The Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Enugu has fixed September 3, 2019 for judgment on the petition filed before it by Eugene Odo, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate for Enugu North senatorial district in the 2019 election.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which is the third respondent in the suit, had on February 24, 2019, declared the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) senatorial candidate, Chukwuka Utazi (the first respondent) the winner of the election. Joined in the suit as second respondent is the PDP.
The APC’s senatorial candidate who is the first petitioner in the suit is seeking amongst other prayers, that he be declared the actual winner of the National Assembly election conducted in six local government areas in Enugu North, on the grounds that Senator Utazi was not duly elected by a majority of lawful votes cast in the election conducted on February 23, 2019 and that the election conducted was invalid by reason of substantial non compliance with the provision of the 2010 Electoral Act ( as amended).
Other reliefs being sought amongst others are that Odo, having polled the majority of lawful votes cast at the election held on February 23 and having satisfied all constitutional requirements for such election be declared the winner and returned elected.
In the petition filed by his lead counsel, S.I Ameh, ( SAN), the APC candidate is also asking the tribunal in Enugu to set aside INEC’s declaration that Utazi won the election and compel the electoral commission to issue him ( Odo) a Certificate of Return as the winner of the Enugu North Senatorial election.
In the alternative, Odo is asking the court to declare the senatorial election a nullity “on the grounds of irregularities, electoral malpractices and non compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 and the Independent National Electoral Commission guidelines for the 2019 elections.
“Declare an order for the conduct of rerun election in all the polling units in Enugu North Senatorial District of Enugu State on the grounds of irregularities, electoral malpractices and non compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 and the Independent National Commission guidelines for the 2019 elections, “ Odo’s suit read.
The six local councils where the February 23 elections whose collations and announcement of final results spilled over to the 24 were held included, Igbo Etiti, Igbo Eze South, Igbo Eze North, Nsukka, Udenu and Uzo Uwani. According to INEC, the total votes scored by Senator Utazi were 146,458 as against 22,229 scored by the APC candidate, Odo.
The two leading parties in Enugu, PDP and APC, are waiting with bated breath on the pronouncements of the justices in the case that could alter the power equation in the state, particularly the zoning arrangement in Enugu North senatorial district. Though the tribunal is yet to decide on the case, supporters of Odo have been in a celebratory mood as they believe that the judgment will go in their favour thus fuelling speculation and anxiety as to the direction the pendulum of justice will tilt.
Odo’s legal team claim that there was substantial non compliance because results sheets were dated February 24 instead of 23, the date the election was held. But Utazi’s team led by Onyeachi Ikpeazu (SAN), said Odo’s team didn’t establish what constitutes non compliance in the eyes of the law. Utazi’s team based its argument on Section 139(1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (As Amended) which offers sufficient condition for infraction.
According to Section 139(1), “An election shall not be liable to be invalidated by reason of non compliance with the provisions of this Act, if it appears to the election tribunal or court that the election was conducted substantially in accordance with the principles of the Act and that the non compliance did not substantially affect the result of the election.”
Utazi’s team argued that to plead non compliance in six local councils, the Electoral Act makes it mandatory to present evidence in polling unit by polling unit, ward by ward for the entire 6 local councils and not three. They said the voters register, not Card Reader, determines the number of accredited voters in a polling unit, as the ticking of the voter’s name on the register confirms accreditation to vote. They also argued that correctness of election results rests with the INEC and whoever is determined to prove falsification of results in election petition must show two contrasting results: one which is fake and the one that is genuine to lead evidence that votes were actually altered.
Analysts believe that the voting pattern in Enugu North during the 2019 election was largely determined by the zoning arrangement. In each district, the senatorial position usually rotates between the two local governments that make up the federal constituency, which is similar to the rotation of the presidency between the north and southern part of the country.
Though there is no written arrangement to that effect, it is believed that the zoning arrangement commenced in 1999 with Senator Fidelis Okoro from Nsukka/Igbo Eze South Federal Constituency, who served two terms from 1999 to 2007. In 2007, Senator Ayogu Eze from Igbo Eze North/Udenu Federal Constituency took over from Senator Fidelis Okoro and also served two term of eight years till 2015.
In 2015, Senator Utazi from Igbo Etiti/Uzo Uwani Federal Constituency took over from Senator Eze and continued to 2019 and it is believed that among other issues like performance and the dominance of the PDP in Enugu, one of the reasons voters supported Utazi is based on the assumption that the zoning arrangement is still firmly in place.
One of the chieftains of the PDP told Daily Sun that the zoning arrangement was one of the major reasons why the APC candidate lost election in all the five wards in his home town of Ukehe. He said: “It is trite to mention that Enugu State is one of the major strongholds of the Peoples Democratic Party in the country, with the Governorship position in its kitty, since 1999 to date. In addition, all the members of the National Assembly are PDP, same as the 17 Local Government Council chairmen with their councilors. In the present circumstances, where did Odo get the victory he claims?”