BY REUBEN ABATI
Off-cycle elections in Nigeria are elections that are held outside the usual timetable for general elections. When Nigeria returned to democratic, civilian rule in 1999, the expectation was that elections would be held regularly across the federation in a four-year-cycle, but after the 1999 elections, many candidates went to court to protest the outcome of the elections in many states. The result was that the election petition tribunals removed some Governors and ordered re-elections. After the 1999 elections, off-cycle elections were held in eight states of the Federation. Thus, the decision of the courts which usually comes months after a Governor or a legislator may have been sworn in is the reason for the off-cycle elections. In 2003, in Anambra State, Dr. Chris Ngige had been sworn in as the Governor, on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), but Peter Obi of the All-Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) objected to the results all the way to the Court of Appeal which ruled in his favour in March 2006. Ngige v. Obi went from the Tribunal to the Court of Appeal for over 34 months! It was possible given the position of the law at the time that the process could have gone on four years, and justice would not have been done.
Obi had to begin a fresh four-year term of four years, automatically pushing Anambra State out of the regular 4-year cycle. For this reason, Anambra’s next Gubernatorial election, going by the four-year cycle, would be in 2025 whereas Nigeria is due to hold general elections in 2027. Bayelsa is yet another example. Other examples include Edo State, Ekiti State, Kogi, Ondo, Osun, and Imo states. In Rauf Aregbesola and 2 ors v. Olagunsoye Oyinlola and Ors, in the 2007 elections, the petitioner did not get justice until three years later in 2010. There was hence a felt need for the review of the 2010 Electoral Act, especially with regard to the time frame for determining election petitions. Off-cycle elections have their roots in this regard.
President Goodluck Jonathan, after voting in Bayelsa state during the current off-cycle elections in Imo, Bayelsa and Kogi states has been quoted as having now expressed the view that the National Assembly should consider an amendment of the Constitution to put an end to off-cycle elections in Nigeria. With the off-cycle pattern already in place, post-1999, and the decisions of the courts on various election petitions, it would be difficult to see how that can be done without violating sections of the Constitution which obligatorily state the tenure for elected officers as four years, renewable every four years for the President and Governors, with a limit of two terms, and open-ended for legislators. The extension of that tenure by a day would be a gross violation of Section 135 (2) for the Presidential position, and Section 180 with regard to Governors. Besides, it was the case previously that election petition cases used to be heard in some cases, for three years as already indicated, creating room for grave injustices and limited access to justice. The 2002 Electoral Act and the 2006 Electoral Act did not specify time limitations for election petitions. This was the mischief that the amendment of Section 285(6) of the 1999 Constitution (by the First Amendment Act No 1 of 2010) sought to correct by limiting the hearing and disposal of petitions to 180 days, and 60 days for the appeals arising therefrom. These amendments arose from petitions to the 6th National Assembly to amend the Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution.
The merit in President Jonathan’s statement is not that off-cycle elections would end, they have come to stay, but that there is indeed a need for amendments of the Constitution and the reform of the Electoral Act to deepen our electoral system. There are two arguments on the table: by those who argue that the time limitation in Section 285(6) of the 1999 Constitution often limits the intendment of Section 36 on fair hearing, and hence should be further extended, and the second by those who argue that in fact the time limitation should be reviewed to ensure that all election petitions should be determined within a shorter period and before anyone is sworn into office. In other words, it would amount to a miscarriage of justice for a person to enjoy the benefits of an undeserved victory only to be removed months later as in again Ngige vs Obi, or for the court to have its hands tied by the limitation of time as in Senator Adeleke v. Gov. Oyetola (2019). The prevalent opinion is that election petitions should be determined before anyone assumes office as is done in Kenya. Perhaps when this happens, the number of off-cycle elections would be reduced considerably. After every general election many issues are thrown up for further consideration and reform, and there are many that have been thrown up in such manner in recent times after the 2023 General election including time limits for election petitions, electronic transmission of results, the burden of proof, and whether or not our courts in determining election cases, should rely less on technicalities and lean more towards judicial activism as in Marbury vs. Madison, and Adegbenro vs. Akintola.
However, with regard to off-cycle elections, I recall that after the 1999 and 2003 elections, the dominant impression at the time was that such elections were necessarily good for the country’s “fledgling” (once upon a time, a famous phrase) electoral system. It was thought that they would provide the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders in the process an opportunity to correct whatever mistakes that they may have made in the main elections and respond also to omissions identified by the courts and the general public. Unfortunately, this has never been the case. Every off-cycle election is as bad as the main election, in many cases worse. Nigerian politicians and the various stakeholders are obsessed with their own greed, ambition and limitations. Nobody shows any capacity to learn any lessons, making every election the same of the same: the same incredulous pattern of criminality, conflict and capture. This is what the current off-season elections in Imo, Kogi and Bayelsa states have demonstrated. As usual, the various stakeholders observed the established pattern, elections having become hollow rituals in Nigeria.
Ahead of the elections, the National Peace Committee chaired by General Abdusalami Abubakar invited the gubernatorial candidates in the three states to a peace accord signing event. Out of the 16 candidates in Bayelsa State, 15 showed up, the only one who was absent, Udengs Eradiri of the Labour Party (LP) said his own party people hid the invitation away from him, so he did not know about the event and that in any case, even if he was invited, he was not interested in signing any peace accord in the company of the same perpetrators of violence, attending accord signing ceremonies they do not believe in. Indeed, in Bayelsa state, shortly after the signing of the peace accord, Bayelsa Governor Douye Diri (PDP), and his APC counterpart, Chief Timipre Sylva engaged in a war of words blaming each other for promoting violence.
In Imo State, 17 political parties signed the accord, but conspicuously absent were the candidates of the APC, the incumbent Governor, Senator Hope Uzodinma, the Labour Party candidate, Senator Athan Achonu, and Senator Samuel Anyanwu, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate who by the way, arrived the venue and not sighting the candidates of the other two major parties decided to leave. He obviously considered voting for peace a matter of ego and status. Also absent were the candidates of the All-Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Tony Ejiogu, and Ben Odunze of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). The running mates to the Gubernatorial candidates (APC, LP, and PDP) who were sent to represent their principals were not allowed to sign the accord. Party Chairmen were allowed to do so though. In Kogi State, 18 Gubernatorial candidates signed the peace accord, with John Cardinal Onaiyekan appealing to the conscience of the political parties and their candidates, urging them to play according to the rules of the game.
Apart from the signing of the peace accord, other stakeholders in the process assured Nigerians that they were ready. This was going to be an election in three senatorial zones (South South, South East and North Central) with a total of 5.169, 992 voters, in 10, 470 polling units across 649 wards in 56 Local Government Areas. INEC deployed 27 Resident Electoral Commissioners, 2 National Commissioners and 46, 084 regular and ad hoc staff. The police mobilized a total of 92, 565 personnel, including 27, 000 in Bayelsa, 25, 565 in Imo and 40, 000 in Kogi, with a Deputy Inspector General of Police leading the operation in each state assisted by AIGs and CPs, helicopters and 15 gunboats in Bayelsa. The political parties on their part deployed 137, 934 agents to cover the polling and collation centres. An off-cycle election in three states, limited only to Gubernatorial elections, would seem to be easier to manage than a general election in 33 states of the Federation. Everything also seemed set on the eve of the November 11 elections, but what happened?
Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), one of the many Civil Society Organizations that covered the election drew attention to the spate of violence, armed thuggery, and electoral fraud in the three states. HURIWA went further to advise losers not to bother to go to the courts to challenge the outcome of the polls in the three states because the judiciary cannot guarantee justice. HURIWA is wrong on that score. The judiciary is still the best forum for aggrieved persons in the electoral process, no matter how flawed to seek redress. Petitioners must always be encouraged to address their concerns through a recourse to due process and the rule of law, never through self-help. But as for violence, this was widespread in Imo where party Chairman of the Labour Party and an agent of the party were beaten up, in Bayelsa there were reports of shootings and killings before and during the election in Nembe, Basambiri, Brass, Southern Ijaw and Kolokuma-Opokuma.
In Brass LG, INEC officials were held hostage; in Yenagoa, there were street protests over results from APC strongholds in Nembe. The more astonishing report was the revelation that in Kogi state that certain persons were found with pre-filled election results forms even before the election commenced in five Local Government Areas, resulting in INEC’s decision to cancel the election in some polling units in the affected LGAs and to reschedule the elections for Saturday November 18 as follows: Ogoro-Magongo (9 wards), Adavi (5), Ajaokuta (5) Okehi (7) and Okene (5). The Civil Society Situation Room has asked that this should be investigated by INEC – how did sensitive election results forms get into the hands of unauthorized persons ahead of the election? Who did it? My fear is that the investigations may lead to nowhere.
Other election observers including Watching the Vote Initiative – YIAGA Africa, EU-sponsored TAF Africa and the Centre for Democracy and Development Election Analysis Centre (CDD-EAC) have all reported logistics challenges, vote-buying, and collusion between state government officials, security agents and electoral officials. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested 14 vote buyers in all three states. Udengs Eradiri in Bayelsa and Dino Melayein Kogi both further protested that indeed the level of vote buying was so overwhelming but they were not part of it. In many places, voting materials arrived late and the BVAS did not work as Senator Achonu claims. There were reports of discrepancies between the results at polling units and the data posted on the IREV portal. Even more bewildering is the report by YIAGA that INEC uploaded results for polling units where elections did not take place. How?
In all the three states, incumbency was a major factor, with Hope Uzodinma of Imo State winning by a wide margin of 540, 308 votes, his closest challenger, Samuel Anyanwu of the PDP- 71, 503 votes. Uzodinma has claimed this as a vindication of the fact that he truly won in 2019, and has won again leading in all the state’s 27 Local Governments. In Bayelsa state, incumbent Governor Douye Diri was declared winner with 175, 196 votes to defeat his closest rival, Sylva of the APC who polled 110, 108 votes (not so wide a margin in this case). In Kogi State, Usman Ododo, the anointed candidate of the incumbent and outgoing Governor, got 446, 237 votes to beat Muri Ajaka of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) who scored 259, 052 votes. But there is something even more noteworthy in the Kogi election. The people voted strictly along ethnic lines, with the people of Kogi West (the Okun people) playing the beautiful bride by pitching their tent with Kogi Central (the Ebira) to prevent the Igala (Kogi East), who had ruled the state for so long, and to prove to this dominant group that they do not have the advantage of the numerical strength that they claim. Usman Ododo is not necessarily a product of any grand strategy, but the Okun and the Ebira conspiring against the Igala, in the hope that if the Ebira end up spending 16 years in power as the Igalas did, they too, the Okun people will in the future be supported by the Ebira. This ethnic sub-text to Nigerian politics which rears its head at every cycle portends danger for the polity.
On the whole, there isn’t much to cheer about the conduct of the just-concluded off-season elections. The various stakeholders seem not to have learnt the right lessons. In all the three states, the opposition parties have called for the cancellation of the elections. Nigeria remains a work in progress.