By Richard Elesho/ Lokoja
Covering an election should be a delight for any political reporter. And it was for me. The excitement of watching people choosing who will lead them, the joy and the usual celebration of victory as well as the pain of defeat that follow declaration of the results are sensations one may not forget in a hurry.
This was in spite of the fact that covering elections comes with its own risk in Nigeria given the prevalence for violence by desperate politicians and the increasing security risk that comes with such assignments, especially when it involved traveling over long distances.
This was the case with the long highway that traverses Lokoja, in Kogi State capital to Benin-City in Edo State. Robbery, kidnapping and bad roads are evils that pet travelers on that road. Even at that, the journey to cover the Edo governorship election started that Wednesday morning on a good note for this reporter and his colleague. Though they were very much aware that the roads were in very bad state generally, they were determined to make the best out of the bad situation.
However, the first indication of what lay ahead was at Osara, few kilometers into the Lokoja –Okene road where motorists were forced into one lane as a result of the ongoing rehabilitation of the expressway. A patch of earth work on a parallel lane was an evidence of an abandoned attempt to turn the road into a dual carriage way. The old lane was in such state of disrepair that any driver with a desire to arrive his destination must of necessity make a detour to the uncompleted patch.
I did. However I had difficulty linking back the main road. As I revved to climb the ‘upland’ that will take me back to the road, the car protested and rolled back into the murky water.
The drivers of the two vehicles that followed lost patience and, as usual with Nigerian motorists, kept their hands permanently on their horns. Just then, a middle aged man standing a little distance away beckoned on me to pass through a pool of water to rejoin the road at the other end where he thought I will not have a problem maneuvering back to the main road. However, not sure of the depth of the pool of water I had to pass through, I hesitated, but he insisted. I obeyed his directive. He walked through a dirty little flood and signaled me to follow. That was how I connected back to the road without further ado.
On a good day, Okene to Benin shouldn’t take more than 3-hour journey. But not again. The road has failed virtually everywhere, that only a lucky driver will make the trip in five hours. For us, the nightmare started as one approached Okpella- that rustic home of BUA cement group. The roads in this community and environs were horrible. There were potholes or ‘pot wells’, ditches and other death traps on the road.
All sorts of articulated vehicles that defy description make life miserable for other road users. There I encountered a trailer with 32 tyres. It also looked like drivers on this road have special trainings and skills on how not to keep traffic rules. There was so much disorderliness everywhere. The result was chaos all the way. The traffic occasionally moved at snail speed. But it was not a smooth ride. For every one or two metres, motorists will have to wait behind trailers anywhere from five minutes to hours to be able to advance again.
Signs of the impending election competed for attention in the chaos. Campaign paraphernalia of different types and shapes dotted the landscape. Stranded branded vehicles of the candidates hosting club sized loudspeakers struggled for movement. There were stickers, posters, hand bills, signboards etc all adding colour to the election swag.
After losing several hours to the traffic nonsense, we exited to Iyamho, the home of the National Leader of All Progressives Congress, APC and arrived at Auchi. At Aunty Rhoda’s roadside restaurant we had our first meal for the day. A particularly tasty plate of Garri (as they call Eba in this clime) and bitter leaf soup. The time was around six o’clock in the evening.
We munched the meal like ravenous souls that we were. But the lone voice of a drunk in an adjacent bar could not be ignored. He told his snobbish listeners why party PDP’s Obaseki would win the election.
From the Polytechnic town, we had a smooth ride to Ekpoma. We lost precious time to dilapidated road at Iruekpen. By now we were already accustomed to the turvy topsy nature of the road. But as it turned out, the cloud began gathering rapidly and an evening rainfall multiplied our woes.
Visibility became very poor even as we struggled through the deplorable highway. A flash flood had covered part of the road. As I slowly maneuvered through the flood, the car landed in a knee deep pothole covered by water. The inner mirror got broken instantly. The car bounced out of the ditch and screeched to a halt. I revved, but it refused to move.
We alighted into the shower of a drizzling rainfall. It was past eight at night. Presently, Amate, a hospitable young man appeared. We narrated our experience. He claimed to be a Volkswagen expert, although our car was a Honda City. We unsuccessfully tried pushing the car to safety. Then our sympathizer went beneath the car before coming up with an explanation. He diagnosed a broken lower arm and a pulled inner cup shaft. That was no cheery news.
Two other men came by. One narrated how vehicles regularly fell into the ditch and explained that it was dangerous to leave the car unguarded at the spot. “Last week na my boys come guard one man car here. Dem no sleep till daybreak. But no be small money he pay o.” They left, promising to return soon.
Before he returned however, another traveler whose bus had run out of fuel joined kind hearted Amate and together, four of us were able to jack the car to the parking lane for safety. That was where it slept. We were about six kilometers to our intended destination.
We soon gained intelligence about an hotel in the neighborhood. Promptly we removed our luggages including the car battery. With Amate as our compass, we proceeded on the two kilometres journey to the hotel at Oguvibiobo.
At dawn Amate had a brief stop over at the hotel on his way to the farm. The community boasts of a boisterous labour market. A sizable number of youths each with a cutlass in hand, congregated at the village square every morning, waiting for who might require their raw services. Although they discussed the election, political thuggery was not an option for these young ones.
On our way to where we had the challenge, we noticed that many other vehicles slept on the road that day. There were at least five other cars made up of two Mercedes Benz, a bus, a Volkswagen gulf and an Audi. The potholes affected them in diverse ways.
Anyway, we got a mechanic who entered the spare parts market in the city to get the damaged items. The car was fixed and we proceeded to the city in continuation of our assignment.
The election came without the much anticipated infractions. No reported successful cases of ballot snatching. No killings. No violence. But there were side attractions.
A sampler. At polling unit where Godwin Obaseki voted, the governor ordered and supervised thorough searching of vehicles including a media van. The vehicles were suspected to habour arms and ammunition or some incriminating election materials. Nothing was found in them.
At Ewu, an alarm was raised about Gunmen invasion. They were said to have shot at two persons at a polling unit and heading to our direction. It turned out to be a hoax.
The election was concluded in a largely peaceful and credible atmosphere. Results started coming from polling units giving early victory to Obaseki.
At a time, the Collation Centre went on a long break fueling speculations about a plan to declare the process inconclusive. The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP cried wolf.
In the end Governor Godwin Obaseki of Peoples Democratic Party gave Ize Iyamu of All Progressives Congress, APC a bloody nose in the election where 12 other candidates contested.
In the result declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, the Returning Officer, Prof. Agofure Ukeh of the Federal University of Petroleum Technology, Effurun returned incumbent Governor Godwin Obaseki of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP elected for a second term. Obaseki polled 307,955 votes to beat his main challenger Pastor Osagie Ize Iyamu of the All Progressives Congress, APC who garnered 223,619 ballots.
So the process went without hitches and it was time to go back to base.
As in the hypothetical case of a host serving the best wine first while reserving the worst for the last moment, our worst experience did not come until nearly the end of the journey. That was in Okpela again.
We had set out early from our Lixbor Hotel with the hope of beating the traffic. We were in company of several trucks loaded with policemen returning from the same election duty.
We arrived at Okpella and began the usual intricacies through labyrinthine traffic.
At a time, I applied the brakes but it did not catch firmly as it should. I was worried and did all I could but rather than stop, the car gained momentum. I alerted my colleague about the unfortunate development. I was getting close to the trailer ahead of me. To avoid hitting it, I turned to the parking lane blaring the horn. The car nearly cleared an unsuspecting cart pusher and I steered it back to the main road.
The road was sloppy and the car gained more speed. I successfully engaged the gear in park position hoping it would stop. Sadly, that did not have the desired effect. Again, the car nearly kissed the trailer but I managed to direct it to the opposite lane where an Auchi bound truck nearly crushed it. Narrowly and nervously I headed for a mechanic workshop. By now panicky pedestrians were raising the alarm in shouts.
Four vehicles and men were in the shop. I managed to avoid hitting any of them. The car continued its unrestrained gyration as I pulled it in the midst of three big trailer tyres through the bush into a waiting wooden pillar. It crashed into the wood and that halted the speed. Shortly, the car stopped.
To say I was frightened will be an understatement. We came out of the car unscathed. The car had only lost an eye, a dented fender and bumoer. All by the owner’s side. A sympathetic crowd was all over us steering at us like some miracle workers. But in actual fact, we were beneficiaries of a miracle. Simply put, we were products of God’s Mercy.
I looked at my colleague and we both gave thanks to God. We are still giving thanks. We will continue to give thanks.
The crowd voluntarily helped in pulling the car back to the road. One of them, Adamu wearing a red track suit claimed to be a mechanic and we engaged him to check and fix the brake. He enthusiastically got about the job. He brought a king sized harmmer and other strange tools. From the way he went about the job, I suspected he knew too little about it and probed his claims.
But Adamu would not yield easily. Perceiving we were Yoruba, he played the ethnic card. He claimed to be the owner of the Mechanic workshop and in barely understandable Yoruba language laced with unmistakable heavy Hausa ascent he said he was from Kwara State. We lost N3,000 to his antics. But before he could do further damages, the original mechanic came. He fixed the car by bleeding the brake system. Adamu’s real identity also came out. He was an apprentice trailer mechanic.
The journey back to Lokoja and Abuja did not experience other setbacks. Again, we are still giving thanks.
Elesho is a Journalist of about two decades experience reporting politics, judiciary and general beat.