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How INEC loses its impartiality in Anambra State

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Obiora Okonkwo

One outstanding feature of the prolonged absence of a substantive senator from Anambra Central Senatorial district is the combative role of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). An investigation has shown that the country’s electoral umpire has never descended on the arena or taken similar active parochial steps in any other state as it has done in Anambra State.

It could be on account of such partisanship that some notable legal commentators have called for INEC to be sued as a direct respondent, instead of being joined as a party in election petitions. But since Anambra State has garnered the unenviable reputation of serving as a centre for political corruption and sundry electoral abuses, INEC seems to have found the place lucrative and conducive for undue activism.

There is no tangible evidence to conclude that INEC’s overzealousness during elections in Anambra State verges on pecuniary or proactive motivations. Nonetheless, the actions of the electoral umpire, either out of omission or commission, have tended to rob the commission of its constitutional impartiality.

Although Anambra State’s descent down the path of political infamy started four years after Nigeria’s return to representative democracy in 1999, the aspect of INEC’s active involvement in the mess comes as a recent practice.  And the prolonged legal challenge over the legendary Anambra Central Senatorial seat seems to have provided the fertile ground for INEC’s unabashed and incongruous intervention.

For instance, in the first quarter of 2017, the commission against all odds moved swiftly out of its central position as electoral umpire to challenge the judgment of a Federal High Court presided over by Justice Anwuli Chikere. The court had in its ruling granted the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leave to substitute its candidate after she was barred from participating in a proposed rerun poll for the senatorial seat.

For the benefit of those that may not have been following the tortuous and intriguing path of the contentious senatorial seat, a quick rehash is necessary: Following the release of results of the March 28, 2015 National Assembly election by INEC, Hon. Uche Lillian Ekwunife of PDP was returned as the winner of the Anambra Central Senatorial seat.

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the poll, one of the candidates in the election, Chief Victor Umeh, who ran on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), petitioned the Anambra State National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Awka. On September 10, 2015 the tribunal upheld PDP/Ekwunife’s election, stressing that the party and its candidate garnered the majority of lawful votes, even as it rebuffed the plaintiff’s argument that Ekwunife was not properly nominated.

Irked by his failure to get victory through the backdoor, APGA’s Umeh approached the Court of Appeal with the same set of pleas, including that he should be returned as the winner of the election and the cancellation of Ekwunife’s victory on the grounds that she was not validly nominated by PDP.

On December 7, 2015, the appellate court sacked Ekwunife on the grounds that she was not properly nominated, describing the tribunal ruling as a perverse judgment that cannot stand.  Justice Datijo Yahaya, who read the lead judgment, upheld Umeh’s argument that Ekwunife’s nomination fell short of the provisions of the Electoral Act. The court thereby ordered that a fresh election be held within 90 days and barred Ekwunife and PDP from participating in the rerun poll.

However, prior to the March 28, 2015 election that gave rise to the petitions, Dr. Obiora Okonkwo had on December 22, 2014 instituted a case at the Federal High Court Abuja, via suit No: FHC/ABJ/1092/2014. In the suit, Okonkwo averred that he was not only the rightful winner of the PDP primary election, but also that his name and not that of Ekwunife, ought to be submitted to INEC by PDP headquarters. But while that pre-election matter snaked its way through various levels of the courts, the post-election wrangling, over who was the true winner of the March 28 poll raged.

Moreover, as March 5, 2016 date, which was the culmination of the 90 days ordered by the Appeal Court for the rerun approached, PDP approached the Federal High Court, Abuja. The party sought the leave of the court to be allowed to participate in the rerun as a remedy to the judicial murder, which the Appeal Court committed by allowing a stranger to interrogate the primary election of a rival political party, contrary to the position of the apex court.

The Federal High Court, presided over by Justice Chikere, while granting the reliefs sought by the plaintiffs, ordered that PDP should be allowed to substitute its candidate and partake in the rerun.

Expectedly, Umeh and APGA appealed the judgment, challenging the order of the Federal High Court. His appeal in Appeal No: CA/A/160/2016, later succeeded on December 4, 2017. That outcome belied Umeh’s boast after the December 7, 2015 Enugu Appeal Court ruling that sacked Ekwunife from the senate.

The defeated senatorial candidate had boasted, “This Appeal Court has always been where I get justice…” Several observers of the crisis of judicial pronouncements on election-related litigations have condemned the elasticity of judgments on similar cases.

INEC’s Meddlesomeness As Privy To Corruption
In an interview with The Guardian, a senior advocate, Arthur Obi Okafor, noted that although the fact that corruption has caught up with the judiciary couldn’t be denied, the issue of competence should be factored in, especially with some judges being removed from their positions.  Okafor advocated the Kenya system as the best approach to check the excesses or incompetence of judges, stressing that there are judgments that should serve as precedents. “So the Kenyan model is that when a judge is found to have delivered a ruling that was upturned based on law, it shows not just corruption per se, but also incompetence.”

But aside from conflicting judgments and issues of corruption and incompetence in the judiciary, the most astounding issue in the protracted case of Anambra Central Senatorial seat is the meddlesomeness of INEC. It was therefore very hard to know whether the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was taking advantage of the incompetence of judges or serving its own interests when for instance, it decided to appeal the Federal High Court ruling by Justice Chikere in suit No: CA/A/165/2016.

But most astounding and mindboggling is INEC’s present vacillation in obeying the order of another Federal High Court for it to give a certificate of return to Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, as the fruit of his favourable judgment in a pre-election matter that the commission was a named party.

However, discrete searches have revealed that the above instances are not isolated from what has become INEC’s practice of discarding its impartiality in electoral issues in Anambra State.  Not long ago, INEC dabbled in the leadership squabble of APGA only to chicken out when public outcry questioned its interest in a clearly partisan matter. And that, shortly after it was alleged that the Anambra State Government funneled funds that facilitated its participation in the litigation to overturn the order of mandamus directing the commission and Police to deal with Ochudo Martin Agbaso-led National Working Committee as the authentic leadership of the party.

INEC was also on illogical duty again during the altercation between the Ejike Oguebego and Prince Ken Emeakayi factions of PDP, over which of the two camps reserves the right to present a list of party’s candidates for Anambra State. The Appeal Court held that the PDP NWC, which submitted the names of Senators Andy Uba, Stella Oduah and Uche Ekwunife, was actually empowered by the Electoral Act so to do.

When the Oguebego faction appealed to the Supreme Court, the apex court upheld the ruling of the appellate court, thereby recognising Uba and others as the authentic representatives at the National Assembly.

But, regardless of that judicial pronouncement, INEC plunged itself into the fray by seeking an interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment, ostensibly to play on the apparent desperation and sensibilities of the Oguebego faction. Playing up the element of suspense, as well as, reaping from the psychological impact on the parties with the attendant fiscal benefits to some of its officials, INEC applied to the Supreme Court for judicial review of its judgment.

Delivering its ruling on the matter of interpretation the Supreme Court Justices, namely John Inyang Okoro, Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili, Olukayode Ariwoola and Musa Dattijo Muhammad, told the commission that the judgment was written in plain English Language that requires no interpretation.

Interestingly, the Apex Court declared: “Where in that judgment did we state that the Oguebego-led Anambra State Executive Committee of the PDP should take over the functions of the National Executive Committee of the PDP such that it can submit list of candidates to INEC?

“The applicant states in paragraph 7 of the supporting affidavit that: ‘I know of a fact that the PDP National Executive Committee forwarded a list of candidates to the applicant which was utilized in conducting the April 2015 General Elections for the seats of Senators, members of the House of Representatives/Assembly in Anambra State’.

“Is the learned senior counsel for the applicant saying that he does not know which organ of a political party is endowed with power to conduct primaries and thereafter submit list of candidates to INEC? If he does not know, may I refer all counsel and litigants in this case to the decisions of the court in Emeka v. Okadigbo and ors (2012) 18 NWLR (pt 1331) 55 and Emenike v. PDP (2012) 18 NWLR (pt. 1315) 556. So there is absolutely nothing to clarify in this application.”

Despite the apex court’s rebuke of INEC counsel, Adegboyega Awomolo SAN, for seeking clarification of the January 29, 2016 judgment, in the instant case of Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, the senator-designate for Anambra Central Senatorial district, the commission has gone back to shadow chasing, trying to reap from a whirl wind, spawned by a party to the dispute. As in its previous outings, sources disclosed that parties to the referenced political cum electoral disputes funded the commission’s judicial excursions, since there is no budgetary provision for such in INEC’s estimates.

A civil rights group, International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) had expressed exasperations over INEC’s impartiality. In a statement signed by the chairman of its Board of Trustees, Mr. Emeka Umeagbalasi, shortly after the apex court declined jurisdiction to review its judgment, Intersociety had declared: “We are totally at a loss as to why the issue of Anambra Central Senatorial rerun should be a problem on the part of INEC.  It shocks and saddens us that the supposedly unbiased arbiter and electoral referee (INEC), can exhibit and manifest such gross incompetence and incapability by allowing itself to be tele-guided and stampeded by some desperate political actors.

“Our questions are: whose interest is the commission representing? Is INEC still an independent and unbiased umpire or a meddlesome interloper or fingers of a leprous hand? How can a referee become a footballer in a football match?”

The intrigues about Dr. Okonkwo’s case become most worrisome when placed side by side with the speed at which INEC issued Dr. Uche Sampson Ogah with a certificate of return after Justice Okon Abang then of Abuja Federal High Court delivered his infamous ruling on the election of Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu.  It is also surprising that a statutory body such as INEC, which remained a party to a suit until judgment was delivered in a purely pre-election matter instituted on December 22, 2014, should vacillate in obeying the valid order of court.

Umeh

INEC was in court and heard the chairman of PDP primary election committee for Anambra State, Alaiye Tremie, deliver his oral evidence on the primary election, which Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, won.  It is therefore surprising that INEC, which was one of the four defendants in the pre-election suit, did not indicate interest in continuing with its defence on December 13, 2017 when Justice John Tsoho, delivered his ruling. There is therefore every reason to suspect INEC’s foot-dragging to issue Dr. Obiora Okonkwo with the certificate of return as ordered by the court in accordance with the Electoral Act. The Act stipulates that a certificate of return should be handed over to a winner within 48 hours.

Could it be that the commission has been instigated or induced by parties to the suit to engage in further judicial delay or covertly ensure that a rerun was conducted to render the court ruling hopeless?

In the present circumstances, INEC should know that it is already facing the charge of political corruption in the court of public opinion. This is so because it is trite law that when a defendant in a matter in court withdraws and submits to judgment; the judge is at liberty to enter judgment on the terms and prayers of the plaintiff.

It should be noted that Justice Tsoho ruled that Dr. Okonkwo was the validly nominated candidate of PDP in the National Assembly election of March 28, 2015 for Anambra Central Senatorial district and ordered INEC to issue him with a certificate of return for the Senate president to swear him in as the senator representing the district.

It is also on record that the commission has been served with all necessary documents and processes regarding the latest position of a court of law on the prolonged Anambra Central Senatorial seat, including the certified true copy of the Federal High Court judgment.

Consequently, it is left to be seen whether INEC has constituted itself into a lawless organisation or that its director of legal services lacks the competence to properly educate the commission on the implications of disobeying the orders of a court of competent jurisdiction.

All the same, INEC’s predisposition to lose its impartiality in Anambra State may presage sinister plots against the 2019 election. The people of Anambra Central Senatorial district have accommodated this injustice for a long time; as such INEC and the nation might unwittingly be indirectly working against Nigeria’s democracy.


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