As the people of Anambra Central Senatorial district warm up for the re-run election ordered by the Court of Appeal,Okechukwu Obeta examines the present political equation in the state, as well as the strength and chances of the two major contenders for the seat – Senator Uche Ekwunife and Chief Victor Umeh.
For any dispassionate political observer, the Anambra Central Senatorial re-run election will certainly be a tug of war between Senator Uche Ekwunife and the immediate past national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Anambra state, Chief Victor Umeh. Ekwunife was the senator representing the Anambra Central Senatorial zone in the National Assembly until few days ago, precisely on December 7, when the Court of Appeal sitting in Enugu sent her packing and ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct a fresh poll for the senatorial seat.
The appellate court judgment was based on an appeal filed by Umeh against the decision of Justice Nayai Agabana-led three-man National/State House of Assembly Election Petition Trinunal which sat in Awka. Justice Agabana and his co-jurists had dismissed the petition brought by Umeh challenging Ekwunife’s declaration by INEC as winner of the senatorial seat during the March 28 National Assembly polls.
Incidentally, the appellate court headed by Justice A.H. Yahaya in its ruling held that the ruling delivered by the Justice Agabana panel was a miscarriage of justice. So, the jurists in a unanimous decision said “the perverse decision of the lower tribunal cannot stand”.
The Court of Appeal jurists further held that the election in the entire senatorial zone was conducted in breach of the Electoral Act and Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended.
Since the nullification of the senatorial election, the political atmosphere in the state, especially in the senatorial zone has been soaked in tension. Last Sunday for instance, at the St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Awka, supporters of Ekwunife and Umeh would have gone for each other’s jugular after the 6am mass if not for the prompt intervention of the Cathedral Administrator, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Chukwum. During the traditional “prayer of the faithful” one of the volunteers, an apparent supporter of Ekwunife, offered a fervent prayer urging God to give Ekwunife victory during the re-run election.
Though the prayer still elicited the normal “Amen” response from a sizeable number of worshipers, it was clear that the prayer didn’t go down well with other worshipers, most of who were apparently Umeh’s supporters. This is, perhaps, because Umeh is also a Catholic and he has been contributing enormously to the development of the church, especially in the diocese. Besides, he is a Knight of the Catholic Church. So, his supporters and the church administration were said to be unhappy with such a prayer. They viewed the prayer as projecting Ekwunife as the church’s anointed candidate in preference to Umeh.
Though no one in the church openly protested against the prayer before the administrator used the micro-phone and warned that such a prayer was not allowed, some supporters of Umeh started expressing disenchantment over the prayer. Apparently to avert any possible open confrontation that may arise between the supporters of Ekwunife and those of Umeh, the cathedral administrator promptly issued a stern warning against singling out any particular contestant for an election to be prayed for during mass.
Apart from the activities of the pro-Biafra agitators, nothing else dominates public discourse now in the state as the nullification of Ekwunife’s election and the ordering of a re-run election in the senatorial zone. Interestingly, however, while the supporters of Umeh saw the Court of Appeal judgment as victory for democracy and rule of law, the camp of Ekwunife on the other hand viewed the ruling as a miscarriage of justice that was politically motivated.
But in her response, Ekwunife stated that she has accepted the judgment in good faith and urged her supporters to rather remain calm and be committed to ensuring that she was returned to the red chamber of the National Assembly at the end of the re-run election. In fact, most supporters of Ekwunife strongly believe that by the nullification of the entire result of the senatorial election and the ordering of a fresh conduct of the poll, the appellate court turned itself to Father Christmas by granting even the reliefs that were not sought for.
According to those who hold this view, the Court of Appeal, by making those orders, over-reached its judgment on Umeh’s appeal. They strongly argued that the APGA candidate in his petition did not plead for out-right cancellation of the entire senatorial election results, and, so the court ought not to have given him what he did not ask for. Umeh, however dismissed the insinuation saying that those who are expressing the view are either ignorant of the law or are deliberately trying to whip up sentiment to score cheap political points.
He insisted that the appellate court judgment was part of his pleading as according to him “In my petition, of all my prayers, I asked the court to make any pronouncement it deemed fit in the circumstance of going through the petition”. He stated that it was this part of his petition that gave the Court of Appeal the pedestal to give the ruling it gave.
Although INEC is yet to fix a date for the re-run poll, LEADERSHIP gathered that both Ekwunife and Umeh are claiming they will out-shine each other in the poll. Though Ekwunife stated that she has accepted the Court of Appeal judgment in good faith, she however insisted that the senatorial poll was conducted in substantial compliance with the Electoral Act and the Constitution and that she scored the highest number of the lawful votes cast in the election which gave her the victory. She however said that she was very convinced that she is sure to beat Umeh “silly” even if the senatorial election is repeated 100 times.
On his own part, Umeh has described the Court of Appeal judgment as God’s deliberate plan to avail him the opportunity of going to the National Assembly to represent the people of his senatorial zone. He insists that he was the actual winner of the senatorial seat but alleged that Ekwunife used the federal might which was then under the control of her party, PDP to hijack the victory. He expressed confidence that now that PDP is no longer calling the shots at the federal level, and with the APC doggedly fighting corruption and all forms of vices, including electoral fraud, the coast was now clear for the re-run election to be held in a most free, fair and credible manner such that the out-come would reflect the true votes cast by the electorate unlike what obtained during the nullified poll.
Ekwunife and Umeh’s optimism notwithstanding, dispassionate political analysts are however of the strong view that each of them has slim chances of trouncing one another in the re-run election. Interestingly, Umeh and Ekwunife hail from the same Anaocha Local Government Area. Though Ekwunife’s paternal home is Igbo-Ukwu in Aguata Local Government Area, her maiden home is Nri in Anaocha Local Government Area while Umeh hails from Agulu-Uzigbo, also in the same Anaocha Local Government Area.
Among some of the strong advantages some observers say Umeh will have over Ekwunife in the re-run, include the support of the political party structure and power of incumbency. Ekwunife’s PDP does not seem to have a recognized state executive. Though there is Prince Kenneth Emeakayi-led leadership of the party in the state, another faction loyal to the erstwhile god-father of the party in the state, Chief Chris Uba which recognizes Chief Ejike Oguebego as the state Chairman of the party still exists. Even though the party’s candidate during the last gubernatorial election, Comrade Tony Nwoye is being rumoured to have defected to the APC, it is not clear that the factional state executive of PDP loyal to him had ceased to exist.
But Ekwunife is believed to have built strong political structure over the years she had contested elections in the state such that the factionalisation within the state leadership of her party, PDP might not constitute any serious obstacle to her running an effective campaign for the re-run election.