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Kogi polls: Disqualification of SDP candidate, Natasha Akpoti raises legal puzzles

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Natasha Akpoti

• Stakeholders Question INEC’s Sincerity 
The Kogi State chapter of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are presently locked in a legal battle over the decision by the electoral body to exclude the party’s candidate, Barrister Natasha Akpoti from the list of cleared candidates released by the commission for the November 16 governorship election in the state.

The electoral body last week, reportedly “disqualified” the SDP candidate on the ground of the age of her running mate, Bashiru Yakubu. Yakubu is 34 years old. Nigeria’s Constitution stipulates 35 years for persons wishing to hold the office of the governor of a state and their deputies.

INEC’s action however did not come as a surprise to many. The SDP had cried out over alleged plans perfected to disqualify its candidate.  It accused the Commission of colluding with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to ensure that Akpoti, a strong contender in the Kogi governorship race, who hails from Governor Yahaya Bello’s Kogi Central Senatorial District, is kept away from the November election. News of Akpoti’s disqualification came after INEC’s initial rebuttal in a statement that it had not disqualified any candidate.

The Natasha Akpoti Campaign Organisation did not take the exclusion of the SDP candidate with kid gloves. It condemned and rejected her disqualification with a vow to challenge the controversial decision in court.

The statement issued by the spokesman for the campaign organisation, Odaudu Joel Minister, reads: “A country’s polity is as strong and efficient as the electoral body that guides it. When the electoral body becomes a tool available to be used by politicians to foist their corrupt, inefficient, selfish and detrimental style of leadership on the suffering citizens, then it is unfortunate and the people must speak up and demand for fairness and justice….We will fight this great injustice by INEC to the ground. We will conquer this challenge as usual and proceed with our plan to liberate Kogi State from poverty and ineffectual leadership. Do not lose hope. Do not lose heart.”

Last Wednesday, the Federal High Court, Abuja adjourned to Monday October 7, 2019 ruling on a motion of injunction filed by Akpoti’s lawyers seeking an order of the court to compel INEC to refrain from disqualifying her or preventing her from participating in the November polls.

The candidate, Akpoti, accused INEC of contradicting itself in the decision to disqualify her, citing that the same commission, in the February and March 2019 polls approved not less than 120 candidates who were below age 35, both for the presidential and governorship elections with some candidates as young as 21 years. She buttressed her point by displaying screenshots of lists of candidates for the 2019 elections published on INEC’s website. Saying since legality cannot stand on illegality, she warned that any attempt to shut SDP out of the November 16 election in Kogi State would render the election null and void, while also raising fresh legal questions for the authenticity of the February and March 2019 presidential and governorship elections.

She further raised questions about the INEC’s sincerity by going ahead to clear the APC flag bearer, Governor Yahaya Bello, overlooking the double registration scandal involving the governor following which the Commission, in December 2017 fired two of its staff who conducted the second registration of Bello, who had registered in the Federal Capital Territory. She said, indeed, it was Governor Yahaya Bello, not her, who deserved to be disqualified.

Explaining that she and her party had been unjustly excluded, she lamented thus: “INEC wrote a letter to SDP on the 13th of September 2019, notifying us that the nomination of Muhammad Bashiru Yakubu as my deputy governorship candidate was invalid. That was seven days after INEC received my nomination. On the 12th of September, INEC published my name on its website among others as a successful candidate. Now there’s a window for substitution, which lapsed on Monday September 23. On the 19th of September, bearing in mind that we are within the time limit for substitution, SDP responded to INEC, acknowledging the error of submitting the name of an underage deputy governorship candidate. We realised SDP was actually misinformed by the not-too-young-to-vote bill hugely publicized last year that actually stipulated dropping the age of governorship candidates from 35 to 30. Since the Nigerian Constitution has not really changed the age, we were bound to produce a candidate of 35 years and above.

“We applied on the 19th of September for substitution. But it will interest you to know that when SDP officials took the letter and the substitution documents to INEC, they refused collecting the documents. We went back there on Friday 20th, INEC again refused and a staff told us that there was an order from above that instructed INEC not to collect our substitute. We can begin to wonder who exactly holds the order from above that instructed INEC to refuse collecting our letter.”

She added: “On Monday, the last day of substitution, myself, SDP, the underage deputy governorship candidate and 48-years substitute, Engr Khalid, we stormed INEC as early as 8:30am. We were there all day; we went from office to office, asking them to collect our substitution. Nobody wanted to do that. At 8pm, I sought the audience of INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu. He granted me his audience, with three commissioners (including) Hajia Amina Zakari seated. Professor Mahmoud told me that INEC lives by its words as a prestigious institution guided solely by the Nigerian Constitution and it was not within its purview to go against the law. That there was nothing he could do. That I was going to be disqualified. In his words, my deputy governorship candidate disqualified me because it was a joint ticket.

“We have asked INEC so many critical questions they have not been able to provide answers. One, do they have the right to disqualify me as a regulatory body? No. Not in Nigeria’s Constitution. Neither does the Electoral Act empower INEC to do so. Only the court can. Does the invalid nomination of a deputy render the nomination of a candidate invalid? Does INEC have the right to reject substitution? Does INEC have the right not to accept withdrawal? INEC claims it is guided by the Constitution. How can legality stand on illegality?

Last week, INEC published the final list of 24 candidates and the political parties that will contest the November 16 governorship election in Kogi State with the name of Natasha Akpoti and the SDP missing.  49 candidates/political parties filed nomination to contest in the election.

Curiously, INEC’s commissioner in charge of publicity, Mr. Festus Okoye, insisted that the Commission “has not disqualified anybody.” Asked why Akpoti’s name, her running mate and SDP were not on the final list of cleared candidates/political parties released by the Commission, Okoye’s reply was more puzzling. According to him, “it is the validity of the nomination that is the issue and not the issue of the Commission disqualifying any candidate”

He cited section 177 and 187 of the Constitution to buttress his point.

He said: “INEC has not disqualified anybody, what we have done is that we looked at section 177 and section 187 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and used it as a guidance in relation to the receipt of the nomination submitted by the political parties. … Now section 187 also says that if you are a governorship candidate you must also nominate an associate and that associate must also possess the same criteria. The political parties were given a deadline of 9th day of September within which to submit the list of their candidates and their personal particulars and the political parties did submit. So, what the Commission did was to look at the personal particulars submitted by the candidates to see whether they have satisfied the qualifying criteria. And political parties that submitted the names of candidates that did not meet up with the age requirements, we informed them that they did not have any valid nomination. So, it is the validity of the nomination that is the issue and not the issue of disqualifying any candidate.”

It will be recalled that the election that was declared in favour of a former governor of Kogi State, Alhaji Ibrahim Idris in 2007 was later nullified by the Supreme Court on the ground that the electoral body erred in its decision to exclude one of the candidates in that year’s election, the then candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Prince Abubakar Audu.

The INEC had disqualified Audu, citing his indictment by a panel of inquiry set up to investigate him on corruption charges during his time as governor of the state.  Audu was Kogi governor between 1999 and 2003.

But Natasha told The Guardian that she would not wait for the November polls to hold without her name on the ballot.  She expressed concern that the Nigerian judiciary that was in place during the elections in 2007 is not the same as of now, especially on cases bothering on democracy. She accused the APC of playing the politics of elimination of opposition candidates through illegal means, citing the disqualification of major opponents Bello before the APC governorship primary and the violent disruption of the PDP primary in Lokoja on September 3 by sponsored gunmen.

But Chairman, Bello Campaign Organisation, Senator Smart Adeyemi on Wednesday denied the allegation that Governor Bello had a hand in the disqualification of any of his opponents. He boasted that as a matter of fact, the opposition candidates are too feeble and are a no-match for the incumbent to lose any sleep over the election.

“I am not aware of her (Akpoti’s) statement. I am aware that she was disqualified. And I read about the reason why she was disqualified.  The question now is very simple; was any offence committed? If anything is done against the law I don’t think it is fair and just to accuse Yahaya Adoza Bello to have done that.  We don’t work in INEC. I am very sure Governor Yahaya Bello will not do that, there is no just reason to do that. There is no party that is so strong to make us not to sleep with our two eyes closed. When a governor is doing well, touching the lives of the people, there is no reason to target any party, because even the main opposition party has no candidate as at today. PDP’s primary election is inconclusive; there are over 40 cases in court challenging the emergence of Engr. Musa Wada. They know they don’t stand a chance of winning the election. By the time I go into details of why I think we are going to win the election, you will agree with me. You see when you want to break a pot made of clay you don’t need too much energy to break the pot, all you need to do is just remove your hand. That is the way to go. It is going to be a clean sweep, I can assure you. Nigerians will be surprised that we are this popular.  Over the years, they have blackmailed this government with the recruitment of armies of writers in the social media. We have a candidate that does not believe in propaganda.  We have a candidate that is visionary, determined, that has performed, that has touched lives despite the challenges that he encountered when he came on board. You have a governor that is loved by everyone. That is making sure that representation in government by appointment and projects cut across ethnic and religious divides. We anticipated fierce challenge, unfortunately there is none.”

For the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), INEC erred in law to disqualify the SDP candidate.  The PDP said INEC is not vested with the power to disqualify candidates.

Reacting to the disqualification, PDP said it was suspicious of a booby trap to set the stage for the cancellation and rerun of the November polls in case of loss on the part of the ruling party.

In a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Bode Ogunmola, PDP described Akpoti’s disqualification as unjust and unfair. The party warned INEC not to do anything that will make the whole exercise a futility by using the exclusion of any party to nullify PDP victory on 16th November.

“INEC has no constitutional right to disqualify candidates, that is the exclusive right of the court. The PDP therefore calls on INEC National Chairman to do the needful and allow Natasha Akpoti participate in the election,” he said.

The party called on INEC to be an unbiased umpire by conducting a free and fair election in Kogi adding that the signals are already clear that the commission “is beginning to rig the forthcoming poll.”


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