BATTLE FOR ENUGU EAST SENATE SEAT: Disquiet over revelations at tribunal

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BY OUR REPORTER

Emeka-NnajiOf the twenty petitions brought before the State and National Assembly Election Petitions Tribunal sitting in Enugu, none has drawn as much public attention as the one by the former governor of the state, Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani of the People for Democratic Change (PDC) challenging the declaration of Senator Gilbert Nnaji of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as the winner of the March 28 election for Enugu East Senatorial District by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). This can be easily judged from the constant overflow of the tribunal venue by anxious party supporters, interested members of the public and even newsmen who hardly find sitting spaces in the usually packed courtroom.

Declaration of election result ignites mass protests

In the build up to the election, Dr. Nnamani’s style of engaging directly with voters in their streets and neighbourhoods had enlivened his campaign trail and stood in marked contrast to the accustomed flamboyant campaign rallies of the PDP at public arenas. His rating by keen watchers as the frontrunner in the race did not however translate to a win. In the result announced by INEC, Senator Nnaji was declared as winner with 69,544 votes, and Nnamani second with 57,528 votes, while the other candidates trailed far behind. The announcement ignited mass protests in the streets Enugu which lasted for two days.

The declaration of the result itself was dogged by controversies and suspense. The day after the polls, the results of four of the six local governments in the district were declared. In Nnaji’s home of Enugu East LGA, he managed to win Nnamani by 13,411 and 12,166 votes, respectively. In Enugu South LGA, Nnamani won with 12,192 votes against Nnaji’s 10,579 votes. Enugu North LGA, said INEC, witnessed the tightest race with Nnaji scoring 12,730 votes compared to Nnamani’s 12,017 votes. But in Nkanu West LGA where Nnamani hails from, he scored 12,169 to beat Nnaji who got 6,655 votes. Nnamani therefore shot into the lead with a total margin of 5,169 votes. But the results of the remaining two LGAs of Isi-Uzo and Nkanu East were allegedly detained into the night by INEC officials amid spreading rumours of well coordinated result collation manoeuvres.

Isi-Uzo LGA as the game changer?

When the result for Isi-Uzo LGA was finally declared with Nnaji’s tally upturning Nnamani’s seemingly unstoppable lead, the political landscape rumbled with disbelief and outrage. According to INEC, Nnaji mustered a total of 16,202 votes in Isi-Uzo while Nnamani struggled to get a paltry 2,917 votes, giving Nnaji an instant edge. Chest-thumping PDP operatives celebrated the result, tagging it the game changer in the election. But the result for Isi-Uzo presented an immediate conundrum widely at odds with observable trends in the rate of voter registration, collection of permanent voter cards (PVCs), and the turnout of voters in the other councils of the district and the state in general.

For instance, the entirely urban Enugu North LGA, the most densely populated in the district, with 137,084 registered voters, recorded 29,580 total votes, representing 21.57% of registered voters. Also, Enugu South LGA, with 100,389 registered voters, recorded 27,415 total votes, or 27.30%. But the rural Isi-Uzo, the least populated, with 35,603 registered voters, surprisingly recorded 23,217 total votes, or a staggering 65.2% turnout of registered voters. Meanwhile, INEC further declared Nnaji as the winner in Nkanu East LGA, a traditional Nnamani stronghold, with 12,169 votes against Nnamani’s 6,655 votes. This was even as some observers wondered if the last result was not an effort to mitigate the conspicuous incongruity of Isi-Uzo result. Whatever the case, Nkanu East increased Nnaji’s total margin of victory against Nnamani to 12,016 votes.

Avalanche of evidences admitted by tribunal

In April, Dr. Nnamani petitioned the election tribunal in Enugu, which began sitting in May, urging the tribunal to declare him as the winner of the polls. Joined in the suit against Nnaji were the PDP and INEC as the second and third respondents, respectively. Nnamani suffered some losses when the tribunal, in its ruling of 5th August on the preliminary objections by the respondents against his petition, struck out a number of paragraphs in his petition but found substantial facts in the remaining paragraphs to sustain the petition. As hearing opened, Nnamani tendered over 1,000 evidences comprising mostly of result sheets, voters’ registers and other INEC documents used for the election which were admitted and marked as exhibits. He also listed a total of 412 witnesses to prove his case.

However, when on 8th August his lead counsel Mr. O. Jolaawo, holding the brief of Mr. Ricky Tarfa, SAN, sought to tender the crucial INEC polling unit card reader accreditation data for the presidential and national assembly elections which were generated by the ICT department and signed by the commission’s Director of Legal Services, this was met with stiff resistance mounted by the lead counsel to Nnaji, Mr. P.I.N. Ikwueto, SAN and that of the PDP, Mr. P.M.B. Onyia. After heated arguments, on a day the INEC lead counsel, Mr. Benson Ibezim, stunned the tribunal by joining the other respondents in rejecting the document issued by his commission, the tribunal chairman Justice M. O. Adewara held that the evidence sought to be tendered met all the conditions of admissibility and ruled in favour of the petitioner.

Startling revelations from card reader accreditation record

As it turned out, the card reader accreditation record likely holds the clues to the posers on the suspected inflated figures contained in the results, particularly those of Isi-Uzo and Nkanu East LGAs. This reporter obtained a copy of the accreditation record tendered before the tribunal. For Isi-Uzo which had 23,217 total votes cast, the total accreditation by card reader stood at 5,481, leaving a total of 17,736 votes (or 76.3%), which INEC has yet to explain. Also, INEC has no documentation of any incidence form to prove that any manual accreditation took place in the entire council area. Thus Isi-Uzo, far from being the touted game changer, may well prove to be the game spoiler to Nnaji and the PDP!

For Nkanu East, with 18,355 total votes, those accredited with card readers were 1,934 voters, leaving the total unexplainable votes to 16,421 (or 89.4% of the purported 18,355 votes!). For the entire senatorial zone, while INEC declared a total of 154,303 votes cast, the card readers recorded a total of 98,222 accredited voters. All manual accredtations supported by incidence forms stood at 2,283.

Forensic expert testifies, exposes extensive malfeasance

On 6th August, the tribunal granted the petitioner’s application to bring an expert witness to present the report of the forensic examination of the materials used for the election by INEC, for which an earlier order had been issued. This was after the spirited objection of the respondents to block the witness was overruled by the tribunal. The witness, Adeola Olayiwole, in his deposition gave an impressive resume of his experience in the field, listing several cases where the court relied on his evidence to upturn election results. This reporter also obtained the main report as tendered which is quite revealing in its meticulous analysis. It identified 20 types of irregularities in the election that constituted serious violations of the Electoral Act as well as INEC’s election guidelines and manual. The key ones bordered on over-voting, over-accreditation, excessive use of ballot papers beyond those supplied to the polling units and mutilation of result sheets.

The report observed that INEC could not avail a good number of the results sheets and other vital documents used for the election for inspection and examination. For instance, it stated, INEC provided only 700 of the card readers used in the 1,051 polling units where elections supposedly took place in the district. Also, INEC provided only 970 polling unit result sheets, out of a total number of 1,051 result sheets, and only 194 of the 1,051 forms used to allocate ballot papers to polling units; while only 222 of the 1,051 voters’ registers were provided. Meanwhile, the report revealed an actual total of 1,037 polling units in the district, contrary to the 1,051 contained in INEC result sheets.

On a day the PDP operatives were allegedly working in cahoots with INEC to augment votes for the then President Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential election held at the same time, the forensic examination discovered mind-boggling anomalies in the accreditation records. particularly in 9 wards in Senator Nnaji’s Enugu East LGA where those accredited for the senatorial election was 52,903, while the figure for the presidential election was inflated to 96,375, a huge disparity of 43,472 voters.

Among other irregularities identified were widespread forgeries in result sheets especially in twelve wards examined in Enugu East LGA. In a telling submission, the report cited Polling Unit 008 in Abakpa where “a forger inserted the figure “1,” in front of records for PDP, (changing 107 votes into 1,107 votes), but he forgot to complete the forgery and left total valid votes and total votes cast at their true values of 112 and 116 respectively!”

Witnesses admit to irregularities

When hearing opened on 17th August, the tribunal gave the two sides 14 days each to close their cases. While the petitioner appeared in a hurry to call as many witnesses as possible to prove his case, the respondents placed many hurdles on his way. Not surprisingly, the petitioner succeeded in calling less than 20 of the 412 witnesses earlier listed, consisting mainly of his party’s collation agents. While the witnesses painted graphic pictures of an election severely compromised by a sinister INEC/PDP conspiracy, the respondents were able to extract from them concessions of instances of irregularities in some places won by the petitioner.

When the respondents’ turn came, they appeared tentative on calling witnesses, twice applying for adjournments until left with only four days. But as election petitions go, as a lawyer who has followed the case explained to this reporter, the respondents were not under pressure to call witnesses, pointing out that the onus of proof lies with the petitioner to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that he indeed won the election. When the counsel to the first respondent, Mr. Peter Eze eventually called his witnesses after calculated delays, he limited the number to 4 of the 18 earlier announced. The counsels to Nnaji and the PDP, and the former’s witnesses, stuck to their position that the election was above board. Along with INEC, they also repeatedly argued, citing page 50 of the INEC election manual, that the only irregularity that can nullify an election is where the total votes cast exceed the total accredited or registered voters. The PDP, however, elected not to call any witness.

The four witnesses called by Nnaji were Messrs Eric Ebeh, Richard Ani and Okechukwu Ede, his collation agents for Isi-Uzo, Nkanu East and Enugu South LGAs, as well as Emmanuel Ifeanyi Nnaji, his collation agent for the senatorial district. Ebe who testified on 8th September contradicted himself over the actual date of collation of results. Although he told the tribunal that collation of results for Isi-Uzo started in the early hours of 29th March, his signature and date on the result sheet showed 28th March. After testifying that election was held in all polling units in the council and denying any irregularities in the entire process, Ebe reluctantly agreed that there were no accreditations and voting ticks in the voters’ registers, even as he also read out to the tribunal the portion of election manual which stipulates that any voter issued with ballot paper must have his name ticked.

Richard Ani contradicted himself when he informed the tribunal that collation of results was concluded in the early hours of 29th March, only to be shown a copy of the result sheet where his signature was dated 28th March. Also, after testifying that no other results came in on the 29th March, he was shown a result sheet with the impression of INEC stamp dated 29th March, but with 28th March written in the column for the collation officer. The witness was also shown voters’ registers for Nkerefi which had no accreditation ticks for the national assembly elections. He was made to confirm exhibits where PDP score of 75 was changed to 186 while PDC score was reduced from 35 to 6, and another exhibit where 200 voters were accredited while the total number of votes cast was 235, and yet more exhibits where PDP was scored 100 and 118 while no scores were entered for the PDC.

Okechukwu Ede, a legal practitioner who testified that accreditation and voting were properly conducted when he testified on 9th September, also relapsed to self-contradictions under cross-examination. This was after telling the tribunal that he was duly accredited with the card reader and voted in his Ugwuaji Ward, Polling Unit 006, only to be unsettled by the petitioner’s counsel, Jolaawo when he was shown the voters’ register for his polling unit with voter number 134 bearing his name and picture, but with no ticks to indicate he passed through accreditation or voted. Pressed further, Ede confirmed that 25,093 voters were accredited for the election in Enugu South LGA but that 32,056 voted.

Ifeanyi Nnaji also affirmed that the election was shorn of irregularities. But after telling the tribunal that he was duly accredited at his Awkunanaw East Ward, Polling Unit  011, where he claimed to have voted, he also cast doubt on his credibility under cross-examination by Jolaawo when the voters’ register on which he identified himself as voter number 030 had no voting tick to prove he voted in the election at issue. He became subdued in the face of more grievous evidences of malpractices in different parts of the senatorial district. Again, he confirmed that though there was a single accreditation for the three elections held on 28th March, the accreditation figures for each of the three elections in many result sheets did not tally. The witness also confirmed several instances of inflation of results such as where figure 3 was inserted before 94 to change a PDP score to 394 votes, another instance where a PDP score of 80 was changed to 480 votes, and yet another from 36 to 236 votes, and so on. The witness elicited a general laughter in the filled courtroom when he averred that the collation of result for Nkanu East was done outside the designated INEC office following “an agreement” supposedly reached by parties he did not name.

INEC officials give contradictory evidences 

The first INEC witness, Mrs. Lauretta Uroko, the Electoral Officer for Isi Uzo during the election, after testifying to a free and fair election, began her self-contradictory utterances under cross-examination by the petitioner when she confirmed that there were no accreditation ticks to prove that accreditation of voters actually took place as prescribed in the commission’s election guidelines and manual. In a mild drama, she insisted that mutilations must be countersigned in the presence of all party agents, only to state that result sheets with cancellations not countersigned could not be annulled, while saying she did not know when unsigned cancellations were as a result of mistake or fraud. The witness also confirmed that an incidence form must be filled before manual accreditation, but could not recall if any incidence form was used in the entire council area overseen by her. The witness further confirmed that only 53 card readers were used in the 118 polling units in the council area. She confirmed a litany of other irregularities including improper ticks for accreditations, numbers in result sheets not adding up, while also agreeing that the Electoral Act, INEC election manual and guidelines were all put in place to ensure free and fair elections if followed.

Petermary Nwosu, the Electoral Officer in Nkanu East towed the familiar path of defending the election with vehemence as properly conducted in compliance with set regulations, asking the tribunal to uphold the result. Under cross-examination, however, he admitted that the ticks for voting in the exhibits he was shown did not indicate whether they were for national assembly, presidential or state elections. On what should happen where the total valid votes cast exceed the number of accredited voters, he testified that the presiding officer is required to write “ANOMALY EXISTS” across the result sheet and file a report to the collation officer following which the result is annulled. But when many of such instances were shown to him without the said remark being made or the result nullified, he replied that such elections had been “tampered with”.

Mrs. Theresa Nwabisi who served as Electoral Officer for Enugu North LGA, where she said, in response to a pointed question from the counsel to the petitioner, that a perfect election took place, disagreed with the previous witness on the fate of a polling unit result where the total votes cast exceed the number of accredited or registered voters. She  testified that the ward collation officer has the discretion to cancel or not cancel the result, adding further that cancellation becomes mandatory only if the ward collation officer believes it is a result of malpractice. She was shown instances where the total votes cast exceeded those accredited, and copies of result sheets which had no entry for accredited voters. The witness confirmed that the affected polling unit results were all entered into the collation result sheets from the ward to the local government to senatorial district level without the required remarks being made. Also, the witness confirmed the mix-up of result sheets sent to different polling units, admitting that though each result sheet was customized with the name and code number of the specific polling unit printed on it, the names were crossed with biros and used for other places. She said the commission knew about the mix-ups even while the election was ongoing.

Counsel to INEC, Mr. E. E. Ogbodu who had earlier informed the tribunal of his intension to call six witnesses that acted as electoral officers in the district, suddenly closed his case after the third witness was discharged from the witness box. This was interpreted by a lawyer who spoke to this reporter as a tactical move to save the electoral body from further credibility crisis following the contradictory statements of its senior officials. The hearing stage over, the tribunal adjourned to 28th September for adoption of written addresses.

Anxiety mounts as judgement day approaches

The tribunal was initially chaired by Justice Michael Edem. But on 30th July, he announced the constitution of a second panel and the transfer of Nnamani’s petition, alongside six others, to the new panel headed by Justice Adewara, with Mr. Justice A. B. Mohammed and Justice G. C. Anulude as members. In his inaugural speech, Justice Adewara said the second panel became necessary following the high number of petitions received after the elections and the imperative of dispensing with all cases within the mandatory 180 days which elapses on 13th October. He assured the parties of accelerated hearing, adding that “if need be we shall sit on weekends and public holidays for our assignment.”  Since then, the tribunal has attended to the case diligently. On a particular day, the tribunal sat from 9 am, adjourned for 2 hours and resumed proceedings till 12 midnight only to sit again the next day. This has earned the panel the commendation of all parties.

The high number of people drawn to the tribunal and the growing media interest in the case has heightened public anxiety in Enugu as the 13th October deadline for judgment nears. What remains to be seen is what the tribunal will do with the avalanche of evidences of irregularities placed before it. A senior lawyer sympathetic to the PDP told this reporter that the election should be cancelled and a fresh one conducted given what he described as ubiquitous irregularities established before the tribunal. But another lawyer disagreed, saying it would not be in the interest of substantial justice for the petitioner to be subjected to the rigors of another round of election when he had convincingly demonstrated that he won the election. “What the petitioner is complaining about is electoral fraud, which the respondents have tried to dress up as mere irregularities. You must have also noticed that the respondents have so far not addressed the issue of card reader accreditation data and the incidence forms compulsory for manual accreditation. How can they be overlooked?”, he queried. He said to cancel the election was to inadvertently encourage and reward election riggers, pointing at many tribunal decisions that restored usurped mandates to their rightful winners.

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