The issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs), to vote or not to vote in the general elections starting on February 14, could well be a subject of fierce partisan dispute.
Given that most of IDPs – estimated not less than one million – are victims of the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, and to a lesser extent, the Tin City – Jos, Plateau State, ethnic and sectarian disputes, the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan Presidency might just not be keen on the IDPs voting — though it would be damned to voice out such sentiments.
The reason is simple. Since the government of the day takes the flaks for the parlous security situation that brought about the IDPs, the government would be right to dread refugee camps.
The opposition, on the other hand, would be loath to let go of the votes of the hurting, displaced persons. For one, their anger, other things being equal, near-assures it of block anti-government protest votes.
For another, because they are angry and emotional, they would appear in no frame of mind to scrutinise the efficacy or otherwise of the opposition’s solution to the security crisis that has put them on-the-run. The mindset of just-any-other-people-but-those-there-now would do the opposition just fine.
Still, beyond partisan preferences, IDPs’ votes are key in this election, if it were to be representative of the pulse and mood of the people.
With the grim security situation in the North East, where Boko Haram controls a chunk of the territory, particularly in Borno and Adamawa states, the chief headache of the Prof Attahiru Jega-chaired Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is how to conduct elections in this rather unsafe enclave.
INEC would wish that cup passed over it — by simply announcing (and not illogically) that the situation on the ground did not support an election!
Yet, neither the segment of the people, fed up with the Jonathan Presidency (who perceive IDPs’ votes as a likely boom to their Jonathan-must-go campaign); nor entrenched interests, especially the core North, a section of which accuses the president of alleged “softness” on Boko Haram to allegedly decimate its voting power, would have none of that.
But if insecurity would not allow voting in displaced citizens’ natural habitats, IDP camps provide a captive setting for IDPs to vote, though whether they are in the right frame of mind to do that, given their grudge against a state that has failed to protect them, is another matter.
In other words IDPs, in their camps, offer INEC the opportunity to work round the security challenge, and conduct elections in those parts of the Northeast where elections are virtually impossible.
On this score, INEC itself appears resigned to the inevitability of IDPs voting, though the reason is not clear: does INEC see IDPs voting as working round the security situation in the Northeast? Or is it just succumbing to pressure, from stakeholders who just would not take no for an answer, no matter the security challenges? It is not easy to say.
Nevertheless, INEC deserves some commendation for its positive thinking towards this tasking challenge.
Speaking at a stakeholders’ workshop on IDPs and the 2015 general election, Prof. Jega said INEC would set up special voting centres for only registered IDPs, with valid permanent voter cards (PVCs). But he insisted that those centres would be outside the camps, adding that only displaced persons still within the three troubled states would benefit from such special ballot exercises.
Why INEC is limiting IDPs to vote to those still within the troubled Northeast is not clear. If INEC has a virtual register — since its new electoral roll is digitalised — why not set up those special centres all over the country (or, at least, in the contiguous states to the Northeast – the epicentre of insurgency), since anyone with valid PVCs should be able to vote anywhere in the country?
Perhaps, it is the huge logistics involved in spreading out such centres. Still, extending the opportunity to vote to the IDPs is a bold step, for which INEC should be commended.
But if INEC is taking voting centres outside IDPs camps, then it must put in areas with fool-proof security arrangements. Indeed, for the plan to be worth its while, security is key. If INEC cannot guarantee the required level of security, then it is better it sticks to the IDP camps. It is trite to say that the plan will succeed or fail, depending on the adequacy of security.
Still, how primed are this segment of the population to vote? Perhaps their level of displacement — and disorientation — could just give a hint.
Quoting the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), IRIN – the international network on humanitarian news and analysis – said in its report of 14 March 2014, that about a half of the “12 million living in the three states (Yobe, Borno and Adamawa) are directly affected by the ongoing violence.”
The Boko Haram scourge has forced part of this fleeing population to as far as neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger as refugees. This is aside from the IDPs in other northern towns or cities, not to talk of hundreds hiding in the bush, always at risk to know which uniformed men are Nigerian soldiers, come to protect them, or Boko Haram insurgents come to capture and torture them.
“We are grappling with 10, 000 displaced people from villages in neighbouring Borno State who have fled their homes,” Mallam Maina Ularamu, the Chairman of the Madagali District Local Government Area, Adamawa State, told IRIN. “These people have nothing left; their granaries have either been looted and burned.”
IRIN’s report came before the insurgents launched their audacious raids on major towns in Adamawa like Mubi (which it temporarily renamed Medinatul Islam) and Gworza in Borno (which it also renamed Darul Hikma). The out-of-control sect even sometime threatened Yola, the Adamawa State capital; just as it has at least twice, launched frightening raids on Damaturu, the Yobe State capital. The Government House came under severe threats during the raids.
Besides, Adamawa’s quad of Michika, Madagali, Mubi North and Mubi South, Boko Haram annexed all the local government areas and renamed them “Islamic Caliphate”, sending many a resident fleeing for dear life.
For many of these IDPs, the displacement is a near-total disruption of life as they know it; and perhaps a permanent seizure of their means of livelihood.
According to the IRIN report: “The shores of Lake Chad have traditionally served as a food basket for the Northeast, but Boko Haram has driven more than 60 per cent of the farmers away.” The humanitarian news network based its information on the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
Borno State Commissioner for Agriculture, Usman Zannah, also told IRIN: “In 2013 rainy season, 5, 000 hectares of wheat and rice were left to rot in the fertile Marte area along Lake Chad, when 19, 000 farmers fled their farms for fear of Boko Haram attacks.”
IRIN also stated that both the fleeing populace and their compassionate host communities have become victims: “Many villagers have exhausted their food, which they shared with IDPs and have turned to eating the grains they reserved as seedlings for the impending rainy season,” Mallam Ularamu, the Adamawa local government chair told IRIN.
To many, the scorched earth tactics of Boko Haram might just sear them for life and even traumatise their offspring. “They burnt the whole village, including our fishing and farming tools,” Babagana Goni, a resident of Doron Baga and one of the displaced victims told IRIN in his IDPs’ camp in Maiduguri, “People are leaving the area in droves because of fear that their village could be targeted next.”
These then are the windows into the troubled psyches of IDPs in camps — fatalistic, at best; distraught, angry, bitter and near-hopeless, at worst. How do you even start campaigning to this segment of the citizenry to vote? Or even impress them to leave their camp for some polling centres to cast their ballot?
Even before voting — and since voting depends on holding a valid PVC — how do you persuade them to go to those centres to collect their PVCs, though it is a smart move by INEC to make the future voting zone PVC collection centres for those registered displaced citizens that have not collected their PVCs?
And for that matter, how do you manage IDPs who were not registered but somehow insist on voting? How do you channel their emotion from the negative thought that the same state that could not guarantee their security and safety has also conspired to deny them of their basic constitutional right to vote in elections?
These questions just underscore the fact that INEC’s decision to make displaced persons vote is about the easiest of the voting challenges thrown up by the IDP question. Aside from the key security of the voting zones, special efforts must be made to work on the troubled psyches of the IDPs, on which mind voting or not voting might be the least of their concerns.
Still, aggressive enlightenment, encouragement, motivation for the exercise and mobilisation would help. All these are a function of adequate communication.
INEC must therefore strive to put adequate communication in place vis-a-vis accurate and adequate voter information; equal access by political parties to the camps, and ensuring that political parties, in their vote-pitching, couch messages very sensitive to the plight of the IDPs.
If INEC can successfully pull off a decent percentage of IDPs voting, and the voting zone is safe and secure, and the election is deemed free, fair and credible, it would have succeeded in making the bulk of the Northeast population vote in the crucial elections, even if the security situation there suggested it was a near-mission impossible.