‘Nigerians Should Ask Why the Elections Tribunal Refused my Petition’

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Iboro Otu, 2019 Governorship candidate of the ANRP in Akwa Ibom State
Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the Akwa Ibom State candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party in the 2019 governorship contest insists that there is a conspiracy to reject his petition at the tribunal

What really is your complaint concerning the conduct of the 2019 governorship contest in Akwa Ibom State, which you participated in on the platform of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP)?

I ran for governor as a result of the many challenges we have in Nigeria, but particularly in my state; Akwa Ibom State. These include the lack of employment, especially for young people, the inability of our youths to have their voices heard, lack of basic services to the general populace, especially with regards to education and health care. I made these a core priority of my manifesto.

I went into the elections like every other candidate, got the forms and was nominated by my party, the ANRP. I did everything as allowed by law like rallies, town halls, I even took some of my town halls out of the country just to get broad support. A few weeks into the race however, a lot of things happened; the normal political intimidation, which I was prepared for. I have a strong political background – even though I’ve not been a politician so I could understand certain overt moves. But afterwards things started getting off key. There were people coming to buy off members of my campaign/support team. Others, in the name of stepping down were paid off. I expected this because 17 political parties, some of them major parties and their gubernatorial candidates like Accord Party and Labour Party, stepped down and endorsed my candidacy, this indeed is very novel in contemporary African and Nigerian politics. The regular situation is always one where major parties like the All Progressives Congress (APC) or the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) get smaller parties to step down for them, but having a very young party like the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP) so this, a party barely one year old raised serious eyebrows in certain quarters and i greatly benefitted from this strategic and intimidating moment.

One week to the election however, it was a known case that only four major players were in the gubernatorial race in Akwa Ibom State, the APC candidate, Nsima Ekere; the PDP had the incumbent Governor Udom Emmanuel; the Young Democratic Party was represented by Arc. Ezekiel Nya-Etok and myself for the ANRP.

The election came and went and it was disastrous. We realized that in many of the 2986 polling units in Akwa Ibom State, there was proliferation of vote buying. People were intimidated and election violence was very apparent. Those who would not sell their vote were stopped from voting and some of them that did vote had those votes voided. We were so discouraged and in comparing note with Architect Nya-Etok realized we shared similar experience. He even has a sadder story to tell. We agreed to protect our young democracy and its democratic processes, we owed it as a duty to our people to tell them what happened and what action was needed to stop it. A press conference was held where I stated I will be going to court. Arc. Nya Etok confirmed he will support me in the process. We both agreed to approach the International Criminal Court, as well because vote buying sits under political repression, which is a crime against humanity.

We prepared our case. It is normally 21 days to file an election petition which begins from the date of the announcement of result. Coincidentally, my lawyer met with the APC lawyer at the tribunal secretariat, he had gone there to submit the petition of his APC clients on the 30th of March, at the same time. The APC submitted their petition successfully, but when we came back to submit ours on the same day, we were refused and told that our petition is late. The Secretary/Registrar of the tribunal said this and refused to take the paperwork insisting on lateness. I could not believe this. This event was witnessed by the Deputy Chairman of my party.  My team reminded the tribunal secretary that he wasn’t allowed by law to reject a petition, that it is a court that had this power, that even if our petition were to come in two months after the deadline, it was his duty to present it before the court regardless. I was disheartened when I heard the story, I knew something was wrong. The next day, I followed my lawyer to the tribunal, only this time, I had the press with me to bear witness. We called tribunal secretary and it was a recorded conversation. He repeated the same thing that he would not take our petition. My lawyer again informed him that he had no right to refuse our petition.
Anyways, we briefed the press at the tribunal premises and the video is on Youtube as it was uploaded same day (https://youtu.be/YEaq2Iwfnro). You can’t backdate a Youtube video.

The thing now is, where does the tribunal secretary get his power? Is he the only problem? Are there forces at the tribunal that are doing all these? What is wrong with this process? The bottom line is I want to get my petition in so I can get justice and share my fact with the courts. As a politician, I know the calculation. The political calculation is that somebody somewhere does not want my petition to go in because of the value it has. That petition can cause a lot of issues. It is easier and cheaper for them to stop it from getting in. They know the worst that can happen is that the tribunal secretary will be sacked. Probably they will say, ‘we have sacked him but we can’t take your petition because it is late.’ I don’t want anybody to be sacked, I want my petition to be taken in. I want Akwa Ibom people and Nigerians to see what happens when you challenge the status quo or try to change a system of corruption, impunity and ineffectiveness. The reality in this country is that there two classes of people; the guys over there and ‘us’ the people. When you try to get over there to know what is happening, they stop you by all means.

In responding to the latest injustice facing us, we have responded in many ways and done so many things. We have done what the law allows us to do but still no response from any quarter. We have written to the President of the Court of Appeal. We have written reminders and even gone there to see her in person in Abuja, all to no avail. We have written to the National Judiciary Council (NJC). We have written to the Chief Justice of the Nigeria. We have written to the President, the Vice President, the Senate, the Speaker, just so all arms of government will be aware what is happening. So far, we have not got any response. In fact, in trying to submit my petition to the President of the Court of Appeal, this Mr. Abubakar who is the Registrar broke my phone in the process because a video was being made of the process. I have the evidence and I have the video. I requested the process be videoed so I have evidence we came to submit a petition. Of course, when he saw the camera, he took my phone from my Deputy Party Chairman and broke it, but not before he was caught on camera. This level of impunity is unbelievable. You won’t believe it but it is true and we have evidence. The tribunal secretary told us that no one will reply to any of our letters and that we will not be able to do anything as far as Nigeria is concerned. The media people that came with me were so mad. No one has responded to our letters, so far. This is one of the reasons I am taking my case to Nigerians to listen to the merit of my case and to ask questions.

I also believe that the president wants a lot for this country especially in sanitizing our electoral processes, i think if he is aware of what is happening in this situation he could act on our behalf so I also am appealing to him. I am appealing to the Senate. I am appealing to Nigerians who have the ability to do something about this situation realizing that what is happening to me will probably happen to anyone who tries to play the game from the outside. This is a classical Nigerian situation and not just an Akwa Ibom case.

How do you know you are not a threat when your score was not near the winner?

It is because of the data they realise we have collected. When I asked my agents to go in for the election, 2986 polling agents, I told them to concentrate on collecting data. I told them, ‘when anybody fights you, don’t fight back, just concentrate on collecting data’. We have thousands of people willing to come forward with so much evidence. We have people that are in hospitals who were shot. We have scores who were machetted and the interesting thing about these people is that they mostly are not my supporters or from my party. Most of them are from the APC or the PDP, many who were brought to the hospital for treatment by their parties but later abandoned. A party like PDP I was informed, made sure that their supporters  who were injured or had problems did not report to the police so the whole thing wont look like there were problems during the elections. They told them the party will take care of the hospital bills. After the ‘show’, these guys went back but were told the election is over and nothing could be done. Of course many of them now find ways to come to me with their data. A lot of them are aggrieved people. Everyone knows we have this information. We have enough data to prove that the process was not free and fair. It is not really about what I scored. It is that the vote buying process did not allow us to compete like every other candidate. That itself can annul the election. That data goes beyond how much I scored because when you talk about score, if I was allowed to compete and get my supporters to vote peacefully and votes weren’t bought, then we would be witnessing a different set of outcomes.
This is where ‘interests’ now comes in to say, ‘look we don’t want this guy’s evidence to go in to the tribunal because he can not annul the election.’  I believe there are interests that are trying to stop my petition from being heard, probably not one person or two persons. The level of impunity at which this is done, or disregard to law is so brazen. There are hands behind all these. It is these acts that makes me very concerned about our democratic processes and what should be done to stop this level of disregard to the law and order. We have to save this nation.

If your concern is just to show that the process was flawed, it means you don’t care if you benefit from it at the end of the day

I don’t care whether I become governor or not. I believe I have service to provide to my people and the law says I should be given an equal chance to sell my ideas. If my people don’t want me, that is fine, but the process to pick who is wanted has to be free and fair. Leadership is not for sale where the individual with the highest amount of money wins. This spells immediate doom as there’s no responsibility to people. Mind you, next year, we have councillorship and chairmanship elections coming up. The issue now is, where does the vote buying stop? When you start buying councilors and chairman positions, the people will have no voice. All sorts of people with questionable character will occupy every space. I am saying let’s do this thing again and let the process be free and fair. If the governor wins again, I will congratulate him and even tell him, ‘Oga let’s work together to grow the state.’ My ultimate concern is to grow the state. If the process is flawed, then there is a very critical problem with the system. I am not very concerned about how it is going to end. I am concerned about the process.

How do you rate the performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the police in the election?

I believe the police, for example, did not have enough resources during the last election. In every polling unit, we had one police man against thousands of people. The guys couldn’t do anything. In a unit where there was a little bit of fracas, the police couldn’t do anything. A rerun would have more security apparatus available. With the INEC, the sophistication of the vote buying process was beyond them. Sometimes the monies were paid in different places. In many places, votes were bought and sold in the open. In other places, election violence and destruction of polling units and voting materials occurred. We had places were voting did not take place at all. In majority of the areas where vote buying took place, it was so sophisticated and when you look at the pictures and the videos evidence we have, you will see some of them. In Oron, for example, there was a location where a commissioner had a gig overnight. Voters with PVCs were invited ate and drank until the next day of the elections and they moved and monitored from the location to their polling units. Different paying processes was established. People going to vote were told, ‘after you thumbprint so and so party, hold your ballot paper up across your chest so that the agent can see who you voted for.’ These are facts I want to show at the tribunal. We have loads of data.

In some instances, the voters were given tickets with numbers and locations of where to pickup their monies after they vote so and so party. These guys had so many ways. If these guys employed all these negative scientific methods for positive progress, this nation would not be struggling with backwardness. We need to stop this thing before it becomes an institutionalize process. The corruption and negative disruption these later day politicians are bringing into the system is destroying the fabric of society and corruption of the minds of people. These days it seems people feel that there’s nothing wrong with vote buying.
Take for example my polling unit, almost everyone is my cousin. They are related to me. Some of them came to me to said, ‘Oga how much you get? PDP put down N1.1 million  here o and APC did as much.’ They don’t understand how wrong it is, they think its a kind of business. Now when everyone has agreed to do something, they unanimously accept that it is the right thing to do and protect it. This is a very dangerous precedent. When you tell them what is going on is wrong, they feel that because they are part of the process, you are saying they are wrong. They become very angry with you. We need to make people understand what vote buying is all about, what it takes from them and how it affects them. This is why I want those videos and pictures shown to the world,  Akwa Ibom State can be a case study. What we are dealing with, if not nipped, has the potential of having every drug baron, every 419er, looking forward to contesting election in 2023 because of the attractiveness of the fraudulent electoral process as it is at the moment.

Did the 17 political parties that adopted your candidacy want to experiment with you or they were genuinely working for your victory? What do you want to achieve in specific terms?

I am not God and even the governor or president cannot know if the people in his cabinet voted for him or not. You do the best that you can and leave the rest to God. I believe the 17 parties had my interest and the interest of the state at heart because my interest was their interest. It wasn’t me going out to invite them to come and work with me. It was them coming to me to say, ‘brother, we want to work with you because we believe you represent a different kind of idea and a different kind of vision that will take us to where we need to be economically and otherwise.’  I want to get my petition in the tribunals so I can seek for justice for all these people who stood behind us, sos we can tell Akwa Ibomites what happened at the polls and get justice. It is simple. I don’t want to get my eyes or the eyes of my people off the ball. We have approached the court to compel the tribunal to take our petition. The intention is to make sure this does not happen again. If we can’t do it nationally, then we have to go international, which is why I talked about the International Criminal Court.

You had 21 days to submit a petition, you had prepared your agents to gather data for this eventuality, why did you have to wait till the last day to file your petition at the tribunal?

Everybody has to work till the last week because the data collection process is very difficult. We have 31 local governments. You need to sift the data to find which one is very useful. A village person will tell you I have data and sometimes you look at what he has and it is only the back of a persons head they were able to record. You have to go through all the data of the 2986 agents, witnesses and others and pick the ones you want. There is nobody on earth that can file the petition in less time. The data collection process is not scientific. You have to go one-by-one, using your own small team. They know this. They know there is no one on earth that can file the petition on the 18th day. Everyone always files within the last two or three days. Unless you are not serious and you don’t have data, then you can just stay with your lawyer and write a letter, which is not of much use without empirical evidence. Again, in many instances, you look beyond the data and look at the person presenting it. You don’t want to present somebody in court and the other party will prove that the person is an armed robber, it invalidates your data.

With the volume of frustration you have encountered already, are you still determined to press on?

It is unfortunate that I have to quote Nnamdi Kanu, but every day, I realize that Nigeria is tending towards becoming a zoo; it is a real jungle. Many people in a position of authority seem to use it to do all sorts of rubbish. My determination is to see to an end, these godfather syndrome killing us our society. Who created this godfather caucus idea? The confidence to commit crime and to break the law is so high. It has to end. The tribunal Secretary told me to my face that nobody will respond to my letters and petitions no matter where I go in this country. He is a court registrar, speaking on behalf of the highest rank. I have gone everywhere and he seems to be right. When you look at the value chain. If they are so efficient to pass down all this level of impunity, it means we don’t have a nation. It also means what they know and what we know are two different things. There is a Nigeria for us and there is a Nigeria for them. In the Nigeria for them, they have the right to do anything. Are these the kind of people that will take us to where we want to go? Is this the democratic process that will drive us to the promised land? Is vote buying what will help us? The more I go, the more I see. It gives me some kind of determination to make sure I do what I can in my capacity to see how these challenges can be done away with. Nigeria belongs to Nigerians. Of course my life has been threatened. I am not afraid because something must kill a man.