The ongoing controversy over the recent Supreme Court ruling on the March 9, 2019, governorship election in Imo State is not the first time it is providing Nigerians with an opportunity to interrogate aspects of the nation’s election processes. In 2011, the term “Supplementary Election” was for the first time introduced into the electoral lexicon of the nation after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) curiously declared the governorship election that held on April 26, 2011, inconclusive and scheduled a “supplementary” election for May 5, 2011. That decision by INEC, which many analysts faulted because it was based on unlawful exclusion by the commission of results from the Ohaji-Egbema Local Government Area – over 28,000,00 votes – in the final statewide result, is the very root of the crisis rocking the state today. Now, INEC is at it again in Imo.
Once it cut its teeth for electoral mischief in Imo, the commission was to cause further discomfiture for Nigerians with its unrestrained recourse to election inconclusiveness in several other states. In the last six years or so, hardly has INEC conducted any election, particularly governorship elections, without declaring it inconclusive. In the 2019 general election, as many as six states – Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Kano, Plateau and Sokoto – had their governorship elections declared inconclusive, of course with the attendant tension and near-crisis situation that action created in those states. On the 2019 general election, it has since become an established fact that INEC posted an abysmally poor performance, a fact that has been admitted even by its headship.
The lot has again fallen on Imo State to provide Nigeria with another opportunity to critically look at the performance of INEC. Put in a different language, the state and its people have once more been made cannon fodder in the perennial incapacity of INEC to provide Nigeria with credible elections. Unfortunately, only a few in the state are able to realise the fact that at the root of the upheaval arising from the January 14, 2020, Supreme Court ruling is a clear case of ineptitude on the part of the commission as regards the March 9, 2019, governorship election. To be sure, the Supreme Court judgment is unpopular among many citizens of the state but the blame must be put on the doorsteps of INEC. At best it was careless in handling the election in question. At worst, it was a case of outright ineptitude. By the provisions of the Electoral Law, the legal burden was on INEC to account for the whereabouts of the results in the 388 polling units. But from what transpired from the tribunal to the Court of Appeal, the commission either feigned ignorance of their existence or gave the impression that the results from those units were forged.
Now, assuming that they were forged, as the commission claimed during trial, did the collation officers at the wards have the power to reject them, which led to the exclusion of those results from the total tally that was declared by the State Returning Officer? The answer is a clear NO. In other words, did the State Returning Officer apply due diligence in handling the results that were brought from the wards and local government area collation centres, which were, in any case, handled by ad hoc staff?
It is possible that the State Returning Officer did not know that any such results existed let alone excluded but that does not absolve the commission of blame. It should have the machinery or intelligence to know. That it did not know – assuming that was the case – is a clear evidence of incompetence. But even though at the trials INEC pleaded that no polling units’ results were excluded, a police officer who was officially sent by the police authorities, upon being subpoened by the tribunal, produced results sheets supposedly given to them, the police, INEC officials and the documents (tendered by the police) were admitted as Exhibits. Still, INEC neither denied the existence of the 388 polling units in respect of which forms EC88A were tendered and admitted nor did it tender a different set of results.
In other words, if 388 polling units existed, the burden was on INEC to account for the results from them but which it failed to do even when the general belief or assumption was that elections held in all the polling units in the state. The Supreme Court might not have strictly followed the procedure and precedence it had itself created by, for example, not demanding that witnesses from all the 388 polling units be called to speak on the results – only 28 were called – the truth, nevertheless, is that the basis for whatever error or mistake that was made by the apex court in the ruling was laid by INEC.
Perhaps the most talked-about issue concerning the judgment is that, by including the votes from the 388 polling units, the total valid votes cast at the election rose to 950,952, as against the number of accredited voters, which at the time of the election stood at 823,743. But expert legal opinion points out that, since results from 388 polling units were omitted, any restoration of the results from those units would automatically adjust the total number of accredited voters to include the voters from the excluded polling units. Perhaps by the time the Supreme Court gives further details on the reasons behind its ruling, the issue of over-voting is most unlikely to remain an attractive topic.
To be sure, Governor Emeka Ihedioha showed a lot of promise both in vision and warmth and the people were beginning to see a clear departure from what they were made to witness in the era of the administration immediately before his. He had returned due process, which his predecessor said was a waste of time for him, plugged virtually all the loopholes through which top government functionaries stole the state blind and restored the full payment of the amounts due to civil servants as salaries and regularly too. This is in the area of intangibles, which constitute over 70 per cent of good governance. In the area of physical infrastructure, Ihedioha struck at the hearts of the people with the alacrity with which he proceeded with road rehabilitation as soon as the rains receded. As is well known, I had in a few articles argued that the Ihedioha administration should be, essentially because its emergence meant that Imolites resolved the knotty issue of equity in the governorship of the state. But the Supreme Court judgment is final and as such it is needless crying over spilled milk.
In my view, giving the people the belief and expectation that the judgment will be revisited and even reversed is to keep the political temperature in the state very high and that is not what the people need now. Ordinarily, the good people of Imo believe in the rule of law and are known to be law-abiding. However unpalatable a section of the Imo society might find the judgment, obedience to court orders is the hallmark of a civilised people, which Imolites are. We should put the Supreme Court matter behind and move on.
Fortunately, there is one uniqueness in Governor Hope Uzodinma’s emergence that puts him in a good stead to proceed with utmost gusto, which is the fact that his administration is the first, at least since the advent of the current dispensation, that is not to be subjected to any further judicial interrogation, given the finality of the Supreme Court judgment. In other words, there will be no excuse of “distraction” as was in the case with all his predecessors. I think we should take advantage of this.
A reversal of the judgment is a tall order but resorting to hostilities could have worse consequences for the polity than the Supreme Court ruling itself. Of course, there can be no doubt that Governor Uzodinma will be challenged to show utmost caution in handling the affairs of the state, especially given the present circumstance. Nobody has it all but it is an incontrovertible fact that he has the charm and charisma to put the state together. In any case, the people of the state cannot forget in haste that, were it not for Uzodinma, Rochas Okorocha would have succeeded in foisting his son-in-law on them as his successor. In other words, he has a pedigree as a son of the soil who understands the fears and expectations of his people.
So, rather than allow the bitterness of the Supreme Court ruling to fester, I think the thing the politicians should do is to learn the practical lessons that have arisen from this latest development in the state. The recent experience should also form the basis on which the Imo electorate should begin to compel the political class to desist from acts of commission or omission that diminish its worth. If it took only seven members of a Supreme Court that are neither indigenes of the state nor participants in the election in question to discover that votes from 388 polling units were indeed excluded, then it calls to question the vigilance of our political actors. As far as I am concerned, it is a sad commentary on the entire political class in the state.
Its members should stop conniving at electoral malfeasance. From my sick bed in London on March 11, 2019, I watched on television as Mr. Uche Onyeagucha tore a result sheet that was brought in by an agent of one of the governorship candidates. Even though that might not have been the best way to go about it, looking back, the significance of what he did now stands out: Which is the need for vigilance throughout the election processes.
Much of the vigilance would, of course, be to ensure that corrupt and compromised INEC officials do not continue to inflict on the Imo electorate the type of pains it has been made to live with since 2011 as earlier pointed out in this article. The political elite must close ranks and look into why there is this recurring decimal in the way elections go in the state. Since after the 1979 Supreme Court judgment over what constitutes two-third of 19 states, no other court ruling on elections in the entire country has generated as much controversy as the January 14, 2020, ruling on the 2019 Imo governorship election.
As seen, it was in Imo that INEC, in collaboration with a section of politicians in the state, introduced the concept of inconclusive election for the first time in the country. And since then, the state has not been the same. Apart from the fact that the Imo electorate feels quite let down by the political class, Imo might be going down as home of some of the most desperate and dishonest politicians in the whole country. How to salvage the entire state from this type of image is a task which Governor Uzodinma must lead.