Onuigbo: NASS programmed electoral Act 2022 against political gangsterism
Ever since he championed the passage of Nigeria’s Climate Change Bill into law by the Ninth National Assembly, Chief Samuel Ifeanyi Onuigbo, has come to be known as Mr Climate Change for delivering that historic legislation through the House of Representatives Committee on Climate Change, which he chairs.
Recognising the truism in the saying that the reward for good work is more work, and his track records as a member representing Ikwuano/Umuahia North and South federal constituency, the people of Abia Central Senatorial District tapped him to represent them in the Senate. He contested and won the senatorial primary on the platform of All Progressives Congress (APC) before some political wayfarers intruded.
In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, Onuigbo, who was also a member of NASS Joint Technical Committee on the Electoral Act 2022, details the painstaking efforts of stakeholders brought to bear on the chequered Electoral Act 2022. From the lawmaker’s account, it is obvious that the Electoral Act 2022 anticipated some of the ongoing hiccups in the electoral process and used legislation to empower the electoral umpire appropriately.
Some observations have been made to the effect that the Electoral Act is inferior when put side by side with the constitution, does that vitiate the provisions of the law?
CLEARLY, the Constitution is the grundnorm. We draw all powers from the constitution; we draw powers either to act in the executive or to legislate. So, the constitution always is superior.
However, some things are not very well detailed, especially when you are working in a positive way. I do not think anybody will formulate or create a constitution to now make it a hindrance to now empower or give people a chance to proceed on a voyage of illegality, no. Such a thing does not happen in any system.
Why we enact laws and amend laws is that when you find mischief or you find areas being exploited, you bring the law for amendment. Or, if you need an enhancement you can bring laws and increase powers to get a just and peaceful society because as it is said, a society without laws and laws being implemented is a contradiction in terms. I mean, you cannot be referred to as a society if people can set the law aside, and shred it by your actions. So, what is the essence of coming together, why do you have a civilised society?
So, I do not think that the laws that we make are intended to undermine the constitution, but instead to define it better and enhance the functions of such critical institutions like INEC. Democracy that we are talking about, without INEC, you don’t have an election. The election is a critical process for selecting leaders to give them powers for authoritative administration and application of resources because without being elected you cannot sit down there and begin to say, I will do this and that. So, the election is key and INEC is a very critical national institution that you have to really build up their powers and help them to function well.
Can you give us a little background to what happened during Abia State APC primaries, especially for Abia Central Senatorial zone?
We were supposed to hold the primaries on the May 28, which was the date announced by the national headquarters of the party in their notice. But, due to some bottlenecks, the chairman of the panel from Abuja, Hon. Izu Okeke, consulted with all of us and resolved, ‘let’s do this tomorrow so as to overcome the bottlenecks.’
So, by the next day, we had the election and at the end of the day, I won. I defeated my closest opponent, Chief Iko, by 157 to 152 votes. That was it. The panel submitted their report to the office of the National Organising Secretary, which was signed by five of them.
They listed those of us who were returned or elected as candidates for the three senatorial zones, namely, Chief Sam Onuigbo for Abia Central, Senator Orji Uzo Kalu, Abia North and Blessing Nwagba for Abia South. The office of the National Organising Secretary received the result and acknowledge it.
On June 6, 2022, according to the letter given to me, it was received by one Sabiru Bello, who I believe is an Assistant Director. I recall that they didn’t give me that document immediately; it was when I went there severally to get the document to show that they have finished with the election, that they gave me a copy showing that it has been acknowledged. And, as a confirmation of the fact that I was the candidate of the party, they issued me with Form EC9, which is from INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission), which is given to the only successful candidates.
They asked me to complete that form and I completed the form and returned it on June 14. And, after returning it, it was acknowledged by one of the officers there, Emmanuel or so. After that, I was required to sign in a column where my name was already indicated as a candidate, where, after signing, you were also required to put in your phone number.
On that document, my name was listed as number one, Senator Orji Uzo Kalu was number two. He signed before me and then Blessing Nwagba and I also signed and put my phone number. So, I believed everything was going well, until June 16th, when they issued the list of candidates for the election to represent APC.
I now discovered that, in a most bizarre manner, my name was changed or substituted with somebody’s name, who never featured anywhere during our senatorial election. I am saying this because there were nine of us that were cleared for that election.
I can provide the names of the nine of us that were cleared by the APC national headquarters as those who bought forms, completed the forms, returned the forms, were invited for screening and were screened and cleared by the party to stand for election. They were: Ijioko Gift Emaba; Enyinnaya Michael Kasarachi; Samuel Ifeanyi Onuigbo; Henry Ikechukwu Iko; Kelvin Chima Ogbuaji; Okonkwo Fabian; Nkechi Justina Nworgu, former senator; Dr. Orji Uzo Kalu and Nwagba Blessing Oluchi. These were the people cleared by the party.
Now, out of this nine, four of us came from Abia Central, these are myself, Chief Samuel Onuigbo, Chief Henry Ikechukwu Iko, Senator Nkechi Justina Nworgu and Chief Kelvin Chima Ogbuaji. A few days before the election, Senator Nkechi Justina Nworgu wrote and withdrew from the election; then Chief Kelvin Chima Ogbuaji did not make it to the election. He was not seen, probably he didn’t come for the election, so it was just Chief Henry Iko and myself that stood for the election and at the end of the day, I defeated Chief Henry Iko by 157 to his 152 votes.
It is therefore so strange to us that someone who did not buy nomination forms for the Senate, never participated in the preliminary processes, that is completing your form, submitting, participating in screening and being cleared by the party, from nowhere had his name listed to substitute my own name. It is one of the strangest things I have ever seen.
And it is so shocking that the Electoral Act 2022 is explicit in its provisions either in section 29, whereas you read towards the end of that 29, you will find that it is a requirement that parties must hold valid primaries for their candidates to emerge.
If you go to section 84, sub-section 1, it also states that any political party seeking to nominate a candidate to stand for election, such 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.
So, to now see that one, this individual did not participate in a valid primary as provided in section 29 or that this individual was not part of the primaries completely, this individual, Chief Emeka Atuma, stood for the gubernatorial election in the two factions of APC in Abia; in the one conducted by Ikechi Emenike, he came second, in the gubernatorial primary won by Chief Uche Ogah, he came third.
So, to see that he is now a senatorial candidate is one of the strangest things. It is one strange development that we should not be talking about in this day and age, especially with all the improvements that we have made. So, I think it is now up to INEC and the party to correct this grievous mistake.
You may call it a mistake, but INEC said the constitution did not empower the commission to reject candidates submitted by a political party. Now, in the light of the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022, do you think the party leadership has no remedy or shortcut across the provisions of the Electoral Act?
The Electoral Act 2022 was enacted by the legislature, the National Assembly. By His grace, I was lucky to have participated, when we had a retreat in Lagos with critical players. Stakeholders such as the joint committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate; the European Union, their representatives; PLAC (Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre) headed by Clement Nwankwo and so many other major stakeholders.
We had that retreat during which the chairman of INEC, Prof. Yakubu, was emphatic in his appeal to us. He urged us to look at the Electoral Act holistically. That was when we agreed to repeal all those other amendments and enact a new Electoral Act. He appealed to us to eliminate all loopholes that political parties used to carry out impunity. It was while working on this, that I was a member of the Joint Technical Committee, where I represented the Southeast from the House of Reps and Senator Ekweremadu represented the Southeast from the Senate. There were so many other people; Senator Kabiru Gaya chaired it, along with Aisha Duku, who is chairman of the House of Reps.
Then, we also had Senator (Ibrahim) Shakarau, Senator Yao, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele and, from the House of Reps, myself, Hon. Solomon Bob, James Magaji, Hon. Adigun, Hon. Arch Mohammed, six of us.
So, we worked on these things line by line and tried to eliminate all those loopholes. That is why if you read the Electoral Act 2022 very well, you will find that INEC is equipped to do the right things. You could say that the Constitution is a superior legislation, but these laws were actually enacted to enhance their powers.
INEC has been armed to be able to terminate this act of impunity with precision and clear guidance. So, if they are talking about, maybe the challenge of not doing this, then the question arises, why did we load them with all these powers in trying to define better what powers the constitution has given them? What we have done is to enhance their powers and give them teeth to bite.
But, INEC also said that usually, after candidates’ names are uploaded they are published for claims and objections. Do you think that window of opportunity is not enough to really address some of these acts of impunity?
Well, that is a very important window. But, one other thing that has happened is that with these provisions that are put in place, even the talk about withdrawal, if you go to section 33, check 29, and read 84(1), you will then find that everything is geared towards safeguarding the actions of INEC.
I do believe that INEC did not seek for these enhanced powers for the fun of it; they sought these powers and they got them to enable them to perform better. I do not have any doubt that somewhere down the line, they should be able to do some comparison, some analysis of what they saw in the field and maybe what the party submitted.
I am not speaking for INEC, but I just believe that this was the reason they asked for these extra powers because where they see manifest impunity or illegality they straighten out things. In a civilised place, I do not think that such a critical institution will allow that to happen, because if that happens then their powers are immediately eroded.
Are you saying that instead of pushing this responsibility to the law courts, INEC should rise up to the challenge based on the legislation?
The legislation has given them powers; nobody is contesting the position of the law, otherwise, why do we have these three arms of government; the legislature to make laws, to enact laws as instructed in section 4 of the constitution and laws enacted by the legislature are executed by the executive arm as in section 5 and when there is any conflict or anything that needs definition or proper interpretation, that is handled by the judiciary as in section 6.
So, it is not as if it is intended for the legislature to take away the powers of the court, no, nobody wants that encroachment and that is the essence of checks and balances.
However, if going by the complaints that Prof. Yakubu made during our retreat in Lagos that they have 809 pre-election cases, which cost them money to pay lawyers and which distracted them from their massive constitutional responsibilities, we should find a way to make sure that this thing does not continue to arise.
Therefore, if they didn’t want these powers, they should not have asked for them and then got the powers. But, that is not to say that INEC, which is an arm of the executive should now take over the functions of the judiciary. Well, if it becomes difficult, people can seek redress.
However, I think we are moving to a world, we are hoping and working towards a world where things that can be avoided should be avoided so that you don’t clog up the system with unnecessary litigations.
If such litigations and other distractions were not serious threats to INEC, I don’t think the chairman would have complained and appealed to us to look at it; we took the line of the item by line.
And when we were enacting this act, INEC was there with us throughout, Ministry of Justice had their legal drafts; they were there with us too. CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) were also there with us and then you now have the Joint Technical Committee. We usually start the sessions by 9 am and close by 10 pm. We did that for days to be able to achieve this.
You don’t invest all the energy and achieve the result only to have it immediately eroded or undermined. Once it is successful that you can shred the law and do whatever you like, what is the essence of, one, going to do primary elections; two, the Electoral Act if you don’t want to abide by it.
So, in effect, you are saying people should sit down in Abuja and write the names of those they want. Why do you go to test the popularity of those who want to represent the people?
Do you not know the primary election is the first test, where members of your party are called upon to exercise the idea of a government of the people by the people, to exercise their right? That way they can say, this is the person we have elected, to put him up, we consider him fit and proper to stand up and represent us in the general election, where other parties are also presenting people.
You cannot do that successfully from your cosy office in Abuja and say ‘I take Leo, I take this one,’ you can’t do that. And, if you do that, you are not likely to have the support of the base, because today those who elected me to be their candidate they’ve been calling and asking why this strange development, why this individual they had never listened to, he has never made them a promise, he has never done things that they can see. Why should they say we have voted for him?
Are you gratified by the fact that the election is eight months away and therefore provides an enormous opportunity to clear all this confusion?
See, we made it that way. Was it ever like this before? We introduced those checks in the Electoral Act to allow for the exhaustion of any challenge, whether legal or whatever so that we do not again have a situation, where people engage in political gangsterism and then they come and hijack positions just like they are trying to do.
This is pure political gangsterism. They hijack a position that they never contested for and then, after the election, they now sit in and use resources that they are getting from their loots, from their fraudulent conduct to now fighting the genuine individual. So, it is important for this to be stopped before the general election and that is why we did it.
Let me also tell you another concern we had when we were making this law. We were concerned that whoever becomes a candidate will probably be spending too much money. Once you become a candidate they will start calling you honourable or distinguished and you continue to spend money before the election. But, we said no, we should not because of the fear of that, fail to make a law that will become enduring.
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