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INEC can’t retire me from politics — Okorie

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• UPP May Dissolve Into Another Party

National Chairman of deregistered United Progressives Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie told LAWRENCE NJOKU why the clampdown by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would not advance democracy, and next plan for his party members.

What is the implication of deregistration of political parties to Nigeria’s democracy?
The implication is very clear. INEC has disrupted the democratic project unnecessarily. INEC has a duty under the law to register political parties. There is also the provision for deregistration of political parties, which is at INEC’s discretion. In that provision, there are certain conditions that, if political parties were able to meet even one of those provisions, such political party will remain on the register of parties.

The number one provision is that the party must have a functional secretariat in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja and also have its executive, a minimum of 24 in each state and Abuja. The one INEC relied on to deregister parties talked on not winning election in the last general election. But even in that provision, so many things were put into it to make it ambiguous. Not winning election in the general election is one of them, just like not winning 25 percent of the votes cast in any one local government in state election. Not winning local government chairman or councilor is another.

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As we speak, 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states have not conducted their local government elections. Right now, UPP and other parties in Enugu State have finished screening their candidates and are already campaigning for local government election that will hold on the 29th of this month, but now this has happened. What the party did in Enugu State, and not just our party, is to approach the court, which gave them the go-ahead to participate in the election, and that is going to happen despite what INEC has done.

This is really a very avoidable controversy INEC has introduced, even when it has so many problems to contend with. Everybody knows that there is no level playing field for the parties to operate to be properly assessed about their performance in election. But we thought INEC should be working hand-in-hand with stakeholders, including political parties, the National Assembly and executive arm of government to come up with a legal framework to make elections in the future credible and transparent. What is the logic in deregistering political parties, some of which are growing like the UPP, which for eight years has been making contributions to the deepening of our democracy?

Before the party was deregistered, many people were already conversant with its manifesto and what have you. So, what happens to all of that? And in the next stretch, INEC wants to register over 100 political parties, whose applications are lying with it and who are due for registration. They are due for registration because the law says if you have any application for registration, and you have verified the parties, but you fail to register it after 30 days, it would be assumed that the party has been registered. Whether they like it or not, 100 new political parties will come on stream and they will start learning the ropes, start introducing their manifesto and logos and getting people to know who they are.

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Meanwhile, you have whipped all those on ground. What about the offices they have in various states, with all the rent obligations and staff that you just cleared out in one fell swoop? It is really unfortunate that this is the kind of leadership the current INEC is foisting on the polity. Rather than expanding the political space, INEC is constricting it. INEC is destroying the development of our political culture. It is sad.

But do we really need these many political parties to deepen our democratic culture?
We need more than this number. If you go the United States of America, there are more than 200 political parties. When they go for election, those who wish to go for presidential election will step forward and do so. It is not every political party that is expected to contest presidential election. Parties can contest for even local government council. In Benin republic, they have more than 100 political parties and this is a place with a population like that of Lagos State. If we didn’t have multi-parties, somebody like Ifeanyi Uba wouldn’t be in the Senate today, because a major political party decided to disqualify him.

But instead of resorting to legal battle, he looked around and found another party that was ready to accept him and used it to win the senatorial seat. That party survived deregistration, only on the ground that Ifeanyi Uba won his election. So, if you constrict the political space, you bring about friction. Those who have ambition will now go for it in a do-or-die manner. This is what INEC has done. If for instance, you have electronic voting system, you won’t be carrying this bundle of papers with all the logos. You go to your laptop, which INEC has already acquired. Under Prof Jega administration, INEC was already preparing for electronic voting, with over 150,000 laptops acquired.

They possessed electronic voting register and Nigerians with electronic voting cards. All you need is legal framework for electronic voting for the process to start. There is already a democratic evolution in the country. Nobody forced ACN, ANPP and CPC to merge and relinquish their identities. Others have been thinking along the same line, because they believe the bigger the better.

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If you have to embark on deregistration of political parties, you must have first of all established a more stringent registration process, so that you don’t put yourself in the awkward situation of registering 74 or 100 at the same time. It does not make sense. That is what we are saying.

What is the new thinking among your party members, now that you have been deregistered?
Let me first of all say the conditions are there for you to remain as a party, and these criteria were met before registration. If INEC had not gone around and identified the unserious ones, it means INEC is failing in its responsibility. The UPP office in Enugu is one of the best party offices in this state. Our national secretariat is one of the best six acknowledged by INEC. In terms of contributions, which party has advanced the issue of self-determination and state policing more than UPP? It has been in UPP’s manifesto all along. Is there anybody who does not know in this country that UPP is contributing to national discourse?

In the last election, UPP was the only party that domesticated the Not too Young to Run law, by giving free tickets to the youths and women. Is that not contributing to deepening the national discourse and democracy, even among the elites, who were not given nomination to contest?

When you make a general statement and forget the modest contributions of political parties like UPP, one begins to ask the basis upon which they are made. The UPP case shocked so many people. But we have decided that we shall not contest whatever INEC has done. We will not go to court, basically because we have been to court a number of times from APGA till now. We are meeting in Abuja on Thursday to take a decision. We have become a beautiful bride, and there are numerous advances coming our way. We are going to take a look at all of these and then take a decision that will be in the members’ interest.

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I thank God that in eight years, UPP has not had a faction. It has been most cohesive. There are parties that, within one month of registration, they start quarrelling. But everybody in the party appears to have confidence in the leadership that I provide, though I won’t take advantage of it. So, after the Abuja meeting, whatever we do will be as a group, and we will move on from there. If I want to retire from politics, it is not INEC that will retire me.

UPP planned to present a presidential candidate of Igbo extraction in 2023…
So many people have suggested that that may be why we were targeted. People have said maybe one of the reasons we were targeted is because of our status in the political space. If we are going to present a candidate of Southeast extraction for presidency in 2023, it is not going to be Chekwas Okorie. If Southeast people had embraced UPP and owned it, INEC would have had no excuse to do what it did.

There is no gainsaying that this is a setback, because when you join another political party, you cannot go there to dictate terms. You can only go there to see what contributions you can make to grow the party, and if you decide not to go into any political party, you end up contributing to community development and any other thing one can do but not about retiring from politics.

Collaborating or joining other political parties is a logical option and in the meeting we are going to have, we will determine which party we will go. When you are facing this kind of vulnerable situation, you don’t go dictating terms. We are not new in this political space, and there is nobody who does not know the other. We are going to consider all offers and who is making them. We will not be liability anywhere we go. We can never be a burden and wherever we go, as we will make positive marks. We have values to add anywhere we decide to go. We will sit down and talk and look at those things that have kept us together without factions.

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How would you want smaller political parties encouraged?
One of the things INEC should do to encourage the growth of the parties is to ensure a level playing field. The era of Prof Attahiru Jega can be described as the golden era of INEC. This particular leadership under Mahmood is probably worse than that before Jega, and it is degenerating from one election to another, so much so that our courts now decide who has won election and not electorate. And even when others are talking about electronic voting, it is INEC that comes to tell you that we don’t have electricity everywhere. Who says you must have electricity everywhere to embark on electronic voting?

These laptops are run with batteries that last for 16 hours, and all you need to do is just acquire batteries with that lifespan. INEC can liaise with NCC to do certain things. There are smaller countries that don’t have networks all over and yet are doing electronic voting. This particular INEC appears not to have any programme that can make the country vote electronically, and this is something that the National Assembly and Presidency should do something about.

Electronic voting has come to stay and should be embraced, so that the smaller political parties can survive. This INEC has failed, and I think the chairman should resign. It is not that we don’t have grounds to challenge this latest action, but because of the slow pace of justice that may linger till 2023 elections. The commission has done a great damage to our democracy.

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Chekwas OkorieINEC
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