Sunday, April 24, 2011

Nigerian young poll workers come under attack

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Officials tasked the four young college graduates with monitoring election stations during Nigeria's presidential vote. Then when the poll results unleashed sectarian violence, an angry mob killed them by locking them inside their youth hostel and setting it ablaze.

Dozens of their colleagues in a nearby state narrowly escaped death after rioters torched their hostel too, leaving many with serious burns and few options to go home.

Nigeria's National Youth Service Corps is a mandatory yearlong assignment for all Nigerians who graduate from university before the age of 30. Most serve as teachers during their stint, but the April national elections have brought extra responsibilities - and danger - to their work.

Now federal officials are vowing to step up protection for young volunteers in the areas wracked by violence, while worried parents are wondering whether their children can be reassigned away from towns marked by charred bodies and torched buildings.

Attahiru Jega, chief of Nigeria's Independent Election Commission, said the young Nigerians had been targeted "to scare them away from continuing the honorable and excellent work they have been doing during these elections."

"I call on them, their parents and guardians not to allow the perpetrators of violence to scare them away from the noble job they are doing for this country," Jega said. "I commiserate with all those who have been affected in one way or the other by the violence. Some have paid the ultimate price for democracy and I am sure that I speak the minds of all Nigerians if I say that the nation will be eternally grateful to them."

One 29-year-old volunteer assigned to Kaduna, one of the epicenters of deadly riots, said his family wants him to withdraw, even if it means doing so without permission. The gubernatorial election there has been delayed until Thursday now because of safety concerns.

"If security improves between now and then, I will definitely participate," the volunteer said on condition of anonymity because youth service corps rules prohibit volunteers from speaking to journalists. The punishment for doing so could include having more time tacked on to their assignment.

Even for those who don't fear being penalized for leaving early, getting out of the troubled north could prove difficult. Most taking part in the mandatory yearlong national service corps are posted far from their home communities.

Plane tickets are costly and many commercial buses have stopped making trips to the troubled zones. After the attacks on service corps residences, many members are seeking refuge.

One 25-year-old corps member in Bauchi is now sharing a room with 59 other people.

"If you find any barrack, an army barrack, a police barrack, they'll find a mattress for you to sleep on," he said. "You meet people here who have seen terrible things."

Ironically the founders of the program created it in 1973 to promote national unity in a country with more than 150 ethnic groups and to help reconcile Nigerians after a 31-month civil war claimed as many as 1 million lives. By encouraging young graduates to explore new parts of the country, the goal was to dispel negative stereotypes.

As evidenced by the rioting that erupted after this week's vote, Nigeria remains deeply divided 38 years later.

In a televised address to the nation Thursday, President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the attacks on the young Nigerians.

"These young and innocent Nigerians are guests within our communities and are agents of public good and national unity," he said of the service corps.

He also ordered state governors to "take personal responsibility for their security and safety in the states where they serve," but no directive has yet been given for corps members to abandon their duty, even in the most distressed areas.

Corps members serving in dangerous areas say that there should be more efforts made to secure their lives. One worker recalled seeing a man in line caught with knives and a machete at a polling unit, but none of the police officers ran after him when he fled.

"Things are much worse in rural parts of Bauchi state where some corps members aren't even protected by armed officers," he said.

The 25-year-old volunteer said corps members were still working in a local government where other volunteers had been targeted or killed.

"The response time is too slow," he said. "It makes you think of how much you've sticked out your neck for the country and the country won't stick out its neck for you."

Still, international observers have applauded the young Nigerians for helping to make the April 16 presidential vote so smooth - previous polls have been marred by thuggery and rigging. Former Botswana President Festus Mogae who led a team of Commonwealth monitors reserved special praise for members of the youth service corps who walked voters through a demanding process.

"These young Nigerians, a large number of whom were women, showed dedication and courage in helping to deliver a transparent electoral process, often in difficult conditions," Mogae said. "They are a source of pride and hope for Nigeria."

© 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

News Update Users