Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
From the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to the leaderships of the political parties, there is a consensus that Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted and dealt a devastating blow on the political and electoral activities in the country.
For the electoral body, the health pandemic has not only truncated the bye-elections in at least three states of Imo, Bayelsa and Plateau but also posed serious threat to the timetable and schedule of activities for the conduct of the Edo and Ondo states governorship elections.
The COVID-19 has really paralysed all political and electoral activities to the extent that the national secretariats of all the political parties have remained under lock and key without any glimpse of hope yet when lives would return to them.
Party conventions to elect local and state leadership of the parties especially the big political parties that had already commenced at the grassroots and state levels before the outbreak were abruptly suspended.
With all resources and efforts focused on curbing the spread of the virus, little or nothing is currently being heard of political activities even from the opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) apart from occasional criticisms against the policy of the Federal Government on handling the world health challenge.
The inactive political situation is almost the same at the state levels. In Imo, for instance, the escalating battle between the governor, Hope Uzodinma and his predecessor, Emeka Ihedioha hitherto has taken the back seat. In Zamfara, not even the Supreme Court final judgement on the elections could renew the hostility between the immediate past governor, Abdul’aziz Abubakar Yari against the incumbent, Bello Muhammad Matawalle.
In Rivers State, the situation is the same between the political gladiators especially, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi and his estranged political ally, Governor Nyesom Wike. There is also the same situation of anomie in Edo State even though the gladiator have gone underground to continue their scheming.
Also, the quietness of the hyperactive All Progressives Congress (APC) Progressive Governors Forum hitherto overheating the polity over the frosty relationship with the party’s National chairman, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, is also a result of the COVID 19 pandemic.
Suddenly and instructively, nothing was again heard of the politically-motivated removal of Emir Lamido Sanusi by the embattled governor of Kano State, Umar Ganduje, or the alleged cold war ragging between the governor of Nasarawa State, Abdullahi Sule and his predecessor, Umaru Tanko Al-Makura.
The situation is the same in Kogi State where nothing is being heard about the electoral legal battle between the governor, Yahaya Bello and other candidates in the 2019 governorship poll. The legal battle between the loquacious Senator Dino Melaye and his political opponent, Senator Smart Adeyemi for sometime has not dominated media headlines.
Also, apart from occasional exchanges among the politicians, political activities have literally been grounded to the extent that the crisis in the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC) leadership over who gets the recognition of INEC seems to have died down. In fact, not much is being equally heard about what becomes of the ongoing tussles between the political parties and INEC over the commission’s decision to deregister some parties.
The political activities have been so glaringly dull that the build up to the 2023 presidency and the zone to rightfully produce the replacement for President Muhammadu Buhari has also been relegated to the background. The abeyance has been so conspicuous that watchers and citizens even wonder whether political parties still exist in the country.
Electoral timetable and schedule of activities are not spared. The indefinite postponement of the bye-elections in the three states by INEC became the COVID-19 pandemic’s immediate casualty on electoral activities in the country. In Imo and Bayelsa states, for example, political campaigns, already in full swing for the conduct of the supplementary elections into the senatorial districts, were put on hold by the electoral body.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, political parties had engaged the speed gear as part of the build up to the crucial governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states. Permutations, scheming, calculations, alignments and realignments by the aspirants and anointed contenders had climaxed in line with the timetable and schedule of activities released by INEC.
But confirming the damage the pandemic inflicted on political and electoral activities in the country, APC National Organising Secretary, Emma Ibediro, argued that it would have been worse if the deadly virus had broken out last year before the conduct of the general elections, emphasising that constitutional crisis would have engulfed the country.
“I strongly believe that the current COVID-19 pandemic has really uttered the political, social and economic activities not only in Nigeria but also globally. Politically, it is a natural phenomenon that if people are on lockdown to check the spread of the pandemic, there is no way political activities can take place. Naturally, the pandemic has affected the political activities in the country.
“Only recently and apparently due to the lockdown, INEC suspended most of the supplementary elections earlier scheduled in some states including Imo, Bayelsa, and Plateau before the outbreak of the virus. INEC also announced that it is still studying the situation concerning Edo and Ondo governorship elections.
“For those still in doubt of the magnitude of impact of the pandemic on our political lives, who would have imagined that the national secretariats of the ruling party, APC, the opposition, PDP and other political parties are locked up at both the national and state levels,” Ibediro noted.
The president of IPAC, Chief Peter Ameh, while corroborating Ibediro’s opinion could not agree less that the pandemic affected political and electoral activities in the country.
“There is no doubt about the negative effects of the pandemic on the political and electoral activities in the country. The fact that most national secretariats of the political parties are still under lock and key in addition to INEC suspending supplementary elections should be enough confirmation of the effects”, he said.
There was also no counter narrative from the independent electoral umpire as the National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, admitted that the challenges of the deadly virus have been overwhelming on the commission.
Conscious of the quantum of threat and constitutional crisis posed by the pandemic, the electoral Commission has relentlessly continued to deploy available machinery targeted at joining forces with the health authorities to contain the spread of the deadly virus.
The commission did not only release over 100 pick-up vans from its fleet for deployment in contact tracing, surveillance/laboratory and infection prevention/control in six states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), but also placed all its state offices nationwide on standby in case the Presidential Task Force (PTF) requests for additional support to combat the pandemic.
“Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Commission has been in touch with the PTF on combating COVID-19 on areas it can assist the effort to tackle what is clearly a national emergency that requires the support of all national institutions.
“Furthermore, the Commission is working with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and Telecommunication service providers to assist in raising public awareness of the pandemic by sending bulk messages (sms) to registered voters similar to what we do for voter mobilisation. Short messages were adopted from the flyers/leaflets issued by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
“Similarly, the Commission is in discussion with the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development on the possibility of using our electoral registration areas (wards) and polling units nationwide as locations for the distribution of palliative and other relief materials to citizens,” it enumerated the contributions made towards the fight against the pandemic.
While confirming the crippling challenges of the pandemic on commission’s electoral activities, Okoye told Daily Sun in Abuja that the commission might be constrained to adjust the timetable and schedule of activities for the Edo and Ondo states governorship elections.
He also admitted that with the lockdown in most states in Nigeria and the closure of boundaries, the pandemic has impacted on its preparations and activities for the conduct of the two governorship elections, insisting that INEC will however rely on the constitutional empowerment to adjust the electoral timetable within the constitutionally permissible window.
“Constitutionally, the tenure of the governor of Edo State expires on November 11, 2020 and that of Ondo State on February 23, 2021. By necessary constitutional implication, the earliest date for election into the office of governor of Edo, shall be June 15, 2020 and the latest date for the election shall be October 13, 2020. In the same vein, the earliest date for the election into the office of governor, Ondo shall be September 27, 2020 and the latest date shall be January 25, 2021.
“The implication of the constitutional provision is that the Commission can adjust the electoral timetable and schedule of activities for the Edo and Ondo governorship elections within the constitutionally permissible window. In other words, the Commission is permitted to rework the timetable but the Edo governorship election must be held and results declared before October 13, 2020 while that of Ono State must be held and results declared before January 25, 2021,” he clarified.
Okoye further noted that: “the commission will therefore continue to prepare for both elections within the existing timetable but reserves the right to adjust the timetable within the constitutionally permissible window given the current challenges and realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the lockdown in most of the states and the closure of state boundaries, the pandemic has impacted and will definitely continue to impact on the preparations and activities of the Commission for the conduct of the Edo and Ondo governorship elections.
“The country is engaged in existential war and this war threatens the sovereign right of the Nigerian people to vote. Only living human beings approach the polling units for accreditation and voting. Therefore, we need national unity and solidarity to defeat this invisible enemy of humanity,” he quipped.
What then looks like a conundrum particularly in the build up to the Edo State governorship election is the prospect in the nomination of candidates by the political parties with just less than one month away to the conclusion of the timetable of activities.
Cognisance of the fact that APC in states like Zamfara and Rivers were denied participation in last year’s general elections due to actions and inactions relating to failed conduct of primaries, what options are open to the political parties in Edo that is threatened by the force majeure caused by the pandemic?
Although INEC has not made a categorical statement on the available options should the pandemic deteriorate into making the conduct of the elections impossible, however, political parties may have instituted a plan to circumvent the Zamfara state situation.
Already, the gladiators and stakeholders in Edo APC have started strategizing on the possible option of adopting an aspirant towards narrowing the contest between the incumbent and the anointed aspirant.
Interestingly, in what could provide the solution to the conundrum, all eyes will be on the electoral commission to take far-reaching decision on possible adjustment of the timetable after its meeting this week Thursday in Abuja.
However, whatever the outcome of the meeting might be, the final determinant of what becomes of electoral activities in the country is still dependent on the control of the spread of the pandemic in the country.