Spectre of electoral fraud hangs over Rivers State
LIKE an earthquake, the unprecedented sweeping nullification of the 2015 governorship and twenty of the House of Assembly elections in Rivers State by election tribunals sitting in Abuja, have continued to send shock waves across the state’s political landscape even as politicians across the divides are poised to tackle each other in reaction to the development.
While the incumbent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government has frowned at the verdicts, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has described the nullification as a nail on the coffin of electoral rascality, electoral violence, election fraud and impunity.
Though the decision of the Justice Mohammed Ambrusa-led tribunal, in the case of the governorship petition, has merely accentuated the long held belief that Rivers State is an epicenter of electoral fraud, occasioned by electoral officers’ malfeasance, the fierce political contest that shaped the rhythm and nature of the last election might be reenacted as both PDP and APC strategize for a possible rerun sometimes next year.
The state governor, Nyesom Wike, who made history as the first incumbent whose election was nullified by a tribunal, has described the verdict as defective on the basis that the tribunal hinged its verdict on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) alleged infraction of its administrative guidelines on the use of card readers.
Wike has argued that apart from the reported malfunctioning of the card readers supplied by INEC, which placed no advantage on any of the contestants, the election that took place in the state last April was adjudged to be generally peaceful.
“It is common knowledge that INEC’s card readers malfunctioned throughout the country in the 2015 general elections. It is also common knowledge that wherever the card readers malfunctioned, manual accreditation, which is the only process recognized by the current Electoral Act, was used to accredit voters all over the country” he said.
Wike said he was not aware of any state in the country where the election was positioned as a result of the failure of the card readers. In addition, he said the Court of Appeal had in the case between the PDP candidate in Lagos State, Olujimi Agbaje and the incumbent, Akinwunmi Ambode, clearly stated that the partial or non-use of the card readers is not the basis for the cancellation of an election.
“Yet, against all legal odds and the grains of logic, the tribunal in its wisdom decided to accord undue legal weight to the straw of statements around the use or non-use of card readers to support its decision in the face of a hopelessly bad case of the petitioners. As we all know, our judicial system is built on the doctrine of hierarchy of courts in which the lower courts are bound by the decision of the courts of higher hierarchy on the same or similar issues” said Wike.
From all indications, the nullification of the elections is clearly a pointer to how the spectre of electoral fraud has continued to undermine democratization process in the state.
The APC which challenged Wike’s victory said the electoral fraud took the form of procedural violations of electoral law by some officials of INEC who allegedly connived with PDP chieftains and outright use of violence against APC members.
APC governorship candidate, Dakuku Peterside, said the decision of the court has restored the faith of the resilient people of Rivers State in the electoral process as a fair means of choosing leaders.
The Guardian gathered from sources within the PDP that while the party is exploring all legal options to reverse the unfavourable verdicts, the party has commenced preparation for a possible rerun next year, amid grave concerns that the ruling APC at the centre which considers Rivers state as a strategic state, will deploy all its machinery of state at its disposal to win the rerun of the governorship polls.
Wike has insisted that the mandate, freely give him and the PDP remains intact, safe and secure. He has warned his political adversaries to bear in mind that the law and facts are on his side. According to him, the PDP has competent legal team to reverse the nullification of the April polls in the appellate courts.
“If we go to the Supreme Court and they say we should do election, you and I know if they like, if they like let them bring special squad, they want to, we will tell them that is not going to be possible. This one that you have given us your mandate, we must secure it” he told the people.
However, Peterside has told The Guardian that the APC Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari, will not use state apparatus to muscle its way to power in case the Supreme Court sustains the nullification of the polls and order a rerun. He expressed optimism that if a level playing field is provided, the APC will defeat the incumbent PDP government in Rivers State.
“I can assure you that the APC will not attempt to abuse institutions of the state or use institutions of the state to force itself on the people. We have been out there in the field selling the change agenda to our people, that government should be about improving the lot of the people in every dimension, their social welfare, physical infrastructure, environment and all that makes life worth living. And so, we will not attempt to do that.
“We will go and market our programme to the people and I believe the people of Rivers State know the difference between black and white; between what is sustainable and what is ephemeral, between what is good for them and what is not good for them. Rivers people will vote APC. We will not abuse state power at all” said Peterside.
Because the state is strategic to both the PDP and the APC, both parties, in the months ahead, will be perfecting their plans for what is most likely going to be most epic electoral contest in the state since the return to civil rule in 1999.
Already, leaders of 27 out of the 29 political parties that participated in the discredited elections have pledged their support for the embattled Wike. The parties said in the event that the Apex Court sustains the nullification, they will align with the governor to ensure his return to office
The parties under the auspices of Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC, through its spokesperson and State Chairman of the Labour Party, LP, Favour Reuben, said the nullification of the polls was shocking because by the reckoning of IPAC, the election was free, fair and credible.
“Should the Supreme Court order that the Rivers State governorship election should be held again, all the governorship candidates of all the other parties that participated in the last governorship election, other than the APC will step down for Wike of the PDP”, said Reuben.
The polarization of the then dominant PDP in 2013 primarily over who succeeds former Governor Rotimi Amaechi, had fuelled a desperate political struggle that led to his decamping to the APC. The protracted political rivalry between the PDP and the APC was accompanied by widespread use of state apparatus for intimidation and harassment and use of gangs to kill and maim opponents. There is however concerns that the precarious security situation in the state occasioned by the prolonged political struggle, might worsen as the PDP and APC which have a lot of political scores to settle return to the trenches.
A political analyst, Richard Obinna, said INEC, whose integrity and credibility has been tainted, must first concern itself with what strategies should be adopted to combat electoral malfeasance on the part of its officials that characterized the April polls.
Obinna observed that the stakes are really high now in Rivers state than before, hence, the new leadership of the electoral umpire must ensure the abuse of electoral institutions for personal or political gain would not repeat itself again.
According to him, any attempt to align with any of the contending political forces in Rivers state to subvert the democratic process, would have adverse implication for the state which has remained politically unstable since 2013. According to him, wherever electoral fraud is perpetrated, those who intentionally engage in the act, undermine political stability.
“The new INEC must do things differently. There is palpable fear that the APC might want to capitalize on its control of the centre to grab power at all cost. But INEC must ensure that there is a level playing field for all contestants. INEC must bear in mind that when elections are poorly conducted such that the will of the people is subverted, it is democracy and governance that suffer” he said.
On his part, the state PDP chairman, Felix Obuah described the verdict as a travesty of justice and rape on democracy. He said no matter the degree of conspiracy by the APC-led Federal Government, the falsehood and gang-up against the PDP will amount to a nullity in the end.
He said, “There is no problem. We have appealed the judgment. That is man’s own judgment. This is God’s own government. Wike did not emerge as a governor on his own. God has ordained him and nobody can remove him from office. We are taking judgment in good faith. We have appealed the judgment and by the grace of God, this is man’s judgment. God’s judgment will prevail.”
Meanwhile the tension continues to build up.