Imo 2019 polls: The mystery of the 388 polling units (1)

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Uzodinma
Collins Ughalaa

By Collins Ughalaa

IMO people on Saturday, March 9, 2019, joined other citizens in to perform one of their civic responsibilities. They trooped out  to vote for their preferred governorship candidate. The outcome of the voting ritual determines almost everything that happens in the various states. 

Aware of the magnitude of the choice before them, Imo people, including the aged, braved the odds and stood in the sun for hours  for an opportunity to make their choice. The election as witnessed in the state was one of the most cantankerous since 1999, with about 70 governorship candidates. 

It was one election that not only divided the state along clannish and religious lines, but also divided almost all the political parties in the state. It was one election that saw the tearing of election result sheets in public glare and before television viewers nationwide, reminiscent of the Orubebe episode of 2015 in Abuja.

In the midst of the raging confusion and division, Imo people courageously made their choice. But by the way elections are configured in Nigeria, especially with the secret ballot system, no one can tell what choice anyone makes. With the system open to all kinds of manipulations, no one can rest assured that in the end the choice he secretly made on the ballot paper would be respected. Everyone awaits to hear what the umpire declares. 

And as long as calls for transparency in our electoral system remain unheeded, the uncertainty and complete dependence on the final declaration of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will continue to pervade our political culture and may determine the final outcome.

The outcome of the governorship election in Imo on March 9, 2019, was declared on Sunday, March 10, 2019, by INEC with Emeka Ihedioha, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)  candidate declared the winner. The Returning Officer for INEC and Vice Chancellor of Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Umuahia, Abia State, Prof. Francis Otonta, announcing the final results at the Imo Governorship Election Collation Centre at the INEC office in Owerri, said that Ihedioha, a former deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, polled 273,404 votes to emerge the Governor.

The governorship candidate of the Action Alliance (AA), Ugwumba Uche Nwosu, was awarded the second position, scoring 190,364 votes. The All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) candidate and former two-term Senator (Okigwe Zone), Ifeanyi Araraume, came third after polling 114,676 votes. The All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate and former senator,(Imo West)  Hope Uzodinma, was awarded 96,458 votes.

The electoral process in Nigeria does not end with the declaration of a winner by INEC. Any contestant, aggrieved with the result is backed by the laws to present his case before the court. A candidate who approaches the court for redress is applauded for towing that path instead of taking the laws into his  hands. He is at liberty to expend the whole legal stretch, up to the Supreme Court, to seek justice. 

Delivering his minority judgement, Justice Fredrick Oho of the Court of Appeal told Uzodinma: “All your reliefs are hereby granted and I hereby declare you the duly elected Governor of Imo. And I put the cost of the action against the 1st (Ihedioha) and 2nd (PDP) respondents at N1m.”

Following this process, the APC candidate, Uzodinma, approached the Governorship Election Tribunal and claimed that his votes from 388 polling units across the state, amounting to 213,695 votes, were unlawfully excluded from the Form EC8B.

The Electoral Act provides that results generated from the polling units must be entered in Form EC8A, and that once entered, it becomes impossible to cancel at the ward level because it has been accepted. From the Form EC8A the results from the polling units are accepted and recorded into the Form EC8B. Voting takes place at the Polling Unit, not Ward. Therefore, wards on their own do not generate election results. 

Armed with this knowledge, and knowing that he had garnered 213,695 votes from across the state, Uzodinma told the Tribunal he would have become Governor had the 213,695 votes been added to the 96,458 votes already declared by INEC. When added, Uzodinma would have polled 310,153 votes, against 273,404 votes scored by  Ihedioha. The Tribunal was unimpressed, so Uzodinma lost his case. He went to the Court of Appeal. He lost again. But a significant thing happened at the Court of Appeal: Uzodinma got a minority judgment of 4:1 that declared him winner of the election.

Delivering his minority judgement, Justice Fredrick Oho of the Court of Appeal told Uzodinma: “All your reliefs are hereby granted and I hereby declare you the duly elected Governor of Imo. And I put the cost of the action against the 1st (Ihedioha) and 2nd (PDP) respondents at N1m.”

The minority judgement that declared Uzodinma “the duly elected Governor of Imo” was the turning point in the 2019 governorship election legal scrimmage. It opened a window of possibility that his case could find favour with the Supreme Court.

At the Supreme Court, Uzodinma insisted that he had garnered 213,695 votes from the 388 polling units and that they were wrongfully excluded. He further claimed that the former Governor was returned elected based on a wrongful computation of results from the 2,883 polling units. 

His case found merit at the Supreme Court. Delivering judgement on Tuesday, January 14, 2020, Justice Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun of the Supreme Court held that “there is merit in this appeal” and that “the appeal is allowed”. The Court set aside the judgement of the Appeal Court, saying: “The judgement of the lower court affirming the judgement of the Governorship Election Tribunal is hereby set aside.”

In its wisdom, the Supreme Court “ordered that votes due to the Appellants (Uzodinma and APC)  from the 388 polling units were wrongly excluded from the score ascribed to them”. The Court “ordered that the Appellants’ votes from the 388 polling units (213,695) unlawfully excluded from the Appellants’ score shall be added to the results declared by the 3rd respondents.” With the new result, the Supreme Court “declared that the 1st appellant,  Uzodinma, polled a majority of lawful votes cast at the Governorship Election held in Imo on March 9, 2019 and satisfied the mandatory constitutional threshold and spread across the state”. 

The Supreme Court further “declared that the 1st appellant, Uzodinma, is the winner of the Governorship election of Imo held on  March 9, 2019” and that “the Certificate of Return issued to the 1st respondent, Ihedioha, is hereby withdrawn.” The Supreme Court subsequently “ordered that a Certificate of Return shall be issued to the 1st appellant,  Uzodinma, forthwith and he should be sworn in as the Governor of Imo immediately”.

On  Wednesday, January 15, 2020, Uzodinma was sworn-in as Imo Governor. But Ihedioha and the PDP continually raised questions on the validity of the Supreme Court ruling. They approached the Court for a review of its ruling of Tuesday, January 14, 2020. One questions raised in the Supreme Court judgment bothers on the allegation that Uzodinma by virtue of the judgement of the Supreme Court in the appeal brought before it between Ugwumba Uche Nwosu and the Action Peoples Party (APP), where the Supreme Court upheld that Nwosu “knowingly” allowed himself to be nominated by two political parties.

Ihedioha had filed a motion on Notice at the Supreme Court on January 10, 2020, asking the Supreme Court to strike out the appeal brought before it by Uzodinma on the ground that the Supreme Court had in its judgement of December 20, 2019, held that the nomination of Nwosu was invalid, null and void and in violation of section 37 of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended).

In response, the Supreme Court said that “the validity of the 1st appellant’s (Uzodinma) nomination as a candidate of the 2nd appellant (APC) for the governorship election in Imo is a fresh issue raised for the first time in this court without leave. 

The Court “ordered that the Appellants’ votes from the 388 polling units (213,695) unlawfully excluded from the Appellants’ score shall be added to the results declared by the 3rd respondents.” With the new result, the Supreme Court “declared Uzodinma, WINNER

Furthermore, it is a pre-election matter, in respect of which this court lacks original jurisdiction to determine same within a post-election appeal. The application therefore falls  and is accordingly dismissed”. The Supreme Court noted that the issue brought before it by  Uzodinma and the APC, which began from the Tribunal and went to the Court of Appeal, “was on the exclusion of votes scored by the appellants in 388 polling units from ward collection results (Form EC8B), which led to a wrong declaration of the 1st respondent as the winner of the election. The issue of the 1st applicant’s nomination did not arise.”

On the question of the validity of the 213,695 votes from the 388 polling units, the Supreme Court noted that Ihedioha,  PDP and INEC denied excluding such results. The Court particularly noted that “the third respondent (INEC) specifically pleaded in paragraph 14 of its reply to the petition that the authentic results of the election would be tendered at the trial.” Noting that INEC did not call any witness to testify on the evidence submitted by Uzodinma in the Form EC8 series, and did not tender any documents. 

The  Court added that “in the instant case, the contention was that at the ward collation stage, votes scored by the appellants were unlawfully excluded. The documents required to prove this allegation would be the Form EC8A series, which is the primary evidence of an election i.e., the ward collation results”. 

Mr. Ughalaa could be reached via email: ughalaacollins@gmail.com or via telephone: 07066222944.

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