By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
Our electoral umpire has reached its wits end. The incoming National Assembly must review the 2019 elections and overhaul our electoral laws.
The loopholes are gaping. INEC has tried to be impartial and struggled to follow the law. But with desperate politicians everywhere, undue legalism could be self defeating, could further injustice.
INEC has rightly bent over backwards to do justice in a few cases. But such creativity sometimes creates new problems of lack of consistency. And lack of consistency erodes public confidence in the electoral umpire.
When can INEC depart from results that have already been announced by its authorized officials?
Take the Rivers imbroglio for instance. Some results had been announced at the collation centre by authorized officials. If INEC followed the law to the letter then it would have stood by the announced results and asked aggrieved persons to go to court. The law didn’t place any adjudicatory powers in the hands of INEC officials. The law deems results certified by presiding officers as sacrosanct until upturned by an electoral tribunal. And it could be taken for granted that collation officers collate and transmit the correct figures.
Then why did INEC terminate collation and reject results already announced in Rivers state gubernatorial elections? And why didn’t INEC intervene in many other cases where some other candidates and their parties openly cried that they had been robbed?
I understand the INEC was worried about the activities of rogue officials. But when and under what circumstances can a thoroughgoing review and reversals be conducted in the middle of the process? I understand INEC cannot attend to every cry, it would get bogged down. But INEC must spell out the criteria that determine when an intervention or abortion becomes imperative.
The revised results announced by INEC in Rivers could have been done to further justice. But the result of Obio-Akpor Local Government has left many mouths agape. One candidate got over 280,000 votes in that single local government area in what could be a national record since the advent of the card reader and the PVC. So how can INEC explain the acceptance of such a result in the circumstance where it had rejected other suspicious results?
Lets go to neighbouring Imo State.
The returning officer of the Imo governorship election returned a winner in the state’s governorship election even though no one candidate met the required constitutional requirements. No candidate in that election had the required 25% in two thirds of Local government areas. The constitution made a provision for a run off election between the two top candidates in such circumstances. The other candidates complained about the gross error. But there is no evidence that the INEC reviewed their complaints.
INEC should have publicly stated its position on that election result declaration. The public needs to be informed.
And that takes me to another matter. Yes, INEC has independence. And that independence is delegated to its key officials. So a presiding officer has the authority to cancel elections in his polling unit. His assessment of facts on the voting day cannot be impeached by his superiors. But why can’t INEC review such actions when they border on a matter of law. The constitutional electoral requirements to be met by a prospective candidate before he can be declared governor are plain and clear.
So how can a electoral body that can stop the collation of results and reject already announced results in Rivers not find the guts to review the Imo situation. And why didn’t INEC even review the complaints that tainted the Kano supplementary elections?
Our electoral umpire must understand that its integrity is eroded by inconsistencies. So it must be worried about setting funny precedents. INEC has withheld an Imo senatorial election result. INEC cannot deny that senatorial zone representation. The electoral umpire owes the electorate of that zone a legal and moral duty to, collate and announce the results of the senatorial election in that zone.
INEC is neither entitled to pettiness nor to tantrums.
If it has justification it can cancel the elections and repeat them in that zone. But it cannot engage a ‘siddon look’ mode. It cannot deny a winner his certificate because he committed an electoral crime which may not have impacted on or invalidated the results. It’s not enough to say the results were declared under duress. INEC has to determine what the authentic results are and declare them. Then it can prosecute anyone it is convinced committed an electoral crime. INEC cannot constitute itself into an electoral tribunal.
While INEC grapples with procedural fidelity and substantive justice, the new National Assembly must come to its aid with substantial electoral reforms. And close the identified problematic loopholes before the next major election.