By Jimitota Onoyume, Assistant News Editor, Vanguard Port Harcourt:
From every indication, the people of Rivers State have every reason to be apprehensive as the commencement date of the general elections draws near. Indeed, early warning signs of electoral violence have started rearing their heads in the State. For instance, unknown gunmen opened fire at separate locations on some members of the All progressives Congress, APC, on the day the party had its presidential rally at the Amiesemaka stadium, in Ikwerre Local Government Area of the state recently.
This was followed by reported explosions that rocked the Okrika and Andoni local government offices of the APC within a space of two weeks this year. The dust generated by these ugly incidents had hardly died down when the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Nyesom Wike and members of his campaign train were trapped in the palace of the monarch of Abua as gunmen exchanged fire for about 45 minutes with security men attached to the guber candidate. Some persons reportedly sustained injuries in the incident. The PDP also alleged that some gunmen opened fire on the vehicle of the lawmaker representing Ogu Bolo in the federal House of Representatives, Bright Tamuno, killing a former councillor in the vehicle, Hope George, while two others sustained gunshot injuries.
In the last one month stories of reported political violence in the state dominated the media.
Dr Judy Asuni, Executive Director, Associate Peaceworks. who has worked with various armed groups in the Niger Delta for over a decade expressed fears that this year’s general elections might record a higher percentage of violence than previous ones.
“My fears are that we may see even more violence than we have seen in previous elections, the stakes are very high now. I have just been in Abuja, the tensions in the North, people in the North feeling it is time to get their Representstives back, people In the South-South are feeling that Goodluck Jonathan should continue as President. I am afraid that the stake are higher than it had been in previous times,” she said.
Dr Asuni who trained youths drawn from 18 local government areas in the Niger Delta on resisting electoral violence appealed to residents in various local government areas in the region to shun offers from the political class to engage in political violence. She reminded them that they were the ones to lose their lives in political violence and not the political leaders that engage them.
“ We are working on a project with funding from Foundation for Partnership and Initiatives In Niger Delta,PIND, on non-violent elections for 2015. We have worked for more than a decade now with members of the armed groups in the Niger Delta. These young men are the ones that are being killed in political violence. So we are trying to get the message home that you may be hired to harass, intimidate and steal ballot boxes by opponents but ultimately you can lose your lives in the process. We are doing a series of videos about people who have been killed in political violence. Talking to their wives, their children, sometimes their mothers. It is very sad, because the long time impact is huge ,children growing up without any father. We interviewed a family where the child was in the womb when the father was killed. So this child has never known the father and the late father has never known the child. So it is very sad, “ she said Already there is fear and tension in the air in Rivers and several other states in the Niger Delta ahead of the general elections. Some residents in Rivers State said they may not come out to vote on the day of the elections if the prevailing spate of political violence is anything to go by.
Asuni on her part, advised the people not to boycott the elections, adding that they should rather come out to defend their democratic rights morally and psychologically.
“I hope that they will turn up for the elections. We are working on 18 local governments areas with likely electoral challenges; one of them is Okrika where APC secretariats have been attacked. The other local governments are also prone to violence . One thing we are trying to do is get people to take control of the elections themselves,take control of the governance process. We had an instance where a party was trying to hijack the election process, the people resisted it, saying they wanted the election. In Kolokuma in Bayelsa State there was an attempt to rig the election but the people resisted it. This is what we trying to do at the local government level. To mobilize people to morally and psychologically protect their democratic rights., not physically.
She further advised political leaders at the national level to ensure the peace pact their presidential candidates signed recently in Abuja also applies in the states and local government levels.
“The politicians have a role to play to stop political violence. It was a good step with the presidential candidates signing a non-violence pledge. This message has to come down to the state and local governments, “ she said.
There is also another fear in the region that the elections could cause most of the armed groups to return to the creeks. But Dr Asuni holds a different view. She maintained that most of them had since returned to the creeks, noting that this time with new leaders as their original commanders who led them to the amnesty programme were now enjoying their new status as political leaders in Abuja.
Meantime, the worry over the likely return of militancy in the region because of the elections stemmed from threatening statements that have been coming from various ex-militant groups. For instance, a faction of Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, recently pledged support for General Muhamadu Buhari, while their rival group endorsed President Goodluck Jonathan as their candidate.
Dr Asuni expressed serious worries with this development in the region. “I think some of them, the ex-militants, are already back to the creeks, some of the groups are already being armed. The top militant leaders may not go back because they are enjoying lives in Abuja. When you move around Abuja the number of familiar faces you see from the Niger Delta in Abuja is very amusing. These top ex-militant leaders have too much to lose if they go back to the creeks. But their boys may go back . The other thing is that those in control of the boys these days are no longer the leaders in Abuja. The former commanders are like political leaders these days.
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