A peace meeting organised by the Independent National Electoral Commission ahead of Saturday’s governorship election in Imo State ended in confusion on Tuesday in Owerri, the state capital, after the INEC National Commissioner representing South-East, Kenneth Ukeagu, ordered journalists to shut down their cameras and other gadgets.
Participants, particularly traditional rulers, at the session fled the hall as the interactive session ended in disarray following the opposition to Ukeagu’s directive by the Labour Party and the Peoples Democratic Party members.
Also, in what could be described as another unsavoury development, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress on Tuesday directed the workers in Imo State to commence a strike on Wednesday (today) in protest against Governor Hope Uzodimma who is seeking a second term in office in the poll.
There was anxiety that the strike could jeopardise the election as the INEC might not be able to distribute and transport materials due to the planned shutdown of the transport system and other public facilities in the state.
Trouble started during the Owerri meeting when Ukeagu, who represented the INEC chairman, directed journalists to switch off their equipment.
However, the directive was challenged by the Labour Party deputy governorship candidate, Tony Nwulu, who questioned the rationale behind the order.
Nwulu insisted there was no way the media would be shut out of the stakeholders’ meeting and queried if the meeting was “a secret cult.”
The running mate to the Peoples Democratic Party governorship candidate, Jones Onyereri, supported Nwulu, insisting that the media must be part of the session.
Onyereri alleged that the directive was “a confirmation that the All Progressives Congress had made arrangements with the electoral umpire to rig the election.’’
He also displayed copies of documents he described as fake results sheets allegedly published on the INEC portal during the House of Assembly election in the state.
His allegation led to a shouting match as the APC members in the hall surged towards the members of the opposition parties.
Fearing a possible outbreak of violence, traditional rulers, party leaders and the nine resident electoral commissioners deployed for the election fled the hall.
Our correspondent reports that the security agents including the police, Civil Defence Corps, and others could not control the rowdy situation as the party faithful rained verbal abuse on one another.
The opposition parties demanded the removal of the state REC, Sylvia Agu, accusing her of working for the APC.
The leadership of the Labour Party has also chided the INEC for retaining Agu despite the outcry from the opposition.
Governorship candidates of the opposition political parties later staged a walkout from the meeting.
Party candidate while staging a walkout demanded the immediate redeployment of the INEC’s Resident Electoral Commissioner in the state, Sylvia Agu.
They accused the chairman of INEC, Mahmood Yakubu, of alleged compromise.
Nwulu, who is the running mate of the LP candidate, who briefed journalists, said that if the IG could redeploy the state Commissioner of Police, the INEC chairman should have done the same to Agu.
But the state chairman of the APC, Ebere Macdonald who briefed journalists, said that the opposition parties were making baseless and unfolded claims.
INEC faults parties
INEC had announced in a statement issued on Tuesday that Agu would not be withdrawn from the state, adding that people calling for her transfer had not tendered any compelling evidence to warrant the move.
The electoral umpire declared that the REC would be assisted by several other national commissioners who would be physically present in Imo State to support her on Election Day.
But the National Publicity Secretary of LP, Obiora Ifoh warned that if the commission insists on running along with its decision, it may be counterproductive.
Reacting via a phone chat with The PUNCH, Ifoh alleged that the party had tabled sufficient evidence to prove that Agu is a relative to one of the APC chieftains.
He said, “We have given evidence to show the woman is not competent to oversee the election in Imo State. First, she is a blood relation to the APC Deputy National Chairman, Emma Eneukwu.
“Secondly, she was at the centre of the crisis the Labour Party has in Nkano East Constituency in Enugu State.
“We don’t need anybody to tell us the REC is completely compromised. If the INEC refuses to remove her, it means they are also collaborating to rig the election.”
The Spokesman for the Obi-Datti Presidential Campaign Council, Yunusa Tanko, also advanced the same arguments.
Tanko warned that INEC should stick to the tenet of rotating its state resident electoral commissioner for fairness and equity sake.
“INEC statement has shown the level of state capture we are talking about. That will make Nigerians to be in total opposition. But we believe if the election is going to be free and fair, why are they insisting on retaining her? Is she the only REC in the system that can conduct elections?
“Normally before the election, INEC reserves the right to switch their RECS up and down to give semblance of fairness. This is because you have stayed too long in a place, you must have had some contacts with people who are in government who may want to maintain their offices et al. Why is INEC not doing that now?
“The danger here is that when they keep on forcing people to accept whoever they put in power, they are preparing the state for anarchy. If it reaches a point, the people will rise up to protest. Before it gets to that stage, we urge INEC to do the right thing,” he stated
Justifying their directive to Imo State workers in a communiqué issued at the end of their extraordinary National Executive Council meeting which was held in Abuja, the NLC and the TUC directed workers in the state to shut down the airport, power supply, and other amenities until their demands are met.
The unions in the statement jointly signed by NLC National Vice President, Adewale Adeyanju and the TUC President, Festus Osifo, vowed to escalate the crisis by directing all workers to down tools nationwide if their demands were not met by November 14.
The unions had previously listed 15 demands the state government must meet.
Among other things, Labour had accused the state of failing to implement past agreements; failure to pay 20 months of outstanding salary arrears; declaration of 11,000 workers in the state as ghost workers; vandalization of the NLC state secretariat, and discriminatory payment to workers.
They also listed other grievances, including unsettled gratuity arrears, non-compliance with national minimum wage, intimidation, and harassment of Labour leaders, use of violence and thuggery, misappropriation of union dues, declaration of pensioners as ghosts, systematic harassment and intimidation of workforce, resistance to social dialogue and interference with workers democratic processes.
Announcing their decisions, the unions stated, “The NEC-in-session orders the immediate withdrawal of services and shutdown of Imo State beginning midnight today (Tuesday).
“All workers and affiliates are expected to ensure compliance from wherever they are. All flights into and out of Imo State, fuel supplies, and electricity be stopped immediately as applicable. All public and private sector workers are to immediately down tools indefinitely.
“That if our demands are still unmet, workers all over the federation shall join in withdrawing their services by midnight Tuesday, the 14th of November, 2023. All state councils of NLC and TUC and affiliates are by this resolution mandated to ensure full compliance with NEC’s decision.”
Labour begins shutdown
The PUNCH reports that the Organised Labour had last Friday issued a five-day ultimatum over the arrest of the National President of the NLC, Joe Ajaero, by the police in Owerri, Imo State, on November 1 during a workers’ protest.
The labour centres had demanded the redeployment of the commissioner of police in the state and the arrest and prosecution of an aide to the governor who allegedly led suspected thugs who assaulted Ajaero and other labour leaders.
Ajaero was taken into what the police called protective custody after he was allegedly beaten by suspected thugs.
A few hours after the unions expressed their intention to ground the South-Eastern state, a group of protesters stormed the force headquarters, Abuja, demanding the removal of the Kogi State Commissioner of Police, Bethrand Onuoha, over alleged compromise in securing lives and property in the state.
The protesters who were led by Muritala Ajaka, the Social Democratic Party governorship candidate in the November 11 election, claimed that three policemen and some members of the party were killed at Anyigba, Kogi State.
The victims were reportedly killed by thugs allegedly operating in the guise of a state joint task force. They allegedly attacked the residence of the SDP Campaign Director-General, Sheikh Ibrahim, in the early hours of Tuesday.
Ajaka and others later held a meeting with the Inspector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun.
Regardless of the strike directive by the organised Labour, the police authorities have scaled up their preparation for the governorship election with the deployment of Deputy Inspectors-General of Police, Ede Ayuba, Frank Mba, Habu Sani, and Daniel Sokari-Pedro to oversee the polls in Kogi, Bayelsa, and Imo states.
Ayuba, who is the DIG in charge of Operations will coordinate the overall election security from the Force headquarters.
Mba will coordinate the election security in Imo State, Sokari-Pedro will superintend the poll in Bayelsa, and Sani has been mandated to ensure a hitch-free exercise in Kogi State.
Meanwhile, the IG on Tuesday announced that there would be no vehicular movement as well as movement of canoes, ships, and other means of transportation via waterways in the three states starting from 12.01 am to 6 pm on Saturday.
Egbetokun, who said the decision was in line with measures put in place to ensure free, fair and credible elections, also barred quasi-security outfits from carrying out operations during the exercise.
Giving details of the election security operations, the force spokesman, Muyiwa Adejobi stated that the authorities had deployed three new CPs in the states.
He noted, “The IG has deployed DIGs and AIGs to coordinate election security in the three states. The AIGs will be assisting the DIGs.
“DIG Ayuba, being the DIG Operations, will coordinate the entirety of the election security from the Force Headquarters, Louis Edet House, Abuja. DIG Mba, being the most senior police officer from the South-East will coordinate election security in Imo State.
“DIG Sokari-Pedro being the most senior police officer from the South-South, will coordinate election security in Bayelsa, while DIG Sani will stand in for DIG Ayuba, the most senior police officer from the North-Central, to coordinate election security in Kogi State.
Affirming that the three states had been fortified with different security equipment, including helicopters on aerial patrol, he further explained that both marine and gunboats have been deployed in riverine areas of the states.
“There’s no cause for alarm, and the police are not involved in partisanship. New CPs will be deployed to take charge of the Imo, Kogi, and Bayelsa Police Commands for elections security,’’ he disclosed.