By Abbas Jimoh, and, Haruna Ibrahim
The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, on Wednesday, said the series of attacks on the commission’s facilities may undermine its capacity to organise elections and negatively impact the country’s electoral processes.
Yakubu made the remark during an emergency meeting with resident electoral commissioners at the commission’s headquarters in Abuja.
Yakubu’s worry emanates from a series of accidental and coordinated fire outbreaks on INEC’s facilities across the country, dating back to 2019, even before the general elections of that year.
Over time, a number of INEC offices around the country have been destroyed, with critical infrastructures affected, thereby stretching the commission’s capacity to manage elections.
The unceasing attacks and possibility of continuing means that the commission is put on the edge, especially if critical tools like the electoral register and card readers are affected.
Chronicle of infernos
On January 28, 2019, there was a fire incident at the INEC office in Oyigbo Local Government Area of Rivers State. However, in a statement after the incident, the head of the Department of Voter Education and Publicity for the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Edwin Enabor, said it was a minor incident. According to him, contrary to some reports that it was caused by hoodlums, it was a result of an electrical fault.
Enabor said, “The management of the INEC in Rivers State wishes to inform the general public about a minor fire incident that occurred at our office in Oyigbo Local Government Area.
An investigation has shown that it was caused by an electrical fault and not by hoodlums as insinuated in some quarters.
“We want to assure the public that everything is under control and that our offices across the state are well secured.”
The following month, February 3, 2019, hoodlums set the INEC office in Isiala- Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State ablaze. The hoodlums were said to have stormed the office around 2 am.
The attack was said to have woken the youths of the area from their sleep as they quickly mobilised and alerted the police, who assisted them in putting off the fire.
Although the fire did maximum damage to the structure and materials there, the quick intervention of the youths and the assistance of the police saved the situation from escalating.
The commission, however, continued to operate from the old office until few weeks before the incident when it decided to relocate from the local government headquarters.
That was the second time the INEC office in Isiala-Ngwa was burnt down.
In 2015, in the heat of the controversy surrounding the governorship election in Abia State, thugs reportedly set the commission’s office at Omopa on fire, prompting the relocation to Umu-Ikaa.
The following week, February 10, the Plateau State INEC office in Qua’anpan Local Government Area, where ballot boxes, generators filled with fuel, cubicles, newly printed electronic and manual voters register, unclaimed permanent voter cards, were destroyed.
Two days later, on February 12, the Anambra State INEC office in Awka, the state capital, was set ablaze. Card readers and other sensitive materials for the elections were burnt. Two containers containing 4,695 smart card readers were destroyed, along with other sensitive materials.
Also, on February 24, 2019, the Osun State INEC office in Ijebu-Ijesha, Oriade Local Government, was engulfed in fire, which burnt parts of the office. No life was, however, lost in the incident.
On March 8, 2019, the Akwa Ibom INEC office in Ibesikpo Asutan Local Government Area was gutted by fire. One hundred and ninety-eight smart card readers, printed voters register, 13 generating sets, voting cubicles, as well as other sensitive and insensitive election materials, got burnt.
The following day, March 9, 2019, the INEC Registration Area Centre at Ezza North Local Government Area in Ebonyi State was set ablaze by hoodlums.
Before that, on March 3, 2019, the Jigawa INEC office in Gumel Local Government Area was burnt. Everything was destroyed, including documents, furniture, generators, electronic gadgets, computers, among other materials.
In 2020, the INEC equally recorded some fire incidents, including that of February 2 when its office in Ogidi, Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State was gutted by fire.
Confirming the incident, a police spokesman in the state said “the fire allegedly emanated from a bush burning.”
A few days later, on February 8, 2020, hoodlums reportedly set the INEC office in Orlu Local Government Area of Imo State ablaze, a week after the supplementary election held in the state.
The police public relations officer in the state said the incident happened in the early hours of Monday and no casualty was recorded, but electoral materials and properties belonging to staff members of the commission were burnt down.
This occurred less than one week after the winner of the Orlu/Orsu/Oru East federal constituency supplementary election was announced by the INEC.
Similarly, on September 10, 2020, just before the Ondo State governorship election, 5,141 card readers were destroyed by fire at the state head office of the commission in Akure.
There was also a fire incident on April 17, 2020, at the national headquarters of the INEC in Maitama, Abuja, where a section close to the media centre of the commission and the election party monitoring office were affected.
The first reported fire incident that affected the INEC in 2021 was on April 20 when an early morning outbreak razed the commission’s data processing centre in Kano State.
It was gathered that the fire incident started about 10:15 am and razed the whole building, destroying all equipment and other valuables.
On May 2, 2021, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini, reported that the commission’s office in Essien Udim Local Government Area had been set ablaze.
The national commissioner and chairman of the Information and Voter Education Committee (IVEC), Festus Okoye, in a statement noted that the incident occurred in the early hours of Sunday.
Okoye stated that the security guard on duty escaped unhurt, but the destruction to the building and property therein was extensive.
“Items destroyed include 345 ballot boxes, 135 voting cubicles, megaphones, water tanks and office furniture,” Okoye added.
He recalled that on the eve of the 2019 general elections, the commission’s newly constructed prototype office in Ibesikpo Asutan was burnt down while two more offices in Mkpat Enin and Eastern Obolo local government areas were bombed.
Attack on INEC headquarters in Enugu earlier this month
A few days later, on May 9, 2021, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Abia State, Dr Joseph Iloh, reported that the recently renovated INEC office in Ohafia Local Government Area was set ablaze.
He, however, said there were no casualties on the part of the commission’ staff on guard duty, but the building was virtually destroyed, including electoral materials and office equipment.
Three days later, on May 13, 2021, the national commissioner and chairman of the IVEC, Okoye, said the REC for Enugu State, Emeka Ononamadu, reported that the INEC office in Udenu Local Government Area was set ablaze by gunmen suspected to be members of the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
“The latest tragic incident occurred around 8.40 pm on Thursday, May 13, 2021. Casualties were not reported.
“However, the office building was extensively damaged while electoral materials and office equipment were destroyed in spite of the best efforts of the Enugu State Fire Service to contain the inferno,” Okoye stated.
On May 14 and 16, the Enugu State INEC office at Obollo-Offor, Udenu Local Government Area, and the commission’s headquarters were attacked and burnt, after the security personnel on duty were overpowered.
Two days later, on May 18, 2021, two INEC offices were simultaneously attacked in Ebonyi State.
The Ezza North Local Government office and that of Ebonyi were burnt, while the Izzi Local Government office was vandalised; the ceiling and doors were badly damaged.
Lamenting the series of attacks on INEC offices and facilities, the chairman of the commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, warned that the situation may undermine its capacity to organise elections, including the 2023 general elections, as well as negatively impact the country’s electoral processes.
Yakubu said some events in the recent past had challenged the commission and adversely affected its commitment to continue to improve the electoral process. He added that the spate of arson and vandalism targeting its facilities and property had become worrisome.
“Unfortunately, this has been on the rise since the 2019 general elections, but it 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, May 16, 2021, our state office in Enugu suffered another arson and vandalism, in which parts of the building were ransacked and several vehicles razed. More of our facilities are being systematically targeted and attacked.
“Just last night, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, two more offices in Ebonyi and Ezza North local government areas of Ebonyi State were burnt down. Although there were no casualties, the damage to the physical infrastructure and electoral materials was total,” he said.
He lamented that nothing had been salvaged from the attacks, from ballot boxes and voting cubicles to generating sets and office furniture and equipment. He added that the attacks were targeted at the INEC.
He said, “The facilities of the commission are there to serve the local communities for the most fundamental aspect of democratic governance – elections. Therefore, targeting such important national assets and repositories of electoral materials that took time and enormous resources to procure cannot be justified.
“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 pledged that the commission would work with security agencies to deal with perpetrators of these heinous crimes according to the law, thus a meeting with all the security agencies is expected to hold on Monday, May 24, 2021.
He, however, said it had 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, expressing delight that some of the communities are already doing so.
He added that the challenges posed by these threats notwithstanding, the commission is still positive that it can find lasting solutions to the spate of attacks on its facilities.
He said, “However, this must be done quickly to forestall disruptions to several upcoming electoral activities, particularly the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise, which we plan to undertake continuously in 2,673 centres nationwide for a period of over one year involving thousands of INEC officials supported by security personnel.
Parties, CSO, experts react
Speaking on the development, the director of programmes, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, said the trend of attacks on INEC offices was becoming worrisome and had grave impacts on the commission’s preparations for the next elections with the potential to affect the implementation of its activities towards the off-cycle governorship elections and the 2023 elections.
According to her, this also comes with a huge cost implication on INEC’s budget, especially with some of its offices/structures and election materials burnt/destroyed.
“In addition, these attacks are major distractions to INEC. The commission is working to expand voter access to polling units and the plan to commence the national continuous voter’s registration exercise. There is a need for better security provision for all INEC offices and structures as a matter of national emergency.
“The spate of attacks is beyond mere coincidence and requires in-depth investigation that ensures the culprits and their sponsors are apprehended and prosecuted.
“These attacks are an indication of an absence of effective security architecture in Nigeria, which has created a porous and vulnerable system. The government at the federal and state levels must rise up to their responsibilities of ensuring the security of lives and property,” Mbamalu stated.
On his part, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Professor Ifeanyichukwu Abada, said the attacks by hoodlums on offices of the INEC, if unchecked, may affect the commission’s ability to successfully conduct elections.
“I am worried that the INEC, a vital democratic institution in the country, has become a target of attacks by some hoodlums. No matter the reason by anybody or group, the commission should not be a target for destruction.
“Destroying the commission’s facilities amounts to destroying Nigeria’s democratic process. Sponsors and perpetrators of this heinous act should have a rethink on their dangerous mission to kill the country’s democracy and disrupt the 2023 general elections,” he said.
He urged the federal government to beef up security at INEC offices nationwide to ensure 24-hour surveillance in order to arrest those behind the attacks and prevent further incidents.
“With CCTV cameras in all INEC offices, identities of those behind this crime will be unmasked; they will be arrested and prosecuted,” he said.
Also, registered political parties in the country, under the aegis of the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), condemned the attack on INEC facilities, noting that the materials being destroyed would still be replaced with taxpayers’ money, which could be used in addressing infrastructural challenges.
The national publicity secretary of the IPAC, Ambassador Agbo Major, said the trend could affect the conduct of the 2023 elections, which could lead to a constitutional crisis and ultimately derail the country’s developing democracy.
Major said, “It is clear that those perpetrating this act are enemies of Nigeria. The IPAC, therefore, calls on all well-meaning Nigerians to come together and fight these our common enemies.”
Culled from Daily Trust