It is laudable that a High Court in Akwa Ibom State presided over by Justice Augustine Odokwo recently sentenced Prof. Peter Ogban of the University of Calabar for three years with a fine of N100,000 over electoral infractions. The court convicted Ogban, who served as the returning officer in Akwa Ibom North-West Senatorial District during the 2019 general election, for falsification of election results in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Oruk Anam and Etim Ekpo local government areas of the state.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Akwa Ibom State had dragged the university teacher to a High Court in the state on a two-count charge of manipulating the election results of the affected senatorial district, which he supervised. Following his admission of guilt, Ogban was sentenced to three years imprisonment with a N100,000 fine.
There is no doubt that punishing electoral offenders will ultimately minimise or end the current reign of impunity in the nation’s electoral system. But for this goal to be achieved, effort should be made for diligent prosecution of all electoral offenders, irrespective of their place in the society. Interestingly, a professor of Human Kinetics, Ignatius Uduk, is currently standing trial for alleged rigging in Essien Udim State Constituency in Akwa Ibom State. It is our hope that justice will prevail at the end of the trial. This is perhaps the first time INEC is prosecuting some of its ad hoc staff, especially a university professor, for electoral fraud.
Apart from this particular conviction, which has been hailed by many Nigerians, we urge the electoral umpire to go ahead and prosecute others with pending cases of electoral infractions. Although commendable, we think that the conviction of just one person may not be enough to deter other unscrupulous Nigerians from toeing the path of infamy during elections.
However, Ogban’s conviction may likely bring some level of sanity into the nation’s electoral system, where infractions and impunity are common. While the prosecution of electoral offenders is a credible means of checking electoral fraud in the country, INEC should involve the use of technology in our future elections, especially with off-season polls.
The deployment of technology in our future elections would greatly enhance their integrity and general acceptability of the results. It is also important that INEC should prosecute politicians and candidates who hire thugs as well as those who rig elections for them. There is need to fine-tune the legal frameworks that will guide our future polls in keeping with the current realities. Therefore, let the Electoral Amendment Bill be urgently passed and assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari. Having the required legal frameworks is fundamental to free, credible and fair elections in the country. Let the Federal Government ensure that there is adequate security in every election to prevent ballot snatching, vote-buying, rigging and other electoral frauds.
The conviction of Ogban is a warning to others of his ilk that such heinous practices would no longer be tolerated. Ogban’s conviction is indeed a marked departure from the past when influential people get away with electoral impunity. It is good to warn the electoral umpire that the conviction should not be a one-off thing. Nigerians would like to see more electoral offenders convicted by the courts. That is exactly the way to go and in order to ensure the survival of our nascent democracy.
Therefore, the judgment should serve as a strong signal to election riggers that it should no longer be business as usual. No doubt, there may be other Ogbans within our electoral system, who may have escaped justice due to non-prosecution or lack of diligence prosecution.
However, INEC must not rest on its oars because of this single conviction. This is the time the agency should do more to sanitise the electoral system by bringing to book all electoral offenders, be they security agents, INEC permanent or ad hoc staff. The law must be made to take its full course and nobody, no matter his position in the society, should be above the law. In other words, there should be no sacred cows. All Nigerians must be equal before the law.
While commending the Mahood Yakubu-led INEC and the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) in Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Mike Igini, for diligence prosecution of the case, we call on other RECs in the country to emulate Igini’s worthy example.