Three different fire incidents at Independent National Electoral Commission [INEC] offices in three different states over the past two weeks are very worrisome indeed and could pose a threat to the presidential elections taking place in two days' time.
Ten days ago, on February 3, it was reported that hoodlums set ablaze INEC's office at Isiala Ngwa South local government area of Abia State. They carried out the attack at 2 o'clock in the night. The commotion awakened youths in the area, who alerted the police and together they managed to put out the fire, but not before it damaged the building and destroyed many things inside it. This was also the second time that INEC's office in Isiala Ngwa was burnt down. Thugs set it ablaze in 2015 in the heat of the controversy surrounding the governorship election in Abia State. It had to be relocated to Umu-Ikaa and only recently returned to its normal site.
A week later, on February 9, INEC's office at Qua'an Pan Local Government Area of Plateau also went up in flames. Head of INEC's Voter Education and Publicity in the state Osaretin Imahiyereobo said the incident occurred on Saturday night. He said the fire was "caused by the negligence of a security man on duty who didn't know how to operate the generator but wanted to put it on. The office is completely burnt to ashes with all the valuables in it destroyed. Items such as ballot boxes, generators filled with fuel, cubicles, newly printed electronic and manual voters register, uncollected Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), materials for the preparations of RAC and other valuable materials were affected."
INEC later said it lost 8,966 uncollected PVCs, 14 generators and 755 ballot boxes to the fires in Abia and Plateau states. Chairman of the Commission's information and voter education committee Barrister Festus Okoye raised alarm over the fire incidents. He said police had been invited to look into them and provide adequate security. Even before police investigation was concluded, yet another fire started at an INEC office, this time in Anambra State. Two days ago, a fire broke out at INEC's office near Alex Ekwueme Square in Awka. It reportedly destroyed election material for the presidential election, including card readers, uncollected PVCs and other election materials.
Although INEC national commissioner Festus Okoye said INEC was still ready to go ahead with its election preparations, three fires at INEC offices in three different states so close to the election cannot but raise eyebrows. One of the incidents, at Abia State, has been attributed to thugs. Matters must not end there; these thugs must be fished out, their motives must be unmasked and they must be visited with exemplary punishment. It is well known for example that the banned secessionist group IPOB has called for a boycott of these polls, so it is logical to point accusing fingers in its direction. If the thugs acted at the direction of local political interests, those must be uncovered also.
Even though an official blamed the Plateau incident on a security man who tried to start a generator, the police must still find out if he did it deliberately or at the behest of someone. However illiterate the man is, he must know the importance of the office he is guarding and he must be aware of the sensitive nature of the materials brought therein with only days to the presidential election. His action must not be excused on the basis of illiteracy and ignorance alone. As for the Awka fire, no official explanation is forthcoming yet but it must also be thoroughly investigated and the culprits brought to book.
These incidents are a reminder to the security agencies that INEC offices at every location, however rural or remote, must be well protected from now until we conduct the elections, and even afterwards. We expect the utmost vigilance on their part.