By Tonnie Iredia
Last Thursday, some hoodlums reportedly attacked traders who had shut down their shops at the Alaba International Market, Ojo, Lagos to register to collect their permanent voters’ cards (PVC).
According to reports, officials of the market had instructed that all shops be shut to allow their members ample time to get their PVCs at the INEC office in the Igbede area of Ojo.
Following this directive, there was massive turnout of traders, mostly of Igbo extraction at the registration point.
But while the exercise was ongoing, thugs armed with machetes, sticks and clubs allegedly stormed the venue to disrupt the process and also made moves to cart away INEC machines.
Luckily, the traders were able to stop the thugs from having their way.
The incident immediately sent disturbing signals nationwide particularly because the traders were said to have earlier given notice to the electoral body on their plans.
While many condemned the attacks, some blamed the traders for mobilizing mammoth crowds capable of overwhelming the available INEC logistics on ground.
There are a few reasons why the condemnation is feeble. First, until the period of registration expires, INEC ought to be fully ready for any person or group that comes up for registration, no matter how small or large.
Second, after making several appeals to Nigerians to be patriotic enough to perform their civic duty of determining the country’s new political office holders at all levels, it would be unfair to blame certain large groups for presenting themselves for registration.
The argument that the traders would have been better treated if they didn’t constitute a large crowd, may have a point but it cannot criminalize large crowds seeking to register as voters especially if all those in the group were qualified to be registered
Those who deserve blame are thugs who attack persons seeking to be registered.
As usual, the recent discussion has been about the large crowd and how members of the group recognized as mostly Igbo traders ought not to have waited till now before wanting to register.
But who were the thugs that attacked the prospective voters? Have they been apprehended?
If so, how has the case been handled? In addition, what was the motivation for the attacks and for whose sake did the thugs engage in such illegal behaviour?
Except steps have since been taken to penalize such thugs and their sponsors, no one should pretend to be surprise if they repeat the same behaviour during the forthcoming general elections.
After all, although pictures of previous attacks on certain voting centres which had many Igbo voters during the 2019 general elections were in the public domain, the perpetrators were not apprehended. Indeed, there was public belief at the time that the thugs had official backing because armed security officials present at the affected centres merely looked the other way.
The idea of preventing some Nigerians from collecting their PVCs so as to make it impossible for them to vote or other efforts at rendering the votes of others invalid through thuggery must be discouraged.
If not, some shrewd politicians would be emboldened to impose on the voting process, an electoral malpractice known as gerrymandering.
This is a term used to describe the carving out of fake electoral wards as well as ‘dilution’ which means to subtract from the voting capacity of a targeted population.
Lagos politicians are known to have always done this over the years by disrupting locations where their opponents are popular.
It is therefore not irrational to imagine that last Thursday’s thugs were strategically organized to disenfranchise persons they assumed may not vote for their preferred parties/candidates.
The practice of seeking to put some parties at an advantage well before voting day should be discouraged if we are really interested in strengthening Nigeria’s democracy
A major reason why this caution must be well sounded now is to avoid violence which may arise from reprisal attacks by those shortchanged by official or ‘unknown’ thugs in the 2023 election.
In the case of the attack on the Alaba market traders which is the main concern of this piece, their plan to present themselves before INEC last Thursday had been made public since the beginning of the week.
There was thus enough time for the police to mobilize to ensure peace at the event in view of the numerical strength of the traders.
The inability of the police to do anything until a clash occurred was poor forecasting. If it had been youths or students who similarly got together to protest certain societal ills, the police would have stopped the meeting ‘with immediate alacrity’ as if democracy abhors protests.
Perhaps there is need to inform our law enforcement agencies that election security is not just a voting day affair but an all-time surveillance strategy all through the process.
Not surprisingly, the police issued a statement that hardly diffused public apprehension. They said nothing about whether or not the thugs were apprehended and held to account.
Instead, they observed that the crowd was too large adding that registration in phases would have been better.
The typical police statement read as follows: “One of the people who came for registration made trouble and was challenged by those around. Going by simple probability, the attacker or the attacked is very likely to be Igbo.
They were simply large in number. However, giving this incident ethnic coloration would not help matters. The entire episode lasted a few minutes. Sadly, recordings from those few minutes are still traveling far and wide.
Normalcy has since returned and the Divisional Police Officer there is fully in charge of the security situation.”
But at the Tafawa Balewa Square in the Lagos Island area of the state, INEC recorded hundreds of youths who besieged the centre to register for their PVCs on the same Thursday.
During the exercise, it was observed that security agents including the army, police and private security personnel had to arrange the youths in batches to control the crowd.
What this suggests is that the Alaba traders were differently handled perhaps because it was suspected that they may massively vote against the ruling party. In a democracy everyone should be allowed to decide whether to vote for the old or new order.
Fortunately, reliable sources at INEC have revealed that more registration machines would be available this new week to seamlessly register the traders and other qualified Nigerians.
However, it is important to call on the leaders of the traders to appropriately organize their members to for once, take one or two days off from trading to understand the electoral process which they are now seeking to participate in.
First, they need to know that no one is allowed to register more than once. So, those of them who registered before should not get into a fresh registration process because it is a punishable crime.
Any person who for instance has lost his or her PVC should merely seek a replacement for that. But more importantly, it is unwise for the traders to register around their shops which they may not be able to access on voting day because of the usual restrictions to movement.
In the last couple of years, the Nigerian nation has gone through a low era – one of insurgency, weak economy and high prices that have combined to make life in the country unbearable.
In the recent past also, events have shown that there is hardly any difference between the major political parties who have virtually shortchanged the people. This is therefore not a time for voting for candidates on political party basis.
All Nigerians are thus enjoined to convince themselves that their preferred candidates are quite capable of altering the nation’s precarious circumstances.
For this to happen, all citizens who are qualified to vote should endeavour to use their ballots wisely.
Accordingly, no one should stand in the way of those seeking to get their PVCs for purposeful and informed decisions.