After last February’s presidential election, I was excited at the prospect of observing another election. Despite the stress that is usually associated with election observation, on Thursday when I arrived in Kogi State, I was earnestly looking forward to the gubernatorial election there in the state in 48 hours.
I was excited because I love visiting new places and meeting new people. Election observation is ample opportunity to explore new terrain and perhaps, make new friends.
I am sure my excitement would have been more tempered or perhaps I would have shelved the idea of travelling to Kogi altogether If I knew I was going to have a brush with death there.
My experience in Kogi during the election was not altogether bleak. In fact, it kicked off on a rather cheerful note. At the pre-election briefing for observers, INEC officials were friendly and questions asked were answered nicely. In fact, we were fed and treated pleasantly.
Unlike previous elections, the kits provided were beautifully-coloured and well-made. After the pre-election briefing for observers, I moved from Lokoja, the state capital to Ugwolawo where the Ofu local government office of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) is located.
The people at Ugwolawo were friendly. Even though I do not understand Igala, the language spoken in the area, I did not feel out of place. I left my bag with a food vendor whose stall is across the road from the INEC office so I could move around the town unencumbered as I wanted to acclimatize myself to the area.
I walked across the road to the INEC office. There were INEC ad-hoc officials searching for their names on lists pasted on walls, security officials were being deployed to polling units across the local government. Everyone was busy. I met a group of about 20 corps members who made a few jokes about my age. We laughed it off.
They told me many of their colleagues decided to stay away because Kogi has a history of violent clashes during elections and that they were not going to risk their safety.
I left the INEC office and walked back to the food vendor’s stall. When I tried to get a hotel or guesthouse to spend the night, I was told there was none around! I was alarmed. But I was saved by the generosity of the food vendor’s sister, who agreed to let me spend the night on her couch while her children laid on a mat on the floor of her room.
My attempt to get someone with an automobile to take me around the local government was akin to walking the biblical camel across the eye of the needle.
My hosts called a known commercial motorcyclist to take me around, but he was reluctant. He explained that the wards in the local government were miles apart and he was unwilling to risk his life because violence was expected on election day. As it later turned out, he was right.
I tried three other motorcyclists who completely declined to venture out on election day. I returned to the first motorcyclist who only agreed he was going to ride me around Ugwolawo, Ochadamu and Ejule Allah, the three nearest wards in the local government.
On election day, I was up early, after a night where anticipation and mosquitoes made sure I had very little sleep. The cyclist arrived around 7 a.m. reeking of alcohol. He, however, assured me he was fine and that his control of his bike would be steady. He explained that the alcohol was needed to wade off the morning cold.
The first place we visited was Ward 1, PU 1, Ugwolawo 1. Some ad-hoc staff were seen contemplating carrying the sensitive materials in bikes because the roads were in bad shape. Others had already left for their polling units. We moved around for about 25 minutes to Ward 1, PU 6, Ugwolawo 1. Where voters and ad hoc staff were seen prepping for the commencement of voting.
Things were very normal and uneventful apart from the very long and knee-jarring rides between wards and polling units. Perhaps the only eventful occurrence was when the motorcyclist after riding on a tarred section of the road for some minutes started dozing-off. To keep him awake, and keep us alive, I sang on the top my voice like a drunkard.
We travelled between Ugwolawo, Ochadamu and Ejule Allah. There was basically nothing to report apart from the occasional security patrols vans filled with armed policemen we encountered as we rode by.
Things, however, got a little interesting at Ward 3, PU 7 in Ejule Allah. I noticed that the Polling Officer (PO) was called aside by some men wearing dark glasses Whenever I tried to move closer, they moved farther away while the PO was repeatedly glancing at me over his shoulders. Soon, the men got into their vehicle and drove off. I tried to tail them but then I changed my mind realising what a foolhardy move it was.
At about 11 a.m. at Ward 6, PU 7 in Ugwolawo 1, I was accosted by the security personnel deployed there. They told me that a fair-complexioned woman who was also wearing an observer’s vest promised to send one of her people to give them cash gifts. I told them I am not aware of the deal nor the woman whom they spoke about.
“Small girl like you, una wan chop our money abi,” one of them said, adding that they had their eyes on me. That was the cue I needed to promptly leave the polling unit.
At Ward 5, PU 2 in Ugwolawo, party agents were openly buying votes for between N250 and N500 per vote. Whenever I attempted to stroll past, they comically moved away speedily. In other places, the vote-buying was done discreetly and no matter how hard I tried to catch them; they were as slippery as eels.
At about 11:43 a.m. in Ward 1, PU 3 Ugwolawo, a fight ensued between the agents of the two main political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It was hard to ascertain the reason for the fight but another observer said the fighting was contrived and meant to scare people away from the polling unit so they could rig the voting unhindered. My phone was snatched from me and my assailant threatened to smash it on the floor, a threat they would have gone ahead with but for the intervention of my motorcyclist.
After that scary incident, we left the polling unit in a hurry. My motorcyclist advised that we should keep our observation to rural parts of town to avoid getting into trouble. But his advice almost got both of us killed.
Threatened at gunpoint
An hour later after we left Ward 1, PU 3, Ugwolawo, we arrived at Ward 5, PU 4 in Ugwolawo. As we approached, I noticed that the place was deserted except for one Civil Defence officer, an INEC official and men dressed in ankara. The men were seen turning people, probably voters, who were approaching the polling unit back. One of them had a rifle. I moved closer and saw that all the ballot papers had been removed from the ballot boxes and sorted. Also, some men were seated and busy thumb-printing the spare ballot papers.
Almost immediately, the man with the rifle started speaking angrily in Igala while wielding his gun threateningly at the motorcyclist. My motorcyclist turned, grabbed my arm and dragged me towards his bike, he ordered me to sit in Igala and surprisingly I understood him perfectly!
We rushed down the winding roads and my heart was pounding in my mouth. My cyclist later confessed to being a supporter of the APC in the local government.
He claimed every polling unit had been given N1.5 million and they were told to deliver each unit. He said we should not have been there. He said he believes he was in serious trouble for taking me there and may have to go into hiding to avoid the wrath of his party members.
He advised me to do the same because other polling units would have been alerted to watch out for me and it would be dangerous for us to go near any polling units after that. He also made me promise that I would not report any of it and I managed to nod vigorously.
On the pretext of easing myself, I called my superiors and told them what happened. I was advised to do as told and take off all means of identification. After taking off my vest, cap and ID card, I told the cyclist to take me back to the house where I had spent the previous night.
But before I arrived trouble had already erupted in the area. I was briskly rushed inside, and the door shut.
Caught in a crossfire
I later learnt that an unknown man was killed in a clash between political thugs earlier that day. I stayed inside but kept watch of the INEC office from the window of the room I was hiding. At about 2:02pm, vehicles carrying ballot boxes some of which were broken and smashed, began to arrive. I stayed inside the house; afraid that if I stepped outside, my host would not allow me back inside.
Things were quiet until about 10:02 p.m. when the first gunshot was fired. The gunshots continued causing people who were feeling more relaxed after the incident to jump into action, slamming their doors and abandoning their shops as they rushed into hiding.
The siege began. We all had to lie flat on our bellies on the dirt floor. The continuous gunshots and shouts were enough to wake the dead. I must have gone deaf at some point. Form the shouts outside, it could be deciphered that the fight was between policemen and thugs. Soon I heard someone begging and screaming for help.
At about 12 a.m., someone speaking into a megaphone said in a deep Hausa-accented voice that they came from Zamfara and they would not hesitate to kill anyone. My host thought he was a Boko Haram insurgent. I believed the guy is a policeman. My phone rang at about 12:29 a.m. and a voice screamed: “Who is there!”. I had to quickly muzzle my speaker and cut off the call.
The next time I looked at my phone it was about 3:30 am. I was surprised that I had managed to fall asleep in the midst of the pandemonium. I couldn’t sleep after that. Immediately the day broke, I called my motorcyclist and asked him if it was safe to go to Lokoja, he said people were beginning to go about their business in peace. When he arrived, I stepped out of my host’s room and immediately encountered about 30 policemen fully kitted in anti-riot gear. They looked around with scrutinising eyes. Soon after I got a bus going to Lokoja and fled the area.
Iretomiwa Dele-Yusuff is a student journalist. She was an election observer for the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) during the November 16 Kogi governorship election.