By Osagie Otabor, Akure
All the three leading candidates in next month’s governorship election have demanded an investigation of Thursday night’s fire at the Akure, Ondo State secretariat of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Five thousand one hundred and forty-one (5,141) voter cards were reckoned to have been burnt in the fire, the cause of which INEC said yesterday it was yet to determine.
But it said the incident would not stop the October 10 polls.
Governor Rotimi Akeredolu who is seeking a second term on the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Mr. Eyitayo Jegede of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Mr. Agboola Ajayi of Zenith Labour Party (ZLP) all asked the authorities to unravel the cause of the fire.
They were joined in the call for probe by the Young Progressives Party and the African Democratic Congress.
Akeredolu, on an on-the-spot assessment visit to the INEC office, described the incident as unfortunate and shocking.
Officials of the commission told him that there was no cause for fear over the October date fixed for the election.
To this, the governor said: “As you promised us that by the grace of God the election will still be held on that day, that is soothing. But it will come at a cost to INEC for it to replace all those card readers in due time.
“We sympathise with you and we want INEC to know that the people of this state are really concerned and are with you at this point in time in this calamitous situation.
“We are with you and whatever you think we can do that will not be termed as being partisan, because whatever we do now could be misinterpreted since we are in an election period, but no doubt we have to come as government and not as contestants.
“I can see the determination from how you spoke that the election will still hold on the 10th of October. We are so sorry about this.”
I suspect foul play — Jegede
Candidate Eyitayo Jegede of the PDP smelled foul play in the fire incident, saying “our fate is in the hands of God.”
In a statement he issued through Samuel Fasua, the Head, Media Research of his campaign organisation, Jegede said: “We smell a rat in all of this, knowing that the next scene in what looks like a drama of the absurd may lead to steps that can tinker with the authentic INEC voters’ list, with yesterday’s fire incident as alibi.”
He asked the National Chairman of INEC, Mr Mahmood Yakubu, to “as the ultimate umpire in the electoral body, order a thorough probe of the suspicious fire incident and bring its perpetrators to book.”
Besides, he told INEC to ”cause the authentic voters’ lists for the state, as respectively available in all the INEC local council offices and at the national headquarters in Abuja, to be publicly displayed.”
He also implored the police and other security agencies to “rise up to the test of integrity thrown up by the INEC fire incident and conduct sweeping investigations to unveil likely perpetrators of the act, and their sponsors.”
Ajayi: why did fire occur in card readers’ container?
Deputy Governor Agboola Ajayi, who is contesting the election on the platform of ZLP, wondered why the fire occurred in the store that houses voter cards, of all places.
“Why did the fire target the store where card readers meant for the election were kept?” he asked in his reaction yesterday.
His Chief Press Secretary, Babatope Okeowo, said: “The fire incident coming barely four weeks before the governorship election fixed for October 10, 2020 should worry every responsible and reasonable citizen of Ondo State.
“The Deputy Governor calls for the investigation of the fire incident to bring those culpable to face the wrath of the law.
“The law enforcement agencies should ask if the intention of those responsible for the inferno is to seek the postponement of the election or the cancellation of the use of card readers for accreditation.
”The people of Ondo State are waiting patiently for the outcome of the investigation, as they will not tolerate any ploy by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to subvert the wish of the electorate.”
Candidate of the YPP, Comrade Dotun Ojon, claimed that professional politicians were out to destabilise the electioneering process in order to continue their reign.
He said the inability of the fire service men to put out the fire showed failure of the present administration at both state and national levels in basic but sensitive and strategic areas.
Governorship candidate of the ADC, Mr. Dapo Adelegan, who visited INEC office, said it was not in the character of Ondo people to set public property on fire.
He said the people believe in the use of their democratic rights to change bad governance.
The ADC candidate urged the Ondo REC to boost security around the premises and election materials.
APC shocked by incident
The All Progressives Congress (APC) said it was equally shocked at the incident, coming a few weeks to the governorship election.
Publicity Secretary of the party in the state, Alex Kalejaye, said: “Although fire incident could happen at any time, the party is more concerned that the unfortunate occurrence happened a few weeks to the gubernatorial election.
“While the party declines to join the pontificating wagon to condemn and apportion blame on the unfortunate development, we believe strongly that the gravity of what has happened demands prompt action from the security agencies to immediately unravel what actually transpired, to forestall a reoccurrence.
“The chapter also calls on the national headquarters of INEC to do all it could to ensure the incident does not result in setbacks in its preparation for the governorship election in October.”
We don’t know cause of fire yet, says INEC
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said it was yet to uncover the cause of the fire incident that razed two containers in which 5,141 card readers were kept in its office in Akure.
It said the incident would not affect the conduct of the October 10 governorship election.
The electoral body pledged that the governorship election would not be postponed.
Ondo Resident Electoral Commissioner, Rufus Akeju, denied that the fire incident was part of a script by the commission and a political party to rig the election.
He dismissed the allegation as baseless and unfortunate.
He said the fire broke out “between 7.15 pm and 7.30 pm when most of the commission’s staff had gone home.
“The fire incident actually affected the Smart Card Readers Store. In all, 5,141 card readers that were inside the metal compartment (store) when the fire erupted were completely destroyed,” he said.
Akeju said necessary arrangements had been put in place to replace the burnt card readers.
He assured the people of the state that the fire “will not affect the conduct of the forthcoming gubernatorial election in Ondo State in any form, neither will it lead to the postponement of the election.”
He said relevant security agencies had “commenced investigation and you will be further briefed as events unfold.”
He praised fire fighters for stopping the inferno from spreading to other parts of the premises.
The Ondo REC said the commission had begun distribution of non-sensitive materials as well as commenced specialised training for security agents to enable them focus on the job on election day.
The Agbaka of Alagbaka, Prince Afolabi Obasuyi, who was present as the fire raged, said it would have been quenched within 30 minutes if the fire fighters were well prepared.
He said: “I was personally there. As the traditional head of Alagbaka community, it is my commitment to the people of this community to see that things are okay.
“I went there with my staff. To my dismay, nothing was done to quench the fire after two hours.
“Fire service men tried to put out the fire using buckets of water. I alerted the state government and the airport fire fighters. I also called the fire fighters at Ilesha.
”If it were in the Western world, it wouldn’t have been the same. The fire should have been quenched within 30 minutes.
“My advice is that every community should have their own fire station. Every institution should have a mini fire post.
“The state fire fighters should be combat ready. If we had good firemen, the fire should have been tackled. It was just a container.”