NIGERIA: After River State’s flawed elections, violence expected

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Violence was relatively low in the run-up to local elections on 29 March in Nigeria's oil-rich Rivers State but with evidence emerging of massive voting irregularities in favour of the ruling party, human rights groups warn the worst may not be over.

"If this is the way the state has decided to treat [its voters] they will do everything to destroy the state," Patrick Naagbanton, who coordinates the Port Harcourt-based non-governmental organisation Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, told IRIN.

“All of these people will be available for recruitment by the [criminal] gangs."

Another observer, Damka Pueba agreed: “We are likely to see a continuation of the violence," she predicted.

River State is home to criminal gangs and militant groups who claim to be fighting against the environmental damage caused by commercial oil exploration and the state’s lack of development. The state has larger oil reserves than any other in Nigeria yet only a few people have benefited.

During past elections, politicians, eager to hold office in the oil-rich state, paid armed gangs to rig polls and intimidate voters, according to a Human Rights Watch report on electoral violence released in March. "Polls in Rivers State have been among the most violent and brazenly rigged in the country,” it stated.

On the 29 March election one person was reportedly killed in a skirmish at a village in Eleme local government area. There were also numerous acts of violence and intimidation, the state’s independent electoral commission spokesperson Nimi Wilson Jack told IRIN.

The trouble was mostly caused by supporters of the ruling People's Democratic Party, he added.

The ruling party won all top positions in the election, according to electoral commission results issued for 18 of the 23 local governments. Of the 200 less powerful counsellor positions, the opposition won just seven.

“That cannot be true,” Victor Burubo, a local journalist told IRIN by phone. "It is not a believable result."

Pueba also said the results were not credible and that voters are not likely to accept them.

On 1 April hundreds of opposition supporters protested in front of the election commission headquarters in Port Harcourt, the state’s capital.

The vote

Officials said that the votes of just 10,852 out of 290,072 registered voters in Port Harcourt were counted for the most important position of chairman.

Wilson Jack, the commission spokesperson, explained that many voters were turned away as their names were not on the register. He blamed the problem on the national electoral commission which had prepared it.

According to the constitution state electoral commissions must abide by the voter lists provided by the national commission, he said. "We [wanted] to take down names and voter cards but lawyers reminded us that would be illegal and the elections could be annulled."

Elections observers reported other problems, one of the worst of which was that many polling stations never opened. "I went around to about five or six wards [in Part Harcout] and only one of the wards showed signs of having a polling unit,” Pueba said. “I couldn't even find [anyone there]."

In Port Harcourt and other areas, observers reported that ballot papers arrived late or never at all. There were so few ballot papers available in Bonny local government area that the state commission postponed the vote there for one day.

The commission called for a re-run of elections in six local government areas, following incidences of violence and ballot-stealing. Still many observers say this is too little too late.

Dream Deferred

When the new governor, Rotimi Amaechi, took power in October he created the state’s independent electoral commission and hopes were high that elections from then on would be different.

"A lot of people [came out to vote this time] because the commission said elections would be free and fair [with] no violence," Naagbanton, one of the observer, said. "[Now] there are a lot of people who will become disenfranchised."

For Pueba, another observer, many votes have now given up on the process. “People say why should I bother [to vote]?”