Inside the worlds of Melaye, Dickson, and Co, by Azu Ishiekwene

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Conversation with Azu

Defeat is an orphan. Nothing illustrates its orphanage status as vividly as the fate of two politicians involved in last week’s elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states: Senator Dino Melaye and Governor Seriake Henry Dickson.

As he went down, Melaye, the PDP candidate in the Kogi West senatorial election rerun, deployed his video-making talent to its utmost. Even before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared the process inconclusive, the senator had manufactured two videos, each with the distinctive ring of a drowning man, to plead his case.

In one of the videos adapted from a Channels TV interview, Melaye described the election as a helicopter election. “For the first time,” he said, “rigging has been advanced to the level that now the use of a helicopter in perpetuating this electoral atrocity manifested yesterday.”

He suggested that the helipad and control tower might be in Lugard House, under the control of Governor Yahaya Bello. He had barely finished making this first video when, out of the necessity to find another scapegoat, he produced a sequel entitled, “I have been rigged out.”

The world never saw a more desolate, broken and contrite Melaye as the one portrayed in this I-have-been-rigged-out video. Almost in tears, Melaye moved from blaming Bello to excoriating INEC for his looming defeat.

Never in the history of elections in Nigeria, he said, had there been anything like this – when the umpire not only appeared to be taking sides but actually helped the incumbent to stir up deadly violence and steal votes, while security forces provided cover or conveniently looked the other way.

A devasted Melaye swore that the blood of the dead and the gods of the disenfranchised would rise up and avenge his defeat as if he was an innocent bystander in the political battlefield.

While Melaye was mourning his likely defeat, the outgoing governor of Bayelsa, Dickson, had not even cast his vote when he declared that Saturday – the same day he was supposed to crown his ambition as Bayelsa’s ultimate political godfather – was a sad day, accusing his opponents of being “too hungry” for victory to play by the rules.

In a follow-up statement, Dickson declared definitively, that the election in Bayelsa was a “military coup”, orchestrated by the ruling the party, ostensibly with the acquiescence of INEC.

A common thread among the losing candidates, which also appears to find increasing sympathy among segments of civil society groups, is that INEC has the lion’s share of the blame for the shabby outcome of last weekend’s poll.

It’s easy for politicians to find scapegoats when elections do not favour them. If, however, they take just one quick look at the man in the mirror, they might just find that the desperation for power for its own sake, the quest for a zero-sum game, and the utter contempt and disregard for due process; that is to say, the sum total of what politicians stand for, is the single biggest threat to free and fair elections.

Whatever credit Professor Attahiru Jega may get for the conduct of the 2015 election, the determination of voters to remove the PDP, and President Goodluck Jonathan’s gracious concession even before the final results were officially announced, were perhaps the single biggest success factors. Unfortunately, politicians have been regressing since.

Melaye’s hubris may not exactly be at the far end of the scale of political violence, but Dickson’s odyssey like that of politicians on the other side that he is trying to disparage is hardly inspiring. He may have forgotten, but a few still remember how he emerged as the PDP’s candidate eight years ago.

Timipre Silva, who was in his first term as Bayelsa governor at the time, had fallen out with President Goodluck Jonathan in a dispute in which the National Security Adviser, late Patrick Aziza, was determined to show Silva who the boss was.

To ensure that Silva did not present himself at the PDP primaries in Yenagoa he was barricaded in his Abuja home in a military-style operation. He was kept under house arrest of sorts, effectively ruling out his participation in the primaries and therefore blocking his return for a second term.

Dickson, then in his second term as a member of the House of Representatives, was flown to Yenagoa. His name was wangled to INEC in the middle of the night and everything else from then on, including the courts, was pressed into Dickson’s service.

It’s hardly the kind of antecedent that should lend itself to any complaint about due process or one that should embolden the victim this time to lament a hostile takeover, much less a military coup.

But here we are, the beneficiary of 2011’s assault on due process but now a victim is not just complaining about a hostile takeover, he says the state was overthrown in a military coup. And his complaint is coming after he hijacked the party primaries and fielded, singlehandedly, both the candidate and his running mate, against the run of play.

In the end, the governorship candidate lost, and to compound Dickson’s misery, his plan to cut a deal with his stooges for a bye-election that might have taken him to the Senate has also ended.

The party primaries that produced Dickson in 2011 are just as shambolic and militaristic as the one by which he manufactured the two PDP candidates in last week’s election. Yet, Dickson – or Countryman as he fondly calls himself – does not see the log in his own eye.

Rather than chasing shadows, we should put the blame for shoddy electoral outcomes and violence where it is – at the doorstep of politicians, with the security agencies, and increasingly, the courts, in that order.

And politicians, meaning politicians of all stripes, are the two biggest instigators. The APC may have won the governorship elections in Bayelsa and Kogi, but the party cannot be proud of its record in the run-up to that election.

The poor performance of Bello, which made Governor Nasir El-Rufai carry him on his back and kneel down to beg Kogi voters, meant that Bello already knew he was walking a tightrope before the election and had to rely on desperate measures, including going on all fours and suborning the security agencies, where possible, to survive. It’s hardly an atmosphere conducive to free and fair elections, however well-intentioned the umpire may be.

In Bayelsa, the sham party primaries in APC that forced one of the aspirants to go to court; the desperation that forced two APC governors to abandon their states and camp in Yenagoa three days before the election; and the increasing cases of eleventh-hour court rulings, imperiled planning and compounded the climate of fear and tension.

Whereas off-season elections are supposed to help INEC deploy more resources and manage elections in the affected states more effectively, it appears to be having the opposite effect. In the zero-sum, do-or-die struggle for power, politicians now deploy overwhelming violence to subvert the process and use social media to spread fake results, only to look for scapegoats elsewhere. The CSOs must call them out.

It is easy to forget where we’re coming from. Only four years ago, 80 election results were nullified by the courts after the general elections in that year alone, compared with three court-ordered elections out of 178 three years later.

Also, when INEC proposed, among other amendments to the Electoral Act in 2016, that politicians who rig their way to power should be made to refund every kobo collected when they are found out, politicians promptly removed the amendment in the final draft sent to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent.

They want to get to power by hook and/or crook, knowing that no matter how they get there, in the end, they will still retain their loot. 

If the Kogi and Bayelsa elections were held on separate days, what happened last weekend might have been a child’s play. It appears that the more the electoral umpire tries to keep politicians on the straight and narrow path, the more ungovernable they have become, believing that if the outcome does not favour them they would either call for cancellation or win in court.

The law is clear about the grounds on which elections may be suspended or canceled. Stage-managing violence or crying wolf in order to force INEC’s hand is a slippery slope.

Since politicians have learned to fly without perching, INEC must learn to shoot without missing. It must continue to perform its role as umpire without fear, favour or ill-will and spare no cost to prosecute more electoral offenders.

The odysseys of Melaye and Dickson are sad reminders of how far we still need to go. Yet, the distance is worth going to strengthen and preserve our institutions. Those who think they have won – or would win – by bending the system, would find a rich harvest of what they have sown down the road.

Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview.

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