…judicial fireworks may be in the offing

Mixed reactions have greeted the conduct of the 11 November 2023 off-cycle elections in Bayelsa, Kogi and Imo States by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), with some election observers and stakeholders knocking that INEC for what they termed its failure to latch onto a rare opportunity to redeem its battered image.

Issues have also been raised with regard to the role of security agencies in the entire process.

The reactions are coming following INEC’s announcement of winners of the governorship elections in the three states.

In Imo State, INEC on Sunday morning declared incumbent governor and candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Hope Uzodinma, as the winner of the election after he polled a total of 540,308 votes to defeat Samuel Anyanwu of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who polled a total of 71,503 votes, and Senator Athan Achonu of the Labour Party, who polled 64,081 votes.

In Bayelsa State, INEC announced incumbent governor and PDP candidate, Senator Douye Diri, as the winner of the election, saying he polled a total of 175,196 votes to defeat 15 other candidates. His closest rival, APC’s Timipre Sylva, polled 110,108 votes, while the Labour Party candidate came a distant third with a total of 905 votes.

In Kogi State, APC’s Usman Ododo was declared the winner of the election, having polled a total of 446,237 votes to defeat Murtala Ajaka of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who polled a total of 259,052 votes, and Senator Dino Melaye of the PDP, who polled a total of 46,362 votes.

Observer groups fault INEC, security agencies

But the conduct of the election has come under heavy criticism, with the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room saying the Imo, Kogi and Bayelsa polls were a huge disappointment.

The Situation Room, in a statement issued on Monday, said Nigerians had expected that the lessons learnt from the 2023 general elections by INEC and other stakeholders would have been taken to improve the conduct of the off-cycle election.

“The disturbing reports of high levels of results falsification and other forms of electoral irregularities in the governorship elections in the three states raise serious questions about the credibility of elections and the future of democracy in Nigeria,” the Situation Room said.

“Nigerians had expected that the lessons learnt from the 2023 general elections by stakeholders, particularly the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), would have been taken to improve the conduct of these elections.

“Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case, as these elections have proved to be another huge disappointment. The governorship elections conducted in these states represent a major setback for Nigeria’s electoral democracy,” it said.

On deployment challenges and delayed commencement of polls, the Situation Room said its observers reported that voting commenced late in polling units visited and that in Imo State, only 29 per cent of the polling units had commenced voting by the official time of 8:30 am.

“According to reports of Situation Room observers, election officials did not turn up in several polling units in Ideato North and Ideato South LGAs and a few polling units in Orlu, Orsu, Okigwe and Oru East LGAs. The failure of INEC to turn up disenfranchised voters in the affected areas.

“The situation was relatively different in Bayelsa and Kogi States, where 66 per cent and 86 per cent of the polling units observed commenced voting by the official time of 8:30 am.

“Voting in Bayelsa State was, however, affected by the incidents of the capsized boat in Southern Ijaw LGA and the abduction of INEC’s Supervisory Presiding Officer assigned to Registration Area 06 (Ossioma) in Sagbama LGA,” the Situation Room said.

On the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), it stated that the BVAS functioned optimally in most polling units where it was used for accreditation in the states. However, it said it was concerned by reports of over-voting in the three states and INEC’s failure to apply the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022 in addressing the menace last Saturday.

“Also, the inability of INEC to synchronize the record of accreditation by the BVAS with the Result Viewing Portal (IReV Portal) in real time despite improved access to internet broadband in Nigeria is questionable.

“By permitting the bypass of the BVAS, INEC has effectively rolled back the gains of electoral reform recorded in recent times,” it said.

The Situation Room also raised issues on results management, including falsification and mutilation of polling unit-level results in the three states.

“INEC had acknowledged incidents of pre-filled result sheets before the commencement of polls affecting 5 LGAs in Kogi State – Adavi, Ajaokuta, Ogori/Mangongo, Okehi and Okene. Regrettably, INEC has gone ahead to collate results from these LGAs without conducting any thorough investigation and making its findings public. This is condemnable,” it said.

“With respect to Imo State, the Situation Room is surprised to see INEC transmit results for polling units where the election was not held in the earlier mentioned LGAs.

“In Bayelsa, politicians attempted to exploit INEC’s weaknesses to tamper with results, especially in Brass, Sagbama, Southern Ijaw and Nembe LGAs.

“These incidents question INEC’s integrity and the willingness and ability of the Commission to conduct credible elections.

“To ascertain the depth of the damage, Situation Room is calling on the Commission to release data of accredited voters as recorded on the BVAS and total votes cast on a local government basis in these states,” it said.

The Situation Room also reported on its observation on voter turnout, vote trading, and election security, saying it would seem that security agents deployed for election duty, rather than help in securing the process and ensuring its integrity, opted to collude with politicians and even in some cases, protected the politicians, enabling them to indulge in vote buying and other conducts that compromised the elections in the three states.

“These elections represent a major setback in Nigeria’s democratic development. Situation Room calls on INEC to fully review the elections in Kogi and Imo States to identify the incidents of malpractice that took place and reflect the genuine vote of the people,” it said.

Yiaga Africa, a non-profit organisation promoting participatory democracy, human rights and civic participation, said INEC missed an opportunity to rebuild citizens’ trust in Nigeria’s electoral process.

Yiaga Africa queried INEC’s failure to conduct elections in some polling units in Imo and Kogi States during Saturday’s off-cycle governorship elections.

In a statement on Sunday signed by the Chair of Yiaga Africa WTV Working Group, Dr. Hussaini Abdu, the group, quoting reports from some of its Watching The Vote (WTV) observers in Imo State, said the reports indicate elections did not take place in 12 percent of Yiaga Africa sampled polling units.

“These cases were prevalent in Orsu, Okigwe, Oru East, and Orlu LGAs. Yiaga Africa also monitored the upload of results on the IReV, especially those from polling units where elections did not hold.

“For Orsu LGA in Imo State, Yiaga Africa’s WTV observers reported that the election did not take place in nine (9) sampled polling units in the LGA,” it said.

It further said in Okigwe LGA, Yiaga Africa observers also reported that elections did not occur in eight sampled polling units.

“In Oru East LGA, the election was not held in eight (8) of Yiaga Africa’s sampled polling units. In addition, elections were not held in seven (7) of our sampled polling units in Orlu LGA and in one (1) of our sampled polling units each in Ideato North, Ikeduru, Oru West and Owerri West LGAs,” the group said.

Yiaga Africa said it was deeply concerned with the upload of results form EC8A for some of the sampled polling units where elections were not conducted in Orsu, Oru East, Oru West, Ideato North, Ikeduru and Okigwe LGAs on the IReV.

Also, briefing journalists in Abuja on Monday, Samson Itodo, Yiaga’s Executive Director, said the off-cycle elections were to test the commitment of key democratic institutions such as INEC, security agencies and the executive to restore public confidence in the electoral process.

“Yiaga Africa is concerned about the continuous decline in the quality of our elections and the penchant to lower the integrity standards of our elections irrespective of reforms introduced by INEC and progress made in reforming our election legal framework,” Itodo said.

On its part, Connected Development (CODE), an election observer group, raised concerns about impediments faced by observers, including instances where they were restricted from taking pictures.

At a press briefing via its Situation Room, CODE observed that security personnel hindered observers from taking pictures at a polling unit in Ajaokuta LGA, Kogi State.

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It also observed that there were instances of delayed voting. Bayelsa and Imo, for instance, experienced delayed voting in specific locations due to the absence of party agents and late arrival of INEC officials.

The observers noted the theft of INEC materials in Ekeremor LGA, Bayelsa State, which was, however, resolved by citizens without casualties.

In Eke-mbutu Market Square Ward, Imo State, a BVAS machine malfunctioned, displaying Chinese language and causing a temporary delay.

Also, the observer group said low voter turnout marred the election in some areas.

“Reports indicated low voter turnout in certain areas, including Owerri North at Okwu Uratta Primary School Ward,” the group said.

Equally, vote buying concerns were raised as verified reports revealed instances of vote buying in Bayelsa and Imo, with amounts ranging from N1,000 to N20,000.

Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), on its part, said vote buying and electoral violence remained the sore points in the Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi governorship elections.

A member of the CDD Election Analysis Centre (CDD-EAC), Dr Jack Johnson, said at a news conference in Abuja that the CDD-EAC observed the off-cycle elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi with a deployment of over 150 fact-checkers and observers in all three states, as well as a team of data clerks, reviewers and analysts in its situation room in Abuja.

He said that overall, there was an early commencement of polls as well as the usage of the BVAS. However, there were several reports about voter inducement across all three states.

“Observers reported incidents in PU 1, Ward 8 and PU 11, Ward 1 in Sagbama LGA in Bayelsa West. In Bayelsa Central, vote trading was reported in PU 16, Ward 6 in Yenegoa LGA, PU 22, Ward 13 in Southern Ijaw LGA with reports of voter inducements ranging from N5,000 to N22,000, including other items such as wrappers. In PU 30 and 31, Ward 13, along with money, rice was also shared to buy votes,” Jackson said.

“We are concerned that there were allusions that it might be linked to the delayed flood and subsidy palliatives that state governments only started distributing two days ago,” he said.

Jackson said that CDD observed that in Kogi, there were reports of vote buying in PUs 004, 038 and 039 in Ward A of Lokoja LGA, where party agents were allegedly sharing out money to voters upon confirmation that they voted for their party candidates.

He further said that the two major parties’ agents were reported to have engaged in vote buying, with N2000 to N3000 shared.

He said same was reported in Imo State at PU3 Mbutu Ward, Aboh Mbaise LGA as well as PU11, Civic Centre Ward, Mbaitoli LGA. In PU 7, Central School UmuNakanu Ehime LGA, there were reports that INEC ad hoc staff were given monetary inducements by party officials.

Incidents of vote buying were concentrated in Mbaitoli-Ezinihitte, Owerri West and Njaba LGAs with the highest number of collected PVCs amongst the LGAs in the state with 150,012 and 134,192 cards, he said.

Jackson regretted that electoral violence remained a sore point in the election. In Kogi, he said, electoral violence was reported in Dekini LGA, specifically in Agala Ogane PU, Anyigba town, where a thug was reportedly shot and killed by military officials while fleeing in an attempt to snatch a ballot box.

“There was a similar attempt in Ganaja PU, Ajaokuta LGA, where the LGA chair was apprehended by voters.

“In Yenagoa LGA, observers reported that one person was shot at Famgbe community and, in PU 24 Ward, voting ended abruptly when thugs destroyed election materials at about 11:45 a.m.

“We note that in these area polling units, there was little or no presence of security officials. Similar instances were reported in Brass PU 7 Ward 7. Observers reported that there were no security agents as late as 10:19 a.m. despite voting having started,” he said.

Jackson said CDD also noted some election irregularities as well as fake news.

Opposition candidates reject poll results

Meanwhile, some candidates in the elections have objected to the outcome.

In Kogi, the PDP candidate, Dino Melaye, called for cancellation of elections in five LGAs.

“INEC must cancel the election in the 5 local governments of Kogi central. The election in Okene, Okehi, Ajaoukuta, Adavi, and Ogori/Mangogo is a scam coordinated from the highest level of INEC,” Melaye said in a post on his verified X account.

Similarly, the candidate of the SDP, Murtala Ajaka, rejected the result, alleging that the election was rigged in favour of Usman Ododo of the APC.

He, however, said he was not going to court to contest the outcome of the poll as that would amount to a waste of time and resources.

In Imo, the candidates of the Labour Party and PDP, Athan Achonu and Samuel Anyanwu, respectively, gave INEC a seven-day ultimatum to review the poll.

At a joint press conference in Owerri, the state capital, on Monday, the two candidates asked INEC to respect the Electoral Act by using the seven days’ window provided by the law to review the election.

Anyanwu said that there was no election in the state, rather it was an allocation of votes to Uzodimma by INEC in collaboration with security agents.

He said that the results in the INEC’s portal were different from the results announced at the state collation centre which were used in returning Uzodimma as the winner of the poll.

“I feel so ashamed with what the INEC has done. INEC promised a free, fair and credible election. But empty vehicles were moved to Owerri for voters from Orsu LGA. They used armoured vehicles, security operatives to carry out these irregularities. How come Orsu gave about 18,000 votes? This election is a charade. There must be a review of these results. How come a police officer was caught on video carrying ballot boxes?

“It was not an election. it was a war. Over 70 percent there was no collation of results. This a PDP state, where governorship election took two days to conduct. The INEC has seven days to review these elections or cancel outright,” he said.

On his part, the Labour Party governorship candidate, said he would head to the court if the electoral umpire fails to review the election and cancel it.

“Where there was accreditation, results were already uploaded before 10 am, that is even when voting was ongoing. From the information available to us, it was even the electoral officers that were sharing money to other INEC officials and at the same time gave them already written results to upload,” Achonu said.

“We have written to the INEC Chairman calling for total review of the election or outright cancellation of the election. That was why the chairman of LP called on the INEC to check their IREV for authentic results. They did not listen to him because they had planned it,” he said.

Also, in a statement on Wednesday by his spokesperson, Chibuikem Diala, Achonu described himself as the true winner of the election, dismissing rumours that he had visited and congratulated Uzodimma.

In Bayelsa, the APC rejected the results of the governorship election which produced PDP’s Governor Diri as the winner, claiming that INEC cancelled over 84,000 votes belonging to APC candidate to give Diri easy victory.

Recall that INEC and the security agencies had assured Nigerians of their preparedness to ensure free, fair and credible elections in Kogi, Bayelsa and Imo States. INEC had particularly vowed to redeem its image from some of the lapses of the 25 February 2023 presidential election.

However, now that the elections have come on and gone, the prevailing opinion, especially among civil society groups, observers and stakeholders, is that the election fell below expectation. With some of the candidates in the elections rejecting the results and vowing to go to court, the days and weeks ahead may experience yet another judicial fireworks.