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Election aftermath: Rivers’ week of tension, strange arrests, blockages and open fights

Minister Wike says political relevance at the heart of Rivers crisis

Port Harcourt has continued to be in hot news but this week (from April 1, 2023) seems to have pushed the crisis a notch higher which is now rocking the boat and the ship of the nation.

A combination of various events from Saturday seemed to culminate in strange developments that call for Federal Government’s intervention because Rivers State seems unable to handle the partisan incidents in a state where every institution seems compromised.

The week began with alleged intelligence tips to the Rivers State All Progressives Congress (APC) family that seems to be a very bad orphan at the moment despite being a national ruling party.

Insiders said they got tips that their House of Assembly candidates trying to file petitions against their defeat in the hands of the state ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), were to be arrested by the police on trumped up charges so as to put them out of circulation within the legitimate period for filing.

The APC had been getting such alerts all through the electioneering period and unfortunately, these tips seem to be real at last.

The next morning, Saturday, April 1, 2023, three lawyers and five workers lodging at a hotel perfecting the petition of the APC’s governorship candidate, Tonye Cole, were knocked up at the hotel and arrested and taken to the newly built Police Intelligence and Surveillance Unit at Ogbunabali near a recently built commercial facility (Hyper City) said to belong to the state governor.

The next moment, the arrested persons were hounded to the Rivers State Criminal Investigations Department at the old Teaching Hospital facility near Lagos Bus stop.

The arrests provoked uproars from the Rivers APC, the candidate’s camp, the national leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association, etc.

Three lawyers and some members of All Progressives Congress (APC) working on the petition the party intended to file at Election Petition tribunal on the March 18 governorship and state house of assembly election in Rivers have been arrested by the police and Port Harcourt.

The lawyers were said to be putting together the petition with the support of the APC members against when they were arrested by the Police at a hotel where they lodged in Port Harcourt on Friday evening.

A statement by the APC said the arrested lawyers were from the Chambers of Tuduru Ede (SAN) identified as Jerry Aondo, Sobere Nelson (PhD), and Odum Eyiba. The SAN also confirmed the arrest of the lawyers to Rhythm 93.7fm, a Port Harcourt-based radio station.

The APC sources said items critical for the petitions they were preparing, including laptops, agents’ copies of form EC8A, Certified True Copies (CTC) of INEC documents were also seized by the police operatives.

Rivers State APC Spokesperson, Darlington Nwauju, confirmed the development.

The uproar attracted the intervention of the NBA who termed it ‘unwarranted arrest of lawyers’, and said the news was unfortunate and disturbing.

NBA National President, Yakubu Chonoko Maikyau, said the body strongly condemned the unwarranted arrest and detention and rejected a situation where the instrumentality of the police was apparently being used to harass and intimidate lawyers. He said it was a direct affront to the rule of law and democracy.

“I reached out to the Inspector-General of Police and the Rivers State Commissioner of Police and they have assured that they would release them. We will ensure that any person including police officers found complicit in the events leading to the arrest is sanctioned.”

This seemed to prod the Rivers police authorities led by CP Okon Effiong into making some explanations such as saying they received intelligence that certain fellows lodged in a hotel were moving large bodies of documents and were believed to be printing INEC documents. The police said they were taking the documents to INEC ICT experts to ascertain their authenticity.

Police response seemed to provoke further public anxiety as the APC asked to know how lodging persons in a hotel or working on petition became an offence.

They also asked if it was proper for the police to take a petitioner’s documents to the same party being accused in a petition (INEC) to have advance access to the documents to be filed against them.

The fear that APC’s planned filing may be comprised by leaving the volumes of documents in the hands of the Rivers police command and INEC seemed to force the candidate, Cole, to race down to the police headquarters and to stay put to protect the lawyers and the documents.

Cole vowed the next morning to remain in the state’s police headquarters until the confiscated files and petition materials assembled by his team of lawyers were released.

Cole, who spoke to newsmen from the police headquarters Sunday morning, said he would not go anywhere until the police freed the materials as they had managed to free the three lawyers and five secretariat workers.

The leadership of the APC raised questions: “What we have been asking as a party is; what law has been breached by the assemblage of lawyers to file an election petition? Since when has it become crime to query the process that led to the return of any candidate in an election?

“What law was broken by lodging lawyers some of who are not based in PH in a hotel accommodation? Now, as at 8pm this evening, those arrested have been released but our documents which are at the heart of the arrest in the first place, are still in the hands of the Police. We fear those documents are compromised between last night and today. This is our story.”

The police

While these raged in the state capital, the police commissioner seemed to remain mum. All initial efforts to get response from the Rivers State police commissioner, Effiong, failed, but the police later opened up Saturday night when they mention printing of fake INEC documents as their reason for the invasion of the hotel.

They later said INEC experts were inspecting the materials. The APC was to say the following day that no single document was found to be fake.

Blockage and open fighting

Having survived the police invasion and confiscation of petition supporting documents in the hands of the police, Cole and his running mate, Innocent Barikor, and the party chairman, Emeka Beke, with their security aides proceeded to INEC headquarters on Aba Road to demand access to CTC and other documents as ordered by the court.

Before they arrived, a large crowd of PDP supporters led by the deputy speaker, Edison Ehie, and Ikwerre local council chairman, Samuel Nwanosike. The group blocked INEC offices and said they must be allowed to inspect INEC materials along with Cole. They came with masquerades and multitudes of dancers as well as youths that looked ready for anything. They vowed to remain there and never allow the APC access to INEC offices.

The APC saw this as another ploy after the police invasion to stop them from filing their petition within time.

Soon, fracas ensued when Cole’s team got close; all in the full glare of newsmen and passers-by even as Aba Road was blocked, causing huge traffic buildup around town.

Narrating his ordeal later, Cole said he was slapped by a woman and beaten with his native dress torn. He said his security team bundled him into his vehicle and whisked away but vehicles were allegedly damaged.

The PDP countered his account and said their member was shot by security men with Cole. They said Cole slapped their women leader, but they did not explain how their woman leader got to slapping distance of the governorship candidate of another party. Aldo, the wounded person or victim has not been identified to this moment, replicating an incident in April 2022 when a rival faction said their member was shot while protesting at the APC secretariat, but the victim remained unknown to this day.

Siege at APC secretariat

The battle seemed to shift to the APC state secretariat inside GRA-1 later same day. The crowd of PDP moved to the rival secretariat. Cole said he alerted the police commissioner and made a video record of the events.

A footage showed men drawing rifles from a white vehicle parked in the neighbourhood and young men sprinting towards one direction, apparently the APC secretariat.

Soon, clashes began and shooting took over. Police units and army squads arrived to prevent a full war.

Cole was said to have marched onto the open and refused to take cover, saying he was tired of running and that those who wanted to kill him should feel free to kill him in the open.

This added a new dimension of tension because all these events were being recorded and broadcast on many channels and platforms.

Voodoo

The next day, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, the blockage too another dimension as voodoo was introduced instead of masquerades. A voodoo man carried native pot decorated in palm fronds blocked the road to INEC and rendered incantations. The local council chairman rendered his own incantations in deep Ikwerre dialect and poured hot drinks.

Wike showed his hand

Governor Nyesom Wike who was being accused from a distance opened up but threw his weight behind the crowd of PPDP blocking the APC access to the premises of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Port Harcourt.

Now, Wike wondered why Cole and not his lawyers or agents, was the one going to the INEC office to collect certified true copies (CTC) of electoral materials.

Speaking at the inauguration of Government Secondary School in Kpor Community of Gokana Local Government Area on Tuesday, Wike stated that Cole lost the governorship election undoubtably.

He described what he called show of desperation by Cole, by not allowing his lawyers to do their duties, as suggestive of a sinister motive that should not be waved away but queried. He did not show where in the Electoral Law that it is the lawyers, not the candidate, that should go for the inspection.

While urging Cole to come out clean so that people would know his intentions, Wike also dismissed as baseless the allegations raised against the PDP that they attacked him and prevented him from accessing INEC office in Port Harcourt.

“Have you seen where a candidate is going to INEC to collect certified true copies (CTC)? What are your lawyers doing. What are your agents doing? These are duties of lawyers. What CTC do you want to collect?

“Can’t people see the truth of the matter, you’ve lost the election. Even if they cancel the election 25 thousand times in this State, you cannot win us (PDP) in this State. Let the truth be told.”

Governor Wike said already, proactive measures were taken to ensure that APC was not allowed the liberty to repeat what they did in 2015, when he said the party manipulated the Nigeria Police to tender results at the tribunal that truncated the will of the people. This seemed to convince some APC lords that Wike must be the person the police said sent intelligence that APC was printing fake results.

INEC angle

INEC seems to want no crowd in its premises and has directed parties to go to the local council INEC offices to look for documents, but Cole turned that suggestion down, asking INEC in PH to do their work. It seems to be a long journey even before the tribunal starts work.

Police standing

Police was difficult to decode in the proceedings. The police had escorts for Cole and APC; they had men that escorted the PDP to INEC and APC secretariat. Yet, the police command would not speak up on who was wrong or right, if APC had right to go inspect the INEC documents or not, if the PDP was right to demand for joint inspection or not.

The other parties such as the SDP, ADC, AA, all spoke up saying they did not demand for joint inspection. Yet, the police did not seem to know what the position of the law was on the matter.

It was rather gathered that the CP had endorsed a complaint and issued an ‘invitation’ to Cole for questioning on the alleged shooting of a PDP member at the INEC blockade. This was yet to be confirmed by the time of filing this report and what the reaction of the party was.

However, the APC national secretariat has issued a statement condemning the deterioration of events against the party in Rivers State. They demanded the IG o call the baying crowds to order and for the Rivers police command to do its work.

NGOs step in

Some independent voices have started to call for caution to avoid widespread violence. The Community Initiative for Enhanced Peace and Development (CIEPD) with funding support from Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) which implemented the Collaborative Election Violence Prevention and Mitigation Project in Rivers State in the 2023 Presidential and Gubernatorial Election, has called for caution.

The Executive Director, Egondu Ogbalor, said following the release of the final result of the gubernatorial and state house of assembly election, held on the 18th of March 2023 by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), there has been unrest in the state (Rivers State).

Read also: Rivers’ APC alleges abduction of its lawyer at INEC office

She said CIEPD said a key attribute of a credible electoral process is the access to seek redress in court when candidates and political parties feel they have been undone by the outcome of an election.

“The 2023 gubernatorial elections in Rivers state may have come and gone but the fallout from the process has been characterised by violent triggers such as intimidation and counter-accusations from all parties involved. This has led to heightened tension in the state. As an organisation that is committed to ensuring peace and nonviolent means in resolving disputes, we are concerned by recent happenings and hereby make the following calls to all stakeholders involved:

“We condemn in its entirety the violence that took place in the wake of the protests by political parties around the INEC office and calls for constitutional means and violence-free measures to resolve electoral disputes.”

CIEPD said the INEC should take actions that depict their independent status. “They must act and be seen as independent to calm the brewing tension.

“Security agencies especially the Rivers State Police Command, in dealing with post-electoral complaints should not be seen by the actions and inactions as being partial and used by politicians to witch hunt any political party. They (The police) must act fast to calm the violence to avert the loss of lives and destruction of property.

“Finally, we urge all political parties, INEC, and security agencies to play by the rule and allow the law to take its full course to avoid the looming crisis. We stand for peace, as that is the only option.”

Conclusion:

The Rivers APC appears to wear the status of an orphan. The party is in power at the federal level but the party said it lost over 500 members in 2015 and over 10 in the current elections.

Though President Muhammadu Buhari had paid visits to some of the injured members in 2015 but no police investigation was ordered when he took over and no compensation was paid to the families of the victims, according to Sogbeye Eli and Darlington Nwauju, spokesmen of the party.

The members said no mention of the killings was made by the President-Elect (Bola Ahmed Tinubu) who flagged off his presidential campaigns at a mega rally in the Garden City in February 2023 in solidarity with the victims. Instead, Wike who was always accused by a faction of the APC rather played host to Tinubu and later claimed to have worked for the victory of the APC candidate instead of candidate of his own PDP, Atiku Abubakar. This seems to have sealed the hope of the Rivers APC led by Wike arch-rival, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, the former governor and former transportation minister.

Many thus fear that Cole and APC may never get to file their petition at any tribunal, and if they do, they may never get a witness to testify for them at the tribunal even as some APC chieftains are fast defecting to the PDP.