By Chinelo Obogo
As the battle for Anambra Central Senatorial district rerun heats up, there seems to be fresh hurdles for the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) senatorial candidate, Victor Umeh who before now, seemed to be coasting home to victory.
Umeh, who was the former national chairman of APGA after years of legal battle with the party’s founder, Chekwas Okorie, had challenged the election of the senatorial candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Uche Ekwunife in court and won.
On December 7, 2015, the Court of Appeal nullified Ekwunife’s election, who before then represented Anambra Central Senatorial District in the Senate. Justice A. H Yahya of the Court of Appeal ruled that Ekwnuife’s election did not meet the provision of the Electoral Act, and ordered a fresh election within 90 days.
Having held that Ekwunife’s nomination offends PDP guidelines on primaries, the Court stated that “The 11th respondent (Ekwunife) was therefore not the product of a valid primary and was therefore not duly and legitimately nominated. That has disqualified her from contesting the election in the Anambra Central senatorial District”.
The nullification of that election, threw up different opinions and different interpretations of the Court judgments. While ruling that Ekwunife was not a candidate in the election, the Court consequentially ordered a new election and different parties and opponents seized on what some saw as a lacuna in the judgment to give various self-serving interpretations.
Umeh, who came second in the poll, argued that the judgment exempts PDP from fielding a candidate in the re-run election. Ekwunife figured that the only route open to her was to seek a new platform, and she swiftly defected to the All Progressives Congress (APC), but she was defeated in the primary by Sharon Ikeazor, who emerged the party’s candidate.
For the PDP as a party, it interpreted the judgment to mean that it was free to conduct another primary to pick a new candidate. But just as the judgment did not expressly preclude a new primary except by the ‘Ekwunife faction’, it also did not expressly mandate a new primary.
INEC, being the electoral umpire may have inadvertently laid to rest, the controversies thrown up by the Court judgment over whether a party can field a fresh candidate or not. Its decision to bar fresh candidates from participating in the rerun was mainly as a result of court judgments in similar cases.
In 2009, for instance, the Supreme Court had laid to rest the controversy as to whether it was constitutional for a party to field a new candidate or conduct a fresh primary for a rerun. In the case between the Labour Party (LP) and the INEC, the Supreme Court ruled that no party was required to present a new candidate for a rerun or conduct fresh primary.
In its ruling, delivered on the 13th day of February, 2009 by Justice Ikechi Francis Ogbuagu, the Supreme Court, affirmed the verdict of the Court of Appeal saying that “Where a general election has been held and there is a false start, for example, a candidate who ought to have been part of the election was unlawfully excluded or there was no level playing ground for all the candidates and that election is subsequently either cancelled by the regulating authority like INEC or nullified by an order of a court or tribunal, and a re-run or re-start is ordered, it is my humble view that the re-run or re-start refers to that general election cancelled or nullified, and not a bye-election”.
Justice Ogbuagu explained that “The consequence of this is that all the candidates including the one unlawfully excluded would now get back to the starting line for a fair and free contest. It does not admit of any other candidate since as it were the period for nomination and screening of candidates would have elapsed.”
In a statement it released last month, and signed by the Commission’s secretary, Augusta Ogakwu, it stated that there would be no fresh candidates in the 69 re-run elections, adding that some political parties and their candidates have been excluded from the race. It said that only those parties and candidates who participated in the annulled polls would be eligible to take part in the forthcoming rerun.
For the APC, an Abuja Federal High Court ruling dashed its hope of fielding a fresh candidate in the rerun after the court dismissed a suit brought by Sharon Ikeazor seeking to compel INEC to accept her as a substitute to Dr. Chris Ngige .
Ikeazor had dragged INEC before Justice Anwuli Chikere, asking the court to compel the electoral umpire to accept her as the candidate of the party in place of Ngige who had withdrawn from the election following his appointment as Minister for Labour.
Similarly, the State PDP too had also approached the court to seek a ruling that would have enabled the former governor of the state, Peter Obi participate in the elections. But while the case filed by Ikeazor has since been decided, that of the PDP is still pending before the court.
Delivering judgment on the Ikeazor matter in Abuja, Justice Chikere held that the time for political parties to nominate candidates for elective position in respect of the 2015 elections had elapsed.
The judge ruled: “The time for the nomination, withdrawal or substitution of candidates for the court-ordered election in Anambra Central senatorial district has elapsed. As decided by the Court of Appeal in the case of Labour Party against INEC, there is no room for fresh candidates in a court-ordered election.” Consequently, the case was dismissed for lacking in merit.
Victor Umeh, while reacting to the judgment appealed to INEC to hasten up the conduct of the Anambra Central senatorial rerun poll. He said: “INEC has nothing holding it anymore from going ahead to conduct the Anambra Central senatorial election going by the judgement of the Federal High Court, Abuja which dismissed the suit by Sharon Ikeazor seeking to compel INEC to accept her as a substitute to Ngige for Anambra Central re-run election which is consistent with the law and the firm position of INEC on the matter all along.”
The implication of the statement from INEC is that it has become obvious that the two main opposition parties in the state, the PDP and its candidate in the 2015 elections, Uche Ekwunife, who has defected to the APC have been excluded from the contest, just as the APC, and its candidate, Sharon Ikeazor have also been disqualified from the contest.
However, the only condition in which the APC could still participate is if it could convince Chris Ngige, the Minister of Labour to resign from his position and re-contest the senatorial seat. But Ngige was reported to have rejected the call for him to re-contest, hence the choice of Ikeazor as replacement in the first instance.
The battle narrows down
With the exclusion of the PDP and the APC, which would have given APGA a tough fight, Umeh may emerge the Senator for the district, except the unexpected happens as his chances appear brighter. Being the only candidate for APGA, he has the backing of Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State and the resources to mobilize for the election. The legal controversy as to whether a party has the right to present a fresh candidate for the election may also work in his favour.
But the battle seems far from over, as there are legal moves to stop Umeh from becoming a senator in the Abuja division of the Federal High Court.
In a suit already filed before the court by a senatorial candidate of the African Democratic Congress (ADC), Anayo Nweke, he is asking the court to compel INEC to call for nominations for the senatorial district from all political parties desirous of contesting for the seat.
In the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/252/2017, Nweke further asked the court for an order disqualifying the APGA candidate from contesting the rerun for allegedly submitting false information. He further asked for an order of injunction restraining INEC from including the name of Umeh as a candidate in the election if he emerges as a candidate in a fresh nomination called for that purpose.
Among those contending for the senatorial seat is Obiora Okonkwo who contested the last PDP primary. He has been in courts seeking to prove that he won the primary in the first instance and should represent the party in the election. He argues that since he has a pre-election matter before the court in which he is challenging the authenticity of the candidacy of Ekwunife, he should represent the PDP in the election
He said:” After the primaries, I had gone to court to say with all the proofs that, indeed, I am the original candidate of PDP for Anambra Central senatorial district election. The electoral law and the constitution have made it very clear that it is the party that wins, not the individual. In this case, the court has said Uche did not win the primary election, so the court has actually joined verdict to our own claim. We are only waiting for any other court to authenticate it, that this is ours. We were not party to post election matter between her and other contestants.”
On the part of the APC, during a recent meeting with party leaders in the South -East, Ngige was reported to have told reporters that the rerun would never hold unless all litigations relating to it were cleared. As it stands, Anambra Central has no representative in the Senate as the rerun has lingered since 2015 and INEC is yet to fix a date for the election.