By Catherine Kyenret Angai
I travelled to Jalingo, the Taraba state capital, on June 13. With me were my husband and our two sons. Taraba is one of the six states that make up the North East geopolitical zone of Nigeria. It shares interstate borders with Bauchi and Gombe states to the north, Adamawa State to the east, and Benue, Nasarawa, and Plateau states to the west. The state has numerous small ethnic groups. There are 16 local government areas, including Wukari.
There are about 1000 security check points on the road between Abuja and Taraba State, I know that’s an exaggeration but when you are travelling 8 hours the check points are a menace. We arrived Jaliingo without incident, completed the business that we went there for and began our journey back to Abuja on Sunday. Knowing the distance we had to cover we got on to a very early start and by past 7am we had arrived Wukari. Just before Wukari town we were stopped at a military checkpoint and the driver was asked to park. This came as a surprise because we were travelling in an ‘impressive’ Infiniti SUV. Impressive by Nigeria’s security check point standards, tinted and all. Added to this was the highly impressive Government number plate which usually meant almost unfettered access through checks. The military man at the check point insisted on checking every bag and box in the boot. I welcomed the stop to mix some baby food. He apologized for being thorough and we didn’t pick issues either. He kept emphasizing that he was just doing his job. He was done with us and let us go with a ‘clean bill’.
About 500 meters from the military checkpoint there was a mobile police check point, different from normal police check point, High way police patrol check points and all other countless checks. These set hailed the driver and my husband with ‘oga’ banters and let us pass. My head was down because I was feeding my son when I heard my husband shout ‘what is this?!’ He called out to driver saying ‘turn, turn!’ I raised my head up to see a crowd of angry young men with sticks running towards the car. The driver spun round and avoided one of them breaking the windscreen of the car but could not avoid the one that broke the window where my First son was seated. The driver was on 160km/hr but it seemed the car was crawling. We were back at the military check where we had been thoroughly checked. We informed the military man in charge of what we had just encountered and he informed us that a call was put through to him just as we had left of the brewing crisis so after we had passed no other car had been allowed to pass the check point.
Wukari crisis can be likened to several other crises in Nigeria that have been difficult to understand. The underlying reasons for the violence and killings, the deep seated animosity amongst ethnic groups and religious clusters is incomprehensible. There has been recurrent ethnic clashes between Jukuns and Tivs, and also between Christians and so called ‘Hausa-Fulani’ herdsmen who are mostly Muslims. The reason for Sunday’s clash has been blamed on infraction between youths with the central issue being the charging of a mobile phone at a kiosk where phones are usually taken to charge since electricity is a luxury! The death toll is now placed at about 50 persons with numbers of those injured rising in the hundreds. My heart bleeds because there is no premium on lives in Nigeria.
With the time we had waiting out at the check point, the discussions we had with the military man was quite revealing. He did not seem to be too bothered about the fight. He heard the shots coming from the town and listened for a few more moments to confirm to us that ‘those are our guys’. He confirmed further ‘that should be our armoured tanker’. He said we were ‘lucky’ this particular one had started early in the day. They would likely suppress it before night time. He said if it started in the afternoon they knew that they would usually have to fight through the night.
To my surprise, young men kept trooping in from the neighbouring communities, passing through the checkpoint and headed for Wukari town where the fighting was taking place. Mr. Military man said he knew the boys were going to fight but he didn’t bother stopping them ‘unless he saw them carrying weapons’.
One thing that Mr. Military man said that struck me was when he remarked ‘those people in Abuja say elections will hold next year?’ He just re-echoed a point that has troubled a lot of us for some time bow. What really is the security plan for the 2015 general elections? Currently, the military is deployed in assistance to civilian authorities in 32 out of the 36 states in Nigeria. This suggests the tenuous and fragile state of security in the country. The viability of elections in an environment polluted by ethno-religious conflict and largely unchecked insurgency has been severally called to question. At the recently concluded Ekiti elections the police alone deployed 12, 000 personnel, not counting deployments from the military and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. The success of the Ekiti elections notwithstanding, it is too early to believe that this issue is a done deal.
There is no arguing that security still remains a major factor that the 2015 elections will have to contend with like no elections have before now. The fact that there is a possibility that elections may not happen in certain states is no longer news. What is disturbing however is that the government has failed to systematically deal with the insecurity in the country. All eyes are on 2015 and so INEC has been placed on the pole position. It is well understood that INEC is not a security apparatus but elections are a unique event and the Commission takes the lead in framing the issues on this. It is in the light of this that INEC set up the Joint State Election Security Committees at the State level. But what really are the committees doing presently? Furthermore, INEC and AU/International-IDEA have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the implementation of a joint project on the deployment of an Electoral Risk Management (ERM) Tool in the country. Has the ERM been deployed? What level of engagements will they have with Civil Society Groups? Will the findings of this project be shared publicly?
I believe that if we value our lives the questions about the security plan should not be restricted to the 2015 elections alone. Unfortunately, the elections are upon us already and the security of all involved should dominate the public space. If an issue as small as charging of a mobile phone can lead to such mayhem, I cringe to think of what may come 2015.
Ms. Catherine Kyenret Angai is a Programme Officer with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa [OSIWA] in Abuja.