By Sunday Ani
The immediate past Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Akwa-Ibom State, Mr. Mike Igini, has said that the conduct and obvious ignorance of the letters of the 2022 Electoral Act by some senior INEC staff would make things difficult for the INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu as Nigeria goes into the 2023 elections.
In this interview, the former REC cleared the air on the controversy trailing the conduct of the All Progressives Congress (APC) primary election for the Akwa-Ibom North Senatorial District among other issues.
You were recently reported to have said that the President and the National Assembly (NASS) should be commended for enacting the 2022 Electoral Act. How will it impact the 2023 elections?
The Act has secured the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) innovations and procedures by returning power to the people at the polling units, where elections will now be won or lost and not at wards, local government areas and other stages or points of result collation. The most profound and empowering provision is the mandatory requirement of the law that the total number of votes scored by candidates and the number of accredited voters should be uploaded to the digital cloud in an INEC portal that is accessible to voters and participating political parties.
Talking about the Electoral Act, one of the INEC National Commissioners, Mohammed Haruna was recently reported in the media to have said that you misinterpreted the Act concerning the Akwa-Ibom North Senatorial District; how do you react to that?
First, I am very surprised that Mohammed Haruna, someone that I respected so much as a columnist before his appointment as a national commissioner, and who ought to know better, could go to the media to attack my person and question my legal competency because of Godswill Akpabio. He kept mentioning Akpabio’s name throughout the write up, and he did that totally in ignorance of the true position of the law. He accused me of “choosing and picking” provisions of the 2022 Act that suits me over this same man and other politicians he was advancing their positions. Here is a supposed umpire defending individuals that did not participate in a senatorial primary against the provisions of the 2022 Act, insisting that such individuals should be confirmed as senatorial candidates, as he has confirmed again in his latest attacks on me and Mr. Femi Falana (SAN). I’m only disappointed but not surprised. I have seen things; I have seen the best and worst characters of human beings in the last 10 years of my public service. An individual could be a great critic and a respected columnist when he is not in government and there are many out there that we have come to know as pretenders. If the wind had not blown, we would not have seen the rump of the Chicken. The true character of a person will be revealed when you give him or her a position of authority to exercise power. So, power does not change people as we think, rather it reveals their true character that has been hidden under the garb of being a critic.
What provision of the Act did he specifically accuse you of picking and choosing?
In the first interview he granted, which was widely publicized in June, while trying to respond to a United States based columnist, Dr. Farooq Kperogi, he claimed, although ignorantly, that INEC does not have the statutory power to reject individuals who did not go through primary elections but whose names were submitted by political parties anyway, without citing any provision of the law to back up his false claim. What he said is wholly incorrect and patently untrue because by virtue of section 84(13), the Commission has undoubted powers to reject individuals submitted as candidates that didn’t undergo primary elections monitored by INEC and did not emerge from a valid primary under section 29 of the 2022 Electoral Act; that power to reject by the Commission could also be challenged either by any aspirant or the political party under section 285 (14) of the constitution.
So, does that mean that the accusation of you picking and choosing the law that suits you as alleged by Haruna was totally wrong?
Absolutely wrong, but I will prefer to say it was ignorant of the law, which in itself does not excuse the egregious nature of his conduct, given that he should be better advised or seek better advice that is available to him or can be made available to him in the Commission, if he had spent more time at his job as gatekeeper of electoral regulatory law. He admitted this shortcoming in his response to Dr Kperogi, who drew his attention to the position of the Senior Advocate, Mr. Femi Falana that l was right on the position of the law, and this was what Haruna wrote himself, “I had agreed that the Senior Advocate was right and l was wrong because my opinion did not take section 84 (13) of the Electoral Act 2022 into consideration.” So, you can see how unfair Haruna has been to me, using his own opinion which is not law to challenge and attack me in the media when I cited copiously the provisions of the 2022 Act.. I decided not to respond to him publicly the first time for misleading Nigerians but instead called him to express my disappointment to him, that assuming l was even wrong he should have spoken to me instead of going to the media to disparage me in ignorance. I restated the correct position of the law to him to be well guided given that he is not a lawyer but a very cerebral journalist that people like me used to respect so much in the past. Even as a lawyer, I don’t know all the laws and God forbid that a lawyer should know all the laws, but a lawyer should know where to find the law just as an educated non lawyer like Haruna that wants to challenge a lawyer and even a Senior Advocate of Nigeria like Falana, a legal luminary of remarkable intellectual prowess; he should know where to find the law to engage well.
What do you think could be responsible for this media attack on your person?
Frankly, I really don’t know why, and I have been asking myself why I have not responded to his attacks. Maybe, out of respect for him and the image of INEC that should not be brought to disrepute, if I respond to him publicly and I restrained myself, coupled with the numerous calls from colleagues and well-meaning Nigerians that appealed to me not to respond to him. Perhaps, my restraint misguidedly emboldened him to embark on this second unprovoked and unjustified attack on my person, obviously for the interest of those individuals he is advocating for in violation of the oath of office as an umpire. Repeating the attack on me again because of these persons will not go unanswered because it may give well-meaning members of the public the erroneous impression that the commission shares such ignorant opinions as axiomatic praxis, but that is not true. His opinions and conduct are an isolated ignorant misconception within the commission. I know the Chairman well and several National Commissioners sufficiently to know that such misguided lay opinions which ostensibly strips the Commission of its gate-keeping mandates to advance the fickle whims of partisan parties is not the norm of the commission.
What really are his specific accusations against you this time?
This time around, he ignorantly accused me of disobeying what he called a “Federal High Court judgment,” but that is not true because he doesn’t have the full facts. For the avoidance of doubt, here are the facts about the contrived APC crisis in Akwa-lbom State.
The APC in Akwa-Ibom State had a successful state congress on October 16, 2021, wherein all the notable key stakeholders were present. There are video recordings and pictures of all those who were present at the Sheergrace Arena venue of the congress and staff of the commission from Abuja and state monitored the exercise. At the end, Augustine Ekanem emerged for the position of state Chairman after polling 1,278 votes.
However, another aspirant and the last on the list of 10 contestants, Stephen Leo Ntuekpo, who scored 006 (6) votes altered the result by dropping figure one (1) from the 1,278 and placed it behind his own 006 to now read 1,006 while the scores of the real winner of the congress was reduced to 278 votes in the forged document. This was the document he made by himself, which he took to INEC for certification and used same to sue the APC national body under the then acting chairman of the party, Gov. Mai Buni of Yobe State, and Secretary, Sen. Akpan Udoedehe, who is now in NNPP. The INEC Headquarters EPM and legal department, surprisingly, certified this document despite having the original of the successful congress report in its custody right with them at the headquarters. When my attention was drawn to the criminal action in a protest letter, I immediately called the head office. In response, the commission wrote a letter to the APC national secretary to invalidate the forged congress result certified as an error. Paragraph four of the letter said: “Note that the certification in custody of the Commission in compliance with the law does not confer validity on that document that is otherwise invalid or void by virtue of the provision of the law.”
Is Commissioner Haruna aware of this letter written, dated February 1, 2022, and signed by the secretary of the Commission? That was the document Ntuekpo used to secure a Federal High Court judgment on March 17, 2022, that Haruna is defending vigorously. But, he was never sworn in as state party chairman for the APC in Akwa-Ibom State by the then APC acting national chairman and secretary both of whom, in their official capacity, immediately proceeded to the Appeal Court on March 18, to file a stay of execution of the judgment obtained by Mr. Ntuekpo. When the matter came up on April 7, the appeal court granted an order for parties to maintain the status quo and adjourned till April 17. The status quo ordered to be maintained at the time was the fact that Augustine Ekanem was the only duly sworn-in chairman, while Stephen Ntuekpo only had a judgment that was in his favor but was never sworn in as chairman given that the APC leadership that would have conferred him with authority appealed against the judgment. It was not a case of two claimant chairmen who were sworn into office in which case we could be talking of the invocation of the principle of the latter in time. But surprisingly, just four days after the Appeal Court adjourned after granting an order that status quo be maintained till the next adjourned date of April 17, this court of appeal order was disregarded and the new chairman of APC, Adamu Abdullahi and Secretary Sen. Iyiola Omisore respectively on April 11, swore in Ntuekpo in total disobedience to the order of the Court of Appeal. And in order to avoid the likely sanction of the court for contempt, the same appellants ambushed the Appeal Court by filing a notice of withdrawal of the matter their predecessor took to Appeal Court against Ntuekpo. But the order of Appeal Court was still subsisting, irrespective of their action. It was during the prevailing extant order to maintain the status quo from April 7, all through May 26, when the APC governorship primary ought to have been conducted but was not conducted except for the senatorial primary that was conducted on the May 27, 2022, and which produced retired DIG Ekpoudom. It was conducted by the APC and monitored by the Commission with full report. The process of sudden withdrawal to prevent the hearing of the main matter, after all, they have achieved the goal of swearing in someone who used forged document, had been achieved. That judicial process was only concluded on the May 30, at which time all primaries have been concluded. It should be noted that from March 17, when Ntuekpo obtained the judgement with a forged/altered result certified regrettably in Abuja, the state office never received any letter from Abuja directing it to obey any Federal High Court ruling that we disobeyed contrary to Haruna’s claim.
But Haruna seems to be suggesting that Akpabio’s re-run or re-conducted senatorial election was monitored by INEC; how true is that?
I challenge Haruna to produce the names of those staff of INEC either from Abuja or the state that monitored that Nicodemus senatorial primary he is talking about and defending vigorously. We are lawyers and we deal with records. There are official records with dates and sequence of events from INEC monitoring officers to the INEC Headquarters in Abuja. We had the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) meeting at the Commission’s Headquarters on Wednesday, June 8 and Thursday, June 9. I woke up on Friday morning to see on social media what they called breaking news that Akpabio had won a re-run senatorial election for Akwa-lbom North West. I was inundated with calls from everywhere to confirm the story and I responded to the effect that there was nothing like that because it had been conducted since May 27, so the North West Senatorial train had left the station. I went further to explain that a re-run election means that there was a previous exercise that may have been cancelled. So, who cancelled the first election and for what reason? And in any case, in a re-run election, in line with the judgment of the Supreme Court as per Labour vs INEC, which people like Haruna do not know, only those who participated in the cancelled one for any reason can participate, and no new entrant to the race can be included. This is not my opinion; it is a fact on public record that only those who do not place much value on their integrity will contradict before the Nigerian public.
Commissioner Haruna also expressed his opinion on the import of section 115 of the Electoral Act, insisting that no offence had been committed by any politician; what is your take on that?
There he goes again, but this time, his opinion is based on his understanding of a provision of law. However, he is not a judge or even a lawyer to be saying categorically that a lawyer misinterpreted the law. Some of the provisions you find in the extant 2022 Act like the section 115 is meant to deal with past mischief by politicians, who buy more than one nomination form, with the hope that if they don’t succeed in their party primary election, they will go to the other party they have purchased their nomination form to be a candidate and contest the same election. This has led to the growing culture of people jumping from one party to another in matter of days within the same period of primaries. It is to put an end to this that the novel section 115 was proposed. We are all witnesses to the problems, how when senatorial primaries long conducted on May 27 are being reopened after the presidential convention that took place in June. This is the situation section 115 was proposed to prevent and to cure instead of going back and forth. Thus, purchasing, filling and signing two nomination forms aspiring to be a candidate in more than one constituency (Presidential or Senatorial) which are different constituencies election is an offence. The old Forms CF001 and CFOO2 have now been changed to Forms EC9 and EC9b and they are issued or given free to political parties by INEC. No individual who has emerged as a candidate will ever fill two forms after emerging as a candidate to be penalized. It is those expensive nomination forms sold by political parties to aspirants who aspire to be candidates that section 115 is intended to deal with and not INEC forms filled after emerging as candidates. If its INEC free forms, then of course, nobody will ever commit the offence prescribed. So you see, it is a regulatory mechanism to make the regulatory role of the commission easier to accomplish, and advance internal party democracy for political parties, while consolidating democracy in Nigeria. No Election manager will, therefore, take public positions to go against the commission’s competence to administer such provisions to advance the partisan position of third parties outside INEC.