Niger Republic

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

Last Sunday, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, human rights activist, lawyer and guest columnist with TheNiche newspaper, raised a poser: Can Nigeria’s INEC organise a credible national election?

Odinkalu asked the question against the backdrop of the mind-boggling revelation by the spokesman of the Coalition of United Political Parties, CUPP, Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, that the 2023 elections may have been rigged even before the first ballot is cast.

Ugochinyere alleged on September 14, at a press conference, that voters register has been grievously compromised, having been padded with fictitious names. He further alleged that there was a plot to sack the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, in the event that he refuses to play ball; and also alerted of a secret suit at an Owerri High Court to stop the use of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, BIVAS, in the 2023 elections.

Now, the BIVAS is one piece of technology that has buoyed the confidence of Nigerians that the 2023 elections may be positively different from previous elections.

Ugochinyere was methodical and clinical in marshalling his evidence. For instance, he alleged that Omuma Ward in Oru-East Local Government Area, LGA, of Imo State, which had about 6,500 registered voters in 2015 now has well over 46,000 registered voters. Omuma happens to be the electoral ward of Imo State governor, Hope Uzodimma.

Ugochinyere argued, and rightly so, that such an astronomical jump in the population of registered voters in a ward even at the best of times is incredulous. It is even more so when the ward in question has been embroiled in a war, literally, in the last two years with both youths and even the aged fleeing in droves.

The CUPP chieftain was unequivocal in his submission: “We state that the discovery we have made goes beyond the case of double registration. It is a monumental compromise of the national voters register by chieftains of the All Progressives Congress, APC.”

Uncharacteristically, INEC validated Ugochinyere’s claims. In a statement by Festus Okoye, INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, the Commission, admitted that: “In Oru-East Local Government Area of Imo State, where the Commission allegedly registered ineligible persons, 3,316 ineligible registrants have so far been invalidated and the process is still ongoing.”

That is significant. Sadly INEC seems to be more interested in self-glorification rather than addressing the issues, which explains why the umpire limply asserted that: “The attention of the Commission has been drawn to a report of a press conference addressed by CUPP on the Register of Voters for the 2023 general election. The Commission recognises and respects the right of citizens, either as individuals or groups, to demand explanation from public agencies, including INEC, and to hold them accountable.

“However, it is always important that caution is exercised so that such interventions do not unwittingly sow the doubts in the public mind, thereby diminishing public confidence and trust in the electoral process.”

The fact that the names of such a huge number of fake registrants are in the register should give every well-meaning Nigerian, particularly those hoping for a change in our electoral fortunes in 2023, cause for concern.

Chieftains of INEC, the body saddled with the onerous responsibility of delivering free, fair and credible elections, should, indeed, have a reason to feel anxious. The fact that it is calling for caution rather than raising hell over devious attempts to derail the 2023 polls is troubling.

In answering his own question, Odinkalu, the enfant terrible of the Nigerian Bar, and former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, who now teaches Human Rights Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, U.S., said: “It should be evident to INEC and its leadership that the staff who enabled this kind of rigging of the register of voters will happily enable worse in an election. If the Commission is interested in a credible poll, surely, claiming that it is engaged in spring- cleaning the register in the rainy season is not good enough. It should say how these ineligible people got there and what will happen to those who perpetrated this. Until INEC is willing to contemplate this, it must remain in doubt whether the Commission under current leadership is fit for purpose.”

But even more laughable is the reaction of the Imo State government. Governor Uzodimma, who stands accused, called for the arrest of Ugochinyere.

In his rebuttal through his Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, Uzodimma whose ward and local council are the epicentres of the alleged fraud didn’t controvert the CUPP allegation.

In fact, he validated the claim of the existence of a secret suit at an Owerri High Court seeking the nullification of the use of BIVAS for the 2023 elections, the same way INEC confirmed that the voters register in Uzodimma’s local council has been padded with fake names.

But while acknowledging the secret suit, Uzodimma, blamed his bête noire, the former Imo State Governor, Emeka Ihedioha, for purchasing the whistle that Ugochinyere blew.

“An investigation into the suit-claim revealed that the NBA stamp used in filing the suit belongs to a lawyer who is a very close associate of former Governor Emeka Ihedioha, the paymaster of Ugochinyere. Therefore there is no doubt as to where the whole concoction is coming from and why,” he claimed.

Such childish tantrum is made worse by the inability to name the lawyer who is Ihedioha’s associate. Speculating on how the documents were sourced, the statement added: “Ugochinyere must have either hacked INEC Server or doctored documents there-from or forged the document he was brandishing … this is criminal and it is important that he should be immediately arrested for questioning.”

Uzodimma tried to make a heavy weather of Ugochinyere’s membership of PDP and the fact that he is candidate in the 2023 elections for Ideato North and South Federal Constituency. Such ad hominem attacks are wholly beside the point. If Ugochinyere’s claims are correct as both INEC and the self-same Uzodimma agree; why call for his arrest? Is his arrest the overarching action that needs to be taken on the matter?

What worries me most is the very loud conspiracy of silence. Because of the “success” of INEC in the Ekiti and Osun standalone governorship elections, many have been lured into a dangerous complacency, believing that INEC has finally turned the corner in delivering credible elections.

I doubt if that is the case. In the first place, the average Nigerian politician, particularly those referred to as seasoned, astute politicians, don’t believe in credible elections. Even as Nigerians are yearning for free, fair and credible polls in this election cycle, they are doing everything to game the system, which is exactly what happened in Oru-East LGA. Those behind the plot are only angry that they have been busted.

Do I trust INEC chairman, Yakubu, to deliver free, fair and credible polls in 2023? Not at all. His antecedent in 2019 does not imbue me with such confidence. Only Nigerians infused with the level of patriotism that Ugochinyere exhibited can guarantee that because “the price of liberty,” still remains “eternal vigilance”.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that vigilance. The consciousness is lacking. That is my worry.

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