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Akwa Ibom Northwest Senatorial rerun: PDP, APC debate if Akpabio can be substituted

By Anietie Akpan, Deputy Bureau Chief South-south 
22 December 2019   |   4:11 am
The sudden pull out of the Minister of Niger Delta, Senator Godswill Akpabio from the scheduled January 26, 2020 concluding supplementary election for Essien Udim Local Government Area...

Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio. Photo: ELOMBAH

The sudden pull out of the Minister of Niger Delta, Senator Godswill Akpabio from the scheduled January 26, 2020 concluding supplementary election for Essien Udim Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom NorthWest Senatorial, is seen by many as a welcome development, especially the All Progressives Congress (APC) folks.

They say a bird at hand is worth millions in the bush. Even though the PDP guys are equally happy with his pull out, some see it as smart escape from imminent trouncing, especially with an uncompromising Resident Electoral Commissioner.

Akpabio had in a letter addressed to the National Chairman of APC said: “I have taken into consideration the critical national assignment bestowed on me by Mr. President, which will be of immense importance to Nigerians and in particular the indigenes of the Niger Delta region and have resolved to remain in office as a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to further discharge my contributions and services to our great fatherland.

“It is on the premises of the foregoing and particularly in line with the provisions of Section 35 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) that I write to formally and voluntarily withdraw my candidature as the candidate of the APC for the forthcoming Court-ordered rerun Election for the Akwa Ibom North-West Senatorial District…”

With this withdrawal from the race, some persons have maintained that after a careful analysis of the Appeal Court judgment, it is clear that the rerun was based on issues of massive irregularities and violence in Essien Udim, which INEC raised both at the tribunal and Appeal Court.

Justice Saidu Tanko Husseini in his judgment at the Appeal Court said, “the appellants (Akpabio, APC and others) had alleged acts of malpractices in the election held in Essien Udim on February 23, 2019 and was contended that ‘though the 1st appellant (Akpabio ) secured an overwhelming victory in that election by the 61,339 votes scored by him as against 9,050 votes scored by the 1st respondent (Obong Chris Ekpeyong) yet the 3 to 5th (INEC, Returning Officer and the Resident Electoral Commissioner) respondents in the declaration of the results for Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial district, ascribed 6,241 votes only to the 1st appellant as votes scored by him in Essien Udim.

“To succeed on this allegation of malpractice and the fact that the results or scores which occurred to the 1st appellants were unjustifiably adjusted to his disadvantage, he must first prove that the votes of 61,339 scored by him were valid votes. He needed to go back to the basis to lead evidence of witnesses, evidence of polling agents.”

The Appeal Court stated that Akpabio “needed to lead evidence of accreditation of votes at all polling units. No such evidence of accreditation of voters at polling units was led. This is the foundation of his case. Without the accreditation of voters, there cannot be any valid election let alone votes cast at that election.

“Therefore in the absence of voters register, evidence of accreditation, collation, it cannot be said that the processes of election were complete of the1st appellant in Essien Udim hence the figure ascribed to the 1st appellant is questionable. In other words, the appellants herein did not lead evidence to the effect that the scores (61,339) relied upon by them as his score were valid votes or scores secured after the observance of due electoral process. Unless the 1st appellant succeeded in leading cogent evidence to his entitlement to the scores (61,330) ascribed to him, his assertion or claim that votes scored by him were manipulated, tampered with, altered or unlawfully adjusted by the 3rd respondent (INEC) in favour of the 1st and 2nd  (PDP) respondents were spurious claims or contentions. In any case, these claims or contention being in the realm of offences in our panel laws need to be proved by them on a standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Certainly evidence of hearsay is inadmissible and evidence led through witnesses called by the appellants being hearsay cannot prove these criminal allegations.”

The Appeal Court went further to say, “evidence of INEC officials at the election indicate that there were unpredicted acts of violence, thuggery, intimidation, hijacking of electoral materials on the day the election took place, further compounded the already bad situation in Essien Udim on the 23rd February, 2019, so much so that exhibits P555 and P557 introduced by two police officers to state the contrary, were only dumped there at the tribunal.

“However, considering the large scale malpractices in the conduct of the elections at Essien Udim as attested to by RW.17 and other witnesses called by the respondents, which the trial tribunal agrees with by reason of the unsubstantiated claims of the appellants and thus corroborating the positions of acts of unparalleled thuggery, intimidation, ballot box snatching, abduction etc. in Essien Udim on the day of the election, I am inclined to order the nullification of election held in that LGA.”

This judgment therefore confirmed the massive rigging and swapping of genuine votes with fake ones by some officials at Ukanna West Ward 2 in Independent Secondary school before the full glare of everyone that was present hence reconciling the unit votes there became an uphill task that dragged to almost 8.15pm.

So, some persons are of the opinion that since the 61, 339 votes Akpabio was said to have allocated to himself could not be proven at the Appeal Court, he might not repeat the feat with a sincere umpire on ground, hence he opted out.

Allegations Of Bias
Ahead the rerun, the Akwa Ibom State chapter of the Forum of Aspirants of All Progressives Congress (APCAF) had accused officials of INEC of bias hence they should be redeployed.

The State Coordinator of the group and APC aspirant for Etinan/Nsit Ubium/Nsit Ibom Federal constituency seat in the 2019 election, Dr. Chris Enoch declared in a chat with newsmen: “It is noteworthy that on the heels of the Appeal Court judgment in the case of Akpabio, in which he got a favourable ruling, INEC’s spokesman in the state issued a statement in which Akpabio was vilified and accused of having sponsored thuggery during the election on Igini’s directive.

“Such accusation smacks of an agenda to poison the minds of the electorate against Akpabio in his Essien Udim Council in which the rerun has been ordered by the appellate court and which is strategic to Akpabio’s victory and his final emergence as the Senator.

“INEC’s strategy in that press statement was simply pre-emptive and to spoil Akpabio’s chances. This further buttressed the belief that INEC in Akwa Ibom State holds Akpabio in utter disdain…No sane institution would allow Igini and his officials at the Akwa Ibom State INEC to conduct further elections in Akwa Ibom, particularly if APC candidates are involved in the contest. We are saying that if these same people are allowed to conduct the rerun election, we cannot expect any positive outcome from that exercise.”

The Akwa Ibom REC, Mr. Mike Igini and the Public Affairs Officer of INEC declined comments on the matter.

But sources in INEC office wondered whether Akpabio, whose petition alleged that he ‘generated’ 61,339 votes, is the one to hand over to the umpire whatever figures he claimed to have generated. The source said those votes could not be accounted for at the tribunal and the Appeal, as there was no evidence to establish that those figures were products of due electoral accreditation.

The sources said, “one significant thing one must draw out is that whereas his opponent led him with about 33,000 votes from an accumulative outcome of nine local governments, Akpabio used four wards alone to generate 61,339 votes. But the man who is leading him with 38,000 votes got it from nine local governments, then one should imagine the level of fraud that took place.

A top PDP stalwart in Ikot Ekpene, Mr. Utibe Inyang argued that the APC has no good chance to win the rerun in case they eventually produce a candidate, saying,  “that is why they are embarking on a big media campaign for Igini’s removal and at the same time, they were busy advertising the total number of total registered voter in that area and that is for a purpose. The total number of votes in that area stands at 105,555.

“So as they were advertising that figure, the idea is that given that the margin of lead is just 38,000 they were basically telling people that with 105, 555, they will upturn that margin of lead, which of course is impossible unless they are talking about almost 100 percent turn out.”

He said; “from my little history of election in Nigeria specially in recent times, there is no rerun after the main election that you have up to 20 percent turnout. They are campaigning for the removal of Igini with a purpose and playing up those figures. Now their game plan or thinking was that if they get Igini out, they could write the votes according to number of registered voters.”

On the issue of replacing Akpabio with another candidate relying on section 33 and 35 of the Electoral Act, Inyang who is a legal practitioner, held that, “there is already a precedent on the matter that it cannot be done. Take note the time for substitution ended in October last year. It is not a fresh election but a concluding supplementary election to conclude the election that the court had preserved the result of nine local governments. It is not one that is open to fresh nomination that substitution of candidate can take place. People are surprised that Akpabio and APC as a party will write such a letter asking for a substitution when recent precedent is an example.

“Now, the only thing that Akpabio can do to allow for substitution by law is to take advantage of section 36 of the Electoral Act, which says except the person or candidate dies, he cannot be substituted. Section 35 says the only ground for substitution is for voluntary withdrawal and it is applicable for fresh election.”

An APC chieftain in Akwa Ibom and Media Relations Consultant, Mr. Etim Etim  said, “Akpabio will continue as a minister where he’s already doing well but APC will field another candidate according to the relevant sections of the Electoral Act”

He said, “the APC candidate can go on to win, which means additional political strength to the party. We will field a replacement. We will win”

However, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Akwa Ibom State Mr. Uwemedimo Nwoko said, “I think what is there is that Akpabio is afraid of the election and what will befall him. The Electoral Act does not make room for the substitution of a candidate by a political party in the middle of the race. There is a Supreme Court judgment on this.

“For the purpose of a run-off election or a supplementary election, there cannot be a substitution of a candidate. It happened in Anambra State because the candidates and the parties are already set out in the field. These will amount to changing 11 players of a football team in the middle of a match. That is not allowed. There is no such provision in the Electoral Act or Constitution of Nigeria. So it is very clear that the APC cannot substitute any other person or Senator Akpabio as far as the rerun election scheduled for 26 January 2020 is concerned. At this level it will be most honourable for APC to write to INEC that they do not intend to contest the election against PDP and leave it at that. This will show that they are people with integrity than to try to cut corners or act in a way that will undermine the process or impugn on the integrity of the electoral process outside the provisions of the law.”

On the call for Igini’s removal, he said, “that is not a new call. They have always been calling for Igini’s removal. They called for his removal in 2013 and in 2019. The authority that posted Igini to Akwa Ibom state knows the integrity and capacity of Igini and his ability to manage a very volatile electoral process or situation and his ability to resist all overtures that will impugn on the integrity of the process. I think Igini is trusted enough to manage the situation in Akwa Ibom state, particularly as the run-off election is coming. I don’t have any personal relationship with Igini but if you check recent political history in Nigeria, you will find out that any state where there is a tumultuous election and there is need for a supplementary election, Igini is one of those Resident Electoral Commissioners that are normally sent. Now that he is the one for this particular supplementary election, I believe that INEC will not make the mistake of removing Igini from Akwa Ibom State as campaigned by APC. There is no basis to remove Igini. Those who are against Igini know what they are looking for and they will not get it.”

The INEC Public Affairs Officer in Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Don Etukudo said the rerun would go on as scheduled and Akpabio’s name would be on the ballot paper as the national body has said there is no room for substitution.