As Nigerians gear up for the 2023 General elections, it is becoming apparent that the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is on trial in the court of public opinion.
The electorate is on the look out specifically to see how far INEC utilises the enormous powers ceded to it by the Electoral Act 2022 to demonstrate its impartiality and independence.
For sometime now, the perception of bias has always trailed the electoral commission’s conduct, particularly given the allegation that the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) constantly breathes down the throat of the commission.
The first alarm raised against INEC’s perceived subservience to the APC-led Federal Government was when the commission shifted the deadline for the conduct of primaries in deference to the governing party.
However, although the commission showed sufficient evidence that it was not just the APC, but other political parties that benefitted from the slight adjustment, the feeling of bias still subsisted.
While objective commentators like Monday Ubani, urged that INEC should be accorded the benefit of the doubt, the issue of wrongful substitution of candidates by the governing party roiled public apprehension.
Nigerians were aghast when the APC submitted the names of the Senate President and former Minister for Niger Delta, Dr. Ahmad Lawan and Senator Godswill Obot Akapbio, who participated in the party’s presidential primary, as APC senatorial candidates.
Although the 1999 constitution as amended, stipulates that it is only a political party that could identify who flies its flag during election, the Electoral Act specified particularly that candidates must emerge from validly conducted primaries.
In the case of Lawan and Akpabio, the question on the lips of many Nigerians who saw the two participating in the APC Special Convention, where the former Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, emerged as the party’s presidential candidate was the two aspirants purchase two forms apiece for the Presidential and Senatorial contests?
While the cases of Lawan and Akpabio were still being debated, it was also gathered that a similar underhand substitution of validly nominated candidates happened in Abia State. A member of the Ninth National Assembly representing Ikwuano/Umuahia North/Umuahia South Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Hon. Sam Onuigbo, was also wrongfully substituted with Emeka Atuma, who contested unsuccessfully for the APC governorship primary in the state.
Going by the APC regulations, candidates for any elective office were to purchase the party’s expression of interest and nominations, undergo screening and, if cleared, participate in the straw poll, monitored by INEC and if successful in the primary, issued a certificate of return.
But, bypassing these crucial laid down procedures, the APC decided to submit the names of aspirants that never went through the party’s primary, which is a fundamental desideratum for participation in the election as prescribed by the Electoral Act 2022.
It is therefore in the face of this flagrant abuse of process and display of impunity that Nigerians are wondering whether INEC would be complicit with the governing party to thrash the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022.
Bashir Sheriff Machina, who won the APC Senatorial primary for Yobe North Senatorial District, has continued to express alarm that the powers that be in APC are trying to undermine his emergence as the candidate to impose Lawan. Machina had in an open letter before the National Headquarters of APC submitted the name of the Senate President, declared that he has neither stepped down nor agreed to be substituted with Lawan.
Despite the fact that INEC’s report on the Yobe North Senatorial primary affirmed Machina as the winner, sources disclosed that attempts were being made to throw up another backdated report to invalidate the previous one by the state Resident Electoral Commissioner, who supervised the exercise to favour Lawan.
On June 23, 2022, a certified true copy was issued, attesting to the commission’s report on the May 28, 2022 primary that Machina polled 289 votes out of 300 delegates to win the ticket.
It was gathered that the attempt to produce a backdated report followed Machina’s refusal to back down, just as the APC National Chairman, Senator Abdullahi Adamu, was said to have warned of severe sanctions unless Machina yields the ticket to Lawan.
Citing party supremacy, the APC National Chairman maintains that the party reserves the right to decide its candidates for any election, adding, “There is nothing in the law that says the Senate President should not contest for another position after losing in his presidential bid.”
Adamu had listed Lawan as the candidate of the APC for the Yobe North senatorial election slated for February 2023, claiming that a primary had secretly held in which Lawan purportedly emerged the winner.
Meanwhile in a bid to beat the 14-day deadline to file processes against observed infractions, Onuigbo, who is also the chairman of House of Representatives Committee on Climate Change, dragged the APC INEC to court for wrongful substitution.
The matter has been adjourned to July 15. Also joined as defendant is Emeka Atuma in the suit No FHC/UM/CS/113/2022 holden at the Federal High Court, Umuahia, which has also been listed as Suit No FHC/ABJ/CS/963/2022 in the Abuja division of the court.
In the suit filed on his behalf by Chief Emeka Obegolu SAN, Onuigbo prayed for an order of interim injunction restraining the 2nd defendant/respondent (INEC) either by themselves, agents, assigns, privies or anybody else acting on their instruction or behest from publishing or recognizing the name of the 3rd defendant/respondent (Atuma) as the candidate of the 1st defendant/respondent (APC) for Abia Central Senatorial District pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice for interlocutory injunction.
The plaintiff also sought the order of the court “granting leave to the plaintiff/applicant to serve the 3rd defendant/respondent the originating summons and its accompanying processes, the motion on notice for interlocutory injunction and all other processes in this suit by substituted means at the headquarters of 1st defendant/respondent, APC National Headquarters, 40 Blantyre Street, Wuse 2, Abuja.”
While pleading for an order granting accelerated hearing of the suit, Onuigbo also asked the court for “an order abridging the time within which all the defendants/respondents may file and serve its counter affidavit to the amended summons in the suit 10 days from the date of service of the originating summons.”
The plaintiff in his cause of action prayed the court to determine “whether by the combined reading of Sections 31, 33 and 84 of the Electoral Act 2022 and Article 7(iv), (viii), (ix), (xii), (xiii, Articles 19.6 (ii), 20.3, 20.4 of the 1st defendant’s constitution and Articles 19, 22(ii)(A), 26(K) of the 1st defendant’s guidelines for the nomination of candidates for the 2023 general elections, the 1st defendant can validly replace the candidate that emerged from the party’s primary elections validly conducted in compliance with the Electoral Act, the constitution of the 1st defendant/respondent.”
In his ruling, the Presiding Judge, Justice E. N. Anyadike, granted all the prayers for substituted service, abridgment of time and accelerated hearing, even as he declined the order for an interim injunction until the defendants/respondents are put on notice.
The matter was therefore adjourned to July 15, 2022 for report of service and further mention.
Checks by The Guardian revealed that after going through screening and contesting the APC Senatorial primary among other four aspirants, Onuigbo defeated his closest rival by 157 to 152 votes, but was allegedly replaced by Atuma, who contested unsuccessfully for the party’s governorship primary.
APC had earlier published the names of the nine aspirants that purchased the Senatorial nomination forms and were screened, showing that Emeka Atuma was not a candidate for the Senatorial primary.
In the case of Akpabio, the state Resident Electoral Commissioner, Mr. Mike Igini, affirmed that the former Niger Delta Minister did not partake in any valid primary monitored by INEC. Igini, who appeared on a television programme, stressed that contrary to the position by the National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Information, Festus Okoye, that the commission cannot reject candidates submitted by parties, the Electoral Act 2022 was explicit on the modalities of producing candidates.
Sections 29 and 84 (1)(13) are unambiguous on the modalities for nominating candidates. For instance, Section 84(1) stipulates that “any political party seeking to nominate candidate to stand for election, such a party shall conduct primaries for the aspirants for any elective position and that such primary election shall be monitored by the commission, in this case, INEC.”
It is left to be seen how much independence that INEC could muster from the Electoral Act 2022, particularly in the face of obvious stalwart opposition to the procedures by the governing APC. As the commission conducts the last off-season governorship poll in Osun State, it is hoped that the INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, would use the opportunity to clarify the commission’s stand on these issues