Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the two leading parties in Enugu State, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and its main rival, the All Progressives Congress, are waiting with bated breath for the pronouncement of the tribunal in the case that could alter the power equation in Enugu state, particularly the settled zoning arrangement in Enugu North senatorial district
It is a daunting task by all means. Even at the best of times, the odds against him look insurmountable, but this has not discouraged Hon. Eugene Ogbonna Odo, candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for Enugu North Senatorial District in the 2019 National Assembly elections from trying. Odo seeks to upturn the victory of Senator Chukwuka Utazi of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). For a state that has kept its record of voting for the PDP since the advent of the Fourth Republic, the attempt to dislodge the ruling party in Enugu State has been strong-willed, but it has not yielded much fruits, so far. However, in a matter of days, it will be clear if the status quo will remain or there will be a weakening of the hold of the PDP on the state. The Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Enugu has fixed September 3 for its judgement on the petition filed before it by the APC candidate.
The result of the election as declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) shows that the total votes scored by Senator Utazi who was issued Certificate of Return by INEC was 146, 458 as against 22,229 scored by his main rival and APC candidate, Eugene Odo.
The APC candidate who is the first petitioner in the suit is seeking amongst other prayers, that he be declared the winner of the National Assembly election conducted in six local government areas in Enugu North, on the grounds that Senator Utazi (first respondent) was not duly elected by a majority of lawful votes cast in the election conducted on February 23, 2019 for the Enugu North senatorial district and that the election conducted was invalid by reason of substantial non-compliance with the provision of the Electoral Act 2010 ( as amended) and the INEC manual for election officials 2019.
Other reliefs being sought amongst others are that Eugene Odo, the APC candidate and petitioner having polled the majority of lawful votes cast at the election held on the fateful day and having satisfied all constitutional requirements for such election be declared the winner and returned elected.
The APC candidate in the petition filed by his lead counsel, Sunday I Ameh, (SAN) is also asking the tribunal in Enugu to set aside the return of Senator Utazi by INEC and compel the electoral umpire to issue him (Eugene Odo) a Certificate of Return as the winner of the Enugu North Senatorial election.
In the alternative, Honourable Odo is asking the court to declare the Enugu North senatorial district election a nullity “on the grounds of irregularities, electoral malpractices and non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 and the Independent National Electoral Commission guidelines for the 2019 elections;
“An Order for the conduct of rerun election in all the polling units in Enugu North Senatorial District of Enugu State on the grounds of irregularities, electoral malpractices and non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 and the Independent National Commission guidelines for the 2019 elections.”
The six local councils where the February 23 elections whose collations and announcement of final results spilled over to the 24th of February (the next day) included, Igbo Etiti, Igbo Eze South, Igbo Eze North, Nsukka, Udenu and Uzo Uwani.
The INEC (the third respondent in the suit) had on February 24 declared the PDP candidate, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (first respondent) as duly elected. Joined in the suit as second respondent is the PDP on whose platform Senator Utazi contested.
Section 139(1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (s Amended) clearly states the condition for infraction may be established. It says; “An election shall not be liable to be invalidated by reason of non-compliance with the provisions of this Act, if it appears to the election tribunal or court that the election was conducted substantially in accordance with the principles of the Act and that the non-compliance did not substantially affect the result of the election.”
This is the first major hurdle Odo has to cross to validate his case, which may be very difficult if not impossible. To plead non-compliance in six local councils, the Electoral Act makes it mandatory to show evidence of non-compliance in each polling unit in every ward for the entire six local councils. Building his case on the functionality of the Card Reader may not be helpful, as the voters register, not Card Reader, is what determines the number of accredited voters in a polling unit. The ticking of the voter’s name on the register confirms his accreditation to vote.
Whichever way the pendulum swings on September 3, it will be sweet victory for one and the end of a tension filled litigation. The National Assembly (NASS) Elections Petition Tribunal sitting in Enugu started on a dramatic note when the chairman of the tribunal, Justice C. H. Ahuchaogu granted exparte applications for substituted services on Chief Ike Ekweremadu, deputy Senate president, and eight other members of the PDP declared winners of the elections. The chairman of the tribunal, ordered the petitioners/applicants to serve the respondents through the chairman or any principal officer of the PDP in the state. Counsel to the petitioners/applicants, Mr. Ochiagha Uzor, who held the brief of Mr Sunday Ameh (SAN), told the tribunal that it had been difficult to serve the various respondents with the processes. He argued that the respondents could not be cited at their known addresses. Those to be served through substituted means were the Sen. Chukwuka Utazi, Sen. Chimaroke Nnamani, Mr. Pat Asadu, Chief Toby Okechukwu and Mr. Okey Marthins.
While Odo and other APC candidates in the 2019 elections have deployed legal means to seek redress for perceived electoral infractions, Utazi on the other hand is not neglecting other means of brokering peace. To this end, stakeholders of Enugu North Senatorial district led by Senator Chukwuka Utazi, have made attempts to reignite the spirit of oneness of Enugu people, particularly Enugu North senatorial district. The stakeholders are leaving no stone unturned in settling the political differences between Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Senator Ayogu Eze, the APC gubernatorial candidate in the 2019 governorship contest. Eze is believed to be an influential figure, who can persuade his aggrieved colleagues in the APC to withdraw their claim.
This calculation may not be unconnected with the long held understanding that allows the Senatorial position to rotate between the two local government areas that make up the Federal Constituency.
In Enugu North, the zoning arrangement commenced in 1999 with Senator Fidelis Okoro from Nsukka/Igbo Eze South Federal Constituency, who enjoyed two terms of eight years from 1999 to 2007.
In 2007, Sen Ayogu Eze from Igbo Eze North/Udenu Federal Constituency took over from Senator Fidelis Okoro. He equally exercised a two term of eight years till 2015.
In 2015, Senator Chukwuka Utazi from Igbo Etiti/Uzo Uwani Federal Constituency took over from Senator Ayogu Eze, and continued to 2019. By that arrangement, Senator Utazi is expected to take maximum of eight years by 2023. The aspiration of Honourable Eugene Odo is thus perceived as aberration to frustrate the mutually beneficial settled zoning arrangement. This is the likely reason Odo lost, even in his homestead, all the five wards.