Fleeing for their lives By Emeka Omeihe

All things being equal, the Presidential and National Assembly elections will hold this Saturday. There is no cogent reason they should not hold despite suggestions from some quarters that they be postponed due to the inability of the INEC to get all registered voters their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs)

By now, so much has been put into the elections by the various political parties and their candidates that any further delay will amount to overstretching them both financially and physically. Apart from the wrong signals it will definitely send to the outside world, such a scenario is bound to demoralise not only the candidates but the electorate generally.

The opposition, for justifiable reasons is imputing sinister motives into the development and it is within it rights to do so. The National Council of State has met over the issue. But the buck has stopped at INECs table. The right thing to do in the circumstance is for all those concerned, to do the needful and ensure that all impediments to the smooth conduct of the polls as scheduled are removed.

Already, the political atmosphere has been heated up. There is even apprehension and fear in the land that the worst is about to happen. The feeling is high that the coming elections may make or mar this country. Postponing the polls in this very uncertain circumstance may be the last straw that will break the camel’s back. The authorities may be playing into the hands of those simulating calamity for this country if they go ahead with such a plan. But as it stands, the INEC will have to take responsibility should the election be bungled. That appears to be the unwritten message from the National Council of State meeting.

Moreover, aborting the elections now will be a sad reminder to the inglorious days of the military when elections were postponed, annulled or cancelled all together even when results had been collated. The Ibrahim Babangida regime had an uncanny notoriety in this regard. And we are all witnesses to the unmitigated damage which such precipitate action wrought on our collective psyche. The problem this country still encounters in the area of power shift is in the main, a logical consequence of such misguided interventions in our political process. We can ill-afford a repeat at this point in time.

That however, is not the only source of the foreboding signals that have enveloped the nation. The outcome of the elections, especially the presidential election, is fraught with frightening prospects for the peace order and unity of this country. It has come to mean so many things to so many people. The stakes are very high as sections lay claim to that office as a matter of right and none would let go.

The question on the lips of the discerning is whether this country will survive as a corporate entity after the polls. The situation is not made any easier by the utterances and threats from sundry groups and individuals laying claims to the rights of their zones to occupy that exalted office this time around. Tension and fear have been so much so that we are now regularly inundated with reports of non-indigenes fleeing their residences to their ancestral homes for fear of what is to follow with the elections.

They fear that given the high emotions that have been ruffled by events leading to the elections and the benefit of previous experiences, it is nigh risky to stay outside the place of their primordial attachment during elections. By the same logic, they seem to be saying that it is only within their states of origin that their lives and property can be guaranteed. And this point goes without saying.

The Inspector General of Police was so concerned by reports of the exodus of people especially the northern parts of the country that he had to come public reassuring that measures had been put in place to guarantee their safety wherever they live. The police boss has discharged his duties. But it is left to the people who are fleeing to their home states to believe him or not. It is left to them given the benefit of hindsight to believe whether the police had been a trusted and readily available friend in incidences of mob action and urban violence. The way they perceive their previous encounters with religious or political uprisings will point the direction as to whether they should take the police boss serious or not. And if one may hazard a guess, they are very unlikely to heed his advice and assurances. That is the stark reality.

But that is the real problem this country has to contend with rather than this obsession with which section of the country captures power in the coming elections. That thing which regularly gives rise to the feeling that one is only safe and his live and property better assured within his ethnic origin is the real problem of this country.

It can neither be whittled down nor obliterated by the mere fact of an Ijaw or Hausa-Fulani man emerging victorious in this crucial election. Rather, such feelings are further reinforced and accentuated when elections are fought along ethnic and religious lines as is evident from the current one. It is therefore not enough to ask those fleeing not to do so. It is not also enough to give assurances of their safety when the real causes of their fear are still there.

Those things that make non-indigenes unsafe outside the boundaries of their ethnic origin, those things that mark them out for selective attack each time their hosts feel aggrieved, are the greatest impediment to our national development. They are the things to watch if we are honest with ourselves. And they will continue to be so unless genuine and conscious efforts are made to redress these systemic dysfunctions.

In the past, we have seen non-indigenes suffer heavy losses in lives and property because of mere cartoons in other countries considered irreverent to the faith of some fanatics. It does not matter to the perpetrators and purveyors of violence and hate that those they attack had nothing to do with the said cartoons or alleged acts of ridicule to their faith. It is this unjustifiable penchant for such people to resort to the law of the jungle that compels non-indigenes to flee each time they notice potential sources of schism.

Most of those fleeing are not in doubt that though their ethnic group is not in a direct contest for the presidential slot, they stand the greatest victims of any violence that will follow the outcome of that election. And with threats of dire consequences coming from right, left and centre, the circumstance of those fleeing can be better appreciated.

The Catholic Bishop of Abuja Cardinal John Onaiyekan and the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar were so moved by these fears that they had to issue a joint statement warning that unless urgent steps were taken, the elections might spell crisis for this country. They also warned that religion should not be allowed to divide the country. These warnings are very instructive and are at the root of why people are fleeing.

Implicit in them, is the negative role religion and ethnicity are bound to play in determining the character and direction of the elections. These are the real irritants to contend with. They are at the heart of the progress or lack of it of this country. Elections may be fought and won. But as long as these factors remain irreducible decimals in electoral contests in this country, so long shall this country know no peace.

NATION