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Fresh controversy in Rivers over council election

By Kelvin Ebiri, Port Harcourt
22 March 2018   |   4:32 am
A fresh controversy is raging in Rivers State over the local council elections slated for 16th June, 2018 by the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission (RSIEC).

Nyesom Wike

Rivers State’s plan to conduct its local council election in June, after the series of litigations and political intrigues that trailed the last exercise in 2015, is causing fresh controversy among the political class.

A fresh controversy is raging in Rivers State over the local council elections slated for 16th June, 2018 by the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission (RSIEC).

The main opposition party, All Progressives Congress (APC) is insisting on boycotting the exercise but an amalgam of 62 other opposition parties in the state under the aegis of Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC) have made it clear that they will participate.

RSIEC chairman Justice Chukwuneye Uriri, while addressing representatives of political parties during a stakeholders meeting at the commission’s secretariat in penultimate week, had observed that for quite sometime there has not been council elections although the law abhors vacuum. Hence, he declared that there is need for a democratically elected council administration in the state.

According to him, “given this scenario and the 90-day mandatory notice as stipulated by the electoral laws, the next election ordinarily comes up in June this year. It is therefore imperative that we fix a date for the election in accordance with the said rules. By the powers conferred on me, as enshrined in the Rivers State Independent Electoral Law No 2 of 2018, I therefore declare Saturday, the 16th day of June 2018 as Local Government Election Day in Rivers State. It is accordingly so fixed.”

The state had been without elected council since September 2015 when a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt presided over by Justice Lambo Akanbi invalidated the May 23, 2015 election won by twenty two council chairmen and councilors elected under the platform of the APC based on Suit No. FHC/PH/CS/84/2015 filed in April 2015 by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) claiming that RSIEC did not comply with the 90-day mandatory notice stipulated by the electoral laws. The respondents in the suit were: INEC, RSIEC, then Governor Chibuike Amaechi and four others.

It will be recalled that the PDP had applied for an ex-parte order of injunction restraining Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from releasing the voters’ register to RSIEC for the conduct of the May 23 2015 election. The court in its wisdom decided not to grant the order but directed that the defendants in that case be put on notice.

The government of Rivers State at the time and RSIEC decided to appeal that order. They purportedly appealed the order and dropped what they called a notice of appeal on appeal before the Federal High Court. The judge in the matter, having seen that the appeal was allegedly entered did adjourn the matter sine die, but made a preservative order that none of the parties should do anything to foist on either the Court of Appeal or the Federal High Court a fait accompli.

In spite of this order, the government of Rivers State and RSIEC proceeded to conduct the elections. By June, 2015, the new government debriefed counsels in the matter and withdrew the appeal. Which meant that the State government and the RSIEC had no pending appeals at the Court of Appeal in respect to the matter. And by the rules of the Court of Appeal, once parties file a notice of withdrawal, the appeal is deemed in law to have been dismissed.

The withdrawal of the appeal paved way for Justice Akanbi to, in September 2015, declare the May 23 polls null and void. He also said that the conduct of the election by Amaechi’s administration was lawless, provocative and disregard for the rule of law leading to Governor Nyeson Wike to dissolve the boards of RSIEC and the Rivers State Judicial Service Commission, based on the recommendation of Resolution of the State House of Assembly for official misconduct. Amid legal tussles and political intrigues, the state had no elected council since 2015.

But Rivers APC chairman, Davies Ikanya, described as shocking RSIEC’s decision to hold the election in June when the issue is a subject of litigation before the Federal High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Suit No: PHC/PH/CS/84/2015, Appeal No: CA/PH/338/2016 and Appeal No: SC/536/2016 respectively.

According to him, until the cases are decided by the courts any action by RSIEC and the Rivers State government on the subject matter is an affront to the rule of law and that the APC will not partake in this illegality. He said because they were dissatisfied by the nullification of their election by the Federal High court, the 23 council chairmen had appealed to the Court of Appeal where Governor Wike had filed an application for a stay of ruling on the matter. He said the Court of Appeal ruled against Wike and PDP prompting their move to the Supreme Court.

However, while condemning APC’s boycott, IPAC chairman, Sam Ihunwo, lauded RSIEC for taking the bold step and doing what is right for the deepening of democracy at the grassroots by fixing the June date for the elections. He said it was rather unfortunate and an ill-considered decision for the APC to withdraw from the exercise.

The IPAC chairman noted that the APC had on the 15th June 2015 filed a suit in the State High Court against Governor Wike and four others seeking a declaration that by virtue of the provisions of section 9(1) (2) & (3) of the Rivers State Local Government Law No. 2 of 2012, the defendants or any of their agents lack the legal competence to dissolve or take any step to dissolve the democratically elected Local Government Councils of Rivers State until after a period of three years from 25th May, 2015 to 24th May 2018.”

He explained that the High Court of Rivers State after full argument by parties in the matter made it clear that the May 23 council elections in the 22 councils was not a product of a democratically conducted Local Government election

“The APC accepted totally and completely this decision of the High Court of Rivers State in suit number PHC/47/2015: All Progressives Congress (APC) v The Governor of Rivers State and 4 others delivered on September 30, 2015. The APC HAS NOT challenged the judgment of the High Court of Rivers State in Suit Number PHC/47/2015: All Progressives Congress (APC) v The Governor of Rivers State and 4 others. The APC therefore unequivocally agrees that no democratically conducted local government elections held in Rivers State on May 23, 2015,” he said.

He added that what the sacked council chairman and councilors sought leave to appeal against and which was the subject of the appeals in the Supreme Court, was the disciplinary decision of the Federal High Court that has no bearing on the fact that a court of competent jurisdiction had in fact annulled the election of May 23, 2015.

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He argued that the purported tenure created by the Rivers State High Court annulled election of May 23, 2015 expires on May 24, 2018. Kicking against APC’s call for boycott, he said RISIEC couldn’t wait in perpetuity for political parties to clean up their mess at the expense of good democratic governance for Rivers people at the grassroots level.

A political observer, Martins Ogidi, has warned that if the APC boycotts the council polls, the decision will haunt it in the 2019 general elections. He explained that the APC should have contested the election to further alter the poll dynamics in Rivers State, which substantially at present is in favour of the PDP. According to him, boycotting the polls will only ensure that the PDP consolidates its grip on power.

He said, “The essence of any election is to persuade the greatest number of citizens to participate in the process. The APC should be doing this. The planned council election is a unique political event that should help the APC to gauge its popularity at the grassroots. Any boycott will rather strength the PDP narrative that the APC’s victory in the last rerun legislative polls was achieved through the use of security operatives to aid the rigging of the polls.”

In the midst of this, a group, Initiative for Credible Elections (ICE) said it intends to build a critical mass support base for credible elections in Rivers State.

ICE conveners, Ledum Mitee, Baritor Lenu Kpagih and Dr. Sofiri Peterside, have argued that the conception of free and fair periodic elections is among the most important aspect of the minimum requirements of formal democracy. This implies that without elections, democracy cannot be practiced or institutionalized.

The group observed that the history of elections in the state in recent past has been one characterized by electoral fraud associated with political tensions, crisis and violence perpetrated by some political actors and unprofessional conducts of some few electoral staff and security agencies. As a result of this, ICE noted that the outcome of the elections has been subversion of the democratic process rather than its consolidation.

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