The local government area where I observed the September 22nd governorship election was Oriade. The headquarters is at Ijebu-Jesa, unarguably the largest town in the area. The town had seventeen polling units. Like a classical Greek polis, the other surrounding towns are not as developed as this place. But each of this relatively small towns together with Ijebu-Jesa formed a unified whole and are jointly referred to as Oriade local government. In all, Oriade has twelve wards and one hundred and eleven polling units. Suffice to say, many of the towns are separated by a long stretch of arable and inhabited lands. This made the observation a bit tedious. But it was interesting nonetheless. Three of us were supposed to work together. But because I was without a smartphone at that time, I worked with my team leader, a gentle looking lady with a tough resolution.
Our observation started at Ijebu-Jesa Grammar School. Ijebu-Jesa Grammar School is located at the outskirts of the town en route Ilesha. The polling unit in this school has eight hundred and eighty registered voters. We got to this polling unit at about seven in the morning as it’s not very far from our hotel room. At that time of the day, two gentle looking women were already waiting for accreditation. In no time, many people joined them, including two observers, party agents and an official of Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and two police officers.
At about half past seven, the presiding officer and his team arrived. The presiding officer, a youth corps member, and his team started setting up the cubicle. In a moment of confusion, one that could be directly linked to power exuberance, the presiding officer asked the party agents to sign form EC 60 E before the commencement of the election when nothing had been recorded on it. For those who don’t know, the form can only be signed at the end of the whole voting process when sorting and counting had been done. I wanted to intervene, but I quickly reminded myself that I was just an observer and I was only there to observe. But for the intervention of an elderly man, the party agents almost readily avail themselves to sign the form. That was the first drama of the day. For over ten minutes, the natives were in a war of words with the presiding officer who couldn’t speak the Yoruba language. Of course, as observers, my team leader and I kept calm and was looking at how the whole brouhaha would turn out. If it was one of those days when I was with an observer’s jacket, I would have loved to intervene. But I was only there as an observer and not as a mediator. By the time the issue was resolved, the presiding officer admitted his fault and soon after the time was set for the election to begin. The presiding officer didn’t know he was wasting our time and we couldn’t tell him so. Voting finally began when it was twenty minutes past eight. After staying for a little while longer, we left for another polling unit.
Our next stop was the Town Hall which is still in the same place as the palace of the king. There was not much about this polling unit except for the way a pregnant woman and some aged people were forced to join the queue and were not given any ‘special treatment’ by the electoral officers as directed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). As a matter of fact, two aged people and a pregnant woman were shoved out of the queue by the people who had come before them, an act that angered one of these aged persons and he left for his house. Perhaps it was because the officers were busy that they couldn’t notice these people that have been given special privilege by INEC. I noticed the ensuing rancour between the voters and I pointed it out to the police officers that I thought would know. Unfortunately, they maintained that it was right for aged people and pregnant women to be forced out of the queue if they did not arrive on time. I can’t say if other police officers were like them for these two officers knew very well INEC’s directive on pregnant women and aged people yet decided to ignore it.
I wouldn’t forget to mention the scrambling for soft drinks and puff puff at Erunkunipe Hall, which is a stone throw from the Town Hall. A party agent was sharing these to voters on the queue. Perhaps she didn’t know it was a form of inducement and is an electoral crime. Inducement does not necessarily have to be in form of vote buying. Again, police officers were there looking at the way the voters were struggling for bottles of soft drink and puff puff. Two women were close to cursing themselves because one of them allegedly collected two bottles of soft drink and the other woman had none. In fact, the female police officer that was directing the queue was offered a cold bottle of Fanta. She turned it down, perhaps due to our presence. But normalcy returned once the last bottle of soft drink was given out by this particular party agent.
Here too, an old woman with arthritis and who should not be less than eighty by my calculations was also shoved out of the queue close to where the assistant presiding officer 3 sat down. Out of frustration, she was close to crying and was bent on going back to her house. In a moment, I threw off my observer garb and made sure she was given the attention she deserved by both the electoral officers and the police officials. It was not easy but I had to do it especially when many young hung around the polling unit and were smoking all kinds of illicit things and this old woman did not want to be left out of the voting process. Who she voted for was not the question but that she came out to vote against her arthritis while some far younger people don’t even have their permanent voters’ card. That was the only time I removed my jacket.
Another dramatic event that sent a cold chill down my spine was at the market square, Iloko-Ijesa. One would have readily noticed the abnormality around this unit even without being an observer. The cubicle was conspicuously placed in a way that anyone could predict correctly who a voter had voted for by the movement of his or her hand. The police officers were sitting down close to it but they were oblivious of the implications of placing the cubicle as such. Because the movement of the hand could show anybody which of the parties a voter had thought he had secretly voted for, there was a register at the back where people write their names. As expected, it was for compiling the names of people that would be given money later in the day. Nobody was allowed to write his or her name if the movement of his or her hand was debatable and a lot of argument resulted from this. Although most of the arguments were in their native Ijesa dialect, the dialect was to the one spoken in my village and I was able to understand a lot of their conversations albeit pretending as if I don’t understand. But that did not in anyway remove their dislike for our activities around the polling unit. There was more to come.
After about seven minutes of observation, a guy arrived on a motorcycle. There was a look of desperation on his face. Even though he tried not to be conspicuous, I heard him instructing the boys that were hanging around the polling unit ‘to deal with’ any observer that would not bid his time and leave when he or she ought to. He even told those boys that some observers were coming after us and they should not be allowed anywhere around the pooling unit. Immediately he left, the atmosphere began to change. The boys who had hitherto been grumbling began to issue threats in their native dialect. My team leader, who didn’t understand their language, wanted us to wait and see what would happen to the observers that would come after us. Of course, she could not be blamed. She was only doing her job. Besides, she is not Yoruba and she couldn’t hear any of the threat that was a source of fear. I know from what we have been told at the training that it was time to take cover. We would be blamed by all if we were attacked and wounded when in fact we saw it coming. As the tension was brewing and we were gently retreating, our driver had left us to buy fuel and we were stranded. I was scared but I didn’t show it. I had heard tales of observers that were attacked during the election and a part of me didn’t want that to happen to us where the story of our attack might not get to the urban centres on time. The boys saw us retreating but they knew not that we wanted to take cover and was only waiting for our driver to come back so we could move. My fear was particularly increased when I noticed I had the smallest stature in my team and the only lady in our midst might be mishandled by these violence-prone men. We left the polling unit but we were not able to go back there even when I suggested it to other members of my team.
Particularly frightful was travelling around the local government. Like I said before, the local government was eighty per cent rural. The ride from Iloko-Ijesha to Erinmo meant driving past a long stretch of bushes. Till we got to Erinmo, only about two or three cars drove past us. But driving from Erinmo to Ijebu-Jesa was even more frightful. The road was lined with thick bushes. There was no car on the road and no human being was noticed. As a typical Yoruba boy, I battled hard to dispel the thought that the driver might be taking us to an unsafe destination even when he had earlier told us that he was a pastor. Maybe I was the only person that was afraid in the team, maybe not. In the end, we got back to Ijebu-Jesa from where we drove to Iwoye.
Apart from a place where we were threatened, everywhere else was relatively peaceful. Many of the police officers were cooperative. Even though there was one of them that was overzealous, we were able to settle things with her and continued observation. There was no open buying and selling of votes, but the absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence. Like I said above, party agents waited till the votes were counted before sharing the money. I saw that at a polling unit in Ijebu-Jesa when some youths were rushing after a man whom they called chairman. At another polling unit, a young man was reading out the names of people he had given money to and another person was cursing anybody that would collect money without voting for her party.
In all, it was a good first-time experience. But I must admit my fears at the beginning of the whole thing especially when I thought about many overzealous security operatives and how they had been handling observers especially as I heard from Ekiti and some others that just didn’t like the activities of observers. As it is now, election observation has lent credence to our electoral process. Many bad things that would have normally been done at the polling unit such as open buying and selling of votes and ballot box snatching have reduced. But more still needs to be done by INEC to ensure our election meet international standard. INEC should also do more to ensure the youth corps members were properly trained and their welfare is taken care of. It is a bad thing to note that after the whole election had ended at the ward level, many of the youth corps members slept under the open heaven and at the mercy of rain and mosquitoes. Serving one’s country should not be without good treatment.
Segun Ogunlade is a student of Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan.
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