APC, PDP in test of will over Enugu North

TAIWO AMODU writes on the dust raised by the case on the Enugu North Senatorial District election, pending at the tribunal, vis-a-vis its likely effect on political calculations in the state.

The Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Enugu has fixed September 3 for its judgment on the petition filed by the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate in the disputed National Assembly election in the Enugu North Senatorial District, Honourable  Eugene Ogbonna Odo.

The INEC (the third respondent in the suit) had, on February 24, declared the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in the election, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (first respondent), as duly elected. Joined in the suit as the second respondent is the PDP on which platform Senator Utazi contested.

The APC candidate who is the first petitioner in the suit is seeking, among 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 was not duly elected by a majority of the lawful votes cast in the election conducted on February 23 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.

Other reliefs being sought are that Eugene Odo, the APC candidate and petitioner, having polled the majority of lawful votes cast at the election and, having satisfied all constitutional requirements for such election, he should be declared the winner and returned elected.

The APC candidate, in the petition filed by his lead counsel, S.I Ameh (SAN), also asked the tribunal 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 senatorial election.

In the alternative,  Honourable Odo asked the court to declare the senatorial election in the district a nullity “on the grounds of irregularities, electoral malpractices and non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 and the INEC Guidelines for the 2019 elections;

“An order for the conduct of rerun election in all the polling units in Enugu North Senatorial District on the grounds of irregularities, electoral malpractices and non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 and the INEC 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 24 were held included Igbo Etiti, Igbo Eze South, Igbo Eze North, Nsukka, Udenu and UzoUwani.

Nigerian Tribune checks revealed that the total votes scored by Senator Utazi who was issued a Certificate of Return by INEC was 146, 458 as against the 22,229 votes scored by his main rival and APC candidate, Eugene Odo.

The two leading parties in Enugu State, the ruling PDP and its main rival, the APC, are waiting with bated breath what would be the judicial pronouncements on the case that could alter the power equation in Enugu State, particularly as it may affect the settled zoning arrangement in Enugu North Senatorial District.

As the tribunal is yet to decide on the case, there have been speculation and anxiety in the senatorial district as to the direction the pendulum of justice will tilt.

Supporters of the two major actors involved claimed substantial-non compliance as the grounds of their case without establishing what constituted non-compliance in the eyes of the law. Is it merely by insisting that the results sheets were dated February 24 as against February 23, the date the exercise was held? Or is it by claiming over-voting without recourse to valid voters register?

Section 139(1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as mended) offers the sufficient condition for infraction. 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.”

To plead non-compliance in six local councils, the Electoral Act made it mandatory for one to lead evidence in polling unit by polling unit, ward by ward for the entire six local councils and not three. The voters register, and not card reader determines the number of accredited voters in a polling unit, as the ticking of the voter’s name on the register confirms that he has been accredited to vote.

In the same vein, it has been established that the presumption of regularity or correctness of election results rests with the INEC. According to one INEC source (being the third respondent in this instant case), “Whoever is determined to prove falsification of results in an election petition must show two contrasting results: one which is fake and the one that is genuine to lead evidence that votes were actually altered. Beer parlour talks, even sensational newspapers reports on what transpired in the court rooms are not enough to sway their lordships in giving judgment.”

As declared by Justice Niki Tobi (JSC), “A court of law can only pronounce judgment in the light of evidence presented and proved before it. A court of law cannot go outside the evidence presented and proved before it by embarking on a voyage discovery in search of other evidence in favour of the parties.”

Justice Tobi went further to say “courts of law do not give judgment according to public opinion or to reflect public opinion unless such opinion represents or presents the state of the law. This is because the judge’s clientele is the law and the law only. Public opinion is, in most instances, built on sentiments and emotions. Both have no company with the law.”

 

Outside court room

Feelers from Enugu North revealed that the people were jolted by the aspiration of the APC candidate which they perceived could alter the settled zoning arrangement in the senatorial district. They consequently protested with their votes.

According to findings, while the presidency rotates between the North and the South, it is settled in Enugu that the governorship position rotates among the senatorial zones. In the same vein, in each senatorial district, the senatorial position rotates 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, Senator Ayogu Eze from Igbo Eze North/Udenu Federal Constituency took over from Senator  Fidelis Okoro and equally exercised a two-term stint of eight years till 2015.

In 2015, Senator Chukwuka Utazi from Igbo Etiti/UzoUwani Federal Constituency took over from Senator Ayogu Eze and continued to 2019. Senator Utazi is expected to take his maximum of eight years by 2023. The aspiration of Honourable Eugene Odo was thus perceived as a ploy to frustrate the settled zoning arrangement.

A chieftain of the PDP, who did not want his name mentioned, disclosed that Enugu remained a stronghold of the ruling party. He said this informed why the APC candidate for Enugu North Senatorial District, Utazi, lost all the five wards in his home town of Ukehe.

He said: “The wide margin victory of Senator Chukwuka Utazi in the February 23, 2019 senatorial election, showed his acceptability across the length and breadth of Enugu North Senatorial District. It is trite to mention that Enugu State is one of the major strongholds of the PDP in the country, with the governorship position in its kitty, since 1999 to date.

“In addition, all the members of the National Assembly are PDP, same as the 17 local government chairmen with their councilors. In the present circumstances, where will Honourable Odo get his victory, except his boast that APC is in control of the Government of the Federation and can do and undo. But we are confident in God that granted us victory and the unfettered judiciary that will stand rock-solid as the last hope of the just and downtrodden.”

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