Lokoja and Abuja — Hundreds of thugs yesterday nearly disrupted a stakeholders' meeting in Lokoja, Kogi State where key actors for Saturday's gubernatorial election in the state converged to sign a peace accord.
It took the intervention of police operatives who fired teargas canisters to disperse the hoodlums before the meeting was concluded.
The meeting had in attendance the Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu, National Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, Director General of National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Brig. Gen. Shaibu Ibrahim and other stakeholders in the electoral process.
The gathering was disrupted when some hoodlums attacked the governorship candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Natasha Akpoti, and the party's state chairman, Mouktar Atima.
Natasha has been cleared by the Federal High Court in Abuja to participate in the election.
She was, however, attacked alongside her entourage while trying to get access to the venue of the stakeholders meeting which held at Idrinana Hotels, Lokoja.
It was a disorderly scene for nearly 30 minutes at the main entrance of the venue as two groups - those who wanted the SDP candidate to be part of the event and those opposed to the move - struggled to have their way.
Daily Trust reports that it took the intervention of men of the Nigerian Army, the police and other security agents to rescue the SDP governorship candidate and the party's chairman during the altercation.
The security personnel reportedly tried to prevail on Natasha and her entourage to go back but she allegedly rejected the entreaties, insisting that she was duly invited for the meeting as a gubernatorial candidate.
The party chairman, Atima, who tried to mediate in the disagreement, was equally manhandled and beaten during the melee.
Police thereafter fired teargas canisters to disperse the unruly political thugs from the venue.
Daily Trust reports that IGP Adamu, INEC's Yakubu and other prominent personalities at the venue had to be shielded by security operatives from the thugs that tried to assault everyone on sight.
Reacting to the attack, spokesman of the Natasha/Khalid Campaign Organisation, Joel Odaudu, described what happened as "outrageous and barbaric," and urged Governor Yahaya Bello, the IGP, Director of DSS and other security agents to ensure adequate security for their candidate and supporters ahead of the election.
Speaking shortly after the incident, Atimah said he was dismayed "by the extent to which our society had got rotten."
He appeared too weak to talk at some length when our correspondent sought to speak with him.
In a statement yesterday, the Chief Press Secretary to INEC chairman, Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi, expressed dismay that the governorship candidate was not allowed into the venue.
"We were inside the hall and wouldn't know what was going on outside," he said.
"One thing is sure: she did not arrive in good time. But that is not enough reason for anybody to prevent her from coming inside.
"She has a right to take her place inside the hall. We had heard that she was outside and efforts were being made to bring her inside the hall. We need her to sign the Peace Accord, the process of which is currently on," Oyekanmi said.
He added that the SDP representative at the meeting refused to endorse the peace accord after the incident.
He said: "We asked the legal officer of our Kogi State office to go outside the hall and look for Natasha Akpoti, but he came back and reported that he searched the entire premises but could neither locate her nor her entourage. The representative of the SDP inside the hall was asked to endorse the peace accord, but he refused."
IGP reads riot act
At the venue of the peace accord, IG Adamu warned political thugs and all those being recruited to perpetrate violence to stay off the polling arena on Saturday in their own interest.
"We have reports that some people are planning to import thugs; we will checkmate them," he said.
"For those of you in possession of arms, I urge you to surrender them now because we will be ruthless with anyone that comes out with arms on election day," he said.
He also warned that politicians will not be allowed to move about with security escorts on election day, just as he warned against movement from one polling unit to the other.
IGP Adamu assured that adequate security and protection would be provided for electoral officials, electoral materials and INEC facilities during the election.
He told policemen on election duty to be professional, adhere to the code of conduct expected of them as well as provide level playing field for all candidates in the election.
The IG had earlier approved the deployment of 35,000 policemen to Kogi State for the election during which a senatorial by-election will also be held.
We are ready - INEC
INEC Chairman Prof. Mahmood Yakubu has said that the electoral umpire is fully set for the conduct of Saturday's election in Kogi and Bayelsa states.
He said 12 out of the 14 schedules of the commission's activities for the Kogi governorship election had been successfully implemented, with the only two left as; the Last Day of campaign (Nov. 14) and Election Day proper (Nov. 16).
He also said all non-sensitive materials had been deployed across the 21 local government areas while the sensitive ones were already in custody of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Prof. Yakubu said sensitive materials would be inspected and dispatched in the presence of party agents, accredited observers, security agents and journalists.
He assured that the governorship election in Kogi will not be hampered by the court pronouncement on inclusion of SDP candidate Natasha Akpoti.
"I will like to assure the people of Kogi State that our operations will not be affected by the judgement delivered by the court five days ago in which a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja ordered the commission to include a political party on the ballot," he said.
The INEC chairman said 12 cases of intra-party disputes challenging political parties' primaries were still hanging but the situation would not deter the commission from going ahead with the elections.
He reiterated the resolve of the commission to deploy Smart Card Readers for the election in Kogi and Bayelsa states, saying it was mandatory to use the card readers for proper accreditation and voter verification and authentication.
He also warned that the ban on the use of mobile phones and other photographic devices in polling units was still in force and would be strictly enforced and monitored.
He appealed to political actors in the election to conduct themselves peacefully to enable INEC deliver free, fair and credible election.
Wada, Bello, others sign peace accord
Daily Trust reports that while the fight outside the venue of Kogi peace meeting raged, INEC which organised the event continued with the business of signing the peace accord during which 17 political parties, including the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition parties, led by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), appended their signatures.
Governor Bello of APC and Engr. Musa Wada of PDP and the other candidates all assured of their support for a non-violent election.
But Engr. Wada in his remarks raised concern over alleged arrests of PDP members and attacks by suspected political thugs from the ruling APC ahead of the election, urging security agencies to ensure adequate security for the election.
He also urged the security agencies to provide level playing field for all candidates taking part in the election.
On his part, the running mate of Governor Bello, Edward Onoja, said the administration had zero tolerance for violence, claiming that it was the opposition that was perpetrating violence.
Corps members urged to resist bribe
NYSC DG Brig. Gen. Shuaibu Ibrahim yesterday warned all youth corps members serving as INEC ad hoc staff to shun bribe and engaging in any form of electoral malpractice in the course of their national duty.
He gave the warning while addressing the corps members who have been trained by INEC ahead of Saturday election in the state.
The DG urged the corps members to see their assignment as a call to national duty and therefore display high sense of patriotism and commitment.
He advised them to remain neutral and apolitical in the discharge of their electoral duties.
He said the involvement of youth corps members as ad hoc staff by INEC had brought some level of credibility and acceptability to the electoral process, and urged them not to betray the confidence reposed in them by the country.
SDP wants election postponed
In a twist, the National Chairman of SDP, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, yesterday called on INEC to postpone the gubernatorial because of "unfavourable security" in Kogi State.
Prof. Adeniran, who made the call yesterday while addressing journalists in Abuja, said SDP members including its governorship candidate in the election had come under heavy attacks by political thugs in the last few days leading to the razing down of the party's state secretariat in Lokoja over the weekend.
"The SDP is calling for the postponement of the Kogi State governorship election as a result of the setbacks that the party and her candidate Natasha Akpoti suffered by the unjust disqualification of the party candidate which was restored by a competent court of jurisdiction; and yet our candidate and party leader were prevented from gaining access to the venue where candidates were to sign the peace accord in Lokoja.
"We also once again wish to draw the attention of the Nigerian Police, as well as all other national security agencies to the huge threat to security and peace of the state that the governorship election has become.
"The rising tension and dark cloud of despair which is building up across Kogi State ahead of the November 16 governorship election must be adequately addressed and very fast in order to prevent the election from engendering anarchy as well as to restore the confidence of electorates and the SDP members in particular in the election," he said.