The Long Wait for Abia’s ‘Liberation Day’

Emmanuel Ugwu-Nwogo writes about the intrigues associated with the 2023 Abia gubernatorial poll especially at the state collation centre in Umuahia before the eventual declaration of Labour Party’s Alex Otti as Governor-elect.

he collation of ballots cast by Abia State voters during the March 18, 2023 governorship poll was a long walk given the expectations that awaited the final result.

Within the State Collation Centre at the state headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Umuahia, there was anxiety and excitement as party agents, observers and journalists waited for the results to be announced.

Outside the state collation centre, the atmosphere was no less different as Abians waited with bated breath to hear the result of the 2023 gubernatorial contest. While expectations heightened, scepticism was not in short supply as people doubted if INEC would actually come out with a true reflection of what transpired at the polling units. The sceptics had 2015 in mind when the ruling Peoples Democratic Party “margically” survived an almost certain defeat in the hands of the opposition.

The State Returning Officer, Professor Nnenna Oti, who is the Vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), correctly read the mood in Abia. Before the commencement of collation and declaration of votes scored by each of the 18 political parties that fielded candidates, she assured all stakeholders that she was not in Abia for hanky-panky collation but for declaration of election results.

After introducing herself as a native of Afikpo in Ebonyi State, the Returning Officer went further to say that aside from being a university Don she is also an ordained pastor.

“We are here to perform this sacred duty.

“The votes and mandate of the people must stand. I have spent the greater part of my life in the pursuit of higher ideals for good governance (anchored) on the principles of transparency, rule of law, participatory democracy, among others.

“I shall stand squarely and unapologetically on these principles. Everything we’re going to do here will represent the choice and the will of the people”, she had said.

The candour displayed by the Professor of soil science was reassuring, moreso as the State Administrative Secretary of INEC, Mr. Clement Oha, had touched raw nerves in his opening remarks.

Oha, who is the acting Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) accused the political parties of blackmailing INEC and levelling unfounded allegations against the electoral umpire thereby sowing seeds of doubt about its impartiality and integrity.

Collation of results from the local governments commenced at 12.40pm on Sunday, March 19.

By then, only five local governments were ready.

The list include Ukwa East, which according to the Administrative Secretary, was the first result to arrive by 2.00am on Sunday.

Others – Umunneochi, Ukwa West, Bende and Isiala Ngwa North – followed in that order.

The results from the first five local governments did not give a pointer to the direction the wind of victory will go.

While PDP took Ukwa East and Ukwa West, the Labour Party dominated in Umunneochi and Bende. The result from Isiala Ngwa North was put on hold as the Collation Officer was mixing up the figures he was reading out. He was asked to go back and reconcile the numbers and possibly get his full composure before coming back to continue after the break.

On resumption of collation after the break, results from five more local governments came in bringing the total to 10.

Though PDP and LP shared the collated local governments five apiece with the latter ahead with highest number of votes garnered, it became obvious that the winner of the governorship poll would not be known on Sunday. Results from six local governments remained to be collated.

The Returning Officer therefore adjourned collation till the next day. Thus, the waiting game commenced.

By Monday, 48 hours after the close of polling, the collation exercise resumed, this time with scuffles.

It began when the chief collation agent of the PDP, Mr. Charles Eseonu, apparently grew suspicious of the results technical crew of INEC and went to peep into the laptops they were using to key in the collated results. The INEC technical people became uncomfortable with the figure hovering behind them.

One of them rose and challenged the PDP Agent-in-Chief and asked him to go back to the section of the hall where party agents were seated.

But Eseonu, who is the state commissioner for youth development, did not budge hence altercations ensued between the two men.

Other party agents got infuriated by the obstinacy of the PDP agent and they joined the fray. Scuffles, pushing, shoving escalated while the hall was filled with angry voices from men shouting with every available energy to notch up higher decibels.

It took security personnel a while before they could bring the chaotic situation under control by pleading with the incensed politicians to calm their frayed nerves.

When collation eventually resumed for the day results from six more local governments were turned in, bringing the total to 16 out of 17 local governments. Only Obingwa local government result was still being awaited.

Even at that, LP with its governorship candidate, Mr. Alex Otti had by then estabilised a clear lead by winning 10 local governments, PDP five while Young Progressives Party (YPP) picked one(Osisioma Ngwa).

The Returning Officer was by now faced with the option of announcing the final result and declaring the winner of the governorship poll without the Obingwa result. Pressure was mounting from the Labour Party camp as they claimed that there was a plot to shortchange the party and scuttle its victory.

After consulting the INEC chairman, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu, the Abia Returning Officer announced suspension of collation of Obingwa result. She went ahead and asked the Administrative Secretary to read a letter from the INEC headquarters directing that collation of results should be suspended.

In the letter signed by the INEC Secretary, Mrs. Rose Omoa Oriaran-Anthony, the electoral umpire said  its office in Obingwa was on Sunday, March 19, 2023 attacked by thugs during the poll collation exercise.

The electoral umpire said its team of investigators would arrive in Umuahia on Tuesday, March 21 to review the Obingwa issue and take a final decision before the conclusion of collation and declaration of the governorship poll results in Abia.

But while Abians were expecting the team from Abuja, INEC changed its mind and said the review would rather be carried out in its Abuja headquarters, citing the tensed situation in Abia. The clearer picture of what transpired at Obingwa was earlier painted by the INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman Information and Voter Education, Mr. Festus Okoye at a press conference in Abuja. He had stated that thugs invaded the INEC collation centre in Obingwa, held officials hostage for hours thereby disrupting the collation of the governorship poll results.

But the Abia PDP would have none of that, the ruling party hotly contested the claim by INEC that its office in Obingwa was attacked, saying the electoral body was being economical with the truth. The outgoing Abia governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, hails from Obingwa local government.

In a statement signed by its State Collation Agent for the 2023 governorship poll, Charles Eseonu, Esq, the PDP insisted that there was no incident of violence in Obingwa.

He said:  “While we find such claims strange, we wish to set the records straight and state as follows: that there was no recorded act of violence in Obingwa LGA of Abia State before, during and after the election of March 18, 2023”.

Nonetheless, Obingwa is not strange to controversies during governorship polls. The PDP had always used result from this particular area as its trump card to wriggle out of tight corner in past electoral contests.

The 2015 incident has remained indelible in the minds of Alex Otti and his supporters.

He was cruising to record an upset victory on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) when over 80,000 votes were turned in by the ruling party to stop him in his tracks.

This is what has come to be known as the “Obingwa magic” in Abia’s political parlance.

PDP wanted to perform the same magic in 2023 gubernatorial poll but this time Otti and his supporters, now Obidients, stood on their guard and ensured that the Obingwa magic didn’t work.

As Abia State entered the third day after voting without hearing the final results the state was really on edge as tempers were racing to boiling point.

Rumours that LP was going to be robbed of its expected victory was rife and further heightened the already charged atmosphere. Calls came from individuals and groups urging INEC to declare Otti winner, warning of dire consequences should anything to the contrary happen. Youths in their hundreds massed around the area where INEC office is located, singing and dancing. They were just waiting to explode their anger should the governorship result go contrary to their expectation.

Not wanting to be intimidated, PDP supporters also moblised for the impending clash. But the combined team of security agents – Army  Police, NSCDC and DSS – ensured the raging youths were kept at bay.

It was not until Wednesday, March 22, 2023 that Abians finally heaved a sigh of relief when the contentious Obingwa result was collated and declared. The INEC Administrative Secretary said that the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and Forms EC 8 was used to determine the true position of the Obingwa result.

He lamented that the Obingwa imbroglio made people to unleash an avalanche of “blackmail and social media innuendos” aimed at tarnishing the image of INEC and himself. Oha said even his picture and those of the heads of legal and IT departments were splashed in the social media and tagged those to be targeted. But he said he was not disturbed by any of those threats having been used to such things in the course of doing his job in the Niger Delta areas before coming to Abia.

With Abia already awash with suspicion and mistrust of INEC due to the undue delay in concluding the collation and announcement of the result. Before declaring the Obingwa result after the INEC review, the State Returning Officer once again reassured Abians that nobody would be cheated as it would undermine the tenets of democracy, which is the best form of governance. Prof Oti sounded defiant, hinting that she might have been under pressure to do do something at variance with her conscience.

She said: “The Pastor and the mother in me would not allow me to do anything that would adversely affect the future of our children”. The FUTO VC said though she is “packed in small package” she is  “akwaa akwuru” meaning that she is unshakeable.The INEC Collation Officer for Obingwa, Dr Chimaroke Onyeabo, from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), was at last invited to declare the contentious governorship election result. He said PDP polled 9,962 votes while LP got 3,776. It then became very clear that the PDP has lost the battle as its tally of the local governments it won rose to six while LP remained unassailable with 10 LGs in its pocket.

In declaring the final result, the State Returning Officer announced Labour Party’s Alex Otti as winner and returned him elected having scored a total of 175,467 votes. The candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Sir Ambrose Okey Ahiwe, came a distant second with 88,529 votes. The ruling party had in its desperation to cling to power reportedly claimed that it received 108,000 votes in Obingwa and battled hard to make INEC accept it as was the case in the past.

Knowing that the battle was lost, the PDP was said to have instructed its agent to abstain from the final collation of the governorship poll result. But other parties were fully represented by their agents. The agent of APGA, Hon Longman Nwachukwu said Abians were happy that BVAS has finally “exposed the bogus figures” that are usually churned out from Obingwa.

While most of the parties accepted the result, the All Progressives Congress (APC) rejected the outcome of the 2023 Abia governorship election.

The party’s agent, Anthony Eze, who refused to sign the result, said that the governorship candidate of APC, Chief Ikechi Emenike, was “ridiculously awarded 24, 091 votes” whereas the polling unit results showed that he outperformed other candidates.

No matter. Abians poured into the streets in spontaneous jubilation immediately the 2023 governorship election result was announced, showing that PDP lost. It was immaterial the party that won so long as it wasn’t the ruling party.

Even after a heavy downpour interrupted the street celebrations, the joyous throng resumed and lasted into the night when the rain stopped.

For Abians, March 22, 2023, has become a day of liberation from over two decades of bad governance.

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