ABIA NORTH: Returning Officer’s Testimony And INEC’s Dilemma
TO a large extent, the testimony by the Returning Officer (RO), in the March 28, 2015 Abia North Senatorial Election, Dr. Ihekweaba Chukwugoziem, reveals the challenges faced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in the conduct of election especially the use of ad hoc staff.
It is obvious that the strength of character, patriotism and understanding of the enormity of responsibility, which the task of conducting election places on them are crucial for INEC staff to withstand pressures by parties in an election.
It could be seen that most often, when inducement fails to sway the INEC staff, threats of physical harm or intimidation would be brought to ensure that the laid down procedures are breached. The experience of Dr. Chukwugoziem at the Abia North Senatorial election raises valuable points for national evaluation.
Two days after the National Assembly election in Abia North Senatorial zone, the news media were awash with the alleged abandonment of his duty post by the returning officer. It was also alleged that the RO refused to announce results of the election citing massive irregularities only for another person to take his place to announce the results. But delivering his testimony as prosecution witness in the petition filed by the All Progressive Grand Alliance, (APGA) candidate, Dr. David Onuoha-Bourdex, against the return of Senator Mao Ohuabunwa as the winner of Abia North Senatorial seat election, Dr. Chukwugoziem disclosed that he was appointed as Returning Officer by the INEC. He denied that he absconded or abandoned his duty post, stressing that he resisted pressures from some Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chieftains to announce the defective result. He denied that INEC ever appointed another returning officer to replace him, pointing out that his letter of appointment was neither cancelled nor withdrawn.
Under cross-examination by both the counsel of the defendant and INEC, the RO remarked that he was not in a place to know whether INEC had power to appoint another Returning Officer or not, but maintained that he was appointment through a letter signed by the Head of Department of Electoral Operations, INEC, Mr. G. I. Okoli, which he tendered to the tribunal. Dr. Ihekweaba, explained that rather than abandoning his duties, he stoutly refused to declare the result of the election based on the falsified data presented to him, adding, “we started to examine the results local government by local government, and after we examined Arochukwu and Ohafia results and discovered huge anomalies, the Respondents refused and resisted the continuation of the examination of the remaining three local government areas.”
“Pressure was brought on me to sign and declare the results as presented with all the manipulations in them, and I refused, insisting that the right thing should be done by concluding the examination of the rest of the local government areas before the declaration,” he declared, adding that he quickly wrote a report which he submitted to the Resident Electoral Officer (REC), informing her that the evasive persuasion on him to announce a pre-arranged result, which was not in tandem with the law, did not go down well with him and his conscience.
Dr. Ihekweaba, who is also an Associate Professor in Computer Engineering at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Abia State; reiterated that when pressure was mounted on him by supporters of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Senator Mao Ohuabunwa, he refused to budge, reiterating that at no point did INEC send another person to replace him as the RO. He explained that it was in response to his report that the REC set up a committee to investigate the widespread irregularities, regretting that the committee of which he was a member set about the assignment but could not finish its work because of crisis. “After crosschecking two out of the five local government areas that make up Abia North Senatorial District namely; Arochukwu and Ohafia, massive irregularities were noticed and at that point the Respondents refused and resisted the continuation of the examination of the remaining three local government areas”.
When the INEC counsel, Dr. Livy Uzukwu, (SAN) accused him of absconding, the RO declared: “I did not abscond; I refused to act against my conscience by announcing fictitious results in favor of the PDP candidate who did not win the election. Pressure was brought on me to sign and declare the results as presented with all the manipulations in them and I refused, insisting that the right thing be done by concluding the examination of the rest of the local government areas before declaration. The result I was being pressured to sign did not emanate from me as the duly appointed Returning Officer for the Senatorial election.”
While denying suggestions by the defense counsel that he published his report on a national daily and that he was working for the petitioners, Dr. Ihekweaba stated that he knew nothing about the publication, adding that he was not working for anyone and that he had nothing to lose by doing that which was needful, by swearing to the affidavit to ensure that the right things were done. He asserted that he was answerable to his conscience and INEC that appointed him, pointing out that if he was doing what he did for money, that despite the several threats being made to him and his family, PDP and the Respondents were ready to pay him more than anyone could have.
Speaking to The Guardian shortly after the sitting, counsel to the petitioner, Chief Chris Uche, (SAN) said: “I feel happy with what happened in today’s sitting. This crucial witness that testified, the Returning Officer for the election had to say the truth; that he wrote a report and swore to an affidavit of facts saying that the result that was brought to him to declare was not the correct result. That is commendable.” The Senior Advocate noted that for somebody in that position to risk it and insist on the proper thing being done derives from his desire for things to change; “I am very happy and hope that many Nigerians will adopt this path of honour.”
“We have seen the result and like he said there were so many discrepancies and irregularities and that the committee reviewed two local governments out of five and found a lot of irregularities, they were bringing pressure on him to still declare the wrong result and he refused. So he has given that evidence before the tribunal and with the evidence filed, the tribunal would come to a proper decision,” Chief Uche remarked. His words: “The most important thing is that they appointed the RO through a letter and if they needed to replace him, they ought to withdraw his appointment and through another letter appoint a replacement. That is very important and there was no such communication anywhere. Why did they not issue a letter terminating him?”
As debates continue on the propriety of Mrs. Amina Zakari conducting the governorship election in Kogi and Bayelsa States, it would be worthwhile for INEC to collate the reports of the recent election with a view to tying up all loose ends so as to ensure credible, transparent and foolproof election.
Moreover, given the issues involved in the two upcoming elections, the chances are there that the urge by the parties to enjoy undue advantage would be high. Consequently, the acid test would be for INEC to hold its independence and impartiality tenaciously as the Abia North Returning Officer demonstrated.