May 2021, with Imo State topping the log with the most attacks during the period under review.

“These are attacks as a result of election-related violence, protests unrelated to elections and activities of thugs and unknown gunmen,” INEC chairman, Mahmud Yakubu, said.

Meanwhile, INEC has warned that the premeditated attacks on its offices portend great danger to the 2023 general elections.

 “The spate of arson and vandalism targeting the Commission’s facilities and property has become profoundly worrisome.

“Surely, these attacks are no longer freak events but appear to be quite orchestrated and targeted at INEC. Clearly, these are acts of unjustifiable aggression which may undermine the Commission’s capacity to organise elections and dent the nation’s electoral process,” stated INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

Yakubu added that unfortunately it has been on the rise since the 2019 general elections “but has now developed into a crisis.”

“In the last three weeks or so, three of our local government offices in Essien Udim in Akwa Ibom State, Ohafia in Abia State and Udenu in Enugu State have been set ablaze by unidentified persons.

“Last Sunday, 16th May 2021, our state office in Enugu suffered yet another arson and vandalism in which parts of the building were ransacked and several vehicles razed. And more of our facilities are being systematically targeted and attacked. Just last night, Tuesday 18th May 2021, two more offices in Ebonyi and Ezza North Local Government Areas of Ebonyi State were burnt down.

“Replacing these facilities in the prevailing economic circumstances will indeed be a tall order, thereby adversely affecting electoral services in the same communities. These facilities are not only limited to voting but also used for other critical electoral activities such as voter registration, the coordination of stakeholder engagements and voter education and sensitisation,” he added.

The INEC chairman however assured that the commission will certainly work with the security agencies to deal with the perpetrators of these heinous crimes according to the law.

“However, it has become imperative to call on all and sundry, particularly communities where these assets are located, to see themselves as owners and custodians of these facilities and assist the Commission in protecting them. I am glad that some of them are already doing so.”

He warned that the attacks must be stopped urgently to forestall disruptions to several upcoming electoral activities, particularly the Continuous Voter Registration, CVR, exercise which INEC plans to undertake continuously in 2,673 centres nationwide for a period of over one year.

“What is left is to finalise the newly established Polling Units in order to update our registration software to make them available to registrants.”

INEC had also in a recent meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari over the increasing spate of attack on its facilities, warned of a looming constitutional crisis in 2023 if the attacks on the agency’s facilities were not checked.

The INEC chairman told the President that burning of INEC offices would have negative effects on future elections as ad hoc staff including transporters would be scared of working for the commission.*

INEC National Commissioner in  charge of Voter Education and Publicity,  Festus Okoye said the commission told the President that persons behind burning of the offices were bent on undermining the nation’s democracy and precipitate a national crisis.*

According to him, the INEC  chairman told the President that since the majority of election duty workers were ad hoc staff, the cost of insuring them would increase on account of the crisis

Okoye stated that Yakubu informed Buhari that since the commission relied heavily on private vehicles and boats owners for the movement of materials, the crisis would discourage such people from participating in elections.

He said, “The Chairman of the commission, Professor  Mahmood Yakubu and other national commissioners met with the President, His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari on June 1, 2021 and briefed him on the spate of attacks on the commission’s offices and facilities nationwide and their implications for elections and electoral activities in Nigeria.*

“The chairman pointed out that there have been 42 cases of attacks on INEC offices across the country since the 2019 general elections.

“He further informed the President that from the frequency of the most recent attacks, they appear to be systematic, coordinated and targeted at future elections. The intention, he pointed out, is to incapacitate the commission, undermine the nation’s democracy and precipitate a national crisis.*

“The chairman painted a clear picture of the implications of the challenges inherent in targeting the offices of the commission and bringing down its facilities including the huge investment in building the national electoral infrastructure and the difficulty in replacing them in the immediate and in the future.*

“The chairman further pointed out that the commission relies heavily on private vehicles and boats for the movement of materials and that the crisis will discourage the partnership with them. He stated that the majority of election duty staff are ad hoc staff and the cost of insuring them will increase on account of the crisis.*

“Furthermore, the cost of conducting elections will increase astronomically if staff and facilities are targeted. Fundamentally, if the commission is unable to conduct elections, there is a likelihood of a constitutional crisis.*

“The chairman also briefed the President on remedial actions already taken by the commission and sought the President’s intervention in view of the urgency of the situation.”  Okoye disclosed 

Nobody, including security agents, seems to have identified the reason for the attacks or those behind the clandestine acts. While some stakeholders in the South-East believe that the attacks may not be unconnected to the campaign for the region to produce the next President in 2023, others see it as a bigger problem that is been orchestrated by people outside the South east and South south, in the face of the current security challenges in the zones, especially at the period where the military has taken over the streets of the two zones with a tall shoot – at – sight order from the federal government

Burning of INEC offices has also elicited sharp reactions from the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP), as well as some Civil Society Organisations. While the PDP said it is suspicious of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the CSOs decried the government’s alleged silence and feared that a grand conspiracy might be afoot to harm the 2023 polls and the nation’s democracy.

Also, some Civil Society Organizations, CSOs, described the INEC’s alarm over alleged threats to the 2023 elections as a grand conspiracy by some state actors to undermine the process.

The convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, Ariyo Dare-Atoye, while reacting to the current targeted attack on INEC facilities, said since the government has been unwilling to deploy basic intelligence to unravel the root cause of the attacks and arrest the arsonists attacking INEC facilities, it would be difficult to absolve the state.

His words: “There is a grand conspiracy to undermine the 2023 general elections either by some devious elements plotting to extend the stay of the current regime beyond 2023 or by some terrible agents of secessionists trying to make a statement or by those who want to occupy the South-East and undermine the zone, thinking the Biafra war is still on.

“Since the state is unwilling to deploy basic intelligence to unravel the root cause of these attacks and apprehend the perpetrators, it would be difficult to absolve the state.

 “The volatile nature of the emerging situation in the country also indicates that we will not have the luxury of the usual multi-level collation of results, but we must now embark on electronic transmission of votes. I urge INEC to consult widely, including members of the civil society, to share knowledge and ideas.”

Former governor of Anambra State, Chief Chukwemeka Ezeife, described the burning of INEC offices as complicated, adding that it was a way to discourage elections in the South-East and South-South regions.

Ezeife blamed the arson to what he described as infiltration into the South East and South South zones by questionable Islamic groups, which he said were imported to destabilize southern Nigeria ahead of 2023.

“So, those who don’t want the East to produce a president are trying to make things difficult. Those who don’t want the East to produce the President in 2023 are trying to cause commotion and insecurity in eastern Nigeria,” he stated.

The commission has however in its efforts to curb the  major threat to conducting the 2023 election held several meetings with stakeholder, especially with the State Resident Electoral Commissioners whose areas have become the major target, as well as the Inter Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES), which comprises heads of all the heads of all the security agencies in the country. 

Addressing the heads of the nation’s security agencies,  as well as heads of Para  military  organizations , who are also members of ICCES, Professor Yakubu  called for their  genuine  collaboration to put an end to the incessant attacks on the commission’s facilities across the country..

He described the attacks on the commission’s facilities as a national security emergency, capable of damaging electoral process.

The INEC chairman disclosed however that as a commission, it is doing internal review of the situation and seeking  answers to the problem.

He noted that beyond Election Day the commission is looking forward to creating a framework for all- year round protection of electoral facilities under the auspices of  ICCES.

Prof Mahmood Yakubu continued that “this has to stop, otherwise is capable of disrupting the electoral process and to undermine the nation’s democracy and distabilise the country.” 

He lamented that these attacks, which initially appeared as isolated and occasional actions, have now become more frequent and systematic targeted at demobilising and dismantling critical infrastructure in the country.

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