By Ayo Esan
The headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Iboko, Ebonyi State, became the latest target of an attack by hoodlums, less than three months to the presidential election.
Such repeated attacks on facilities belonging to the electoral umpire, especially in southern Nigeria, are giving many stakeholders cause for concern.
This latest incident was confirmed in a statement by INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Barrister Festus Okoye.
According to Okoye, the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Ebonyi State, Mrs Onyeka Ugochi, reported that the incident occurred around 10.00 am when some unidentified persons set the entire building ablaze.
Okoye said that although no casualty was recorded in the attack, the main building, including all movable and immovable items, were destroyed.
He said the burnt items included 340 ballot boxes, 130 voting cubicles, 14 electric power generators, large water storage tanks, assorted office furniture and fixtures and yet to be determined quantities of Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs).
“The attention of the Nigeria Police Force and other security agencies has been drawn to the incident and investigation has commenced”, Okoye further disclosed.
He said, “sadly, this is the third attack on our local government office in less than three weeks, following similar attacks in Ogun and Osun States on November 10, 2022″.
It would be recalled that two offices of INEC in Ogun and Osun States were recently attacked and set ablaze by suspected hoodlums.
Precisely, the hoodlums were said to have struck in the wee hours of the day, a Thursday, setting INEC offices at Iyana Mortuary, Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital on fire, while the Commission’s office in Ede South Local Government Area was attacked and some parts of the building burnt.
Speaking after the incidents, Festus Okoye described the spate of attacks on supporters of various political parties, since the commencement of electioneering about two months ago and the use of hate and incendiary language by some politicians as extremely disturbing.
He listed the items destroyed to include 904 ballot boxes, 29 voting cubicles, 30 megaphones, 57 election bags, eight electric power generators and 65,699 uncollected Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs).
It was gathered that the suspected hoodlums, numbering about eight, scaled the perimeter fence on the premises of the INEC building and set it on fire from the back.
They were said to have soaked loaves of bread in petrol and threw the same into the building at different angles. The security guard at the facility, Azeez Hamzat, was said to have made a distress call to the police around 1:00am, informing the police of the incident.
The police from Ibara division were said to have mobilised detectives to the scene, while contacting fire fighters, who raced to the scene to put out the fire.
The Registration Area Officer’s office and the conference room were affected by the inferno.
Continuing, Okoye also said the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Osun State, Dr Mutiu Agboke, reported that INEC’s office in Ede South Local Government Area was attacked and set ablaze.
According to him, the incident occurred in the early hours of the day.
Fortunately, he said, “The damage to our Ede South Local Government Area office was limited to a section of the building and only some furniture items were destroyed.
“The attention of the Nigeria Police Force and other security and safety agencies has been drawn to the incidents and they have commenced investigation.
“With just 106 days to the 2023 General Election when the Commission has commenced the movement of materials to our offices nationwide, these simultaneous attacks are very worrisome indeed,”, Okoye said.
Meanwhile, the Ogun INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner, Niyi Ijalaye, has described the incident as shocking.
He said, “It is correct that our office was set on fire. The police are investigating. I do not know what to say. I’m in shock. We called the police and other security agencies at night. The fire brigade put the situation under control. The level of damage is still being assessed.
“It is very shocking and untoward. The security agencies are doing their very best. We are meeting again later today to come up with other strategies (toward securing our facilities).”
It would also be recalled that in 2021 INEC said it had recorded 41 deliberate attacks on its facilities across the country within two years of 2019 and 2020.
INEC Chairman Yakubu said the attacks on the commission’s facilities should now be treated as a national security emergency.
He said that out of a total of 41 incidents involving deliberate attacks on the commission’s facilities, nine of them occurred in 2019 and 21 cases in 2020. He further said that majority of the attacks (29 out of 41) were unrelated to election or electoral activities.
“In fact, 18 of them occurred during the #EndSARS protests in October 2020, while 11 attacks were organised by “unknown gunmen” and “hoodlums.”
Yakubu said that though the commission was assessing the loss of materials during recent attacks, its preliminary assessment so far indicated that it lost 1,105 ballot boxes, 694 voting cubicles, 429 electric generating sets and 13 utility vehicles (Toyota Hilux).
He said by working together with the security agencies, INEC could stop these attacks and the wanton destruction of critical electoral assets.
Observers believe that these attacks, which initially appeared as isolated and occasional actions, have now become more frequent and systematic, targeted at demobilising and dismantling critical electoral infrastructure in the country.
They also believe this is not only undermining the INEC’s capacity to organise elections and other electoral activities but will also damage the nation’s electoral process and democracy if it is not checked.
Worried by recent attacks on its facilities, INEC recently summoned an emergency security meeting under the auspices of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES), which INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, co-chairs with the National Security Adviser, Maj-Gen. Babagana Monguno (retd.).
At the emergency ICCES meeting, Yakubu said, “The Commission is worried that if no urgent and decisive steps are taken, the attacks will intensify as we approach the election date. As we all know, a peaceful campaign heralds a peaceful election. We need to take decisive steps to stem the ugly trend.”
As a body, Yakubu explained, ICCES brings together agencies responsible for securing the process and ensuring peaceful elections in Nigeria.
“Understandably, Nigerians expect decisive action from ICCES. It is important that we move swiftly to apprehend perpetrators, prosecute them as required by law and reinforce security around election officials and electoral infrastructure around the country,” he said.
With less than 90 days to the 2023 general election and despite commencing the movement of materials to its offices nationwide, INEC’s worries cannot be waved aside.
At the meeting, Monguno also read the riot act to those bent on disrupting the electoral process through the destruction of INEC facilities.
He said, “We’re all aware of the fact that as far as President Muhammadu Buhari is concerned, he is committed to upholding and safeguarding democracy. This is what the people want. The President has also given his directives through me to all the operational intelligence and law enforcement agencies to ensure that the 2023 general election is held in an atmosphere devoid of rancour.
“I want to send a very clear warning to those people who have gangsters working for them, a categorical and unequivocal warning to each and every one of them, regardless of which political party, including the ruling APC, they belong to, that as long as you decide to scuttle the electoral process, the law enforcement agencies will equally be uninhibited in reacting to whatever actions you have taken,” he warned.
Also speaking on the incidents last week, INEC restated that the commission would recover from the attacks on its facilities.
Prof Yakubu made this disclosure on Tuesday while speaking at a retreat organised for resident electoral commissioners in Lagos.
He said, “In the last four months, five of our offices were attacked, buildings damaged, and materials destroyed across the country.
“It worrisome for us because we lost over 1990 ballot boxes, 399 voting cubicles, 24 generators, and quite a number of PVCs among many other items.
“These attacks must stop and the perpetrators prosecuted. Our responsibility is to conduct elections and I want to assure Nigerians that we will recover from these attacks and that the lost materials will be replaced.
“We will continue to work with security agencies, traditional and community leaders, and we’ll meaning Nigerians to stop the attacks. But the ultimate solution is to arrest and prosecute the culprits.
”One of the most painful is the recent attack in Ebonyi State. Staff relocated to the office on Friday and on Sunday the facility was attacked.
“We are confident that we will recover, but there’s a limit as to how much we can recover if the attacks continue within 86 days to the general elections.
“We are committed to ensuring that nothing will stop the election from going ahead as scheduled”.
Also, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) has condemned in strong terms the penultimate Sunday’s attack on the INEC office in Ebonyi State by yet-to-be-identified arsonists.
The union warned that if not quickly tackled, the state of attacks on INEC facilities across the country is capable of adversely affecting the conduct of the 2023 general election.
The President of the union, Chris Isiguzo, stated this in Gombe on Tuesday at the opening of a two-day capacity building workshop for journalists and civil society organisations (CSOs) in the North-East zone on ‘Conflict Sensitive-Reporting, 2023 General Election and Countering Fake News’ organized by Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in conjunction with NUJ and INEC.
Isiguzo described the development as totally unacceptable, especially at a time Nigerians are preparing for a crucial election, just as he charged security agencies to rise to the occasion by ensuring adequate security for officials and facilities of the electoral body.
He said, “I want to condemn the recent arson attack on the INEC facility in Ebonyi State. This is totally unacceptable especially coming at a time Nigerians are preparing for a crucial election.
“I want to once more appeal to security agencies to up their game by providing adequate security for INEC officials and their facilities across the country. If there is any time the election management body and media professionals need adequate security, it is now. Anything short of this would adversely affect the 2023 general election.”
Observers are of the opinion that the damage being wrecked on the assets of electoral body infrastructure will impact negatively on its preparations for elections and that seems to be the objective of those behind the attacks.
Yakubu had warned last year that these attacks “are no longer freak events but appear to be quite orchestrated and targeted at INEC.”
He added that the violence on the commission’s property was, “targeted at demobilising and dismantling critical electoral infrastructure in the country” and to undermine INEC capacity to organise elections.
A careful appraisal of the attacks show particularly that they are of great consequences to the success of the forthcoming elections because the financial implications of replacing lost or damaged items under the present economic environment is huge.
Shortly before the 2019 general election, a two-container load of 4,695 smart card readers were destroyed along with other sensitive materials in a mysterious fire incident at the Anambra State headquarters of INEC. In May 2021 at Essien Udim Local Council of Akwa Ibom, some 345 ballot boxes, 135 voting cubicles, megaphones, water tanks and office furniture were razed. The culprits in these attacks were never caught.
INEC had in the past estimated that each card reader cost N167, 063 while each memory card cost N6,000. The cost will be much higher now, given the depreciation of the naira against foreign currencies. So, these attacks cannot be allowed to continue.
It is very important that the authorities, especially the security agencies, put in place measures that will forestall disruptions to upcoming electoral activities and safeguard the lives of innocent citizens.
“The implication of the targeted attacks is clear: If the Federal Government cannot protect strategic institutions like INEC, we may gradually be on our way to anarchy. While a combined technique of intelligence, law enforcement and special operations may help in containing the menace, it is also in the enlightened interest of our politicians to curb the attacks that could, if care is not taken, torpedo our democracy”, a political commentator recently said .
Politicians, political parties and other stakeholders in the electoral system should, therefore, note that political security is an integral component of national security and a threat to the political process is a threat to national security; to which the state is expected to respond robustly.
Effort should be sustained to ensure that security measures are constantly reviewed as we go into the next general election.
The promise given by the IGP, Alkali Baba, that it will ensure free, fair and credible elections should be sustained through action.
In the past, an Election Security Management Seminar was organised by the Police for security agencies, aimed at developing the capacity of security and law enforcement agencies to deal with the emerging electoral security threats. Also, the Department of State Services organised a Brainstorming Session with the media and CSOs ahead of the 2023 general elections. All these efforts should be sustained and people should be assured of their safety before, during and after the election.