February 03, (THEWILL) – Every election cycle in Nigeria appears to have a way of placing legal and political landmines on the path of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and leaving the Commission to its own devices.
A few hours to the conduct of rerun polls on Saturday to fill vacancies in three Senatorial Districts, 17 Federal and 26 State Constituencies spread across 80 Local Government Areas, 575 Registration Areas/Wards and 8,934 Polling Units in the country, a fresh legal and political challenge reared its head in Plateau State.
The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, which lost two elected senators, four House of Representatives and 16 House of Assembly members over a pre-election matter dealing with disobedience to a High Court order and lack of structure, thought it had been cleared for the Saturday re-run through the recent Supreme Court statement that faulted, “the appellate court for going into the issue of nomination and sponsorship despite several decisions of the apex court to the effect that another political party cannot challenge the primary election of another.”
Delivering the lead judgement of the Supreme Court’s five-member panel on the matter, Justice Emmanuel Agim referenced APC’s contention that the appellant was not qualified to contest the election.
The APC argued that Plateau Governor Caleb Mutfwang’s nomination as a candidate and his election were invalid by virtue of non-compliance with the electoral law.
The Court of Appeal, upholding APC’s argument, had held that the primary election that produced Governor Mutfwang as PDP’s candidate and his subsequent nomination to INEC was invalid.
Assessing the Court of Appeal’s decision, Mr Agim held, “We have held in a plethora of cases that the sponsorship of a candidate for election is an internal affair of a political party.”
The Court of Appeal had hinged its decision sacking the governor on the alleged failure of the PDP to comply with an order of a High Court in Plateau State to conduct fresh congresses before holding a primary election for the nomination of its candidates in the 2023 general election.
But the Supreme Court justice said there was evidence showing that the PDP complied with the order of the High Court.
The party was wrong. When the electoral umpire delivered materials for the polls in the state, the party discovered it had been excluded from the ballot.
The Chairman of the party in Plateau, Chris Hassan told THEWILL on Friday that the party was shocked to find that it was not on the ballot when the INEC distributed materials for the election to the state.
“No explanation has been given to us. But we have obtained a court judgement to compel the INEC to do the needful.”
Contacted for his reaction, the Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Rotimi Oyekanmi, forwarded a Friday statement by the Commission to THEWILL. The statement by the Head of the Voter Education and Publicity Department in Plateau State, Mr Egwurube Michael Otokpa, dated Friday, January 2, 2024, simply debunked “breaking news claiming that Senate/House of Representatives elections scheduled for tomorrow, February 2 has been postponed because of the absence of the Peoples Democratic Party from the ballot.”
It added that “The Plateau INEC wishes to inform the public that contrary to so-called breaking news, it has concluded plans to conduct the election.”
Nevertheless, Oyekanmi said if there was a court injunction, it is yet to be made available to the Commission.
At any rate, the development has left the political parties in disarray in the North Central State. On the one hand, the state chapter of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC, called on other political parties to boycott the polls because of the exclusion of the PDP. This action warranted the counter statement by INEC’s Egwurube on Friday, a few hours to the conduct of the poll.
However, surprised by the local IPAC’s directive, the national body issued a counter statement on Friday. National Publicity Secretary of IPAC, Chinyere Ogekalu, dissociated the council from the position of its local chapter in Plateau, saying at a meeting with political parties recently, INEC explained why the PDP cannot participate in the polls in Plateau State, “owing to a subsisting court judgement barring the party from participating in the rerun election.”
Ogekalu submitted: “The court judgement is already being challenged by the concerned political party, meaning that it is aware that the PDP has challenged the Commission’s decision in the law court.”
“Apart from that, we have made several representations without success to INEC, especially after the Supreme Court ruling, about the need to include our party on the ballot,” National Publicity of PDP, Debo Ogunagba, told THEWILL.
He added, “We cannot force ourselves to be on the ballot, but we will review the case and take appropriate action. We recognise that the Appeal Court is the last stop of cases affecting the legislature, however the interest of justice demands that where there is injustice and a judgement is considered perverse as the Supreme Court said on the Plateau case, the INEC needs to have regard and respect for the rule of law.”
The only plausible explanation for INEC’s stand on the PDP’s case in Plateau State may be found in INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, ’s last statement on the conduct of the rerun across the country.
Prof. Yakubu said, “The forthcoming by-elections are fresh elections for which political parties conducted primaries and nominated their candidates. For the rerun elections to be held on the same day, the list and personal particulars of candidates have been published before the 2023 general election.
“The rerun elections are conducted pursuant to the orders of the Election Petition Appeal Tribunals. They are not fresh elections open to new/disqualified candidates which obviates the need to publish their personal particulars again.”
Nonetheless, a Lagos based Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, who pleaded not to be quoted because he has not fully studied the matter however offered a legal clarification.
He told THEWILL on the condition of anonymity: “Whatever the Supreme Court says about a case that is not brought before is just a comment. Jurisdiction over cases involving lawmakers ends at the Appeal Court. However, if the court order the party claimed was given by a Federal High Court that has jurisdiction over the matter, then whatever INEC did is in contempt of court and the election will be null and void.”
SITUATION REPORTS FROM AFFECTED STATES
Apart from Plateau State, 25 states witnessed rerun polls on Saturday. They are Ebonyi, Yobe, Kebbi, Lagos, Ondo, Taraba, Benue, Borno, Kaduna, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Cross River, Delta, Enugu, Jigawa, Katsina, Adamawa, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Kano, Nasarawa, Niger, Oyo, Sokoto, and Zamfara.
According to Prof Yakubu, the bye-elections were conducted in nine out of the 26 states to elect two senators, five members of the House of Representatives and three members of State Houses of Assembly.
In other states, he noted, the rerun elections took place at designated constituencies or polling units as ordered by the election appeal tribunals.
Prominent among the vacancies to be filled are those of two senators, namely Senator David Umahi, who resigned from the Senate to take up appointment as Minister for Works and Senator Ibrahim Geidam, who took up appointment as Minister of Police Affairs. The affected four members of the House of Representatives are Femi Gbajabiamila, former Speaker but a member of the House of Representatives before he was appointed Chief of Staff to President Bola Tinubu in August 2023; Bumi Tunji-Ojo who was a member of the House of Representatives before he was appointed Minister of Interior; and Hon Tanko Sununu who resigned from the House of Representatives to become Minister of State for Education.
Others are Hon Isma’ila Maihanchi, a representative member-elect from Taraba who died before inauguration and Hon. Abdulkadir Danbuga from Sokoto who died in October 2023.
The remaining vacancies involve members of State Houses of Assembly who were either sacked by the election petition tribunals or died while serving.
In all, the two Senatorial Districts are Ebonyi South and Yobe East, while the five Federal Constituencies are Shanga/Ngaski/Yauri Federal Constituency of Kebbi State; Surulere I Federal Constituency of Lagos State; Akoko North East/Akoko North-West Federal Constituency of Ondo State; Jalingo/Yorro/Zing Federal Constituency of Taraba State and Isa/Sabon Birnin Federal Constituency of Sokoto State.
The three State Constituencies held in Guma I State Constituency of Benue State, Chibok State Constituency of Borno State and Chikun State Constituency of Kaduna State.
POLITICAL PARTIES AND OUTCOME
As usual, less than 10 out of 18 registered political parties participated in the rerun and in some of the affected states, such as Sokoto, Ebonyi and Yobe, some of the parties, against the backdrop of the worsening violence in the country, have been made to sign a peace accord to abhor violence and accept the outcome of the polls. The prominent parties are the APC, PDP, African Democratic Congress, ADC, All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, Social Democratic Party, SDP; Labour Party and the New Nigeria Peoples Party, NNPP.
Despite the directive on restriction of movement and assurances of a free and fair conduct of the polls issued by the Inspector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun and the expressed hope for transparency by the Directorate of State Security, DSS, on Friday, there were fears that electoral malpractices would still rear their ugly heads.
Mr Samson Itodo, Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, a non-profit organisation promoting participatory democracy by active monitoring and observing of polls, thinks the two critical areas that often mar the polls conducted by INEC are still very much present. These areas are “collation officers and local government officials of the Commission who always manage to sabotage the electoral process.”
Mr Obaro Aisien, Deputy Director, Voter Education at INEC headquarters, however, submitted in a media interaction on Friday that INEC has since adapted to the challenges posed by the electoral process, even as insecurity still remains a major challenge.
He contended that the Inter-Agency Committee on Election Security headed by INEC Chairman was up to the task. PDP’s Ologunagba also contended that excluding the party from participating in the rerun amounted to recklessness and insensitivity to the rule of law and democracy.
According to him, the party would exhaust all legal options to ensure that “INEC is compelled to follow the dictates of the law and not act according to its whim, as if it is acting to please another master other than democracy. We are a law- abiding party and will always act in ways that are consistent with our character.”