By Azu Ishiekwene
Nine months after the curtains were drawn on the Bayelsa governorship polls, the electorate still can’t be too sure who they voted for or who will be governor.
Lawyers have become the new voters and courts the new electoral umpires; yet neither the lawyers nor the courts can say exactly where all this would lead or swear that they are in control of the outcome.
It appears that politicians who never accept defeat have found other means to have elections without end, until they win and vanquish the loser.
Bayelsa has never been a “progressive” state since the return to civil rule 21 years ago. It was not Alliance for Democracy (AD), it was not Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), and except for a victory party that ended abruptly on the eve of a scheduled inauguration, it was also not All Progressives Congress (APC).
But no one can be sure, anymore. It was still a People’s Democratic Party (PDP) state as of the time of writing, but Governor Duoye Diri is standing on one leg.
In a split judgement (the chairman of the panel dissented from his two other brother justices), the Bayelsa Governorship Election Petition Tribunal ruled on Monday that the governorship election held last November should be repeated because one of the parties, the Advanced Nigeria Democratic Party (ANDP), was unlawfully excluded from the ballot.
Two of the three justices on the panel also ruled that contrary to INEC’s position that the substitute deputy governor was nominated outside the statutorily permitted period, INEC’s silence when the name of the substitute was filed, meant consent that the substitution was in order.
The court’s ruling may not have come to Diri as a surprise. Or maybe it did, especially after earlier petitions by three other parties – AD, the United People’s Congress (UPC) and the Liberation Movement (LM) – were all dismissed as incompetent. He probably thought the worst was over.
But Diri shouldn’t have been surprised. A combination of infighting in his party and outgoing Governor Seriake Dickson’s greed placed Diri in a weaker position against APC candidate David Lyon, just before the election. APC itself was torn apart by infighting, but it was the post-election court ruling which disqualified Lyon’s running-mate for certificate forgery and expunged APC votes from the ballot, that gave victory to the PDP.
Diri could not be happy that judicial victory helped him take the seat, and then complain when he finds himself at the receiving end.
But what is really going on? How did over half a million voters who trooped out to vote in November suddenly find themselves enmeshed in a jiggery pokery that threatens to make a farce of voter-sovereignty?
The blame game is in top gear. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has been taking a serious beating for excluding ANDP from the ballot and bringing this misery on everyone. If INEC were truly negligent, it would be a big shame because in spite of growing litigation tourism among politicians, records tend to show a noticeable decline in actual court-awarded victories in elections conducted since 2015.
In the particular case of the ANDP candidate, INEC has described his disqualification as a “pre-election” matter, insisting that the deputy governorship candidate, David Peter Esinkuma, was 34 instead of the minimum legal age of 35 when his party nominated him and that his replacement was filed after the expiration of the deadline.
Election tribunals are not set up to deal with pre-election petitions. That is for the regular courts to handle. Whatever the merit of the case, the law forbids a tribunal to look into it, if it’s a pre-election matter. If INEC released its timetable in May 2019 and nomination closed on September 9 only for ANDP to file a substitution afterwards, how can equity help the indolent party?
In the recent case of Zamfara, for example, where APC’s Abdulaziz Yari and Adams Oshiomhole were playing Tom and Jerry with their party’s fate, only to cry wolf after Gene Deitch passed away, the Supreme Court ruled that equity was helpless. The court said since APC passed up the chance to settle the pre-election matter of eligible nomination, INEC was right to exclude the party from the vote.
The drama is only just beginning. When the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court finally settles the matter of who was lawfully, validly and competently elected Bayelsa governor last November, the question might then be about the existential status of ANDP. The party was one of the 74 recently deregistered by INEC, but its recent judicial victory has transformed it from pariah to bride overnight.
And that may well be what all this jiggery pokery is about – the fight for the soul of the Niger Delta ahead of the 2023 election. All the blame game is fig leaf, a cover up for a deadly political game slowly but surely in the making.
It’s not for nothing that the South South is the new battleground. With the situation in Edo looking dicey, the two major parties – the APC and the PDP – will reinvent crookery to secure or advance their positions.
Stalwarts of the APC from the South South far more than those of the PDP from the same region, would pay for a premium ticket to hell first than suffer the humiliation of losing Bayelsa, and then potentially, Edo, to the opposition.
And, if on the other hand, PDP loses its tenuous hold on Bayelsa and then hypothetically loses the Edo election as well, it would be the first time in over two decades when any party other than the PDP will control one third of the states in the region. It’s a prospect that would give Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike sleepless nights.
Heads or tails, the outcome is fraught.
Even at the best of times, it is expensive to conduct an election. Conducting a gratuitous election that could cost INEC alone at least N1billion in country on the threshold of a second recession in four years is another matter. But politicians already running out of anything to lose, don’t care.
The courts will have to save themselves from politicians who would still be doing well for themselves long after they have shredded the court’s reputation. In the Bayelsa case, for example, there are genuine concerns about whether the tribunal did not overreach itself by venturing into what was obviously a pre-election matter, a slippery slope for a special court which already has more than enough on its plate.
In his memoir, Reminiscences: My journey through life, retired justice of the Supreme Court, Sunday Akinola Akintan, touched upon the epidemic of election petitions, which has worsened congestion and drama in the courts.
“The position,” Justice Akintan said, “grew so wild after the 2015 election that the number of election petitions far outstripped all the other cases filed in all the courts in the country.” In other words, if the courts were existing solely to service politicians, there still won’t be enough justice to serve their greed.
Political parties are not only supposed to aggregate the interests of members, they are also supposed to modulate such interests, serve as nurseries for talent, and reflect the best they believe that society can become.
Our parties, especially the two major ones, have become anything but what is described above. They are, by and large, vote-rigging machines maintained by moneybags and power-mongers who have little or no regard for rules and processes. They have become not only a problem for themselves, but also the problem for institutions that are supposed to regulate them.
They are used to winning elections by bullying where they are strong, and where they are weak, by bribery and intimidation. But the game is changing dangerously. They are increasingly pouring subterfuge and money into election petitions, which provide more controlled and predictably self-serving outcomes.
Like calves, a number of the newer parties have watched these mother cows chewing on the cord of impunity and have simply decided to emulate or to join them.
It’s up to civil society and the endangered remnant in the parties and politics to claw back the right to vote and make votes count, not in the courts, but at the ballot box.
Ishiekwene is MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview