9th Reps: The burden of a missing constituency

Gbajabiamila and Wase being ushered out of first plenary at the 9th House of Representatives

Nigeria’s 9th House of Representatives was inaugurated on June 11, 2019, but without the Oju/Obi federal constituency of Benue state represented. JOSHUA EGBODO in this piece x-rays the issues, and the tortuous legal journey involving the parties, as the house’s annual recess winds down, with possible resumption in mid September

The elections

Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, which would see the election of a president and a vice, and members of the National Assembly was initially slated for February 16, but was later held on 23 February 2019, owing to an 11th hour shift by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over logistics challenges. With the elections over, President Muhammadu Buhari, days after taking his oath of office for a second term, through a proclamation announced June 11, 2019 as date for inauguration of the 9th National Assembly.

However, at the inauguration session of the House of Representatives, the position for the Oju/Obi was conspicuously missing, as a result of litigation following the outcome of the election.  

Parties involved

Contest for the House of Representatives election in the constituency eventually narrowed down to Samson Okwu, (then incumbent member representing the constituency and candidate of the Peoples Democratic Pary, PDP), Nick Eworo (a member of the Benue state House of Assembly then, and candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC) and David Ogewu, (a relatively new entrant on the stage, and candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA).

Breach of brotherly understanding?

Prior to the election, there were intrigues surrounding the decision of Okwu and Eworo (both from Obi local government area) to be in the contest in breach of the brotherly understanding between the two local councils that make up the constituency. Okwu was about completing his second term in the House of Representatives in the build up to the election, and it was widely the considered opinion of many that the position shift to Oju as the practice had been in the recent past. 

Beyond the said understanding, many followers of events before the election seemed to assume that Okwu believed so much on the use of money to influence the outcome, as he was reported to have allegedly told his followers that only a challenger with money in the region of a couple of billions of naira could defeat him. 

Also, the stalemate yet to be resolved over the outcome of the election were widely blamed on the actions of Okwu, who it was reported, bundled INEC’s returning officials with results from Obi local government to the police command’s headquarters at Otukpo, but not the Oju legally named collation center for the constituency. Pundits have since then queried the rationale behind his action, especially on the backdrop that in his two-time victory to represent the constituency, results were never declared at Otukpo, but Oju.  

INEC’s inconsistencies

The electoral umpire, INEC, has also been roundly blamed for the several inconsistencies in the meaner it handled the outcome of the election in the constituency. The returning officer after collation declared Ogewu of APGA as winner of the election. But following a reported challenge by the other parties, INEC opted for re-run of polls in some units where it had reported election inconclusive. While voters were prepared to exercise their franchise in the slated re-run, the same INEC came with its final declaration that there may not be need for the polls, and went ahead to declare the APGA candidate winner.

It was, therefore, a great shock to many, when the commission’s headquarters in Abuja on its website, prior to inauguration of the 9th National Assembly, on the list of members-elect, put status of the result from the constituency as “declared under duress”. Analysts insisted that while Okwu’s argument that the returning officer declared the result that saw Ogewu as winner with collation from only one of the local governments (Oju) is yet a subject of the litigation, he may also have questions to answer the constituents, on why the Obi result found its way to Otukpo, which is outside the constituency.

 Court of Appeal’s verdict

The litigation at the election tribunal has been running since the disputed outcome of the polls, but Ogewu of APGA approached the Court of Appeal, demanding for an order on INEC that he be issued a certificate of return, as he was in the first place declared winner of the election. The Court of Appeal last week ruled on the matter, directing the electoral umpire to grant Ogewu’s request.

Implications of the verdict 

Ogewu of the APGA was few days ago, issued certificate of return by the INEC in its Abuja headquarters, but keen followers of election litigations have offered their own perspectives into implications of the Court of Appeal’s decision, more so since the substantive case at the election tribunal was yet to be decided. 

Many have agreed that the battle may be far from being over, but precedence, as a principle in law, has taken the most exalted seat. An analyst argued that the case of the Oju/Obi federal constituency cannot be different, flowing from a similar alleged case of ‘duress’ in the case of former governor of Imo state, Rochas Okorocha, over his election to the Senate. The court was of the opinion that the issue of duress was alien to Nigeria’s electoral laws, and having declared a winner, the beneficiary must be issued a certificate of return, pending the outcome of any other related case(s) as may be decided by a competent judicial body.

The above submissions were recently outlined in a piece by Mr Ade Joseph Otor on a shared social media group. Otor in outlining his observations on the latest development, stated; “While reflecting on the verdict of the Court of Appeal that INEC should issue a certificate of return to Evangelist David Ogewu, I consider it highly imperative to highlight some obviously evolving issues. You may recall that Evangelist David Ogewu who was the candidate of APGA for Oju/ Obi federal constituency in the last general election was declared by the Returning Officer with votes only from Oju LGA….

“So many persons have earlier observed that Evangelist Ogewu might benefit from the court’s magnanimous verdict on Rochas Okorocha. It was clear that the court insisted that once there is a declaration, INEC becomes ‘funtus officio’ and possibly stopped from reversing itself save the court. Though the facts of the cases tremendously differ, the common denominator was that INEC withholds certificates after declaration. Hence, nobody could have expected the Appeal Court to have ruled differently on Ogewu Vs INEC.

“Be that as it may, the Court of Appeal verdict does not in any way impinge on the ongoing case at the tribunal. One cannot, therefore, use the given verdict of the Appeal Court to pre-empt the tribunal. The tribunal’s case can go up to the Court of Appeal. This portends that after the tribunal’s judgement, a window of appeal is much available to whoever looses.The fact then is, if Evangelist Ogewu is issued a certificate (done after this write-up), even if the verdict at the tribunal doesn’t favour him, he might be in the house pending the determination of the appeal.

“Very importantly, INEC as it is, is compelled by law to now issue Ogewu the certificate of return (which it has done), except in the circumstance that INEC appeals the judgement to the Supreme Court….

“Without pre-empting the tribunal, an independent observer is tugged by the facts of this case. INEC declared Ogewu the winner with Oju LG votes; Obi LGA results carted by INEC’s returning officer to Otukpo; INEC did joint collation of Oju/ Obi LGA results and gave Samson Okwu the leading votes; INEC declared the election inconclusive; INEC fixed a day for a re-run in some polling units; INEC cancelled the scheduled re-run. These are truly very intriguing matters beyond the puzzle box of a layman.

“Whichever way it goes, the end is not at sight yet on this matter. The salvaging situation will be that, if INEC issues Evangelist Ogewu the certificate (which it has done) and he is sworn-in, it will momentarily cure the non-representation of the Igede nation in the hallowed Green Chambers. But, how long he will be there will remain a matter of conjecture. If he remains on the seat after all the legal brouhaha, the other candidates should see this as a destined path. Also, if he leaves after all the long jumps and its euphoria, as an evangelist of the almighty, I hope he won’t find it difficult to embrace his fate….”.

The last paragraph above, though not so in the author’s piece captured the greatest concern of all patriotic sons/daughters of the Igede nation, which the Oju/Obi federal constituency stands for. In the scheme of things today, the office remains the highest political platform at the national level, and so the need to well represented.

It was also of greater pain to many that in a 360-member chamber of the federal legislature, only the Oju/Obi was not part of the inauguration, and yet to have a representative to date. It was considered worse with the conclusion of appointment of committee heads by the new speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, before the house proceeded on its annual recess.

Though it is expected that the election tribunal sitting over the disputed poll may, barring any change in plan, give its judgement on August 28, 2019, the constituency would have a representative as the house resumes plenary on September 17, irrespective of where the tribunal’s pendulum swings. Like the proverbial belief of chasing the wild cat away before blaming the chicken for wandering, whatever the outcome, somebody may be punished in the long run.

Also, concerned constituents have observed that it is time the Igede nation unite against forces that seek to divide it. Many were bitter that INEC appeared a willing tool to create the lingering confusion, but have vowed to see that its staff involved are punished in line with the law.

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