By Emmanuel Ikhenebome, Benin

Vote buyer in action

Benin City – Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, Governments across the world ordered ‘Stay at home’ and shutdown their borders to check spread of the pandemic.

The shutdown crippled economic activities leading to shortage in cash, and supply of essential commodities.

In Nigeria, States government handed out stimulus packages in the form of palliatives to vulnerable groups to enable them cushion the adverse economic effect of the pandemic on their livelihoods.

Edo State government distributed relief materials in batches to the targeted individuals, who were mostly the needy across its 192 Wards.

However, since it reopened the State to full economic activities in July, the electorates have perfected plans to exchange their votes for money and non-monetary gifts at the September 19 polls, as they continually lament about the adverse effect of the pandemic on their businesses.

Findings by our correspondent who visited markets and other business areas in the Benin metropolis to sample opinions of residents on their preparation for Saturday,  September 19 Governorship election amid COVID-19, revealed that many  look forward to the election day to cash out.

They maintained that they would vote candidate of their choice, but further admitted they would accept monetary gifts if offered any at their various polling booths, an act however punishable by law.

According to the Electoral Act 2010, Article 130, “A person who – (a) corruptly by himself or by any other person at any time after the date of an election has been announced, directly or indirectly gives or provides or pays money to or for any person for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting at such election, or on account of such person or any other person having voted or refrained from voting at such election;

“or (b) being a voter, corruptly accepts or takes money or any other inducement during any of the period stated in paragraph (a) of this section, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N100,000 or 12 months imprisonment or both.”

But in spite of the Commission’s stance on vote buying, the act has become a regular phenomenon in the South – South State, as voters look forward to every election season to trade their votes, damning the consequences.

Last year’s nationwide survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) had reported that the South – South region was most prevalence with the worrisome trend, followed closely by the North-West and North-Central respectively.

The report, titled ‘Corruption in Nigeria: Patterns and Trends’, covered 33, 067 respondents from across the 36 States including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

It is however glaring that the region’s prevalence rate may rise with the forthcoming Edo Governorship, Bayelsa Central and West Senatorial Districts bye-elections scheduled to hold on 31 October amid the virus outbreak.

“Everybody is struggling seriously. Market is not as before; because we are managing to sell these days.

“No money, so when election come and they are sharing free money, how will I not collect?. this period?”, A dealer of fairly used clothes said in Ogida market.

According to her, vote-buying is “not news”, disclosing some unnamed persons were “already” compiling their names as beneficiaries for cash as they have “agreed” to vote a particular political party.

The Independent National Electoral Commission  (INEC) has however warned against the criminal practice, with a call on security agencies and other stakeholders to achieve a credible election.

At a one-day INEC’s workshop for journalists on the processes and procedures of election in Benin City, the Commission’s Chairman on Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye urged stakeholders to see the Edo elections as a clarion call.

“The responsibility of INEC is to conduct elections, all stakeholders including security agencies, the political parties and the media will have to work together to check this”, Okoye said in his keynote address.

Meanwhile, the State chapter of Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (CONGOs) argued the practice is of the mind, and not about COVID-19.

CONGOs vowed to sustain its partnership with other stakeholders to continue the broadening of Edo voters’ awareness on the dangers of votes buying even in the face of extreme poverty.

“While we appreciate that the economic lockdown that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the poverty scale of our people, we opine that the question of votes selling, the other side of votes buying, is a mindset thing.

“For us at CONGOS, the objective end is to affect the mindset of our people to that extent that even at the behest of appalling poverty; they will not see selling their votes as alternative.

“If nobody is ready to sell votes, the antics of the said buyer will be frustrated”, Edo CONGOs President, Abiola Iduefe told our correspondent in Benin City.