By Chioma Onuegbu
THE Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, in Akwa Ibom State under the watch of Resident Electoral Commissioner, Mr. Mike Igini is in a tug-of-war with the lawyers of the All Progressives Congress, APC, over the inspection of election materials in respect of ongoing petitions at the tribunal.
Some APC National Assembly candidates including Senator Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom North West) and the governorship candidate, Obong Nsima Ekere, had approached the Election Petition Tribunal sitting in the state to challenge the outcome of the 2019 elections.
Apart from Akpabio and Ekere’s petitions, the APC also has orders on five House of Representatives petitions served on INEC.
According to INEC officials, inspection on Akpabio’s petition and one House of Representatives petition are still ongoing and were to be concluded, yesterday.
Vanguard gathered that some APC House of Assembly contestants also filed petitions in the tribunal but the orders are yet to be served on INEC as of press time.
The electoral umpire has been variously accused of denying the petitioners access to the materials, and deliberately delaying the inspection process.
Vanguard had on Tuesday April 23 observed Senator Godswill Akpabio’s legal team sorting out the materials in INEC’s Strong Room.
Prior to April 23, Akpabio’s lawyer, Mr. Patrick Umoh, accused the electoral umpire of denying his legal team access to the election materials.
The Election Petition Tribunal chaired by Justice W.O Akanbi had on April 2 granted the petitioners an order to inspect and copy all election materials used in Akpabio’s senatorial district.
Senator Akpabio is challenging the outcome of the February 23, 2019 poll that declared his opponent, Dr. Christopher Ekpenyong of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, winner.
Umoh had in press interviews alleged that INEC flouted the tribunal’s order to allow them inspect and copy the materials for litigation purposes.
“The Independent National Electoral Commission INEC has colluded with the PDP and advised the party to file a motion on April 16 which they cited as the reason they could not allow the inspection of materials as ordered by Tribunal.
“INEC has been engaging in a hide- and seek game. Analysts believe the hide-and -seek by INEC was to give the PDP enough time to file the motion”, he had alleged.
Similarly, Mr. Victor Iyanam, lead counsel to Nsima Ekere and the APC, had on April 30 in a letter to Mr. Mike Igini threatened to initiate contempt proceedings against the INEC over alleged refusal to comply with tribunal order on inspection of election materials.
The Akwa Ibom governorship Election Petition Tribunal on April 15, 2019 in Petition No. EPT/AKS/ Gov/ 01/2019 chaired by Justice A. M Yakubu granted the petitioners Obong Nsima Ekere and the APC an order to inspect, copy, photocopy and obtain certified true copies of all election materials used in the March 9 governorship election in the state.
A copy of the petition obtained by Vanguard showed that the tribunal however did not grant the petitioners prayers number 4 and 5 which included Orders to allow them to carry out forensic examination of the ballot papers, computer servers, and to carry out a recount of the ballot papers respectively.
Iyanam like other counsels to the petitioners accused the electoral umpire of acting the script of the PDP
In his letter, he lamented that his team was distressed by the delay, refusal and unwholesome excuses of non availability of the materials due to transport challenges, inadequate staff to carry out those duties and the fact that they (INEC) were busy with Senator Akpabio’s inspection.
“The excuses have variously continued to be untenable in the light of the short period of time to prove our case at the Election Petition Tribunal.
“We regret to state that your staff appears to be acting the script of the People Democratic Party and now behave as though they are taking instructions from you,” he said.
APC lawyers’ allegations not surprising – INEC
To INEC, the allegations of APC candidates and their lawyers were not surprising given that it has become a trend in the country after every election, for politicians, particularly losers to go to tribunal not for any genuine reason but to employ pranks and antics in order to be compensated.
Therefore, the thinking of the INEC leadership in the state and even some analysts is that the petitioners have chosen to make noise in the tribunal in order to be heard and probably considered for political appointments especially at the federal level.
Reacting to the allegations, Igini, at a press briefing last weekend, said the INEC had so far demonstrated openness and complied with all the orders granted the petitioners/applicants by the tribunal with respect to inspection of materials.
He therefore wondered why the APC lawyers and petitioners in the state that had been given assurances, led to the strong room, and had been given certified copies of documents they required always run to the media to tell lies that they have been denied access to election materials.
“On the 25th of April they came here with order from the tribunal for inspection in line with section 151 of the Electoral Act and they met with the legal team of INEC.
“Because the first day they came was to inform the commission of the Order that they secured for inspection of materials, they did not come for inspection. So they were asked to come back the next day which was 26th but they never turned up until Tuesday the 30th.
“Now in between the period we were awaiting them they were already granting press conferences, issuing press releases that the commission had denied them access to materials which is not true. By my last record, Akwa Ibom is now the only state in Nigeria where every week you hear of denial of access to election materials.’’
Igini was quick to conclude that the action was deliberate due to the May 29 inauguration and subsequent cabinet making.
He noted that currently in many states of the federation politicians are seriously lobbying and strategising for appointments especially ministerial appointments.
“On the 29th of this month, in states apart from Bayelsa and a few others, there will be exchange of batons. New governors will be sworn in. The president also will to be sworn in for a second term. And there is going to be cabinet constitution. You need to make noise right now so that they can hear you.
“So you need to make noise in the tribunal so that they will know that you are there. And in this state I am aware that they are going to up their media engagement as from next week. And I am sure that by the time the government is sworn in and cabinets constituted you will no longer be hearing such things.”
In the case of Akwa Ibom State, Igini regretted that some of the politicians who had been known riggers of elections and had won election through rigging were the ones making noise today, attacking and spreading falsehood against the INEC.
His words: “The irony is that the very people who have been rigging elections in Akwa Ibom State are the ones who are accusing us. We are already in the tribunal. They should allow the tribunal to make a determination of these matters rather than running to either the traditional media or social media to be telling lies.
“And as you know, we cannot go into the specifics of what is going on in the tribunal, but what I am giving is only a general response to all the unnecessary false claims about what had happened here.
“The traditional media should not allow their platform to be used for unnecessary mudslinging. We are totally committed to the electoral accountability to ensure electoral justice”
In his contribution Mr. Mark Chukwu, HOD, Legal services INEC, Akwa Ibom State corroborated Igini’s position on what had transpired between the commission and Ekere’s lawyer as regards the inspection of materials.
“It is one thing to be served with the Order but another thing is for the owner of the Order to come for scheduling. So when Ekere’s counsel came on 25 of April and he saw how busy my office was we now agreed to meet next day but he didn’t come back until Tuesday being 30th April.
“When he came on 30th we sat down in my office and discussed amicably on the scheduling and I gave them the opportunity to decide on the modalities and they told me they have the governorship, and five House of Representatives petitions.
“They suggested that for the governorship inspection they will take four to five days. For the House of Representatives they suggested five to six days. For the state House of Assembly which is yet to be served on us they suggested five days.
“And we then agreed that the whole inspection will run concurrently for 10 days.
“And today Friday May 3 we met and agreed to schedule the dates but because of the Ikot Ekpene Senatorial district that is still ongoing and because they said some of them are also involved in the governorship inspection, and they said that we cannot do the governorship inspection concurrently with the Senatorial because of the volume and the space.
“And we have agreed to schedule the governorship for Wednesday, 8th May because we are going to complete the ongoing Senatorial inspection on Tuesday 7th May. So there had not been any time we denied anybody access to materials,” he narrated.