How violence is robbing Nigerians of their voices | News about elections

Lagos, Nigeria – When Tobi Olayinka set out to vote on Saturday morning in Nigeria’s Lagos state, she carried a backpack filled with food and drink and an umbrella against the sun.

The 31-year-old first-time voter believed she could make a difference with her vote. The Lagosian was determined to stick around her polling station until the results came.

Olayinka is one of the many young Nigerians who were excited to vote with the emergence of Labor Party presidential candidate Peter Obi, a third frontrunner in what used to be a two-horse race between major parties – the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

“I had so much hope that our future could be better this time,” she told Al Jazeera.

She cast her vote before 10:00 (09:00 GMT) on February 25 and then settled in front of the closed shops across her Constituency Unit (PU) in Ojuelegba, a popular block in Surulere Local Government on the Lagos mainland.

Counting was expected to begin after voting finished around 2:30 p.m. – a moment Olayinka was waiting for. People who were already waiting in line were allowed to vote, and in some places voting went until midnight. But she never got to see the results from her polling unit, registered by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as number 24 in Akinhami/Cole Ward.

Around 1:00 PM (12:00 GMT), a group of men rushed her from the intersection with Akinhami Street. Then she heard a shot. She ran for cover.

“I ran faster than I’ve ever run, I flew over flower pots and gutters,” she said. Finally, she hid in a compound where one of the residents opened the gate to let people escape the violence.

What happened next at PU 24 was recorded from a roof terrace directly across the street with an unobstructed view of the polling station, which was attacked by 10 men.

Someone grabs the table the election officers were sitting on and throws it out into the street, scattering all the documents that were on top, the video shows.

Another walks straight towards the box with the red cover marked PRESIDENTIAL, lifts it high above his head and slams it on the asphalt, the discarded ballots piling up in the street. The other two ballot boxes receive the same treatment from a third person.

All this takes no more than 20 seconds. According to eyewitnesses, the violent group continued their journey down Akinwande Street, ransacking three more polling stations in the area before taking off.

Violence is a proven strategy in Nigeria – Africa’s largest democracy – to disrupt the voting process, especially in neighborhoods traditionally contested by the opposition.

Violent groups known as “political thugs” have been used by the established political parties in Nigeria for decades to influence the electoral process by force.

If the polls don’t seem to be going their way, the candidates mobilize these thugs to raid the polling units. Not only does it scare people away from voting in the first place, but it also invalidates the ballots of those who do come out to vote.

The electoral body canceled the results of the four polling units that were attacked in Olayinka’s neighbourhood.

According to INEC’s data, a total of 1,950 voters were registered at these units. And it is not the only place in Surulere, one of Lagos’ 20 local government areas with an estimated population of 650,000, where the voting process was severely disrupted on election day.

On Akerele Street, two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Olayinka’s polling unit, about five men wearing black masks and holding black pump-action rifles jumped out of a yellow minibus near the gate of Falolu Road around 2:30 p.m. (1:30 GMT). They fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd as Nigerian and international journalists looked on.

The masked men took possession of the presidential ballot box and destroyed the other two before disappearing. Voting at this polling unit with 934 registered voters was subsequently cancelled.

A little over a kilometer away on Adedoyin Road, there were hardly any signs left for polling stations 35 and 36. Green shards of glass were strewn on the street and masses of completed ballot papers lay trampled in the gutter.

The election officials were nowhere to be found: they had fled when the violence started. Voting for Nigeria’s national elections went ahead, but the votes of the 1,554 registered voters at these two constituencies would not count.

“An hour ago we suddenly heard a noise,” said a street dweller who had just cast his vote and was waiting for a friend.

Five men who got out of a Toyota Sienna and a Corolla and holding bottles, machetes and sticks began to aim at the waiting crowd at a polling station.

“Bottles flew through the air. Everyone started running and I got hurt,” she said, pointing to her heel where shrapnel left deep gashes.

The men destroyed the ballot boxes and threw away the papers. They took away the box with the red cover marked PRESIDENTIAL.

The witnesses to the violence on Adedoyin Road disagree about which party the robbers belong to.

They all agree on one thing: These were political thugs sent by candidates who were unhappy with the expected outcome of the results.

Voters felt helpless as their ballots went up in smoke.

“Look how they are depriving us of our democratic rights,” said a man with a gray beard, shaking his head in the ditch with the crumpled ballots.

The Election Commission canceled the results of 20 polling units in Surulere due to violent incidents. The total number of voters registered at these units was 12,955.

Fred Adoki was on Adedoyin Road when the violence broke out. A couple of days later, he is still shaken by what happened on his street. He waited to cast his vote in a positive mood.

– The audience was so large. It made me so happy, he said. He still can’t believe they all came in vain.

“This time I thought I had the power to make a difference,” the 37-year-old said. “But now I’m robbed of it. It’s so frustrating.”

That left him feeling disenfranchised, but he said it won’t deter him from voting next time: “I believe we have the power to make a change.”

Tobi Olayinka, the first-time voter from Lagos, said she is more determined than ever to make her vote count.

“It’s too important. Nothing works in Nigeria. It shouldn’t be such a struggle to stay in this place. We need change for this generation and for our children,” she told Al Jazeera.

On March 11, Nigeria will hold another round of elections to elect lawmakers and governors for its 36 states, including Lagos State, Nigeria’s economic capital. Voting will also be held at the polling stations where the ballots were cancelled.

“I am a very stubborn person. I will be there again with my backpack,” Olayinka said with a grin.

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