Although Abia State’s governorship election has come and gone, the mess left in its trail is yet to clear off, writes Emmanuel Ugwu
Even though the collation of results after the election involves no more than application of arithmetic in its rudimentary level, the collation centres were usually scenes of drama. Aside the normal addition, subtraction, and sometimes multiplication, collation of results also includes omission, joggling of figures and correction of already announced figures.
All these played out during the collation of results for the 2019 Abia governorship poll. The collation centre mounted by the Abia state office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) within its premises at Ogurube layout Umuahia was a theatre of high drama on Sunday, March 10, 2019.
The actors were the returning/collation officers and party agents. The collation officers of the local governments largely displayed lack of basic knowledge of arithmetic as they wobbled and fumbled with collated results.
Before noon, results from five local governments had been collated and declared. The ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was leading in three LGs, Ukwa East, Umuahia South and Ukwa West while the All Progressives Congress (APC) picked Bende. There was simmering disapproval among the state agents of the opposition political parties. It boiled over to the surface when the result from Umunneochi local government was declared.
The ruling PDP got 7,004 votes while APC was credited with five votes and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) 3,190. The APC agents couldn’t take it no more. They erupted with rage simultaneously and protested the declared figures.
How on earth could APC get just five votes in the whole of Umunneochi local government, where the party had posted a strong showing winning the Isuikwuato/Umunneochi federal constituency during the presidential and National Assembly election of February 23, 2019?
Pandemonium ensued as agents of the opposition and ruling parties squared up in shouting match, denouncing and defending the announced figures. The INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Dr. Joseph Iloh, apparently called a truce, when he announced that they were going on break.
The break period offered a vantage opportunity for the aggrieved party agents to pour out their grieving hearts to the media. They were stealing the show to the envy and discomfort of the PDP agents. One of the two PDP agents, Chief Solomon Ogunji was so peeved by the media attention the opposition agents were getting and pointedly accused the correspondent of a television station of “bias”. He was later invited before the cameras to give his views on the chaotic collation exercise.
About 30 minutes after the break, collation resumed. This time, figures changed. The “corrected” version of the Umunneochi result was announced with APC receiving 7,238 votes instead of the five votes initially declared. The APC had actually won the local government as neither PDP’s score of 7,004 votes nor APGA’s 3,190, was altered in the correction.
If the collation officers had done their homework well they would have known that the figures they initially announced didn’t just add up since the total number of accredited voters was 18,561 while valid votes stood at 17,823 and rejected votes 726. Yet the wobbling and fumbling continued when it came to the turn of Ikwuano local government, which was the 12th LG to be declared.
The returning officer declared that PDP got 564 votes, APC 683 and APGA 301 while the other parties were left with single or double digit votes. Not a few eye brows were raised, when the returning officer reeled off the figures. The total number of votes scored by the three leading parties as well as the smaller inconsequential parties was less than 2,000.
The question on the lips of people was: does it mean that voter apathy was so pervasive in Ikwuano to the extent that the people did not want to participate in choosing the next chief executive of Abia or were their votes cancelled? Another break period and another correction effected. And the “corrected” figures for Ikwuano emerged after the break.
From less than a thousand votes each the PDP got a corrected score of 6,285, APC 5,619 and APGA 1,588. The APC which came first in the hitherto declared figures was beaten to second position in the corrected version. The pathetic collation officers kept dishing out equally pathetic figures for the parties.
The Ikwuano result collation blunder only served to add more incendiary to the raging anger in the opposition camp. They were all the more convinced in their allegations that the poll results were conjured and muddled up before they were declared at the state collation centre. They walked out of the venue saying they could not take it no more and vowed that they would have nothing to do with the collation.
But the exercise continued without the protesting party agents. When they later returned it was not to continue their participation in the collation exercise. It was to further voice their opposition to the “charade”. The opposition agents demanded that the exercise should be called off. Another chaotic scene ensued. “We will not accept it,” the agents kept shouting at the top of their voices.
They made to reach the table where the state returning/collation officer, Professor Benjamin Ozurumba and the REC, Dr. Joseph Iloh and other officials were seated but the police intervened. By now, the equally charged PDP agents had engaged them again in shouting match. It took the efforts of Assistant Commissioner of police (ACP) Gabriel Elaigwu to stop the agents from engaging in fisticuffs. He remonstrated with the opposition agents, telling them that inasmuch as they had the right to express their feelings they should do it with “decorum and follow due process”.
The opposition party agents were frustrated, when the state RO, Prof Ozurumba did not accede to their demands to review the figures being reeled off from the local governments. They descended on him, launching verbal missiles at the Vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN).
Incidentally, it was Prof Ozurumba, who was the returning officer in the 2016 Abia governorship poll when the PDP candidate, Ikpeazu was returned victorious in a dramatic but controversial circumstance.
The APGA faithful in Abia still hold it against Ozurumba for allegedly making APGA candidate, Mr. Alex Otti, lose his mandate. According to them, the UNN VC buckled under pressure and reversed hitherto cancelled results from three local governments, when Otti was leading and thereby paved the way for Ikpeazu to overtake him in the race.
The APGA agents were therefore peeved to see Prof Ozurumba back in Abia as the RO for the 2019 governorship poll.
“He robbed us in 2015 and he’s back to do it again in 2019,” Mike Akpara, one of the two APGA agents said in the heat of the moment.
The second APGA agent, Sir Uzo Nwachukwu added that what the RO “did in 2015 was not transparent and we don’t expect anything different” this time around.
Enough mud was thrown at the VC but he refused to be drawn into any altercation with his traducers. It was after the opposition agents had left the scene that he calmly observed that “election is an emotion-laden process” hence he could understand the feelings of the aggrieved agents.
Ozurumba stated that the agitating party agents were not in the field when the ballots were collated at the lower levels before the figures were brought to the state collation centre. He insisted that “we are here to carry out national assignment” and advised the aggrieved parties to submit their petition to the appropriate officers in charge.
The REC also advised the party agents that “complaints in electoral process is not done orally. They are documented”. He contended that so many politicians had called him on phone to complain and I advised them to send it in writing”.
The opposition agents returned to the collation arena by 2.58pm and submitted a written petition. For this, the REC thanked them “for choosing a civil way to register their grievances” and urged them to make copies available to the media. There was argument when Hon Acho Obioma, an APC agent wanted to read out the petition to the hearing of everybody with the REC advising him to just submit it.
Eventually Obioma was allowed to read. In the petition the aggrieved opposition parties called for “total cancellation of the result, saying “there was no governorship election in Abia”.
They claimed that “brutal force was used by the ruling PDP, using army, police”, adding that “no collation was done at the ward level “. They further pointed out that there were several incidences of ‘massive over-voting which the REC refused to address.
The petitioners noted that Prof Ozurumba was specifically “brought back to wreak havoc” and therefore called for a rerun of the gubernatorial poll directly supervised by INEC headquarters, because “we’ve lost confidence in Abia REC”. But the REC picked holes in the petition after the agents had left, saying that it was addressed to INEC chairman, undated and with no reference number.
The cries by the agents got out of the INEC office and by 3.24pm the state chairman of the inter-party advisory council (IPAC), Rev Augustine Ehiemere, who is also the state chairman of APGA rushed down to the collation centre at INEC and added his disapproving voice to the collation exercise. He reinforced the call for total cancellation of the poll and submitted IPAC petition to that effect. Thereafter, the REC announced 60 minutes break to enable the officials have their lunch.
While lunch was going on inside INEC, protest broke out about 50 metres away. Opposition supporters had trooped out with placards, chanting solidarity songs. They called for Ogah to be declared winner of the poll, adding that they would not accept a rigged verdict.
The police swung into action and barricaded the junction leading to INEC office, ensuring that the protesters did not gain access into the premises of the electoral body. The police prevailed as the protesters were eventually dispersed before the protests could turn violent. Shortly after, a group of youths came and staged a counter protest in support of the governor and his ruling party. In all the protests, no harm was done to people and property.
Oblivious of the protests, INEC officials continued with the collation of results. The rest of the 17 local governments gradually followed in declaring their results as presented by the officials drawn from the ivory tower. There was less wobbling and fumbling at the later stages of the collation exercise and at the end, the figures were added up and the final result declared.
The returning officer, Ozurumba declared Ikpeazu winner of the 2019 Abia governorship election, having scored a total of 261,127 votes, coming tops in 11 of the 17 local governments. The APC candidate, Ogah emerged the first runner up with 99,574 votes while APGA’s Otti scored 64,366 to become the third best in the governorship poll. Only PDP agents, Dr. Solomon Ogunji and Mr. Elondu Uchenna Elondu signed the result, the opposition agents were not even around to witness the final outcome of the collation exercise.