By Richard Carroll – Rhoko Manager
“It’s a good idea” said the chief, “I like it, but this idea of an election..it can’t work. No, better we just make an appointment of good people.” “But Chief,” I replied despairingly, seeing the previous night’s 3 hours of negotiation over this point slipping swiftly away with each nod of his advisor’s head, “we discussed this, we need to have a democratic election. Appointments have been tried before and they don’t work; these people represent the community’s voice- they need to be chosen by the community.” So began another round of debating on this point. It was a topic of alarming regularity over the next two weeks with apparently nobody in the village believing it was possible to hold a trouble free election. “It has never happened here; it’s not possible” was the consensus. “Trust me, it can be done.” Was my reply through gritted teeth, as I then settled down to once again explain my plan.
CCDC elections – Richard distributing voting tokens
To be fair I understood the concerns, the election we were planning to hold was to re-inaugurate the village Community Conservation & Development Committee (CCDC). This body initially conceived by CERCOPAN has the responsibility of deciding how the substantial funds from tourism royalties and other CERCOPAN related payments are spent. They should be used to finance any community development project that the CCDC and Chiefs’ Council agree upon, providing it does not detract from concepts of sustainability and conservation. The chiefs were worried that certain timber dealers and others hungry for influence in the area would try to hijack this committee and disrupt the peace in the village. There had been similar attempts recently as those involved in illegal timber exploitation are gradually being squeezed out by the community’s collaboration with state forestry departments; and they were looking for a way to stem the tide.
At the polling booths
I had already held a series of meetings with people I felt were key individuals in the community. These were young, literate people with a passionate desire to see their community make the most of its opportunities. We had been sitting on the floor around the bedside of one of my staff- Matthew, who was recovering from a motorbike accident, discussing village politics. As we spoke these people not only bemoaned the lack of influence they felt they had but also put forward a vision of how they believed things could be better. It struck me, this was the core of what the CCDC should be and within a few days I asked them to gather themselves and any like-minded individuals they could find for a strategic meeting. Within a few weeks this group had helped to pass out information leaflets, discussed relevant issues and encouraged other people to nominate candidates they would trust to represent their needs in the decision making process. General assembly meetings and manifesto nights for the proposed candidates all helped to add to the buzz being generated in the village.
Iko Esai residents waiting to vote
The morning of the election came around; I set off from Calabar at 6am, having been up all night constructing ballot boxes, and promptly ran into trouble. Heavy rains the night before had rendered one section of the dirt road impassable and I found myself axle deep in a quagmire of sticky orange mud. With no small help from a group of friends from the nearest village, who had happened upon my predicament, as they ferried colossal mounds of bananas to the highway on motorbikes, I was finally freed; arriving tired, filthy and apprehensive to the village. Rapidly organising ourselves, the election team swung into action. Registration and voting stations were manned, security employed at the door and the village bell rung to announce the start of proceedings.
Women Registering for the election
I am told that there was an element of the village connected to the timber extractors grumbling amongst themselves that they were going to disrupt the day; that no election would hold unless they said so. However, they failed to leave their corner of discontent and so missed the atmosphere of celebration 5 hours after polls opened and the successful candidates were announced to the massed crowd. It was extremely gratifying to hear the talk outside the classroom which served as a polling station; “free and fair” could commonly be discerned amongst the other incoherent jumble of triumphant conversations in the local Iko dialect. So happy were the participants with the days events, that I may have made a rod for my own back as it has been suggested we assist with the re-election of several other bodies in the village! I couldn’t be happier with the group of men and women that the community chose to represent them over the next 3 years and despite their initial misgivings, neither it seems could the chiefs. I’m not entirely sure, however, how I feel about the new nickname they bestowed on me; ‘The Bulldozer’- though it does have a certain ring to it.