When I received the rejection mail from the Center for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) that I would not be able to cover the 2023 elections since my accreditation could not be secured, an ocean of tears swelled up on my face. Then a second chance came from BONews Service on a voluntary basis. I embraced it immediately because I am passionate about my growth in the media industry.
Being the first time I would go to the field to cover an election, I didn’t sleep at all. I joined Abdulrahseed Hammad, a senior colleague who was lucky to get selected, and a bike man at a guest house and we set out.
Utilizing Your Sixth Sense
By posting, Hammad was to cover the Kwara South Senatorial District and I felt that it would be amazing to work closely with him – and yes it was! Having read a plethora of stories, I tried as much as possible to stay safe. If I wanted to take pictures, I did it in a way that the person standing beside me would not know. When the bike man, Mr. Muhammadu, saw some pictures I took, he did not hide his surprise and wondered how I did them without being caught.
“You did a perfect job but how? I don’t even know when you take them,” I could recall he said. To me, it is not about being perfect but knowing what you came for. I took as many pictures as possible stealthily without any attack from anywhere until this – I got a petrifying threat from a huge thug in my Polling Unit – Baptist Church, Ojomu SouthEast, Offa Local Government.
Puffing his cigar with a black beret, the tout shouted at me. He ordered that I must leave the polling unit at once if I do not want to get the worst beating of my life. What is my offense? I was only taking pictures. He added that he would call his boys to snatch and break my phone if I didn’t answer him immediately. At this point, I succumbed and ran away to the next PU because I was not accredited by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
“Don’t take any pictures here! Off your camera or I break your phone,” these words and others that he said in Yoruba still rang in my heart loudly.
A Justifiable Fright
It pains me that I was unable to cover two newsworthy scenes that I saw in this area but don’t call me a coward because it is a justifiable fright. Hours after the threat, one CJID observer tweeted about how he was harassed by security forces and the same thing was experienced by other senior professionals like Bolanle Olabimtan, Haruna Mohammed and Dayo Aiyetan. It came as a surprise to me
The first scene, one of the thugs that chased me at that PU came to where the voters gathered, his name is Oropo – I know him because I was born and bred in the slum too. He started calling some old people and youths that he recognised and telling them openly that their votes should be ‘three-direct’ for his candidates. He induced their decisions with a voice that spelt intimidation and I suspected that these voters would succumb to his whim. Although since the system is a secret ballot, Oropo could not ascertain their choices but they would have to follow his dictation knowing how dangerous he could be.
Despite Buhari’s policy of cashless economy, vote-buying was still effective in Saturday’s electoral process. This was the second but interesting scene. A young woman pointed at one of the party agents and said that she would be glad if he could fasten the payment since she had satisfied him by voting for his principal.
“I would curse you and your principal if you don’t send the money, I’ve written down my name,” she muttered.
No Assistive Devices For PWDs?
When I got to Ojomu Central B PU, I was taken aback by the low turnout of voters. People were so scanty that you could guess the number accurately. The majority of people are people with disabilities and they settled down on a wooden bench with confused looks and briskly enough, I was able to get the picture of what their expressions meant – their massive participation speaks that they wanted a change in the Nigerian political scene but do they have the assistive devices as provided by the law? No and this was why they frowned their faces.
“The Commission shall take reasonable steps to ensure that persons with disabilities, special needs, and vulnerable persons are assisted at the polling place by the provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, large embossed print, electronic devices, sign language interpretation, or off-site voting in appropriate cases,” states Section 54(2) of the Electoral Act of 2022 (not verbatim).
The INEC officials that I spoke to told me that the assistive devices are not provided, thus PWDs who came to exercise their franchise should support themselves. While a blind pregnant woman in PU Baptist LGEA, Ijagbo, Oyun Local Government was stranded and aided by her son, I had to help a 70-year blind man again to where he would cast his vote.
Democracy thrives when there is a free press hence journalists should feel safe during electoral processes and INEC should ensure that sustainable provisions are made for the PWDs. May Nigeria be great again!
Mohammed Taoheed is a freelance journalist and he covered the election in Kwara state.