Democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people. A free, fair, peaceful, credible and acceptable electoral contest is the beauty of democratic governance which reaffirms that power belongs to the people.
The power of the electorate to vote into office or vote out a non-performing public office holder is the glue that holds and sustains representative governance as witnessed in the March 28, 2015 presidential election where Nigerians voted for General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress in place of the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party. It is democracy in action.
The reverse is the case in the March 2015 Anambra Central Senatorial poll with three major contenders, Chief Victor Umeh – All Progressives Grand Alliance, Hon (Mrs) Uche Ekwunife – Peoples Democratic Party and Dr Chris Ngige- All Progressives Congress. It was a charade called election. INEC declared Ekwunife the winner of the contentious election.
APGA rejected the result. In an advertorial in the Union newspaper of April 1, 2015 signed by the party’s Public Relations Officer, Anambra State chapter, Emeka Aforka, APGA strongly condemned the thuggery, brigandage, impunity, late arrival of INEC officials at various polling stations, failure of the card-reader device in most parts of the state and manipulation of results.
“That the results of the Senatorial Election as announced by the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Anambra state do not by any stretch of the imagination reflect the expressed will of Ndi Anambra and therefore stand out as a monumental electoral injustice on our people”, Aforka stated.
Victor Umeh who was the front-runner in the Anambra Central Senatorial poll challenged the purported election of Uche Ekwunife at the Anambra State National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal and lost. He appealed the tribunal’s judgment and won. The court nullified Ekwunife’s election and disqualified her from taking part in the fresh election ordered by the Court of Appeal.
INEC slated 5th March 2016, for the rerun. Dr Chris Ngige of APC said he would not contest following his appointment as Minister of Labour and Employment by President Buhari. PDP said it would conduct fresh illegal primaries to choose a candidate and later postponed it indefinitely in protest against the arrest and detention of the party’s erstwhile National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission.
Irked by the PDP action, Ekwunife joined the APC to actualize her senatorial ambition. In an interview published in The Authority newspaper of January 19, 2016, she said:
“What happened was that for the six months I was in the senate, I was in different courts, from the FCT High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court. I spent the six months going from one court to another, everybody was claiming to be the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP…. As it is, there are two products in the market now, Umeh and myself. So, looking at the market, which one is more marketable that the voters can buy out of the two?”, Ekwunife asked.
She had answered her question in a paid advertorial in the Sunday Sun newspaper of July 20, 2014 in a tribute to Victor Umeh on his 52nd birthday. Ekwunife who was then Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Environment on the APGA platform said;
“I heartily congratulate you on the auspicious occasion of your birthday. As a front-liner in the development of our nascent democracy, you have distinguished yourself in various strata of leadership.
“You have shown great resilience and commitment in the discharge of your duties as Chairman of our great party. These qualities, no doubt, have stood you out as a visionary leader of our time”, she asserted.
Indeed Umeh was the front-runner for the Anambra Central Senatorial rerun earlier scheduled to hold on 5th March, 2016, as Ekwunife lost in the APC illegal primaries. She rushed back to the Court of Appeal Tribunal at Enugu to review its December 7th 2015 judgment that nullified her election. The application was dismissed on Thursday 3rd March 2016, the same day the Department of State Security invited Umeh at its Awka office, Anambra State and took him to Abuja over allegations bordering on treason during his senatorial campaign. He denied the frivolous allegations and was released.
Four days to the rerun election, the Federal High Court Abuja presided over by Justice Anwuli Chikere delivered judgment on the PDP suit directing INEC to include the party in the March 5, 2016 Anambra Central Senatorial rerun poll in violation of the Court of Appeal Tribunal judgment barring PDP from participating in the poll. Justice Chikere had refused to join Umeh as an interested party in the matter.
INEC appealed the judgment, Umeh also appealed the refusal of Justice Chikere to join him in the matter. The Court of Appeal Abuja Division on the 17th May 2016, granted Umeh leave to appeal the judgment and upheld its decision on the issue on 22nd July 2016, following PDP’s objection to the court’s ruling granting Umeh leave to appeal. Umeh has since appealed the Abuja Federal High Court judgment. In a twist, the Mega Progressive People’s Party and the United Progressive Party also filed applications at the Court of Appeal to be joined the Chief Umeh and INEC Appeals against Justice Chikere’s judgment.
The appellate court adjourned the Anambra Central Senatorial matter indefinitely pending the Supreme Court determination of the PDP interlocutory appeal on the leave it granted Umeh to appeal Justice Chikere’s judgment.
Undeterred, Ekwunife (now APC member) and PDP rushed to the Supreme Court to seek a review of the Anambra State National Assembly Election Appeal Tribunal’s judgment. The apex court partly heard the matter on 27th September 2016, and noted that the appeal tribunal was the final court on legislative election matters. It also noted that the application was incompetent, and incomplete, adding that the proceedings of the lower court must accompany the Brief. The matter was adjourned till when the complete record would be filed. The Supreme Court heard the appeal on 14th November 2016, and fixed judgment for 10th February 2017.
As the Anambra Central Senatorial rerun poll legal fireworks continue at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court political pundits are of the view that the court should accelerate the wheel of justice, as justice delayed is justice denied. More so, the apex court had set precedence on candidates who are qualified to participate in rerun elections declaring that only candidates who contested the previous poll could contest a court ordered rerun.
In its ruling, delivered on 13th of February, 2009 by Justice Ikechi Francis Ogbuagu, the Supreme Court in the case between Labour Party and INEC agreed with the court of appeal that, “Where a general election has been held and there is a false start, for example, a candidate who ought to have been part of the election was unlawfully excluded or there was no level playing ground for all the candidates and that election is subsequently either cancelled by the regulating authority like INEC or nullified by an order of a court or tribunal, and a rerun or re-start is ordered, it is my humble view that the re-run or re-start refers to that general election cancelled or nullified, and not a bye election”.
“The consequence of this is that all the candidates including the one unlawfully excluded would now get back to the starting line for a fair and free contest. It does not admit of any other candidate since as it were the period for nomination and screening of candidates would have elapsed. In the final analysis or conclusion, this appeal, I hold in my respectful but firm view, is unmeritorious. It fails and it is accordingly dismissed”.
From the Supreme Court landmark judgment, it is manifest that political parties cannot conduct fresh primaries to select new candidates for rerun polls as the period of nomination of candidates had elapsed. Political parties and their candidates disqualified by the National Assembly Court of Appeal Tribunal from participating in rerun elections cannot also contest as the appeal tribunal is the final court on legislative elections. This is the clear position of the law. A position INEC, Umeh and all lovers of democracy, due process and rule of law are determined to defend.
With 720,000 registered voters in Anambra Central Senatorial zone, close to 840,000 total registered voters in Bayelsa State, the people of the zone deserve an effective representative in the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Umeh who used his 52nd birthday anniversary organized by the APGA Solidarity Movement at Awka, Anambra State on 19th July 2014, to declare for the senate, received numerous endorsements in Anambra Central Senatorial zone in particular and the State in general. He has received numerous national and international awards for his service to God and humanity. With multiple frivolous, spurious and flippant suits instituted against his senatorial bid, pundits wonder who is afraid of Victor Umeh going to the Senate? Will he overcome the legal hurdles? Time will tell.
Ibebunjo, a political analyst writes from Awka, Anambra State.