Tony Icheku writes that controversy continues to trail the November 12, 2023 Gubernatorial Election in Imo state with most observer groups that monitored the poll calling for outright cancellation of the exercise due to reported irregularities associated with the election.
Acredible, transparent, free and fair election stands on such measurable pillars like compilation of current and accurate voters register; independent electoral umpire and freedom of political parties to nominate its candidates. Though, other requirements like fair campaigning and access to the media may not be strictly measurable, they remain indispensable in measuring a free and fair election.
In the November 12, 2023 governorship poll in Imo state, only the ruling All Progressive Congress’ candidate had access to outdoor media advertising.
Fair campaign provides for all political parties to have equal opportunities to campaign and access both conventional and non conventional media, but the Imo election was bereft of this vital requirements as throughout the campaign period, only the banners, flyers, campaign posters and billboards of the APC candidate, Governor Hope Uzodimma, adorned every nook and cranny of the state.
Other candidates were denied this privilege as the State owned Imo Signage and Advertisement Agency imposed a heavy N54 million fee for billboards and posters and other campaigns.
The civil society organisation/Election Observer Yiaga Africa during a pre-election briefing described the N54 million fee as a repressive policy targeted against the opponents of Governor Hope Uzodimma “The exploitation of incumbency powers against candidates undermined the opportunity for fair competition”, it argued.
Acceptance of election results by all parties also count in endorsing an election as free and fair, but at the State Collation centre, the Labour Party (LP) agent who attempted to raise some concerns was brutally assaulted by thugs and bundled out of the hall.
These are some of the obvious infractions dogging the election as the parties which were pronounced losers fight to air their grievances. Indeed both winner and losers have their story as to whether the election was was credible, transparent, free and fair following the declaration of results by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which declared Governor Hope Uzodimma of APC winner with 540,308 votes, with Senators Samuel Anyanwu and Athan Achonu respectively of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Labour Party placed second with 71,503 votes and third, with 64,081 votes respectively.
On one side, the INEC and Uzodimma endorse the election as credible, transparent, free and fair, but Anyanwu of the PDP and Achonu of LP, both argue they were robbed in a process that was anything but free, fair or transparent.
Not even other bodies like security agencies, and election observers that were supposed to be neutral in the election could reach a consensus whether the election was free or fair.
INEC, Allegations of Bias
Even before the election, the PDP and LP were persistent in their allegations that the Imo State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Professor Sylva Agu, is compromised and working for the APC. They insisted that she must be deployed.
However, INEC’s National Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu countered that unless they present evidence to back up their allegations, Agu remains.
Independence of the electoral umpire is one of the requirements to ensure transparency and fairness, but in this instance the Commission played by its own rules.
INEC’s National Commissioner, South-East, Hon Kenneth Ukeagu and other RECs were deployed to Owerri to supervise the election to the consternation of the PDP and LP governorship candidates.
If nothing substantive was found to indict INEC before the election, but post-election, LP now has a big file of evidence in support of their allegations. Days after the election, the State Chairman of LP, Mr Callistus Ihejiagwa told journalists that “a total of over 500,000 votes were cast for the APC alone as announced by INEC, yet only about 300,000 persons were duly accredited as evidenced in the server, meaning that the record of accreditation does not tally with results as presented”.
Ihejiagwa further alleged that results were uploaded for places where elections did not hold, “leading to unrestrained over-voting, hence the need to thoroughly review the result”.
According to him, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) were abandoned and the Commission failed to ensure strict compliance with the upload of authentic result sheets from the polling units on INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV) to enhance transparency of the results management process.
“… INEC failed to enforce compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022 and guidelines on results collation”, he alleged.
A Election Observer, and a civil society organisation, (CSO), Yiaga Africa, corroborated Ihejiagwa’s allegations that there were locations where voting did not hold, yet results were announced.
Through its Watching The Vote (WTV) initiative, Yiaga said its observers said elections did not take place in 12% of sampled polling units, notably in Orsu, Okigwe, Oru East, and Orlu LGAs.
For Orsu LG, Yiaga Africa reported that the election did not take place in nine sampled polling units in the area.
In Okigwe LG, Yiaga Africa observers reported that elections did not hold in eight sampled polling units.
“In Oru East LGA, the election was not held in eight of Yiaga Africa’s sampled polling units. In addition, elections were not held in seven of our sampled polling units in Orlu LG and in one of sampled polling units each in Ideato North, Ikeduru, Oru West and Owerri West LGs.”
In a post election statement, the CSO urged INEC to investigate the incidents saying “Yiaga is concerned with the upload of results form EC8A for some of the sampled polling units, where elections were not conducted in Orsu, Oru East, Oru West, Ideato North, Ikeduru and Okigwe LGAs on the IreV.”
Incidentally, Yiaga Africa had predicted in a pre-election briefing that owing to insecurity, elections might not hold in the above mentioned six LGAs. It attributed it’s findings to what it described as weeks of pre-election monitoring and observations.
LP State Chairman who also served as its agent at the State Collation Centre attempted to halt the collation of results which began by 2am on Sunday, November 12, 2023.
Citing paragraph 48 (A) (B) of the Electoral Guidelines, Ihejiagwa argued that before the commencement of the final collation, INEC must receive his petition on the manner of accreditation of voters but his was ignored as the Returning Officer, Prof Abayomi Fasina proceeded with the collation.
According to Ihejiagwa: “Paragraph 48, sub-paragraphs A and B, of the Electoral Guideline says that collation shall not be done until the Returning Officer confirms that accreditation has been done in line with the provisions of the law.
“This section of the law was contravened and we were denied the inalienable right to a fair hearing, despite several calls for our petition to be heard almost two hours before the start of collation, with the Returning Officer, Prof. Fasina, insisting that he could not entertain the petition”
For his persistence, Ihejiagwa was brutalised, battered and beaten to stupor, while Prof Fasina was heard saying: “serves him right”. Senior police officers and other officials of security agencies on the high table watched the violent scenario without intervention. Ihejiagwa was thereafter dragged out of the hall and thrown into a police cell, with no charges levelled against him
Other pre-election issues raised by both the PDP and LP which were not addressed by INEC include the refusal of the electoral umpire to release to the parties, the list of presiding officers. INEC was further accused of not using the personnel it trained for the election, but using a list handed over to it by the APC. This allegation was confirmed after the election as a certain hotel near the Government House was converted to ad-hoc office where APC members conscripted as ‘INEC’ workers came to receive their payments.
Pre-election, challenge of insecurity cast a dark shadow over Imo State, as there were even suggestions to reschedule the election
LP’s guber candidate, Senator Athan Achonu, argued that the climate of violence and insecurity in the State are further orchestrated by the governor as a strategy of suppressing dissent and pushing the opposition to the wall in order to record overwhelming victory in the Nov . 11 election. However their fears doused when the Inspector-General of Police redeployed State Police Commissioner Mohammed Barde as both PDP and LP had demanded.
To further reassure the political parties, over 10,000 policemen in addition to the military and paramilitary personel. To lead the police operations, Deputy Inspector General Frank Mba was deployed to Owerri from the Force Headquarters, one Assistant Inspector General, 27 Commissioners of Police, and 40 Assistant Commissioners of Police, were deployed to Imo.
Mbah reassured Imolites that the “police will be politically neutral, provide enabling environment for all to vote and would be non-aligned”.
And on the election day, the State was heavily policed. But alas, the PDP and LP only realised it was a smokescreen to allow massive manipulation of the electoral process without interference.
According to Achonu: “The security agencies DSS, Police and military raped our democracy, it was like a coup by the security agencies, it was not the fault of INEC, they were scared. When you see the security agencies doing the bidding of government in a State where they behead people like chicken what do you do?
“There was no election, they promised us to do the ward collation at designated collation centres, but they took it to the Local Government headquarters and very few to INEC designated centres, and when they got to the LG HQ, they only allowed APC Commissioners, and LG sole administrators, and the security bared every other person from entering, you can imagine what went on there”, he maintained.
Voters’ Apathy and Vote Buying
The successful conduct of a peaceful and transparent election is dependent on the effective collaboration and coordination with respective institutions like the INEC, the Nigerian Police and other security agencies, but after its pre-election observation across Imo State, the Election Observer/ civil society organisation, Yiaga Africa projected low voter turnout citing incidents of pre-election violence, apparent fear of intimidation, voter fatigue and loss of faith in elections as a means to achieving democratic leadership and a deep sense of citizens’ distrust of the system.
Overall, the outcome of the 2023 General Election created the impression that votes do not count as results announced appeared contrary to a reflection of the people’s will.
True to their prediction, on election day, the voters stayed away. With over 2,318,919 PVCs collected, the total votes cast in the election was not up to one million. The low voters turnout enabled the ruling APC to have a field day.
PDP’s Anyanwu, alleged that electoral malpractices during the election includes including vote buying, ballot box snatching, and other irregularities in some polling units.
Election monitoring findings also established the prevalence of vote buying was evident, with reports of party agents paying voters between N2000 and N4000 to vote for specific candidates.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) also reportedly arrested 14 suspected vote buyers and recovered N11,040,000 during intelligence-driven operations in Imo State.
The APC were frequently fingered in the allegations of monetary inducements and coercion of voters by party agents, as their candidate, who is also the incumbent governor reportedly spared nothing in his bid for a return ticket.
Election Was Free and Fair – APC
Even as the losing parties compile the various irregularities they observed, the APC contended that they won in a free and fair poll.
“Before this election, any discerning observer would have seen that virtually the whole of Imo State emptied in APC. The APC is the only party where there was no faction, no defection, no problem”, the Imo State Commissioner for Information, Mr Declan Emelumba, argued when he appeared as a guest on a television programme.
“Every other party that contested this election had internal crisis, internal problems, mass defections. So, there was no way they could have won. There was no way they could have even performed better than they did,” he added.
Local Elections Observers
Outside the political parties, a forum of domestic civil society organizations, accredited as observers for the November 11, 2023 governorship election in Imo state have called for the total cancellation of the election contending that over 2,000 polling units results as uploaded and seen in INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal, the total number of votes as allocated to candidates were higher than the actual number of accredited voters, which casts doubts on the integrity of the election.
The CSOs, comprising of eight observer groups also tackled INEC for flouting its own rules on accreditation by permitting voting in several polling units without the use of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System meant for accreditation of voters before voting.
The Observers contending that there were widespread gross irregularities that dogged the election further indicted security agencies accusing them of compromising their duties of ensuring credible, fair and free election.
“The security agencies aided and abetted the massive rigging as witnessed in the Imo State election. Specifically, In Emekuku ward 1, the INEC ward collation officer disappeared from the Emekuku High School collation center, some security agents appeared from nowhere, shooting into the air, tear gassed the environment and whisked away the INEC staff and made away with the results”, said the Director of Operations of She-for-She Initiative for Women and Girl Child, Mr Kenneth Umez, who read the joint press statement issued by the eight observer groups in Owerri.
The Observer groups which presented both video recording and text reports of their election observation and monitoring activities also maintained that the election was marred by physical attacks on persons who were out to exercise their franchise.
“In one instance, a voter was attacked in an attempt to expose open day vote buying with cash”, they submitted.
The Observers further urged INEC to provide answers as to why elections did not hold in many polling units including nine polling units in Orsu LGA, where they claimed elections did not hold.
According to the observer groups: “INEC may have exhibited flaws in many areas, one of which is outright relocation without notice to voters. In Orsu LGA, voters were not informed of INEC’s plan to conduct cluster election, hence many voters were disenfranchised. The question INEC must answer is who are those that voted in Orsu? Are they from Orsu or strangers?
“In Okigwe LGA, we observed that no result sheet was delivered to polling centres in all the eleven wards in Okigwe LGA. We also observed that election did not occur in eight polling units in same election. The INEC and police authorities in Okigwe may have to explain where the collation for Okigwe LGA was done.
“We also witnessed that in Ehime Mbano, Ikeduru, Ideato North LGAs, among others, witnessed desperate ballot box snatching as ball boxes were snatched and delivered to the fortresses of political party actors in the area. Other areas observed without election were Oru-East LGA, Ideato-North, Ikeduru, Oru West and Owerri West LGAs.
“We also observed that ward collation was not done in the wards as promised by INEC before the election. Especially in Okigwe zone, Orlu zone and in almost parts of the State.
“We noticed with utmost dismay there was upload of results from EC8A from various polling units where election did not hold yet it was seen on the IREVL, we, therefore call for total cancelation of the November 11, 2023 Imo State Governorship Election”.
Members of the forum and signatories to the statement include New Dawn for Development Initiatives; International Women and Youth Revival Initiative; Global Hope and Justice for the Less Privileged; And Citizens Right for Peace and Good Leadership Initiative.
Others include Centre for Child Care and Youth Development; Women with Disabilities of Nigeria Support Foundation; and Women and Youth Empowerment for Global Change Initiative.
The Labour Party said if INEC fails to call for a review of the election they would head to the court. “We have carefully documented the anomalies, atrocities and prepared a strongly-worded petition and we will be approaching the court if INEC fails to do the needful,” the party submitted.