Southern Ijaw residents flee over Bayelsa polls tomorrow

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APPREHENSIVE of violence during the rescheduled governorship election in the Southern Ijaw Local Council of Bayelsa State tomorrow, residents of the area have been fleeing to neighbouring states.
There is even the fear among many of them that the election may not hold because the magnitude of violence will be such that past crises will be child’s play. They also fear that security forces deployed in the area will not be able to control an outbreak of violence.
As if confirming the fear of the residents, the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Mr. Konbowei Benson , was yesterday reportedly attacked in Korokorosie in Southern Ijaw Local Council.
Benson of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who spoke on a live telephone radio programme, claimed that some persons suspected to be members of the opposition threw dynamites that destroyed part of his house.
He claimed to have got wind of the attack in the early hours of yesterday through a telephone call. However, the Police Public Relations Officer in the state, Asinim Butswat,  said he was yet to be informed of the development.
Besides, the Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prof. Ben Amgwe has said that any military officer or any other security personnel found wanting during the Bayelsa rerun election will be punished according to the law.
Amgwe disclosed this yesterday in Abuja when protesting members of the Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER) led by the Executive Director, Frank Tietie came to his office over the Bayelsa rerun.
“What can 5,000 policemen do? With the kind of weapons in the area, the policemen would all run for their lives when the shooting starts. Some of the policemen would come with batons and most would be unarmed. Do you think this is a kindergarten stuff?” a resident asked The Guardian.
He continued: “We are talking about a full-scale war with all the attendant side effects that come with it. We don’t even believe there will be any election on Saturday. Starting from Friday (today) evening, there will be shootings and killings, all over the place. Who will come out to vote on Saturday?
“How many people do you see here coming from outside this area? You are the only one, I have seen. You said you were a journalist? Well, I admire your guts, but if you know what is good for you, you had better go back, or will they pay for your dead body in Lagos?”
Despite assurances by the security agencies, which include the police and military over their plans to protect property and lives in the area, the people themselves are not impressed.
Another resident told The Guardian they would not be lured into a false sense of security by reports that the police would deploy about 5,000 officers and men in the area to ensure the voting goes on peacefully.
They based their pessimism on the “the way and manner arms and ammunition and the numerous strange and unsavoury characters have invaded this area. There is no likelihood that the security agencies would be able to guarantee our safety.”
As if to exonerate themselves of blame for whatever mayhem that Saturday will bring, the two major contending parties in the election, the PDP and the All Progressives Congress (APC) have been accusing each other of plans to perpetrate violence in the bye-election which is expected to throw up the winner of the contentious poll.
‘‘It will be foolhardy for anybody to take the assurances of the
police and the other security agencies’ capability to secure the lives and property of those of us in those communities, hook, line and sinker,” a teacher and resident of Okporoma in Southern Ijaw, Ebi Doupola said.
‘‘We have seen what these people have brought into the communities, we know the capability of their weapons and we know the ability of those people who brought these weapons, not only to deploy them, but also their willingness to use them at the slightest provocation, or should I say, opportunity. These people are desperate and deadly and they would use these weapons tomorrow. Forget about what anybody tells you, we know what is happening here and what will happen at the end of the day,” he said.
Public transport operators in the area told The Guardian that they were making brisk business moving people out of Sothern Ijaw.
‘‘We are making a lot of money, getting people out of the place,’’
Ere Panebi, a boat operator said.
He went on: “People are so anxious to get out of the place and they are all going in different directions. Some are going towards Delta, while some are going to either Yenagoa, the state capital or neighbouring Rivers State.”
When The Guardian visited Okporoma, Olugbobiri, Forupa and Esetu areas of the local council, there was visible anxiety on the faces of most people. They managed to surreptitiously indicate to The Guardian the directions where the strange people who suddenly appeared in the area were staying.
“They are not from among us and they are here to foment trouble” a man said. Residents who spoke with our correspondent yesterday accused the PDP and APC of importing thugs into the area.
According to them, Southern Ijaw is home to about six former militants who have returned to the area from wherever they were staying since the December 6, governorship election which was inconclusive.
A former local council official said this about the desperation of the militant factions in the area: “We have six of the major militant commanders from the local council. They are almost equally divided along party lines and because of the fact that the winner here on Saturday will be the eventual winner of the state governorship election, they are all bent on outdoing each other to ensure victory for their camps.
“However, as they say, when two elephants fight, the grass will suffer. It’s the people of the area that will bear the brunt of the expected orgy of violence that will occur over the weekend and the worst part of the whole thing is that we have no say in the whole thing.”
However, despite all this apprehension, some other residents are optimistic that the election will hold without rancour. A long-term resident of Forupa, Sylvester Egba, said there had always been talks of war every time there had been elections in the area, but they had always held and the fear had always turned out to be a false alarm or at best grossly magnified.
A religious leader in Ezetu town explained why there would be peace in the area on Saturday. “They have always made so much noise here every time we have elections. They would say, people would die and that the whole world will collapse, but we have always had the elections. Did I not show you my family, including my wife and children, even my grandmother? Why should I run away from here?
Nobody is saying that there may not be some trouble, but all these things are always exaggerated. If you like, stay here till Saturday and you will see that you will be safe. However, our prayer is that we shall soon put the elections behind us so we can get on with our lives. We are tired of the negative publicity our communities have been receiving since all these days.
“Can you imagine my in-laws in Delta, asking my wife to cross over to their village with my children? It is that bad.”
The NHRC boss assured that the commission would be in Bayelsa to monitor the election and conduct of security agencies, adding: “Today I want to make a declaration that human rights have come to stay in Nigeria. Consequently, no one, body or institution or force will be allowed to do anything that will jeopardise the enjoyment of Nigerians of their rights. I also want to say that the commission will continue to champion the cause of Nigerians.
“The violence that took place in Bayelsa was very embarrassing to all of us at the commission particularly at a time when Nigeria has joined the rest of the world in participating in a free and fair electoral process as demonstrated in the 2015 general election. Time has come when Nigerians exercise their rights to choose their leaders.
Nigerians have accepted democracy and, it is for this reason that coups are no longer accepted.
“This commission will ensure that security agencies abide by the law during the forthcoming re-run elections in Bayelsa State. I want to say that anybody caught perpetrating violence during the election will not go unpunished. ”
Meanwhile, in a damning assessment of preparations ahead of the polls, over 60 civil society organisations (CSOs) yesterday lampooned the APC, PDP and other political parties for showing by their actions and utterances their bankruptcy of democratic norms.
The position of the CSOs was contained in an electronic statement by them under the aegis of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room .It was signed by its media coordinator, Agianpe Ashang.
The statement reads: “The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room has been observing the Bayelsa governorship election process since October 2015 and has raised various concerns about the conduct of political actors, security and administration of the polls.
“Ahead of the election for cancelled areas across the state, the Situation Room wishes to draw attention to a number of concerns that we hope will be addressed in the few days to the poll.
“The accusations and credible reports of both political sides mobilising and arming youth ahead of the election suggests direct breaches of the peace pact made ahead of the election. Both the alleged preparations and the tenor of political language diminishes the credibility of these political parties and their commitment to democratic norms.
“The reported intervention of the police commissioner in the state in calling former militants to assert the need for orderly elections is welcome but we underline the importance of adequate impartial security to give voters the confidence that they can vote freely in fair polls.”
The CSOs demanded that political parties and candidates should cease making threats and accusations over the conduct of the polls and that security agencies should note the escalated tension, threats made by political actors, and reported preparations for violence and move to strengthen security in all areas where the election would hold.
They also, among others, want the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to exhibit the strongest possible competence and transparency in its management of the election and results even as it tasked the national leadership of political parties to put all necessary pressure on their members to follow the rule of law.
 

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