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Rivers of blood: Diary of a 2015 election reporter

Rivers of blood: Diary of a 2015 election reporter
April 17
11:10 2015
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“Did you choose Rivers or Rivers chose you”? That was the response I got from Nnamdi Odikpo, a correspondent of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in Abuja, when I told him that I had been assigned to cover the presidential and governorship elections in Rivers state. Odikpo would not understand my fascination – or was it TheCable’s? – with “battleground” Rivers.

I hardly make any serious career move without informing Femi Adesina, managing director of The Sun Newspaper who has been a light unto my path in the journalistic world.

“Taiwo, you have to be very careful there,” he said this time. “Make sure you stay away from volatile areas. The Lord will go with you.”

Having recorded the highest rate of violence across the country during the pre-election period, Rivers was literally no-go area. As a matter of fact, in the buildup to the election, the national human rights commission had listed the state as one of the flash points to watch out for.

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Days before the election, my mother warned all her children to stay indoors during the poll, so telling her of my coming journey was not an option. But all the same, I landed safely on March 26 and headed straight to the office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)  for accreditation.

On the eve of the presidential election, I surveyed parts of Port Harcourt, visiting Rumokuru, Artillery junction, Ogunabale Along, Rupokwu, Rumueme, Igwuruta, Airforce, Choba road to sample public opinion about the election.

While I noticed apathy on the part of some, a sense of gloom had descended on others.

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POLICEMEN AT WAR WITH ONE ANOTHER

Policemen

On the day of the presidential election, I moved about town, observing and trying to be careful. The first sign of hostility was among policemen. An officer on a four-wheel drive with the registration number of the police refused to stop at the check point close to the INEC headquarters in the state. The policemen on duty got angry and threatened to open fire.

Later, the policeman in the vehicle explained that he was one of the drivers in the convoy of the inspector-general, but his colleagues won’t even soft-pedal. “Why you no wan stop?” a fair-complexioned policeman asked and before the driver responded, another followed up: “IG dey inside? Na you be the first person wey go drive IG? I go burn your head o.”

The drama coincided with the period when my cab was stopped, so I watched in awe until we were asked to leave.

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A CRIME TO TAKE PHOTOS

Rumola

Some 10 minutes after, it was my turn. A group of young men sitting in clusters in front of the Rivers State College of Arts and Science, Rumola, Port Harcourt, the alma mater of First Lady Patience Jonathan, were annoyed that I took pictures without informing them. They were bent on fomenting trouble because they felt I wanted to use the pictures against them.

An elderly man finally made them reason but not until I pretended that the pictures had been deleted.

STATEWIDE VIOLENCE

Rivers 14

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I proceeded to Ikwerre local government with the hope of going to Ubima, the hometown of Rotimi Amaechi, governor of Rivers state. But Ademola Oduniyi of Superscreen Television had been there earlier, so he informed me that violence had broken out. Not long afterwards, I listened to Amaechi on radio, confirming the story and alleging that Gesila Khan, resident electoral officer in the state, was conniving with the Peoples Democratic Power (PDP) to rig the election.

Reports kept pouring in that there were skirmishes in Okpobo Nkoro, Asari Toru, Ghokana, Tai and some other local government areas in the state.

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Rivers 7

Gesila Khan within INEC office

GUNSHOTS, BUT NO ONE CARES

Rivers 4

Wike and wife. Behind is his cousin who served as PDP agent at his polling unit

Subsequently, I instructed my driver to head to the village of Nyesom Wike – whom INEC has now declared winner of the controversial governorship election – in Obi Akpor local government. As I connected the road leading to Wike’s ward, I noticed the recklessness of security operatives who drove at neck-breaking speed when there was hardly any need for it, as the roads were as free as the air.

On three separate occasions, different vehicles conveying military men crossed our vehicle and I had to explain my mission in Rivers each time, displaying my identity card to convince them that I was no fake journalist. A friendly officer later explained that some impersonators had been caught.

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Sporadic gunshots rocked the air as I arrived Whimpy Junction in Obi Akpor, a few metres from Wike’s polling zone. Only strangers like me ran for cover as others carried on as if nothing happened.

Wike Voting (2)

Wike casts his vote

While waiting for the PDP candidate to cast his vote, word went round that hoodlums had killed a soldier within that region. The deceased was said to be escorting INEC officials to a polling unit when the criminals opened fire on him.

Koko Essien, commander of 2 brigade of the Nigerian army Port Harcourt, confirmed the development.

This death made military men who surrounded Wike’s house to become more aggressive. A reporter of Nigeria Info, a radio station in the state, who tried to take photos, was threatened by a gun-wielding soldier.

You wan do wetin?” he asked in authoritative Pidgin English. “I go comot your head.”

The situation was so tensed that Stanley Ogidi, a photo journalist with Punch Newspaper, who had just arrived the community from apparently volatile areas, wondered if it was possible for anyone to take pictures at all.

THUGS TAKE ‘OFFENDERS’ TO WIKE’S COMPOUND

I spent about 45 minutes at Ward 9 Unit 7, where the PDP candidate voted, and noticed that about five men were carried into Wike’s compound.  No one knew their offence, but I wondered if taking them to a private compound was better than handing them over to law enforcement agents.

Eventually, Wike voted and I left for Rupokwu, where I witnessed another clash between party agents.

DEATHS… HIJACK OF ELECTORAL MATERIALS

Rivers 5

While at Rukpokwu, the driver received a phone call that soldiers had killed one Chris at Ward 3, Unit 002, Oghale community in Eleme, a drive of about 30 minutes away. I asked the driver to move but by the time we got there, the tension had died down. Only lamentations and different accounts.

The people preferred discussing the issue among themselves rather than granting interview to the press – and they did in hushed tones. While some said Chris was killed when he attempted to prevent thugs from hijacking electoral materials, others said he died because he was confrontational with the soldiers.

I also heard of how gunmen hijacked electoral materials meant for Wards 4, 5, and 6 in Buguma and torched some houses in Bera and Gokana local government areas.

A young man was said to have been stabbed to death in a fracas between supporters of PDP and APC in Kpite, Tai local government area, during the accreditation exercise.

In Ozuaha, Ikwerre local government area, one person was allegedly killed and another inflicted with machete cut.

At the end of the irregularities-marred exercise, l went to INEC office where results were supposed to be collated but as at a few minutes before 12am when I departed, not a single collation officer had arrived. I later learnt from the colleagues who kept the mosquitoes at the INEC headquarters well-fed that nothing happened throughout the night.

THE GOVERNORSHIP ELECTION

Rivers 3

I returned to Rivers again for the governorship election and from my hotel room in Eleme, I could hear gunshots all through the night on the election eve. Well, it prepared me for the battle ahead. I resolved to be exceptionally careful. Like the presidential election, I was monitoring developments through the radio.

Since I had been to Wike’s ward and learnt that Okpobo Nkoro, the community of Dakuku Peterside, the APC gubernatorial candidate, was faraway, I decided to head for Ubima to cover the governor and had a smooth ride until I got to Omuanwa, the village before my destination point.

APC THUGS ATTACKED ME

Rivers 8

Stop there, where una dey go? Open your booth,” the uncontrolled mob wielding cudgels, cutlasses and bottles screamed at us.

The driver wanted to speed off but the hoodlums were in possession of vehicles and bikes, so I advised otherwise, thinking they would let us be after explaining to them. I was sending updates to the office with my phones at the time of the incident and one of them charged at me: “Bring those phones.”

I wouldn’t give in easily and the criminal stared deeply into my eyes, “You dey mad?” He hit me hard to show he meant business and at that point, I remembered how Charles Eruka of Channels Television was stabbed at a rally in Rivers, so I surrendered immediately.

They pounced on the driver and ordered Iseribhor Okhueleigbe of Tell Magazine and I into another vehicle.

A slim, dark guy carried our bags, mine containing laptops, power bank, midget, camera, wallet, my identity card and a few other items. Fortunately for Iseh, his phones were in his pocket.

After driving a few minutes, they ordered us out of the bus and moments later, my driver came to join us with his head dripping blood. While we were looking for a way to make him get first aid treatment, I asked for the community leader but no one would answer.

Eventually, a good Samaritan took me to a man who simply gave his name as Sunny, said to be the personal assistant to one Bestman Amadi, former vice-chairman of Ikwerre local government area, and the one whom our attackers were working for.

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