By Tonnie Iredia
In the February 23, 2019 elections into the National Assembly, Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo state contested to represent Imo West in the Senate. At the end of polls, he was declared winner of the election by Professor Innocent Ibeawuchi who served as the returning officer. Rochas Okorocha who contested under the platform of the All Progressives Congress reportedly polled 97, 762 votes to beat his closest rivals; Jones Onyereri of the Peoples Democratic Party who polled 63,117 votes and Senator Osita Izunaso of the All Progressive Grand Alliance who got 30,923 votes.
What started as a rumour thereafter was that Okorocha’s victory had a defect because the returning officer claimed that his declaration was made under duress. According to media reports, Professor Ibeawuchi said “I was compelled to announce the result which was inconclusive. I was held hostage by agents working for the governor. I was manhandled and I thank God that I came back alive.” He also claimed that the election was supposed to be declared inconclusive because of the irregularities and malpractices that took place.
A terse statement which immediately came from INEC deprecated the action which the commission said was unacceptable as she would “not tolerate the act of holding our officials’ hostage and forcing them to declare winners under duress.” Accordingly, a few days to the presentation of certificates, it was observed that Okorocha’s name was not listed by INEC among the senators-elect scheduled to receive their certificates of return. On its website where the names of all the senators-elect were published, the commission confirmed the rumour that the winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election was announced under duress. As a result, Okorocha received no certificate of return during the presentation ceremony held at the International Conference Centre Abuja last Thursday.
Reactions as to the rationality of the punishment meted on the governor by INEC have been divided. Some analysts are in support of INEC’s posture because they feel the electoral body needs to occasionally issue the red card to our numerous political rascals. They say our elections are such an ordeal to handle as politicians constantly subvert the rules of the game. Another group imagines that Okorocha in particular has done too much of iberiberism in the past which he has always gotten away with. They point at his partly successful illegal attempts at impeaching his two former deputies on false charges. This column which previously had cause to chastise the governor more than once should normally align with these anti-Okorocha views but this time around, we are constrained to call for caution.
First, the story is one-sided. How could INEC have accepted the statement of the returning officer without hearing from Okorocha? As the governor reiterated on national television two days back, he was not given a chance to defend himself. If so, is that not in breach of the principle of natural justice? Again, the total number of valid votes won by Okorocha which the same returning officer did not controvert does not suggest that the governor was under any pressure. He seems to have been comfortably leading as the votes of the two closest rivals added up were still less than his. This is probably why the governor’s media aide was asking INEC to check the mental status of the returning officer. I would have felt that it is his glasses, if he uses any; that should be checked to confirm that he is not one of those professors we see at the collation centre in Abuja that are usually unable to read their own write-ups!
What is more, if Professor Ibeawuchi was held hostage, where were the security personnel deployed to secure that venue? If none, it would be interesting to know why. If some were deployed there, does it mean that they all escaped on sighting the thugs or did they get paid to join in the threats to the life of the returning officer or did they merely look the other way? If not, how come he was rescued by security operatives only after the ‘false’ declaration had been made? This looks like a worrying gap that cannot be dismissed because no one is too big or too little for politicians to tempt.
Considering the concerns of INEC about the posture of security operatives at an election, it is expedient to get to the bottom of the story. We can also not rule out the possibility that the governor’s opponents may have perfected this theory of duress as a back-up arrangement once things were not going well with the voting. No one should forget that we are talking about Imo state where APC nomination forms for the primary election forms got missing at a time and the governor got the Police to escort a suspect to the likely venue of the hidden forms only for the suspect to vanish in the presence of everyone
On a moral ground, the step taken by INEC seems in order as it may restore confidence in citizens who are appointed to serve as ad hoc election officials. From different parts of the country during the elections there were cries of frustration by many citizens who swore to never have anything to do with elections in Nigeria. To such people and the general public, INEC’s hard posture on Okorocha could also deter other politicians who often take the laws into their hands.
To this extent, the posture may have some merit. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to find where INEC got the power to punish candidates as they appear to be doing to Okorocha. In Nigeria, the law has always been that once INEC has declared winners of an election, the only body that can do anything to that declaration is not an election commission but an election tribunal. In which case at the point INEC was purporting to act on the subject she was already functus officio– a legal term for a person or body whose mandate or power had expired with respect to an activity.\
What INEC is suggesting by its posture is that Okorocha was not validly elected. If so, there is little INEC can do because our electoral law clearly states that only an election tribunal has the “original jurisdiction to hear and determine petitions as to whether a person has been validly elected into non-appointive offices under the government of Nigeria at the Federal and State levels.” While we appreciate the anger of INEC particularly with respect to the quantum of damage done to her image by politicians, she needs to be careful not to unwittingly increase her over-burdened mandate. She should therefore release Okorocha’s certificate of return to him and leave any aggrieved opponent to present a petition to the relevant election tribunal; otherwise the time to protest may lapse.