The last time that residents of Kogi State elected their governor on the 16th of November 2019, violence nearly marred the exercise. The election, which returned incumbent Governor Yahaya Bello for his second and final term, was disrupted in many polling units in Lokoja – the state capital – and many other parts of the state.
Thugs brazenly wielding rifles and other lethal weapons chased away voters and electoral officials before stealing ballot boxes. Some of the armed men wore police uniforms and drove around in Toyota Hilux vans, unaffected by official restriction of movement on election day.
Many voters were injured and some lost their lives during and after the elections. Among the four confirmed fatal cases was Acheju Abuh, the Women Leader of the governorship campaign organisation of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who was gruesomely killed when suspected thugs doused her house with petrol and set fire to it.
The Centre for Democratic Development(CDD), a civil society organisation, in its report on the election accused security agencies of complicity in the violence and voter intimidation during the election.
The police, however, denied the accusation, saying the marauding thugs were “fake policemen.”
As voters in the north-central Nigerian state return to the polls this Saturday to elect Mr Bello’s successor, there are understandable fears of a replay of the 2019 disaster. Ahead of election day, some skirmishes have been recorded and a life confirmed lost to violence in the state.
In September, a woman died and many others were injured in a clash between the supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) when the SDP candidate, Murtala Ajaka, made a campaign stop in Koton Karfe.
Throughout the electioneering, the APC and SDP have accused each other of stoking violence. Although the woman killed in Koton Karfe was reported to be a member of the ruling APC, the SDP said APC supporters launched the attack against its supporters at the rally addressed by Mr Ajaka.
Farouq Adejoh-Audu, the spokesperson for Mr Ajaka, reported the incident as an attack on the SDP candidate and his supporters.
He said after shooting at the crowd, the attackers descended on the venue of the rally to destroy the chairs, podium and other campaign equipment.
However, the APC said it was the SDP candidate who was perpetrating violence ahead of the election.
The police also accused Mr Ajaka of not conducting his campaign in a manner that engendered peace, saying he had refused to carry the police along, unlike the other candidates.
Two weeks ago, the SDP again alleged that APC thugs attacked its rally at St Matthews Primary School in Ejule Kogi, in Ofu Area Council of the state. The spokesperson said thugs again destroyed canopies, chairs, public address systems and the podium set up for the rally.
Mr Adejoh-Audu said many persons were injured in the attack.
But Kingsley Fanwo, the spokesperson for the APC campaign council, again denied the allegations.
“We are not ready to join issues with SDP because doing so is glorifying them more so that we won’t be dragged into their frivolities, gasping lies and lack of direction,” Mr Fanwo said.
“As a government, our concern and responsibility is to create an enabling environment for all to pursue their normal businesses.”
The conflict on the ground gives the impression that the election is a straight contest between the APC and the SDP. But the final list released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has 18 candidates in the race. These include a woman, Suleiman Fatima of the Zenith Labour Party (ZLP).
A total of 1,932,654 persons voters were registered for the poll, with 51 per cent of them registered in Kogi East Senatorial District. The district has nine of the 21 local government areas of the state. These are Idah, Ibaji, Igalamela/Odolu, Ofu, Dekina, Ankpa, Olamaboro, Basa and Omala local governments.
The SDP candidate, Mr Ajaka is from this district, which has led many to place him as the frontrunner in the election, given the ethnic and sectional tones that the campaigns have taken.
Kogi West Senatorial District covers seven local government areas, including Kaba Bunu, Kogi/Koto Karfe and Mopa Muro. The others are Ijumu, Yagba East, Yagba West and Lokoja.
The PDP candidate, Dino Melaye and the ADC candidate, Leke Abejide, are from this district. If they split votes in the zone, it may doom their bids.
Kogi Central Senatorial District has the fewest local government areas – five. These are Adavi, Ajaokuta, Okehi, Okene, and Ogori-Magongo. The ruling party’s candidate, Ahmed Ododo, is from the district.
Historic trends of violence
Nextier in its recent report, titled “Nigeria’s 2023 State Elections: Mirroring Hotspot States“, listed Kogi among states with a propensity for electoral violence. The assessment is supported by historical evidence and the current security situation.
The organisation noted that after the general elections of this year, 100 INEC staff and an ad hoc official were abducted on 19 March while going to the constituency collation centre in Lokoja from the Kupa North area of Kogi State. The police had to use force against the attackers to rescue the officials.
The report also noted that Mr Ajaka of the SDP escaped an assassination attempt on 3 June and was again attacked on three occasions in July, after thugs destroyed his campaign billboards that showed him alongside President Bola Tinubu.
The report noted that while Mr Ajaka had repeatedly accused Governor Bello of unleashing violence on him and his supporters, Mr Bello’s convoy had also been attacked, with some of his aides reportedly injured.
Factors raising the tensions
The hostilities have largely been between the APC and the SDP. Analysts have traced the roots to the post-party primary defection of Mr Ajaka from the APC where he was a national official.
Mr Ajaka hails from Igalamela LGA in Kogi East Senatorial district. The zone is known for its large vote delivery and may determine the winner on November 11.
APC’s Mr Ododo is from Okene Local Government Area. His nomination from the same LGA that produced the outgoing Governor Bello has made his candidature a hard sell to voters in the two other districts.
Kogi West is the only senatorial district yet to produce a governor for the 32-year-old state. Kogi East produced every governor until the fortuitous emergence of Mr Bello, who became the APC candidate in 2019 after the original candidate, Abubakar Audu, died while the votes in the first round of that year’s election were still being counted.
Maliki Idris, the executive director of Conscience for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, said the desperation of Governor Bello to outwit the SDP candidate in Kogi East, and the latter’s resistance, sparked the violence recorded in the campaigns.
Mr Idris said politics of region and ethnicity are a major factor in the current scenario. According to the rights advocate, the behaviours of INEC, the police and other security agencies will shape the security situation during and after the election.
The ruling party has also been facing an unanticipated fierce new challenge in Kogi Central, the home zone of its candidate and Governor Bello, since Natasha Akpoti-Uduaghan of the PDP recovered the senatorial seat of the district through the courts. INEC had declared the APC as the winner of the election but Mrs Akpoti-Uduaghan challenged the declaration and got favourable rulings at the election petition tribunal and ultimately at the Appeal Court.
Since she first ran for the Senate as the candidate of the SDP in 2019, Mrs Akpoti-Uduaghan has had many conflicts with the governor, whom she alleged orchestrated an attempt to assassinate her during this year’s poll in February.
Many observers believe that a major factor that may raise the level of friction at the election is vote buying.
Mr Idris said with the practice now well entrenched, conflicts may arise as candidates and their supporters attempt to outwit themselves in the illegal act.
In the 2011 governorship election, the state had 1.33 million registered voters. But on election day, only 518,949 persons voted, representing a lowly 39 per cent voter turnout.
Research by Dataphyte, a civil society organisation, showed that the number of registered voters increased by four per cent from 1.33 million to 1.38 million in 2015. However, turnout declined by two percentage points from 39 to 37 per cent that year.
Registered voters for the 2019 election stood at 1.65 million, a 19 per cent increase from the previous election. But more than a million among those who registered did not vote as only 624,514 voters did, representing only 38 per cent voter turnout.
In the 2023 general election, voter turnout dropped to 25 per cent in Kogi State. Out of 1.65 million registered voters, only 476,038 voted.
Heavy deployment of military personnel to Kogi East during the week of the election may further drive down voter turnout in the area.
“We are witnessing a heavy deployment of military personnel in the area, and many more are still pouring in,” a journalist in Lokoja, Rotimi Odofin, said.
“I have heard many people saying they would not be going home to vote because of fear of possible violence or intimidation.”
Police give assurance
The police say they have deployed over 40,000 personnel for the governorship election. The Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Kayode Egbetokun, has also assured residents of the state of adequate security.
He said with only three states holding elections on Saturday, the police have enough personnel for deployment to the states.
Although such rhetoric is not uncommon in elections in Nigeria, time will prove if the directive by the IGP will produce a conducive atmosphere for election in Kogi State.