The Violent Politics of Rivers State: Our Lingering Shame, By Ugoji Egbujo
The military has no business supervising elections and arresting electoral offenders. But how can elections be conducted in a gang land where the police generally fear to thread? If the military is removed from the Rivers equation today, only the owners of militants and cultists will win elections there. The police are incapable of withstanding the militants.
In the end, Rivers State is our shame. A political culture of unlimited violence.
Every election is decided by brigandage and theft. And that has been since the Second Republic. They don’t just steal votes. They use guns. They spill blood.
They have made it a culture. All their political leaders, past and present. All of them. They are of the same political DNA; the same political family, though some are much more violent than others. Perhaps the truly sane ones never thrived, and will never thrive.
They are all culpable. They make everywhere tense. They emit unhealthy rivalry and anger. They steal electoral materials. They falsify figures rampantly. Elections in Rivers State are international jokes. International observers have grown weary of these. They have seen outrageous absurdities, time and time again.
The extremely violent ones amongst them give the impression that they can slaughter electoral officials who they can’t bribe. Stubborn opponents have been beheaded by teenagers who roam around as cultists. It’s wicked, but it now seems even mundane. The politicians and their boys appear undeterred by the heinousness of these acts.
But who can blame them? It has become the system. Nobody has ever been punished. People have become lords simply by passing violence around. And the more violent you are, the more valuable you are during elections, it seems.
So who can stop them? Where are the adults in Rivers State?
Unfortunately even the bishops and traditional rulers have become part of the crises. They have all become patently partisan. Some of them contribute to the violence by actively endorsing militancy and belligerent politics. And some of the militants have even been made kings.
What sort of politicians depend on the military and militants to win elections? The answer is here. They are normal politicians. Normal politicians in Rivers State. They play by the prevailing rules. The rules in Rivers are unfortunately different.
In 2015, no election held in Rivers State. The military and militants were used to scare away the then opposition. International observers fled. Some persons benefited from the armed robbery. And that reinforced that culture.
The opposition party at the federal level was prevented by militants and cultists from campaigning in the home of the then First Lady. The police swore to protect them. They trusted the police and tried again. Twice they were battered and shot at; thrice they ran away. They were chased away by hooligans in broad daylight. Children watched and shook their heads. Everyone knows those who perpetrated those atrocities. Rather than reap retribution, they reaped handsome electoral dividends.
After 2015, cultists took over the State. And grounded whole local governments. Two local government chairmen, shamelessly, relocated to Port Harcourt. But there was really nothing to be ashamed of. They didnt want to die before their time.
And would you blame the thugs? It was all too natural. Where were the thugs and cultists supposed to work after their election duties? After they had been used and perhaps dumped by politicians. They became simply self-employed.
The military was brought in to restore some peace. All repeat elections that held since 2015 have been utterly farcical. The politicians had switched seats at both local and federal levels. The maltreated federal opposition had gained power at the centre. They didnt need any new script. They started winning too.
Those who had lost control of the military knew they must not lose control of the militants. So they gave the thugs buttered bread. And will go everywhere to preach that the military should not be involved in the conduct of elections in that State.
But the military is the soul of the everyday security architecture of Rivers State.
We always pretend not to know. Without the military, Rivers State would have long become a gangland. People once paid ransoms to conduct funerals in some parts of the State. The military was all the people had left.
In 2019, no real elections have held in Rivers State.
People simply laid their hands on all instruments of violence and subterfuge they could find. But they were only playing by the established rules. They followed the laid down tradition.
Security agents and militants were freely used like mercenaries. Thugs learnt to wear military and police uniforms and how to mingle too. Militants own the streets. So those who own them will always want monopoly of ownership of instrument of violence. So they will always protest the militarisation of politics and elections. It’s all barefaced hypocrisy.
So 2019 has seen violence. But it’s customary violence.
Militants shot the opponents of their principals. People’s homes were searched at will by soldiers. Soldiers and policemen roamed the streets like buccaneers. The politicians called themselves the champions of democracy. Politicians accused one another of desecrating democracy.
What sort of politicians are these? They are not demonic. They would have been different if they were in Lagos. That’s the truth. Lagos has more money than Rivers. But Lagos’ politics is not decided by naked gangsterism and vicious cultistism
Look at the contest in Kano. Look at that in even volatile Plateau. Look at that in Oyo. Why is Rivers exceptionally violent?
Violence is bred and reared by Rivers politics. And violence decides, significantly, Rivers politics. Thuggery happens everywhere in Nigerian politics, and influences electoral outcomes, sometimes. But the fundamental difference is that thuggery and mayhem are the soul of Rivers politics.
But how can Rivers and it’s politics be detoxified?
The military has no business supervising elections and arresting electoral offenders. But how can elections be conducted in a gang land where the police generally fear to thread? If the military is removed from the Rivers equation today, only the owners of militants and cultists will win elections there. The police are incapable of withstanding the militants. Ask the oil companies and their workers.
So, the first things: Rivers must be cleared of all traces of active and latent militancy. The Rivers State society must be reset. There are too many political wasps and bees. It’s true that no one who regards politics as community service will kill or maim to win an election. But does that then mean that men of goodwill should abandon Rivers politics until it’s sanitised?
My answer is ‘NO’. The church, civil society and federal government must join hands to radically excise the cancer of electoral violence in Rivers.
The level of violence in Rivers will deter serious investors. And that would further impoverish the people. And push many into the industry of thuggery.
But why do people cheer and support these buccaneers masquerading as politicians? Why is there no real and sustained moral outrage on the streets?
Well perhaps they have accepted the system. Perhaps they are riled but they can’t shake off the inertia. Perhaps they are not fed up yet.
It’s our collective shame. Rivers is a reproach. And we must not let it spread and contaminate the whole.
Ugoji Egbujo is a member of the Board of Trustees of Centre for Counter Fraud Awareness.