The judgment of the Court of Appeal in Calabar, which ordered a rerun in Essien Udim Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, where Godswill Akpabio lost to Christopher Ekpenyong in the February 23, 2019 senatorial election could just have been avoided if carefully considered, writes Davidson Iriekpen
The Calabar Division of the Appeal Court penultimate week ordered a rerun in Essien Udim Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, where Senator Godswill Akpabio lost to Senator Christopher Ekpenyong in the February 23, 2019 senatorial election in Akwa Ibom North West senatorial district.
Soon after the election in February, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had declared Ekpenyong of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) winner. But aggrieved, Akpabio, who is currently the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the election, approached the election petition tribunal, seeking to nullify Ekpenyong’s victory following alleged irregularities.
But the Justice Akanbi-led tribunal dismissed Akpabio’s petition, saying it lacked merit and that there was no convincing evidence of non-compliance with the Electoral Act as he alleged in his petition, thus compelling the minister to go on appeal.
At the Appeal Court, the former governor pleaded that the verdict be upturned. But in the judgment read penultimate Saturday by the five-man panel led by Justice S. Tanko Hussein, the court declared as invalid, the declaration of Ekpenyong as winner of the said election and the senator representing Akwa Ibom North West senatorial district. It ordered INEC to conduct a fresh election in Essien Udim Local Government Area within 90 days.
The court held that “there was proof of irregularities and non-compliance with the Electoral Act” in the conduct of the election in the affected local government area and so, no one should have been declared winner. It said the rightful thing to be done was to conduct fresh election in the disputed area.
For those who know Akwa Ibom North West (Ikot Ekpene) senatorial district, it is made up of 10 local government areas. After the election, INEC had declared that Ekpenyong scored 114,973 votes winning in nine local government areas, while Akpabio scored only 76,917 votes. The commission’s record showed only 19,455 were accredited in the last elections in Essien Udim.
Political analysts, who spoke to THISDAY, have continued to assess Akpabio’s chances. They feel that it would be a herculean task for Ekpenyong’s victory to be upturned with the results from only one local government area.
Those who spoke with THISDAY were also quick to observe that Akpabio would be going into the rerun with a deficit of 38,056, which he needs to upturn Ekpenyong’s victory in an area where there are 19,455 accredited voters. They contended that if the entire 19,455 accredited votes were given to the former governor, it still could not give him victory.
“Akpabio and Ekpenyong will be struggling to get all if not most of the 19,455 accredited votes in Essien Udim. It would definitely not be possible for Akpabio to garner all the 19,455 votes in Essien Udim and even if he did, it would really not make much difference to him, because he needs 38,056 votes to win.
“In fact, it will be a tall dream for him to expect that Ekpenyong will not snatch a substantial number of votes out of the 19,455 votes in the area,” said one of the observers. He reasoned that since Ekpenyong would be going into the contest with votes advantage against Akpabio, it would be impossible for the former governor to counter the over 38,056 difference given the number of accredited voters, the turnout and intervening variables.
INEC in the state, in a statement signed by its public affairs officer, Don Etukudoh, said the Court of Appeal in Calabar has affirmed the position of the commission that there was widespread violence and irregularities during elections in Essien Udim LGA.
“The court re-affirmed as valid and preserved the elections as declared by the commission in nine out of the 10 LGAs that make up Akwa Ibom North West (Ikot Ekpene) senatorial district.
“It, however, ordered a rerun of the senatorial election within 90 days in Essien Udim LGA only, where the commission had decried the massive rigging and manipulations that culminated in the dubious award of 61,329 votes to Senator Akpabio alone in the LGA, intended to upturn the results of the other nine LGAs.
“This was when the accreditation figure from the Smart Card Readers (SCRs), confirmed by ticks on the Voter Register for the entire Essien Udim stood at just 19,455. The commission rejected this travesty and maintained its position despite pressure, blackmail and threats to lives of lNEC officials.”
Though Akpabio is yet to formally issue any reaction to the court ruling, his special assistant on media, Anietie Ekong said the minister and his legal team, were still studying the judgment and would come out with an official position on the matter.
The state APC in a statement signed by its Publicity Secretary, Nkereuwem Nyongekere, said the Appeal Court ruling on Saturday has exposed that truth was ‘hurriedly murdered and buried by the tribunal in Akwa Ibom’.
“The Court of Appeal sitting at Calabar in Cross River State in its ruling has nullified the election of Dr. Christopher Ekpenyong, who was wrongly declared the winner of the National Assembly election in Akwa Ibom North West senatorial district on February 23, 2019.
“The ruling in its entirety is a testament that will open up the eye of the world to the misappropriation of justice meted out to APC in Akwa Ibom State by the tribunal in Uyo in collusion with unprogressive forces in PDP and INEC in Akwa Ibom State.”
But some observers have also faulted the judgment of the Court of Appeal. They described the verdict as a waste of time and resources and possibly the lives that might be lost during the rerun.
Those, who spoke with THISDAY feel that if carefully thought through, the verdict ordering a rerun in Essien Udim Local Government Area with an insignificant number could have been avoided.
They contended that the precedent has always been that when delivering judgments in cases such as this, special consideration is given to various margins to ascertain whether the victory was worth nullifying and ordering a fresh election.
Beyond the insurmountable gap Akpabio is expected to close and secure victory, there is also the question on whether he would resign as minister. As a minister in the current government, under the law, he is expected to resign to be eligible to contest election.
Also lying before him is the choice: Between the Senate and ministerial appointment, which is better?
While Nigerians expect the former governor to clear the air on his next move, he and his party, the APC, last Wednesday, threatened to boycott the rerun if INEC did not remove the state Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Mike Igini, from the state.
The Director-General of Godswill Akpabio Campaign Organisation, Dr. Chris Akpan, said there was no guarantee that INEC in the state under Igini would be unbiased in the conduct of the rerun, insisting that a new electoral umpire must be assigned to carry out the exercise.
He added that under a free and fair contest, Akpabio would defeat Ekpenyong many times over, adding that the former deputy governor was no match for the former governor.
Akpan also accused Igini of whittling down the voting strength of Essien Udim, saying that the area has 105,000 votes as against the figure bandied by INEC in the state.
“What will be the need for Akpabio to participate in the rerun with Igini as the State INEC REC? Of course, he (Igini) is going to repeat the fraud he committed in the last election. We insist that there must be a level playing ground for everybody. With Igini, the ground will not be level, so we won’t participate.
“That is the position of my party and also my position as the DG of Akpabio’s campaign organisation. Why shouldn’t INEC do away with him (Igini)? We had complained about this man but they allowed him work against the APC and its candidates in the last election. It is insulting to say that Akpabio has an opponent in this election. Who is Akpabio’s opponent? What has he (Ekpenyong) done to impact on the lives of his people in Obot Akara not to talk of the entire Ikot Ekpene senatorial district?
“So it is a done deal for Akpabio and the APC provided Igini is removed. In any case, if Igini is not changed and proper provisions put in place for a free and fair election, of course we will not participate. What we have at stake is 105,000. And what Ekpenyong has as vote advantage is a bit above 38,000, which are actually not actually his votes, because he was seen thumb printing in his house and the evidence was presented to the tribunal and these are figures written for him by Igini.
“But be that as it may, if an unbiased umpire conducts the rerun; if a neutral person conducts the election, we are going to surpass the 38,000 votes many times over. Even if Chris Ekpenyong was leading with 60,000 votes, if the election is free and fair, Akpabio will defeat him,” he insisted.