The courage and the struggle to vote in Nigeria.
Shortly before Lizy left her room for the INEC office, she learnt through a phone call that Caroline Aghatise, her friend, had been shot. Five minutes after the call, her mother burst into the room, panting and waving her hand in agitation. “Caroline is dead,” she announced. “She was shot at INEC office at Ikpoba Hill.” Staring at her wild eyes, Julius Osunbor knew the thoughts that were disturbing her mind. In the days preceding the election, a lot of Lizy’s party members had suffered one misfortune or the other. The three bedroom flat belonging to Dick Ojenor, the party secretary, had been burnt down. Henry Akiddo, a youth coordinator, had been waylaid on the road by thugs, a baton smashed against his skull, and the blood from a cut dripped into the soil. Thomas Amadasun, the auditor, had been stopped as he drove into his compound, dragged out of the car, beaten up, and his prized linen coat torn to shreds. Lizy’s mother feared that Lizy could suffer a similar fate.
“You must not go to the INEC office,” she told her daughter. “It’s dangerous. You might be shot as well.”
Lizy’s father came into the room; an agonized look shone in his eyes. Though Julius was not given to fright, he felt foreboding in the air just by looking at his face. As Lizy’s father began to plead with his daughter not to go to the INEC office, his eyes fearful and manner hesitant, Julius sat on a sofa, and felt the impotence of the situation. He knew the reason for the feeling of impotence. Lizy wanted to go to INEC’s office, and she usually carried out what she wanted to do. Her father knew that she wanted to go as well, but he argued that the place was surrounded by thugs who held cutlasses, cut-to-size rifles, and charms; thugs who had come to snatch ballot boxes before they were carried to the polling stations; thugs ready to attack Lizy’s party’s monitors. Lizy stared at her father’s agonized face, and said she had been frightened of thugs in the past, and that she had suffered for it politically, but that she was not ready to chart that course now. She sank into one of the sofas in the room and fell silent. She refused to respond to further comments, not even when her mother spoke to her, not even when Charles, her cousin, said he heard a rumor that the electoral office was to be bombed. Finally, Lizy stood up, hitched up her black pants, and said she was going to the INEC office and that nobody in Benin City could stop her.
As she marched out of the room, her father and mother followed her and stepped in front of her at the porch. Placing a hand on the railing, she listened, her brow knitted in a frown, as her father told her that for safety’s sake she should forget about going to the INEC office. She could go to the polling station to vote for her party. He had already been to the polling booths. The thugs had not arrived. She could go and vote. She would still be supporting her party, and her colleagues would understand.
“They’ll not see you as a betrayal.”
“It’s not the issue of betrayal. It’s of commitment.”
“I didn’t say it’s only of betrayal,” he said. “It’s that of safety. INEC’s office is not safe. Policemen are there with guns. The thugs are there. It’s a flashpoint. You could get caught in the crossfire. Please, for once, listen to me.”
Lizy often told Julius that she liked to disobey her father. When at eleven she broke her leg playing football in her school field, and her father warned her not to play the game because it could cripple her, she disobeyed him and continued with the sport. When a few years later she bought boxing gloves and daily went to the backyard of the family home to practice boxing, and her father caught her and made vague sounds about her being the only child, she ignored him. When she went to a party at a notorious spot for thieves in Benin City and returned at about twelve in the morning, and he shouted at her, she didn’t mind him, telling him she wasn’t scared of being attacked by robbers, thugs, cultists, and other undesirables.
After the talk at the porch, Lizy’s mother, instead of following her husband to their apartment in the sprawling compound, insisted on waiting. Julius knew why. Lizy had not committed herself to staying away from INEC’s office, and her mother wanted to say more. She said her husband was disturbed by this election business. When he heard that Ojenor’s flat had caught fire, he couldn’t sleep, tossing about the bed throughout the night, imagining that Lizy could suffer from the same fate. On learning that Henry had been waylaid by thugs and beaten up, he had caught a headache.
“You don’t know this because you’ve been out campaigning,” her mother said. “I had to nurse him for days. He kept blaming me for encouraging you to participate in politics. I went through hell. Caroline’s death has completely disorganized him.”
Hitching up her pants, Lizy told her in a stubborn voice why she had to go to INEC’s office. Her party had to monitor the movement of campaign materials. If it didn’t, the agents of the ruling party would hijack them and they would end up in their private houses, where their people would thumbprint the ballot papers. Lizy and many others had been selected to do the monitoring. She had given her word that she would assist in the task. The monitoring group had been practicing maneuvers for two weeks. The members were scheduled to meet at the INEC office by eight o’clock. If Lizy didn’t appear, they would be disappointed in her.
“Tell them you came but the thugs drove you back. They’ll understand. You’re a woman.”
“I know I’m a woman,” Lizy said. “But why disappoint them on today of all days?”
“For my sake, you’re a woman. Remember, you’re my only child, my only hope.”
Silence fell between them; but after a moment, an exasperated sigh came out of Lizy’s lips, and Julius knew she would obey her mother. Two days ago, when her mother told her not to go to her party’s office, that policemen were there with their guns and rifles, Lizy gave an exasperated sigh, but complied. In the morning of the next day, when her mother, panting and waving her hand in agitation, told her that thugs of the ruling party were dragging out agents of the opposition from their cars and punching them on the streets and that she should wait awhile before leaving home, Lizy gave an exasperated sigh, but obeyed. This time, she acted the same way, but said she should at least go to the polling station to vote. After a short moment, her mother agreed. Lizy, along with Charles and Julius, decided to go to Idia Primary School to cast their votes.
When they got there, contrary to what Lizy’s father said, the thugs of the Peoples Party, the ruling party, were crawling all over the place, shouting at the top of their voices. Some were dressed in black mufti, black trousers, and black shoes. Others wore fez caps, vests engraved with giant eagles, and waved the pictures of the politicians they were supporting. Many had a few weeks before been touts at the motor-parks in the city, but they had changed. The thirty-something and forty-something-year-old men had now learnt the slogan of the ruling party. They were swaggering all over the place, sending fear into the hearts of those who had come to vote. After observing them for a few minutes, Julius saw how they operated. A voter would come to the polling station and start to discuss with an agent of the Action Congress, Lizy’s party, before going to queue on the line. He would be bumped off it, and so one of Lizy’s party’s agents would turn to an agent of the ruling party and abuse him. The next minute, a supporter of the opposition party would be bumped off the queue again, a slap landing on his face. The next moment, a ruling party supporter – a thug – would be punched, his T-shirt torn, and the aggressor, an agent of Lizy’s party, would then run down the school field to the gate. The situation was rowdy. Many voters stayed clear of the small table on which the ballot boxes would be placed because of the confusion. A policeman was watching the situation. He tried to control the thugs, who were shouting at each other, but his voice was drowned in the din. Lizy stared at him and shook her head. She said policemen should be crawling all over the place as well, that the thugs of the ruling party would easily overwhelm just one of them.
Charles stared at Lizy with apprehension, and Julius knew that Charles, like him, was wondering whether they would be able to vote. Julius could see the bulge of the clubs, the bottles, and the batons under the dresses of the thugs; and Julius wondered how Lizy, known to be in the opposition, would bypass these weapons and vote. Some of the voters were saying: “This is an act of Satan,” and were hissing in the direction of the thugs. Julius saw a ruling party official – a man in peak-cap, vest, jeans trousers, and army boots – sharing money with a group of voters, and pushing them towards the line after they had taken the crisp notes. A man, a supporter of Lizy’s party, was dragged from the queue by a thug, pushed to the ground, kicked, and dragged across the school field by another thug.
Fear gnawing at his heart, Julius asked Lizy if she still wanted to vote, and she hitched up her pants and nodded, her teeth biting her lower lip. “Nobody is going to stop me,” she vowed. He knew her mind was made up to vote, especially as her mother wasn’t around to remind her about being the only child. When Charles whispered to him that she wouldn’t leave without voting, his suspicion was correct.
But he wasn’t convinced she could vote. Another occurrence that convinced him was when the two INEC officials arrived with the green-and-white glass ballot box and pandemonium broke out, as the voters started running about. A few seconds later, a Toyota bus filled with men appeared on the path that led to the polling station and stopped. An old woman standing close to him said: “I know the men inside that bus. They’re armed with axes, cutlasses and guns.”
Just as she finished speaking, Julius heard people shouting, and he looked in the direction of the small table. The ruling party man in peak-cap was trying to wrest the ballot box from one of the INEC officials. He succeeded in his quest, and he began to run along the veranda, chased by the policeman. As the party official attempted to slip into a small bush at the end of the veranda, the policeman clutched the back of his shirt and caught up with him. After a tense struggle, the policeman elbowed him in the stomach and snatched the box from him. The voters shouted, and the queue formed behind the small table dissolved with many people sprinting away. Julius heard the sound of someone screaming, and then the sound of a gun shot. More voters took off in a run, some headed towards the center of the school field, while others ran in the direction of the path that wound out of the primary school. The policeman, panting, placed the box on the small table and dared anyone to come and snatch it. This did not make much sense to Julius, since the policeman had no weapon on him; but it made sense to Lizy, who said the policeman was indirectly telling the ruling party’s agents that they had to bribe him before they could take the box away.
Julius assumed that this would convince Lizy about the futility in voting, but she gave no indication that she wanted to leave. Charles told her: “Let’s go. This is no election.” Lizy shook her head, biting her lower lip. Instead, she ushered us to the center of the field, but there a thug in black mufti, holding a poster, said: “No one, except our supporters, will vote. Let any hot head disobey us. We’ll deal with the person.”
As Julius steered Lizy away from him, he thought it was strange that a week ago he was undecided about voting, but here he was involved with it all. But Lizy couldn’t be steered away from trouble for long. She stopped, grabbed his hand, and began to lead him and Charles to a small crowd that had gathered in front of the small table. Not seeing the INEC officials nor the ballot box there, Lizy climbed on the veranda, Charles and Julius following. They marched along the veranda, looking into the classrooms. They passed three of them, and found the officials in the fourth; they were having a talk with a ruling party agent and the policeman. The ballot box was placed on a bench beside them, and about eight large envelopes were put on top of a desk by the bench. The smell of dust mingled with chalk wafted from the room. After a while, one of the INEC officials, a short black man with a paunch, came out of the classroom and informed them that voting was not going to start because the number of ballot papers would not be sufficient for the large number of voters.
“If you people planned well,” Lizy told him, “we won’t have any problems. The number of people in this ward is just four hundred, why can’t you have enough ballot papers for all? Are you people trying to disenfranchise us?”
“Its not my fault!” shouted the INEC official. “Blame the politicians. They snatched all the materials from our office. The remaining is not enough to go round.” And he marched away in anger.
Lizy muttered in disgust, shaking her head, but said though the election would be made difficult so people like her could not vote, she would still perform her duty. She said this was all to make voters leave in frustration, leaving the ruling party agents free to thumbprint the ballot papers to their hearts’ content. Charles and Julius agreed with her. But Julius also imagined Lizy walking away from the polling station by three o’clock in the afternoon, when voting officially ended, not having cast her vote. Later, they all went to stand at the edge of the school field, under a mango tree. When Lizy left them to buy sachets of water, Charles said: “I know why she’s determined to vote.”
“Why?” Julius I asked.
“To compensate for not going to INEC’s office,” he said with a frown. Julius nodded in agreement, then watched Lizy as she approached from the direction of the Toyota bus.
When she reached them, she shook her head, her eyes looking sad. Hitching up her pants, she told them she saw a thug bribing the policeman with some crisp naira notes by the side of the bus. The thug was big and brash, rumored, Lizy was told, to be on the run for killing a man at a polling station at the last elections; yet here he was in broad daylight, bribing the policeman who should have had him handcuffed and taken to the station to be thrown into a cell. The second reason for her sadness was the confirmation that the ruling party thugs wanted to stop every voter not supporting them from voting when elections started. An old man living in her street had told her that he had seen two thugs discussing this when he had wandered to the side of the Toyota bus.
There were other thugs in some of the classrooms, she said, handing out voters cards and money to many voters. After giving them the money and cards, the thugs often shouted: “You are the only ones going to vote. Make sure you vote for us.” Lizy could not understand why the voters took the money; these were young men in pressed white shirts, black trousers, and ties; young men with innocent looks plastered on their faces. After receiving the bribes, their footsteps became confident and sure, and when they came out to the field, their friends slapped them on the shoulders and shouted: “Your share of the national cake.” The rigging was more painful at the classrooms near to the one the INEC officials waited by. People queued along the windows at the side away from the open field, taking crisp naira notes, watched by an opposition party agent, who opened his mouth wide and shook his head. It was the agent who called Lizy and pointed to the long queues behind the windows. He was also the one who told Lizy about the bush path that an INEC official, the short one with the paunch, had disappeared into with two large envelopes.
Lizy told them this within a few seconds of meeting them. As she spoke, Julius felt anger building up in him over what the thugs wanted to do. He also noticed that Charles’ gentle face was contorted with fury as he listened, and his hands were clenching and unclenching. It was as if he wanted to march to the Toyota bus, drag out the thugs inside it, and pound them to the ground with his fists. Lizy placed her hand on his shoulder, looked at Julius, and said:” Let’s go to the classrooms. Let’s check whether the large envelopes are still eight.”
Charles and Julius followed her to the classroom where the INEC officials waited. On seeing them, the INEC official with the paunch scowled in their direction, pointed a threatening finger, and hollered, “What are you people doing here?” The other one, the thin one who had struggled with the agent in peak-cap, said he would call the policeman. An agent standing with them, a man with a scarred face, brought out a knife when told by the INEC officials that Lizy and her gang were being nosy, glowered as he pointed it at them, then slipped it back into his pocket. Unnerved by all this, Julius, Lizy, and Charles turned and walked away. By this time, Julius noticed that he and Charles were caught up fully in Lizy’s quest to vote. Charles stopped to say that the election was a ruse and that they should leave at once. He did not bring up the behavior of the party official in army boots as evidence that to vote was useless since the ballot box would be snatched and party officials would stuff it with already thumbprinted papers. Julius forgot about his indecision about the election. Rather, both of them were fuming. The arrogance of the INEC officials and the thugs made them determined to find a way to thwart their plans and to made them want to vote. Lizy led them to the center of the field, stopped, and turning towards the classrooms, said, “If I have to die, I’ll vote today.”
The next time Lizy suggested that they go to the classrooms, Julius told her there was no need. No vehicle had driven into the primary school to disgorge more electoral materials. The thugs in the bus were still inside it; they were waiting for the voting to start.
Charles, no longer gentle, argued: “Let’s go. Let’s see whether the large envelopes on the desk are still eight.”
While they debated, Lizy strolled towards the bus, passed it, and disappeared around a corner. After she left, Charles and Julius dropped the issue about going to count the envelopes and fell silent. Julius’s legs were aching him, so he sat down on the grass, and leaned his back against the thick bark of a mango tree. Charles, arms akimbo, stared at the classrooms, his eyes burning with anger.
Lizy returned fifteen minutes later. Charles and Julius took the two bottles of coca-cola from the paper bag she held out to them. As they drank from the bottles, the old woman, the one who told Julius about the thugs in the Toyota bus, waddled down from the edge of the field and sat down beside them. Lizy sank to the grass with a sigh.
“Found another thing?” Julius asked the old woman, and she nodded and spat into the grass. The INEC official with a paunch had jumped out through the back window of the classroom, so he would not be visible to voters on the field, and had gone to a bush near the Toyota bus, accompanied by the agent with the scarred face. He had had a conference with the thug who had killed at the last elections.
“They want to complicate matters,” Lizy said. “They want to create confusion and fear among voters.”
“They want to cause confusion for their mothers,” the old woman said.
“I never cared about voting before,” Charles said. “But now I care. I’m going to vote.”
Lizy sipped from her bottle, her brow knitted in a frown as she thought. She didn’t speak for the next few minutes, her tongue placed at the opening of the bottle. Her eyes were bitter and dark.
“Are they lying about the electoral materials not being enough?” Julius asked.
“I think so,” Lizy said.
“I agree with you,” Charles said. “Sure, ballot boxes are being snatched before getting to polling stations. But in this case, shortage of materials is being used as a ploy to delay voting. They want people to go away before they start thumbprinting the papers.”
“This will not stop me from voting,” Lizy said. She tossed the bottle of coca-cola on the grass and turned to Julius. “Go and see whether the ballot boxes are still in the classrooms.”
Julius stood up and wandered towards the block that housed the classrooms; but when he stepped on the veranda, the policeman came towards him. He had been counting a bundle of crisp naira notes in the doorway of a classroom, and now he frowned as he stopped in front of Julius. When he learnt that Julius wanted to see the INEC officials, he barked: “Is this your father’s house? Do you think you can come and go anyhow? If you don’t leave here, I’ll deal with you.”
Boiling with anger, but knowing that the policeman could hit him with his big fists, Julius bowed and ambled back to the mango tree to tell Lizy what happened.
“These people won’t get away with this,” she said and stood and hitched up her pants. She turned her head in slow motion towards the block that contained the classrooms, and Julius found himself admiring this young woman’s indomitable spirit. Still keeping her gaze on the classroom, she bit her lower lip and hissed. “But they’re making a mistake. I’m going to get a paper and place in my vote.” She swiveled her head in the direction of her accomplice and said: “Let’s go.”
“Let’s go,” the old woman said, getting up.
“We shouldn’t allow them to treat us like second class citizens,” Lizy said.
“This is horrible,” Charles stated. “They have no right to do this.”
“I’d rather fight for my rights than allow a bunch of criminals to shortchange me,” Lizy said.
“These people are crazy,” Julius said.
“I said let’s go!”
At that moment, a lorry drove into the school compound and stopped on the field; soldiers with guns jumped out of its back to the grass.
“The soldiers will restore order!” Charles shouted and jumped up to his feet. “Now the thugs and the INEC officials can’t shortchange us.” Taking off in a sprint, he headed for a line quickly forming behind the small table on the veranda. Lizy and Julius got up and chased him down to the line, where he allowed Lizy to stand in front of him. A few minutes later, one of the INEC officials, the one with the paunch, came to announce that voting would start shortly. A rumor spread on the queue that the soldiers had forced the INEC officials to start the process, under the threat of shooting them if they continued to complain about the shortage of materials. Word also spread that the policeman had fled, and that the Toyota bus had been driven away by the thugs. Charles was not able to contain his excitement over these developments, as well as about voting. “I never thought it would happen,” he said.
The line began to move.
As they neared the small table, they heard the sound of a man howling, and Julius looked up the field. Some of the soldiers were chasing a man towards the path that wound out of the school compound. The man being chased was the thug in mufti, the one who vowed to stop people not supporting his party from voting. The soldiers caught up with him at the edge of the field and grabbed him. One of them swung a rifle and slammed it against the thug’s face. He collapsed on the grass, and he began to thrash his feet on the ground. He was dragged along the grass and hurled into the back of the army lorry. The old woman, who knew him from the previous election, said he specialized in snatching ballot boxes from polling stations. By this time, the line was moving. When it got to Lizy’s turn to stand behind the small table, the INEC official, the tall thin one, yawned and stretched out his arms. Lizy placed her voters card on the table and looked hopefully at him. The INEC official did not look at the card; instead, he shook his head and told Lizy that she should be patient, and that there was a problem. “What are you saying?” Lizy demanded. “Are you saying I can’t vote?”
The official stood up. “I’m not saying that,” he said. “Just wait for a minute.” And he walked away.
After twenty minutes, he returned and sat down behind the small table. When he did nothing, Lizy accosted him. “What’s happening?” she asked. “Why has voting stopped?” The official did not answer.
Charles pushed Lizy aside and stood in front of the official.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“We’ve exhausted the materials,” the official said.
“Exhausted the materials? What do you mean?” Lizy asked. “Are you saying I can’t vote? Are you saying I can’t vote?”
“What’s the real position?” Julius asked the official.
“I said it’s exhausted!” he shouted. “Is it my fault that it’s exhausted?”
The official with the paunch emerged from one of the classrooms and walked towards them.
“James,” he called his companion. “What’s happening?”
“I told them the materials are exhausted. They don’t want to believe me.”
The official with the paunch turned towards them.
“That’s the truth,” he said.
“Are you saying we can’t vote?” Charles asked.
The official lost his patience.
“I said it’s exhausted!” he shouted. “Are you deaf?”
“Deaf?” Julius asked.
“Yes, deaf!” the man said in a heated voice. “I’ll say it a thousand times.”
“You’ve not gone for reinforcements,” Julius noted.
“Why can’t you people mind your business?”
“This election is our business!” Charles shouted.
“I don’t know about that,” the official said. “What I do know is that the materials are finished.”
Lizy, aware of the interest of a soldier standing nearby, said with fury: “It’s a lie! They’re hoarding the papers! They’re hoarding the papers!”
The soldier, overhearing, came near. He was the one who swung the rifle against the head of the thug in black mufti.
“Can you prove it?” he asked Lizy.
“Take us to where they hoarded the papers,” he said.
Hitching up her pants, Lizy led them out of the queue and marched along the line of classrooms to the end of the block. No one spoke, except the old woman, who continued to curse the mothers of those who wanted to prevent her from voting. When they reached a small bush at the back of the block, Lizy looked around for a short moment, nodded her head, moved towards a path by a guava tree, and plunged onto it. The INEC official, the one with the paunch, attempted to turn and run away, but the soldier grabbed his hand, pushed him up the bush path, and shouted at him. Lizy led them along the grass strewn path, stopped by a palm tree, and pointed at the ground. Placed on the grass by the palm tree were two big envelopes bearing INEC’s insignia. The soldier bent down, picked them up, and looked them over. Menace in his eyes, he turned and faced the INEC official.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked. “Why are you people so unpatriotic? Why?”
“I didn’t do it,” the INEC official said. “It’s the thugs belonging to the Peoples Party.”
“Never mind,” the soldier said. “Let’s go.”
They struggled out of the bush and headed towards James, who was still sitting on the chair behind the small table. When they got to him, the soldier dropped the two large envelopes on the table, while Lizy, Charles, the old woman, and Julius took their former positions in the queue. In a harsh voice, the soldier ordered James to start to collect the voters cards and to allow the people to vote. Grabbing the official with the paunch, he began to drag him by the belt of his trousers towards the army lorry at the edge of the field, while the official pleaded in a voice that sounded desperate. James turned from them, too frightened to interfere. With shaking hands, he opened the flap of one of the envelopes and poured out the papers inside it on the table. Looking up at Lizy, he said: “Where’s your voters card?” As she took the card out of the pocket of her pants, she stared at Julius, and the look in her eyes was triumphant.