By Uchenna Agboanike
Mounting anxiety is palpable in the air in Enugu metropolis and its environs on the imminent verdict of the National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Enugu in the petition brought before it by the former governor of the state, Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani of the Peoples for Democratic Change (PDC), contesting the declaration of Senator Gilbert Nnaji of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as winner of the March 28 election for Enugu East senatorial district. Spontaneous mass protests had erupted in Enugu, following the declaration of Nnaji as winner by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC). The protests continued into the second day until Nnamani himself appeared at the scene to calm frayed nerves, assuring them that he would seek redress at the tribunal when constituted.
This he did by filing his petition in April while the tribunal commenced sitting in May. At its last sitting of September 28, the chairman of the tribunal, Justice M. O. Adewara reserved judgment for a date he said would be communicated later to the parties, stressing it would be on or before October 13, to meet the 180 days deadline stipulated by the Electoral Act, from the date of declaration of result by INEC, for an election petition to be concluded. With the October 13 inching closer by the day, political discussions in many circles in the city have centred on the likely outcome of the petition, which could ruffle political calculations in the state.
The election was mired in controversies, amid widespread reports of orchestrated rigging and violence in targeted areas. Questions also abound on the extent of collusion between the PDP and INEC in the election. In a post-election open letter to the then Chairman of INEC, Prof. Attahiru Jega, which was published in a number of national dailies, the PDC had documented specific instances of manipulation and fraud that it alleged characterised the election in certain areas, urging the electoral body to probe the complicity of its officials in the malpractices. Indeed, media coverage of the election consistently alluded to unwholesome occurrences in three particular areas, namely Isi-Uzo, Nkanu East and Umuenenwe in Iji-Nike ward, Enugu East LGA.
Among the complaints of voters and party agents in many press reports, and from random interview of Enugu residents by this reporter, were the refusal of INEC presiding officers to display the original result sheets to party polling agents before the commencement of voting as prescribed by the INEC electoral guideline, deliberate mix-up of result sheets to areas other than those they were customised for, in what turned out to be a contrived confusion, ballot stuffing, refusal of INEC presiding officers to issue duly signed result sheets to party agents, and deliberate delay of counting of votes and collation of results into the night to facilitate the doctoring of results. Also, places designated as ward collation centres for results from polling units were generally bypassed by INEC officials and the exercise shifted to rowdy and poorly lit halls in the local government headquarters late in the night for easier coordination of their sinister objectives. Remarkably, these same patterns featured in the controversial governorship election in Anambra State last year, which the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its guber candidate, Dr. Chris Ngige, decried to no end.
The PDC had wondered if it was a mere coincidence or, perhaps, happenstance that the Anambra election was presided over by the same Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) at the centre of Enugu East senatorial election imbroglio, Prof. Chukwuemeka Onukogu.
Though there were indications of irregularities in different parts of the district, the malpractices at Isi-Uzo and Nkanu East LGAs, as well as Umuenwene, Iji Nike ward, in Enugu East LGA, were quite telling in their brazenness, the PDC said. In Umuenwene, a prominent senatorial candidate, and his wife arrived with armed thugs to disrupt the ongoing counting of votes after word got to him that he was losing badly in his supposed home base. He thereafter took charge of the centre, backed by his thugs, senior INEC personnel and security agencies. It was here in Umuenenwe that some uncooperative INEC ad-hoc staff, members of the NYSC, were bullied and held hostage for hours while this candidate and his wife personally took part in thumb-printing of ballot booklets and writing of fake results. It was also here that the PDC collation agent, Hon. KGB Oguakwa, was abducted, tortured and abandoned for dead by PDP henchmen led by a well known thug, until he was rescued by military troops on election patrol. Though totally denied by the PDP at the tribunal, videos of these incidents captured on phone cameras are still in circulation.
In Nkanu East LGA, a serving very senior state government official led the attack on some polling stations in Isiogbo Nara, using his official police escorts, who fired gunshots to scare away voters. He made away with the voting materials until forced to release them by military troops. But this same ‘evangelical’ VIP would surface again at the INEC office in the local government headquarters, Amagunze, which was under siege by heavily armed policemen led by a very notorious chief security officer in the state, which enabled them to cart away the collation materials to an unknown destination. At the tribunal, the PDP collation agent for Nkanu East, Mr. Ifeanyi Nnaji threw the filled courtroom into bouts of laughter when he testified that the collation of result for the local government was indeed done outside the designated INEC office in the council following what he called “an agreement”, supposedly reached by parties he did not disclose.
Isi-Uzo Local Government Area however witnessed the most blatant malfeasance, as there was little no voting at all. Party thugs simply hijacked the election materials and thereafter embarked on the outright forgery of results. But in apparent desperation, and obviously convinced that as in the 2011 election, the result this time would also go unchallenged by Nnamani, they cooked up ridiculous figures that put simple logic on the tailspin. For a local government area with 35,603 registered voters, the total votes cast as recorded by INEC were 23,217 votes. This represented 65.2% voter turnout, against the general average of less than 28% in the other 16 LGAs in the state. Of the 23,217 votes, Nnaji was credited with 16,202 while Nnamani got 2,917 votes, thus upturning Nnamani’s lead in four LGAs combined. The purported high voter turnout aside, the next instant pointer that the forgery of result for Isi-Uzo was amateurishly done was that while the result sheets from other local governments bore signs of passing through different hands in the field in the course of collation, the ones from Isi-Uzo were as neat and fresh as a document prepared in the comfy of an air-conditioned office!
During the hearing, a welter of shocking evidences were unfurled before the tribunal, which severely tarnished the declared results for Isi-Uzo, and also Nkanu East, a natural Nnamani safe zone, where Nnaji was given 12,169 votes against Nnamani’s 6,655 votes, of the recorded 18,355 total votes cast, in a suspected afterthought to diminish the singular incredulity of Isi-Uzo result.
But arguably, the most damming evidence presented before the tribunal was the card reader accreditation record for the election authenticated and issued by INEC, ironically providing a lethal weapon against the very election it was striving to defend. The PDP, knowing no other less opaque method of winning election in its 16 years rule, had dissipated energies instigating a national hullabaloo to thwart the use of the novel card reader technology by INEC for the 2015 elections. At the tribunal, they behaved no differently, employing every legal filibuster to block its admission in evidence. And when the tribunal ruled to admit the card reader data in evidence, it became clear what they were desperate to cover up.
INEC, goaded on by the PDP, had argued endlessly at the tribunal, to the point of singing like a broken record, that the only irregularity that is sufficient to invalidate an election is where the total votes cast exceeded the total number of accredited or registered voters. Meanwhile, the INEC election guideline and manual, they also conceded, prescribed two methods of voter accreditation: By card reader and where it fails, by manual accreditation, each of which must, however, must be backed by a duly completed and signed incidence form. Yet for Isi-Uzo LGA, which recorded 23,217 total votes cast, the total accreditation by card reader stood at 5,481, leaving a total of 17,736 votes, which INEC could not explain. Shockingly, INEC could not produce a single incidence form to prove that any manual accreditation took place in the entire council area. But the story got even more interesting on Nkanu East, with 18,355 total votes cast, which, however, recorded a total of 1,934 voters accredited by card reader, leaving a total of 16,421 votes which INEC failed to explain. For the entire senatorial zone, INEC declared a total of 154,303 votes cast, while those accredited by card readers stood at a total of 98,222 voters. All manual accredtations supported by incidence forms in the senatorial district stood at 2,283.
Another source of damaging evidences came from the forensic examination and analysis of the materials used for the election by INEC, conducted by experts on behalf of the petitioner. The report showed that INEC could not provide a good number of the results sheets and other vital documents used for the election for inspection and examination. For instance, INEC provided only 700 of the card readers used in the 1,051 polling units where elections supposedly took place in the district.
The State Chairman of the PDC, Comrade Sunday Ani, had in a press conference accused INEC of brazen partisanship during the election. His words: “We thought we were going into an election with the PDP. But in the field, we soon realized that while we had the popular support, all the odds were heavily stacked against us as INEC openly took sides with the PDP. It was a straight fight between our party members and INEC officials, while the PDP operated behind INEC”.
Continuing, he said: “They said the international election observers had predicted a landslide win for President Jonathan in Enugu State and that they were under instruction from above to maximize votes for him in order to counteract the expected surge of votes for Buhari particularly in the North-West and South-West. They said we were victims of the collateral damages of the plan”, he said.
If one was initially inclined to dismiss this as the ranting of a loser, evidences from the forensic scrutiny of INEC documents showed otherwise. Though there was a single accreditation of voters for the presidential, senatorial and house of representatives elections held at the same time, the forensic report uncovered startling discrepancies in the accreditation figures recorded in the result sheets for the three elections. This was noticeably the case in 9 wards in Senator Gilbert Nnaji’s home of Enugu East LGA where those accredited for the senatorial election were recorded as 52,903 voters, while the figure for the presidential election was inflated to 96,375, a huge disparity of 43,472 voters in only one council.
From the forensic report also came the revelation that widespread forgeries were observed in many 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!”
The tribunal witnessed a lot of drama especially during the cross-examination of witnesses, as more and more damning irregularities were unveiled and confirmed by witnesses, including those that initially vowed that the elections were free and fair and without any hitch. But as the time came for INEC to close its case, the drama and excitement in the tribunal reached a crescendo. 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 nullified, while conceding 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 claimed she 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 other irregularities including improper ticks for accreditations, figures 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 by then familiar line 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 presidential, senatorial or house of representatives elections. On what should happen where the total 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 voided, he replied that such elections had been “tampered with”.
Mrs. Theresa Nwabisi who served as Electoral Officer for Enugu North LGA, where she asserted, 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 anywhere. 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 in progress but could not explain if it was remedied.
Counsel to INEC, Mr. E. E. Ogbodu who had earlier informed the tribunal of his intension to call 6 witnesses that acted as electoral officers in each of the 6 LGAs in the district, abruptly closed his case after the third witness was discharged from the witness box. This was interpreted by a senior 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 lawyer, who has followed the case, when asked for his opinion on the proceedings so far, said he would not be drawn into a matter that was sub judice.
He however said the evidences laid before the tribunal were sufficiently shocking to him. “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. I believe they will do this in their written addresses. Let’s wait for the decision of the court”, he said. The closing of its case by INEC marked the end of the hearing stage, while the parties adopted their written addresses on September 28.
The huge crowds that constantly keep vigil of the tribunal proceedings and the growing media interest in the case has heightened public anxiety in the Coal City as the 13th October deadline for judgment arrives. What is almost sure is that the security agencies will have a tough time grappling with the mammoth crowd that will throng the tribunal premises when the date of judgment finally comes.
Agboanike wrote from Abakpa-Nike, Enugu