But that was a mere precursor of what was to come: the shameful theft of the people’s will. A bye-election it was, but a massive BUY-election it became.
On Saturday, 11 September 2023, the good people of Isoko South Constituency 1 came out to choose a new representative to fill the Delta State House of Assembly seat left vacant by reason of the sudden and sad death of Mr Kenneth Ogba, an amiable gentleman, my last recollection of whom was at the reception of guests following the burial of my 107-year-old mother on the 1st of May. I gladly and proudly flew the banner of the All Progressives Congress in the bye-election. I have been seeking an elective position for public service since 2014 when I returned from my university teaching position in the United States, starting with my bid to represent the Isoko people in the House of Representatives. I firmly believe that all who are primarily motivated by public, and not self-service, should aspire to or accept any genuine post for doing so.
Whereas in 2015, a rogue aspirant was furtively funded to snatch the ticket from me and disappear into thin air thereafter, this time I was the candidate. And it was my pleasure to visit homes, traditional rulers’ palaces, town halls and school fields campaigning, on the slogan of electing a visible, credible and nationally known advocate of democracy and good governance as the voice of the constituents. At every stop, I was humbled to know that I needed little or no introduction, the only worry being whether our toxic political culture, which prevents the election of radical progressives, would permit a different outcome this time. Boosted by the tireless efforts of the Deputy Senate President — who led leaders of the party across the state to the flag-off of the campaign and to the long closing finale through Idheze, Ivrogbo, Irri, Emede and Oleh — a groundswell of support promised a happy result. Apart from the group defections from the Peoples Democratic Party in Irri, Idheze, Ivrogbo and Emede, especially that of scores of the youth wing of the Isoko Development Union, countless others joined the APC fold singly or in twos and threes. The rain-defying rally in Oleh on flag-off day and the mammoth rally under floodlights in Emede on the last day of campaigning sent shivers down the spine of the main rival party, PDP, the dominance-without-development, power-without-progress party that has had the Big Heart state in its death-grip since 1999.
The signs of desperation were there early enough. Working hand-in-hand with the Social Democratic Party, a party without structure in the state but to which my opponent had defected at the speed of light upon losing the primary, my posters were ripped off the wall the minute our agents turned their back. Not satisfied, my erstwhile fellow party member and rival for the ticket rallied his supporters to pull down and shred my billboard banners from Oleh to Emede, Ada and Ivrogbo. I reported the vile and childish behaviour to the police, the Odio-Ologbo and President-General of Oleh, and let the matter lie. I wasn’t going to be baited into brutish behaviour.
But that was a mere precursor of what was to come: the shameful theft of the people’s will. A bye-election it was, but a massive BUY-election it became. As is its wont, the party which wears as a badge of honour its unbroken governance without transformational progress for over two decades had campaigned very little but planned well its greatest electoral heist to date. Knowing it couldn’t win on the credibility and popularity of its candidate, nor on its record of governance, PDP’s henchmen and women settled for brazen vote-buying on election day. A troubling phenomenon already with sums of N500, N1000 and when the stakes are high, N2000, for a vote in past elections, this time the party’s hierarchy betrayed its utter desperation by throwing the entire treasury of the state wide open and proffering an average of N4000 for a vote. They did not hesitate to offer up to N10,000 to some critical voters, as was widely acknowledged by grateful recipients in Emede, the centre of the money-bazaar and where the worst aspects of the electoral outrage played out. That desperation led to the cold-blooded murder of Mr Aziakpono Igweh, the APC agent at the Unit 5 polling station of Irri Ward 10.
The result: through a combination of bags and bags of the state’s money hauled in to buy votes and strategic use of violence, the bye-election which had begun on a promising note of orderly voting was subtly, at first, and brazenly, later, transmogrified into a BUY-election. What a cynical preying on the poverty and outright pauperisation of the masses! The case of the APC member who went with his mother to the polling station only for his dear mother to vote for PDP on the ground that “O be yo igho ro” — They are the ones with the money — demonstrates the deeply corruptive effect of vote-buying. It’s true that vote-buying did not start with the election of Saturday. It has been one of the cancerous ills of our politics but before the 11th of September, 2021, the practice was euphemistically styled as money for “pure water” to slake the thirst of the good citizens who stood in the sun to cast their vote. All that changed dramatically when the Delta State government abandoned all pretences for the plain bargain of a cash-and-carry election victory. Naturally, there can be no talk of a free exercise of will when such monetary inducements, capitalising on the grinding poverty of the masses, overwhelm and corrupt the voter’s mind.
And that leads to the questions: What causes a party that has been in absolute control of governance for two decades and counting to be so utterly desperate as to be prepared to bankrupt the state for a single legislative seat bye-election? If prepared to go that far for a bye-election, how much might they be more than willing, less than two years hence, to offer for a governorship vote — N20,000, N50,000? Is there a limit to the PDP’s price for absolute control of power for power’s sole sake? And what are the immediate consequences of this unconscionable draining and diversion of the state’s resources to buy an election — how many roads, schools, health centres, monthly salaries, waste disposal services, etc., will be neglected or unpaid due to this wanton profligacy? We will, of course, get no answers, because the very House of Assembly that is best placed to ask these questions has no opposition. And that was one of the reasons for the governing party’s desperation and recklessness: over their dead bodies would an outspoken, independent-minded and credible individual be allowed in the legislative house to stir things up and break the silence of complicity. Only yes-men and yes-women at all cost!
But nothing lasts for ever. In business as in politics, monopolies are an indubitable evil. Even vulture capitalists know this, hence anti-trust laws aimed at breaking up monopolies and promoting free trade through fair competition. The good news is that monopolies, or dynasties, to use a more familiar political term, create the conditions for their own eventual end or dissolution. So full of their power, they promote arrogance, hubris, narcissism and a lack of critical self-awareness. “Whether or not we govern well, whether or not you freely vote for us, we shall win” becomes the conscious and unconscious state of mind of power monopolists, as PDP which styles itself as the largest party in Africa and once boasted of ruling over Nigeria for sixty years. This ugly ethos is more harmlessly expressed in my state as “Delta is a PDP state,” as if that is a biological or natural fact, the way one might say that the earth is round! That’s what unchallenged power does, given human nature. But the desperation of two Saturdays ago shows that even the most besotted, highly-placed, members of Africa’s largest party are no longer so convinced of their political invincibility. The chink in the armour grows more visible and it is our duty as the party of progressives to widen and shatter it.
Ordinarily, I should congratulate my triumphant opponent, and for the formality of it, I hereby do so, the forces that so darkly and dearly bought his “victory” being beyond him. But I congratulate, more heartily, the steadfast citizens who spurned the thousands offered for their votes and battled fruitlessly to the end. And, also, my non-partisan friends who “don’t normally give money to politicians” but made exceptions to support me. Party faithfuls, uncompromising citizens and independent-minded friends alike know that desperation and a willingness to bankrupt a state for dubious electoral victories will not triumph for ever. The only thing permanent is change, and soon enough — 2023, I predict — progressive change will come and Delta State will be free from the strangulating dominance of stagnating one-party rule. We must not be daunted or deterred. To restore some semblance of sanity and integrity to our elections, however, the federal government and INEC must act quickly to curtail the lethal phenomenon of vote-buying. The most important citizenship right, that of freely choosing representatives in government, must not be reduced to the banality of selling it to the highest bidder. Self-governance or democracy is one thing; the buying of yam or fish another. Democracy, even in our country where that concept is under one of its greatest trials, ought to be priceless.
Ifowodo was the APC candidate in the 11 September 2021 bye-election for the Isoko South Constituency 1 seat in the Delta State House of Assembly.