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Imo Governorship Election: How Disinformation Actors Fuelled Violence With False Information

In the buildup to the election, ROUNDCHECK observed different political actors used disinformation to fuel violence, especially in Imo state.

Imo Governorship Election: How Disinformation Actors Fuelled Violence With False Information

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On November 11, 2023, off-cycle gubernatorial elections were held in Bayelsa, Imo, and Kogi states in Nigeria.

The electoral umpire, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) pledged to ensure a level playing field for all political parties and candidates in the elections. The chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, noted that the commission is determined to ensure its officials are available at polling units without delay.

These states are part of the eight states that have off-cycle governorship elections held outside of the general election timetable in the country.

INEC cleared 18 candidates in Kogi State, 17 in Imo State, and 16 in Bayelsa State. 5.4m voters registered to exercise their franchise in these states combined.

However, in the buildup to the election, ROUNDCHECK observed different political actors used disinformation to fuel violence, especially in Imo state.

This action could seriously jeopardize democracy, says Silas Jonathan, a fact-checking expert at DUBAWA, a West African fact-checking organization.

“Information holds immense power, and its malicious use could further destabilize the already fragile electoral systems in Africa,” Silas explained.

Agitators Pushed For No Election In Imo

2,419,922 voters were on the voters register for the November 11 Imo State governorship election, as there were 2,318,919 collected PVCs and 101,003 uncollected.

The election was tainted with fear and bodies like the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) had previously stated that the governorship election in Imo State is unnecessary because “widespread violence has already planted fear in the electorates and the results of the election may not change anything.”

ROUNDCHECK monitored different social media accounts pushing for no election in Imo state.

From our monitoring, many of the account handlers were supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a nationalist separatist group in Nigeria that aims to restore the Republic of Biafra, a country that seceded from Nigeria prior to the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), but later rejoined Nigeria after.

We were able to figure this out from their posts and several engagements on X (formerly Twitter).

IPOB was founded in 2012 in Southeast Nigeria by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian political activist known for his advocacy for the contemporary Biafran independence movement, with the purpose of restoring the defunct Biafra.

These social media accounts called for no election in Imo State

A X user, Simon Ekpan Deberachi (@Daberec70231502) posted on November 2, that there will be a total lockdown and there will be no election in Imo state.

In his words, “PAY ATTENTION FROM. 9. 10. 11. 12. WILL BE TOTAL LOCKDOWN STAYAT HOME. DONT BLEME ANY BODY WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU. IF YOU SURVIVE IT. NO ELECTION IN IMO STATE KNOWS AS BIAFRA LAND”.

This post had 136 retweets and 174 likes and was viewed 3,931 times at the time of this report.

Imo governorship election

A screenshot of the claim on X/Twitter

Also, another X user, Simon Ekpa Ekeidemmili Nnobi (@ekeidemmili), posted similar content, calling for no election in Imo state.

A screenshot of the claim seen on X/Twitter.

In his words “Biafrans in Imo stat, if you love yourself and value your life, respect the 4days Biafraland Lock Down 6 to 6. No Nigeria election in Imo state or elsewhere in Biafraland” [sic]

Also, on November 10, a day before the Imo governorship election, another X user, Promise Land (@chukws18), posted that there would be no election in Imo state, asking people to refrain from voting if they love their lives.

The exact statement says “We are fully prepared waiting for any Nigeria terorist in Army uniform tomorrow in Biafran land. No Election/ Selection in Imo sit at home if you love your life just leave the road for us Biafra Liberation Army to deal with the terorist who the have send to k!ll our people.”

Coordinated Disinformation Threatened IMO State Election

We checked and saw different actors fueling violence on social media platforms and instilling fear in the minds of the electorate.

These activities are also accompanied by disinformation content. Several social media accounts monitored prior to and during the election posted content that threatened electorate to stay indoors and boycott the election.

For example, Alex Igwe (@AlexIgwe15), an X user claimed on November 8, that thugs disrupted INEC stakeholder’s meeting in Owerri. ROUNDCHECK checked and our findings revealed it was misleading.

A screenshot of the claim seen on X/Twitter

ROUNDCHECK findings revealed that truly INEC stakeholders was meeting in Owerri, the capital of Imo state, but it wasn’t disrupted by thugs as claimed by Alex Igwe.

The meeting which took place on Tuesday, November 7, in Owerri, the Imo state capital was a stakeholders meeting put together by INEC ahead of the off-cycle governorship elections in Imo, Kogi, and Bayelsa states on November 11. The meeting had leaders from different political parties.

However, rancor ensued when Kenneth Ukeagu, INEC’s national commissioner for the Southeast, asked the press to leave the meeting hall. This directive didn’t go down well with different political leaders there who walked out of the meeting to express their displeasure.

It was never a thug that disrupted the meeting.

Also, another Twitter user, Simon Ekpa Akparawa (@Akparawasunny), claimed on November 9th that Saudi Arabian Jihadists had been brought into Imo state.

The post was accompanied by a picture of a military personnel, depicting it as a Saudi Arabian soldier.

A screenshot of the claim seen on X/Twitter.

The post had 79 comments, 616 retweets, 994 likes, and was viewed more than 14,000 times, as at the time of this report. We checked and found it to be INCORRECT.

We went forward to check the image and noticed that the image was from a US-trained brigade of special forces soldiers who fought ISIS on the front line in Mosul, Iraq, according to a 2016 report by UK’s The Sun newspaper.

The elite fighters were part of Iraq’s 1st Commando Battalion which fought against ISIS in the Middle East.

It was also confirmed by another report published same year.

Who Is Pushing This Narrative?

ROUNDCHECK observed that as these mis/disinformation narratives spread, fueling violence in Imo state, information was sourced from an actor, who influences the movement of the Biafra people. It was seen that people depended on him, shared his narratives, and acted upon his directives.

Our findings revealed that one person, known as Simon Ekpa was at the center of this information chain. Simon Ekpa, through his various social media accounts, is observed to be the source of these narratives.

Simon Ekpa

Simon Ekpa, a Nigerian-Finnish lawyer, political activist, and former athlete, was born on March 21, 1985, in Ohaukwu Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.

He is the self-acclaimed ‘Prime minister of the Biafra Republic Government in Exile (BIRGIE)’, a body established to “undertake the political and administrative governance of the Biafran nation from outside the Biafra territory”, with over 60 administrative members.

Ekpa also poses as the commander-in-chief of all Biafran Armed forces.

Simon Ekpa who is at the center of the information chain disseminates information to other components who also share it further in a circle of influence campaign..

An image illustrating Twitter accounts sourcing and amplifying false information shared by Simon Ekpa/ROUNDCHECK.

On November 2, 2023, at exactly 8:15 pm, Simon Ekpa through his blue checkmark subscribed Twitter/X account announced that “there will be no election in Okigwe, Orlu, and Oweri States on November 9, 10, 11, and 12”. 

A part of his statement reads “Biafrans should stay away from Hope Uzodinma’s election. The enemy is at rampage, and Biafra Forces is ready to engage the terrorists caliphate in an unusual manner. We are gravely provoked. Our freedom is costly, but we shall maintain the height of victory. Therefore, the Biafra military deployed and led by Prime Minister Simon has the muscles to quench every aggression of war and defend Bifrans”.

A screenshot of Simon Ekpa’s post made on the 2nd of November, 2023.

A few days later, this directive was disseminated by other supporters, fueling violence in the state.

Also, the claim about Saudi Arabia mercenaries in Imo was first pushed by Simon Ekpa.

Imo Election Records Low Turnout

Hope Uzodinma, the governor of the state was re-elected in the Nov 11 poll, however, the state election was marred by low voter turnout as reported by media organizations which attributed it to security concerns.

These actors fueled violence through influence operations, instilling fear in the minds of electorate.

ROUNDCHECK found all of the claims by these actors to be False and Misleading, thereby having a greater influence on the outcome of the Imo governorship election.

What Is The Way Out?

Silas Jonathan noted that unchecked disinformation campaigns have the potential to amplify societal issues, and can cause political divisions.

He called for a comprehensive media and information literacy campaign and collaboration between major tech companies and disinformation experts as a way of exposing and eradicating disinformation trends in the country in general.

“Imposing clear punishments on those undermining democratic processes, particularly during elections, is necessary, focusing on penalising disinformation rather than mere regulations.

“Journalists should undergo extensive research and skill development to effectively report on and expose these trends, remaining adaptable to technological advancements,” he added.

Murkthar Suleiman, a political expert, noted that for government officials to stop spreading disinformation, they need to start holding themselves accountable.

“To address this issue, I think the government needs to work overtime to promote a Nigerian dream, not just for Nigerians but also for those at the helm of affairs. We need to see them holding themselves accountable to it, too. Calling themselves out when any member of their ‘boys club’ falls below the standard,” he said.

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