About 18 months after the Enugu Division of Court of Appeal quashed the election of Mrs. Uche Ekwunife as the Senator representing Anambra Central Senatorial District, and ordered a rerun poll to be held within 90 days (from the date the judgement was delivered), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is yet to conduct the exercise. Hence, the people of the senatorial district have remained unrepresented and continued to be denied the opportunity of feeling the positive impact of governance from all that should rightfully accrue to them through their representative in the Senate.
The Supreme Court had on February 10, 2017, ruled that the December 7, 2015 verdict of the Court of Appeal on the Anambra Central Senatorial election was final forever. The apex court maintained that no court can overturn the judgement of the Appellate Court on National Assembly election matters, in line with the letter and spirit of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It made the pronouncement, after Ekwunife ignored the provisions of the Constitution, to appeal the nullification of her election and disqualification from participating in the ordered rerun poll, on the ground that she was not appropriately nominated by her then party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Political observers had thought that following the February 10, 2017 ruling of the Supreme Court on the issue, coupled with the February 13, 2009 verdict of the same Supreme Court that new candidates are not allowed in a court ordered fresh election, INEC would immediately put necessary machinery in motion to conduct the long awaited Anambra Central rerun. Unfortunately, the electoral body has continued to drag its heels and failed to take a firm decision, even though the law appears to be fully on its side to hold the rerun poll, regardless of the so-called pending court cases some politicians in Anambra Central are trying to use to frustrate the conduct of the election.
Evidently, the electoral body was prepared to conduct the rerun as directed by the Court of Appeal on March 5, 2016, but decided to postpone it indefinitely after the February 29, 2016 order of Justice Anwuli Chikere asking INEC to include the PDP against the ruling of the Appeal Court which disqualified the party and its candidate. The Chikereâ€™s judgement in favour of PDP was believed to have been given to pave way for another PDP candidate to replace the disqualified Ekwunife. INEC appealed the decision and that gave rise to other frivolous cases from different litigants all meant to perpetually put the Anambra Central rerun on hold.
Interestingly, one year after her order compelling INEC to allow PDP bring in a fresh candidate, the same Justice Chikere gave a conflicting judgement declaring that All Progressives Congress (APC) cannot replace its candidate in the Anambra Central rerun election. The APC had also gone to court last year when INEC refused to allow the party to substitute its original candidate, Senator Chris Ngige, now Minister of Labour and Employment with Barrister Sharon Ikeazor after the former voluntarily withdrew from the race.
In the latest judgement of Chikere, delivered on March 14, 2017, she ruled: â€œThat the time for nomination/withdrawal or substitution of candidates for the Court ordered election in Anambra Central Senatorial District had elapsed; that as decided by the Court of Appeal in the case of LABOUR PARTY VS. INEC (2008) 13 NWLR PT. 1103 PG. 73 (and duly affirmed by the Supreme Court on February 13, 2009), there is no room for fresh candidates in Court ordered election.â€
Again, this recent ruling, in the thinking of those who are genuinely worried about the outright denial of the right of the people of Anambra Central to have a voice in the Red Chamber, should ordinarily give more leeway to INEC to go ahead with the rerun poll without further ado. After all, it has been held that when there are two contradictory rulings on a similar issue from the same court, the decision later in time prevails. So, it is safe to say that Chikereâ€™s latest verdict has taken precedence over the earlier order that PDP must be allowed to participate with a fresh candidate.
A legal practitioner, Barrister Ikechukwu Ikeji, in a recent interview on Channels Television, while decrying INECâ€™s failure to conduct the Anambra Central Senatorial rerun election, argued that the commission ought not to have announced the indefinite postponement of the exercise in the first place.
According to Ikeji, â€œThey (INEC) are right in rejecting candidates that were not part of the original general election. But they are wrong in stopping to hold or refraining from holding or not holding that election. INEC has a strong platform, a strong foundation of law to stand on to hold the election and let whatever court processes that was going on to continue. In whatever ramification and dimension you want to talk about it, there is absolutely no challenge stopping INEC legally, morally, and jurisprudentially from holding the election.â€
The legal pundit explained further that â€œSection 87, subsection 10 of the electoral act (as amended) clearly states that no court process or court proceeding or court order can stop the holding of any general election. And the Supreme Court in the Labour Party and INEC case which is the locus classicus on fresh elections has clearly held that any court ordered election is a general election. And therefore if it is a general election the law says that nothing can stop it from being held. So, it is surprising that INEC hasnâ€™t held that electionâ€¦ The law is very clear. When you are faced with two judgements of the court, you do not cherry-pick. You obviously have to do one of two things. You obey the one that is later in time or you obey the one that has superior jurisdiction. And the one that has superior jurisdiction is the one that there should be no new candidate for a fresh election.â€
Expressing joy over the March 14, 2017 judgement by Chikere which validated INECâ€™s position in refusing to accept new candidates for the Anambra Central rerun, the commissionâ€™s Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, said the appeal on the PDP case would be withdrawn and he urged other parties to follow suit, so that the rerun can be conducted. He said: â€œWe are happy that not long ago, the Supreme Court has given a favourable judgement (the February 10, 2017 verdict) on one of the cases. Also, the lower court (Justice Chikere) has recently given a judgement stating that INEC was right on its decision.â€ What then is holding INEC from fixing a date for the election? With all the superior judgements on the matter, should the electoral body still be bogged down and confused on the right way to go?
Responding to Ngigeâ€™s recent outburst that the Anambra Central election would not hold until all pending court cases are disposed of, the leading candidate for the rerun contest and former National Chairman of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Chief Victor Umeh, remarked: â€œI was surprised to read those audacious statements by Dr. Chris Ngige. My surprise stems from the fact that I could not fathom under what capacity Ngige was saying categorically that the poll can never take place until all court cases are cleared. From the question you asked me, he is the Minister of Labour and Employment, he does not work for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC that is empowered by the constitution to conduct elections.â€
Umeh maintained that none of the cases the Labour Minister was referring to in his assertion can stand as legal impediment against the conduct of the rerun, stressing that â€œThe issue of the eligible candidates who can take part in a court ordered fresh election or rerun election has been permanently settled by the Supreme Court of Nigeria in its judgment in a case between Labour Party and INEC, which judgment was delivered on the 13th February 2009.â€
He warned that â€œNgige should not intimidate INEC in the discharge of its constitutional mandate. The era of intimidation by ruling parties in Nigeria should be over in line with President Buhariâ€™s promise of change. We experienced these things during the PDP days, but now that we are in a government that has preached change, nobody should use his membership of the ruling party or any arm of government to intimidate and dictate to INEC. That is what Ngige has demonstrated, and he has said it everywhere.â€
The Advanced Congress of Democrats (ACD) candidate for the Anambra Central rerun poll, Oby Kate Okafor, has also called on INEC to do the needful by conducting the long delayed election. Okafor gave the electoral body an ultimatum of two months (from April), after which according to her, she might be compelled to sue the commission for unnecessarily delaying the conduct of Anambra Central election.
Lamenting that people from the senatorial district had lost so much for the past two years due to non-representation, in terms of funds, amenities and empowerment opportunities, she said: â€œThey (Anambra Central people) can no longer afford to waste further time, and they want to be like their counterparts. The issue is that Anambra Central is losing. What I am seeing now is a case of sabotage, because since the election was cancelled nothing has been done.â€
Various groups and individuals have continued to appeal to INEC to take urgent steps towards ensuring the conduct of Anambra Central rerun election in the interest of the citizens of the senatorial zone. It is described as completely unfair that of all the court ordered fresh polls, resulting from the nullification of about 80 National and State Assemblies results in the 2015 general election, only Anambra Central case remains unresolved.
The people of the constituency, it is should be known, are the greatest losers and not the politicians who are doing everything possible to stop the election from holding. INEC must therefore be decisive on the Anambra Central rerun. The electoral umpire should not in any way pander to the whims and caprices of those who have lost out and vowed to ensure that the rerun does not hold. The people of the senatorial district have patiently waited for too long. They deserve to have a voice in the highest legislative body of the country.
Jegede, a media expert wrote from Abuja