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From Machina through Onuigbo, Margif, substitution battle rages

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
15 October 2022   |   4:12 am
One of the many salient provisions of Nigeria’s Electoral Act 2022 is the legislation that all pre-election matters should be concluded and dispensed with before the 2023 General elections.

Samuel Onuigbo

• Electoral Act 2022, Impunity On Trial
• How Politicians Use Courts To Breach Process

One of the many salient provisions of Nigeria’s Electoral Act 2022 is the legislation that all pre-election matters should be concluded and dispensed with before the 2023 General elections. And, going by the timelines published by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), February 25 is the date for the Presidential and National Assembly elections, while voters in some states would go to the polls on March 11, 2023 to elect governors and members of the state Legislatures.

Eight states, namely, Anambra, Bayelsa, Edo, Ekiti, Imo, Kogi, Ondo and Osun fall within the bracket of off cycle gubernatorial polls. Out of the eight, only three -Imo, Bayelsa, Kogi- are expected to hold their governorship elections after the March 11 exercise.

Although there were pockets of gubernatorial contests in the court, the issue of disputed candidacies is rife with National Assembly primaries. The courts have dispensed with cases of parallel primaries conducted by the two major political parties-the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Prominent governorship disputes that travelled up to the country’s apex court include those of Ebonyi and Delta States. However, none of the cases attracted national interest like those of the National Assembly candidates, especially the celebrated cases of Senator Ahmad Lawan versus Bashir Sheriff Machina and Senator Godswill Obot Akpabio versus Udom Ekpoudom.

The Court of Appeal resolved the case of illegal substitution by APC against Alhaji Sheriff Machina and Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, after a lengthy judicial interrogation. In the case of Ambassador Yohana Margif and Dr. Patrick Dakum, the court of appeal has fixed December 15 for its ruling. However, for Onuigbo versus APC, INEC and Emeka Atuma, the ruling of Federal High Court, Umuahia, opened the window for further judicial scrutiny.

A cursory look at the various disputations over the nomination process shows that the ongoing squabbling within some political parties over the issue of wrongful substitution arose, because politicians are yet to come to terms with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022.

Like old habits that die hard, entrenched political players working in cahoots with some leaders of the party find it easy to engage in illegitimate review of concluded processes to undermine the choice of the members. For instance, in the cases of Ambassador Margif, a rival contender for the Plateau State Labour Party (LP) governorship ticket, and Hon Samuel Onuigbo, forgery was a central feature of the attempted substitution.

Like Margif, Onuigbo filed a suit at the Federal High Court Umuahia, challenging the plot by APC leadership in Abia State to substitute his name with that of Chief Emeka Atuma. Onuigbo had emerged winner of the May 28 APC primary for Abia Central Senatorial District with 157 delegate votes to defeat his closest rival, Henry Ikoh, who polled 152 in the exercise that concluded on May 29.

Arising from the Senatorial primary, members of the primary election committee, namely, Okeke Izuchukwu (Chairman), Mazi Angus Ochiogu (Secretary), Ken Chudi Ejeh, Daniel Swam and Hon. Rekiya Yakubu, submitted the names of winners of the exercise to the national headquarters of the party.

The list, which was sighted by The Guardian, contained the names of Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, Hon Blessing Nwagbara and Chief Sam Onuigbo, in that order and was received by Sabiu Bello, an assistant director.

Curiously, when issues were joined in the suit No. FHC/UM/CS/113/22 filed by Onuigbo before Justice Evelyn Onuigbo, two affidavits sworn to on behalf of the chairman and secretary of the primary election committee, Izu Okeke and Angus Ochiogu by Charles Nneji, surfaced.

In the two affidavits, marked Exhibits R and R1, both Izuchukwu Okeke and Angus Ochiogu gave their address as No. 10 Ogbete Avenue Enugu State. Although the affidavit did not explain whether No 10 Ogbete Avenue, Enugu State, is a staff quarters of APC that warranted the chairman and secretary of the Senatorial primary election to reside in same address, the deponents claimed that the primary they conducted on May 28 was inconclusive.

Margif

Part of the affidavits, which were clearly written on the same table, stated: “That I am the chairman/secretary of the APC primary Abia Central Senatorial election. That the Abia Central Senatorial District primary was inconclusive and canceled on the 28th day of May 2022.

“That the said rescheduled primary was conducted on the 7th day of June, 2022 at Chidiebere Motor Park field, which produced Hon. Emeka Atuma as winner.

“That Abia Central Senatorial District primary was by indirect mode of primary as directed by the national headquarters of the party as materials were handed over to us were for indirect primary.

“That we never conducted any other primary of direct mode for Abia Central Senatorial District and never signed any result in that regard. Any such result is false.

“Our report of 7th day of June, 2022 Abia Central Senatorial District primary was duly submitted to the party headquarters Abuja showing Hon. Emeka Atuma as he winner. That this affidavit is now required for record and official purposes.”

On other startling feature of the contrived affidavit is that on June 27, 2022, when it was purported to have been deposed, Izuchukwu Okeke, a native of Anambra State, was in India. Therefore, unless the affidavit was produced by zoom conference, there was no way Okeke could be in India and at the High Court/Notary Public of Lagos State, Ikeja Division, where the document was sworn to.

Not that alone, on June 7, 2022, when the alleged repeat Senatorial primary election held at Chidibere Park field, both Izuchukwu Okeke and Angus Ochiogu, were delegates to the APC special convention and presidential primary, which took place at the Eagle Square, Abuja from June 6 through 8, 2022.

Consequently, the questions, which the court was invited to help answer, include whether the primary of May 28, which produced Sam Onuigbo as winner was inconclusive and if so, who and how was the repeat primary conducted.

It is at that juncture that the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022 are expected to show the bite and relevance, particularly given that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which is the 2nd respondent in the matter, is charged with the responsibility of monitoring party primaries.

The plaintiff, Onuigbo, averred that the 3rd respondent, Atuma, purchased the party’s expression of interest and nomination forms for the governorship of Abia State, stressing that after losing to Chief Ikechi Emenike in the governorship primary, he covenanted with prominent APC leaders in the state and Southeast to supplant him (Onuigbo).

Could the 3rd defendant have purchased two sets of nomination forms, for governorship and senatorial tickets, even when it was apparent that he campaigned for the position of governor? Atuma’s counsel affirmed that, “he initially purchased the necessary forms to contest the governorship primary election of 1st defendant’s primaries for Abia Central Senatorial District.”

Atuma’s counsel added that, “the said senatorial primary of the 1st defendant was initially slated for 28/5/22 by direct mode, but was later rescheduled and was held on 7/6/22 by indirect mode.”

“At the end, the 3rd defendant was declared the winner with 200 votes to beat the plaintiff, who scored 35 votes and his name was submitted to the 2nd defendant, who also monitored the primary election on that 7/6/22,” he stated.

But, in the 2nd defendant’s (INEC) submission, INEC noted that the 1st defendant’s (APC) primary election for Abia Central Senatorial District was held on 28/5/22 by direct mode and was monitored by the officers of the 2nd defendant, who had long submitted their report to 2nd defendant.

The Electoral Act 2022 at Section 84 (1) and (2) stipulated that, “political parties seeking to nominate candidates for elections shall hold primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which shall be monitored by the (electoral) commission.”

Section 82 mandated political parties to notify INEC of the holding of primaries and pursuant to the notification by the 1st defendant to the 2nd defendant of the holding of primaries on 28th May 2022, for the Abia Central Senatorial District, officials were sent out to monitor the said exercise.

The plaintiff front-loaded the certified true copy of the report submitted by the officials as an attachment to his originating summons. Although there was no evidence of another report from another INEC monitoring team for the Abia Central Senatorial District primary, the 3rd respondent insisted that he won the June 7 exercise, contending that the plaintiff scored 35 votes.

It was, however, gathered that after the May 28 primary, which went into the next day, pressures were mounted on the APC Senatorial primary committee to invalidate the exercise and declare it inconclusive. However, the counting of votes had taken place thereby showing that the plaintiff (Onuigbo) had won with 157 votes.

Contrary to the claims by the 3rd respondent, his name did not feature in the list of the nine aspirants screened and cleared for the primary. Also, while one of the aspirants, Senator Nkechi Nworgu withdrew from the exercise, another aspirant, Kevin Ugboaja could not show up, thereby leaving the stage for Onuigbo and Henry Ikechukwu Ikoh, who garnered 152 votes to trail the plaintiff.

A member of the Abia Senatorial primary committee, Hon. Rekiya Yakubu, had informed his colleagues in the committee that her parents warned her against conspiring to rob any person of his/her due. She maintained that a report reflecting the true position of what transpired is what she stands on.

But, perfecting political brinkmanship, Chief Ikechi Emenike, who defeated Atuma in the governorship primary, out of apprehension that the first runner up could activate his (Emenike’s) purported suspension from the party, propelled Atuma to embark on the wild goose chase of illegal substitution.

In her ruling, Justice Evelyn Anyadike, averred that, “the lone issue that has arisen from the submissions of all sides is, whether the plaintiff is entitled to the reliefs sought from the material evidence before the court.”

The court held that for the plaintiff to succeed, he must place before the court material evidence to show that *he is a member of the 1st defendant, *he expressed his desire to contest for the Abia Central Senatorial District seat and was cleared by the 1st defendant to do so; *that he contested for the said senatorial seat and won with the highest number of votes; *that the primaries that produced him was conducted by the NWC of 1st defendant and monitored by the 2nd defendant (INEC) and that instead of his name, the 1st defendant submitted the name of 3rd defendant.”

Delivering her judgment, Justice Anyadike declared: “There is no report nor result sheet in respect of the 1st defendant’s primary allegedly held and concluded on the 29/5/22.”

Relying on APC versus Karti (2015LPELR-41857 (CA), she stated: “It is settled that an inconclusive primary cannot produce a candidate… Going by the above authority of the Court of Appeal, it then follows that the alleged primary election of 1st defendant held on 28/5/22 could not have produced a candidate until concluded on 29/5/22, when the primaries have not been concluded, could not have reflected the winner of the election concluded on the 29/5/22.

“Section 157 of the Evidence Act 2011 provides that when any document bearing a date has been proved, it is presumed to have been made on the date it bears.”

Why the court could not take a definitive stance on the issue of who won the Abia Central Senatorial District primary and rather resorted to technicality and grammar explains why overzealous politicians would continue to try their luck in court.

For instance, for an aspirant to partake in two distinct primary elections in the same election cycle mirrors what the court defines as abuse of process. But, instead of pronouncing on the matter at issue, political considerations made it possible for the court to speak from two sides of the mouth.

Did the 3rd defendant tick the boxes in the issues formulated by the court as conditions precedent to be declared winner and for his name to be submitted to INEC: He expressed his desire to contest for the Abia Central Senatorial District seat and was cleared by the 1st defendant to do so.

“That he contested for the said senatorial seat and won with the highest number of votes. That the primaries that produced him was conducted by the NWC of 1st defendant and monitored by the 2nd defendant (INEC) and that instead of his name, the 1st defendant submitted the name of 3rd defendant.”

At the end of the day, the judgment of the Federal High Court, Umuahia became a clear case of to whom it may concern, thereby paving the way further voyage in search of justice.

Analysts say that Nigeria’s jurisprudence is more accusatory than adjudicatory. That may explain why, for instance, while the affidavits presented in Onuigbo’s matter contained gross irregularities that are evidence of glaring perfidy, the two letters submitted by Labour Party (LP) in the case of Margif versus LP, INEC and Dakum, bore contradictory dates suggesting a counterfeit document.

It appears that until the Electoral Offences Bill is passed into law, politicians would continue to approach the nation’s courts to undermine process and seek to earn unmerited spaces in elective offices.