After several months of tension and uncertainty, reporters in Rivers State peacefully elected a new state executive on Wednesday to run the affairs of their union for the next three years.
The aphorism “Everything is
well, it ends well,” best describes the outcome of the just-concluded election of the Rivers State Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), which last Wednesday nominated Comrade Stanley Job as President of State and Comrade Ike Wigodo as Secretary for a second term. and the election of five other officers in a peaceful and friendly atmosphere to manage the affairs of the council for the next three years.
The slaps and hugs that greeted the declaration of the results stood in stark contrast to what many feared to happen in the election, which had suffered several postponements amid tensions and threats from opposing factions that emerged in the run-up to the election . On one of the days, specifically August 12, 2021, when the election did not take place, tables were turned over, bottles were broken and blows were exchanged. It took the intervention of security agents on site to get people out of the electoral hall and the Ernest Ikoli press center to bring peace to the area. For several weeks, the journalist lost the use of the press center as police cordoned off the place until a rapprochement was reached with the main rival factions of the council.
The August 12 fight had begun just as then-National Vice President Edward Ogude was preparing to hold the election as part of the triennial convention formalities. A faction of members in the room called for questioning the credibility of the voter list about to be used to conduct the election because the Credentials Committee, set up to conduct the election, did not did not post the list of voters for complaints and objections.
After the August 12 fiasco, a new election date of January 13, 2022 was finally approved by the National Secretariat. But the election has undergone further change following objections to the list of members to vote in the election. Jan. 18 was finally approved after voter registry issues were resolved.
If bottles were smashed and tables thrown at members on the failed August 2021 date, many expected the rescheduled event on January 18 to be peaceful. On the contrary, people feared the worst. The weather did not help matters. Very early Tuesday morning, the sky had darkened, very unusual for early January weather. The day seemed unpredictable as people argued whether it was going to rain or if it was just another display in the sky of what they had grown accustomed to as Port Harcourt soot.
But rather than finding people with weapons and unusual faces of suspected troublemakers mercenaries, the premises of the Ernest Ikoli press center were full of excited and friendly journalists hugging, cracking jokes and holding hands . The press center hadn’t had this kind of happy crowd in many years, if not decades. Curiously, people entering the center were not searched by security agents. And if there were security guards around, their presence didn’t quite show.
Colleagues who hadn’t met for a long time took advantage of this kind of reunion and offered flashbacks by catching up on lost time and sharing memories. The large open space in front of Ernest Ikoli could barely contain the crowd of journalists. Even as people searched for space to fill, the elements felt that the distances between them were not close enough. Without warning the skies opened up and the rains sent everyone hoarding into the bush bar and main building reception to create closer body contact.
The election quickly began as voters were called to vote according to their chapels. Many chapels had voted and their members had gone home. Things were moving smoothly but slowly until something caught the eye of an eagle-eyed voter. Voters received eight ballots instead of seven, a situation that could encourage people to vote twice. The discovery was enough to raise tempers. And they fly. The parties took it up and discussed it with the electoral committee.
If things were to get out of control, they were sorted out with the swift arrival of the Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Rev. Paulinus Nsirim, who after consultations had the process canceled and called the members still present to inform them of what happened. If the commissioner expected his explanations to calm the audience, he did not read them very well. There was unease. Who is responsible? After all these adjournments, who still wants to spoil the effort? Anger flared up and murmurs greeted the superintendent’s revelation.
“We have to come back tomorrow to vote again,” Nsirim’s voice cut through the heckling, as he insisted the vote could no longer stand. “Once there is a mistake in the process, it calls into question the credibility of the election.” He praised reporters for the decorum and understanding they had shown despite the discovery, but vouched for the election committee’s neutrality and attributed the error to an honest mistake. “How would it be possible to bring together again the large number of journalists who joyfully went to the election? One person was heard saying over the din: “There will be apathy.”
“It’s a family and for us to move forward (in this situation), we have to make a sacrifice to come back tomorrow,” said the commissioner. He eventually submitted the decision as a motion to a voice vote. And those who were in favor of coming back the next day to vote got it. After receiving an apology from the NUJ Zone Secretary, who said all ballots used for the day would be destroyed before anyone else. The rally was postponed to resume at 11 a.m. the following day.
If the sky on Tuesday January 18, 2022 was gloomy, the sky on Wednesday January 19 cleared up. If there was any fear that few voters would turn out for election after the postponement, the large cheering crowd that reported on Wednesday proved otherwise. The votes have been cast and they have been counted. At the end of it all, winners emerged and their opponents embraced them. As one veteran journalist, who said he was troubled when he heard about the violence that marred the original August 12 election date, put it: “I’m happy to come and see that journalists from the Rivers State are able to put that ugly past aside and embrace each other.
A number of things had happened during the electoral deadlock. The council was unable to send a unified team to the NUJ national convention which took place in Umuahia in October last year. However, the state was able to produce the zone’s national vice president in the person of Opaka Dokubo, a former NUJ state president in the state.
Credit for the successful elections and smooth transition during the nearly six months of crisis must be given to the Honorable Commissioner of Information and Communications of Rivers State, Rev. Paulinus Nsirim, him -even former chairman and council secretary who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring the warring faction together. When it mattered, he took time off from his ministerial duties to solve problems when his physical presence mattered.
Credit will also go to the NUJ Elders Committee in the state, whose quick response and consultations led to the establishment of the Interim Committee which took over management of the council and prevented a vacuum. Rivers State Police Commissioner Mr. Friday Eboka also deserves mention not only for providing security to protect the media center on the day the violence erupted, but also for successfully bringing the various council stakeholders to commit to peace.
The Interim Committee headed by Comrade Amaechi Okonkwo has also proved a commendable point in successfully leading the affairs of the council safely to the coast despite the many mines that have been laid in its path. Similar congratulations also go to NUJ President, Chief Chris Isiguzo, and other national executives who, despite their pre- and post-election commitments during the crisis period, provided support and guidance for the process that has led to successful transition in Rivers State.
The new state working committee is now expected to build on the renewed love, unity and camaraderie among state reporters and move the union forward. There are many issues regarding the welfare, accreditation, training and empowerment of journalists in the state that the council must now address. The threat of fake news and new media professionals posing as journalists; the abuses of members who go cheap before their sources; irregular accreditation of chapels; and decent wages for journalists and the settlement of benefits for retiring journalists by public and private employers of journalists. There is also the issue of creating synergies between the NUJ and public institutions, government agencies, the organized private sector and state enterprises; integration and empowerment of veterans and renewal of the culture of the press centres.
Those elected were Comrade Stanley Job (President); Comrade Okechukwu Maru (Vice President), Comrade Ikechukwu Wigodo (Secretary); Comrade Esther Obialor (assistant secretary); Comrade Miebaka Fubara (financial secretary); Comrade Doris Tam Morrison (Treasurer) and Comrade Ominini Wokoma (Auditor).
Job, the re-elected president, promised to improve on the achievements of his first term, work to improve the welfare of journalists and renovate the Ernest Ikoli press centre.
From: Emmanuel Obé
Obe is a journalist in Rivers State.