The Independent National Electoral Commission has come under fire after declaring Orji Kalu winner of a senatorial election in apparent disregard of its own guidelines.
Mr Kalu, a former governor of Abia State and candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was declared the winner of Abia North Senatorial District election conducted on February 23, 2019.
Mr Kalu polled 31,201 votes, according to Charles Anumudu, the INEC returning officer for the district.
The incumbent senator, Mao Ohuabunwa of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), trailed Mr Kalu with 20,801 votes in the election.
However, Mr Ohuabunwa argued, and election and civic engagement experts agreed, that the election should have been declared inconclusive without a winner.
According to a breakdown of the result by INEC, 38,526 votes were cancelled during the exercise, a number significantly greater than the margin of 10,400 between Messrs Kalu and Ohuabunwa.
“The election should have been declared inconclusive,” said election expert Samson Itodo. “There should have been a re-run in the district.”
Mr Itodo said INEC’s guidelines, drawn from Sections 26 and 153 of the Electoral Act, required a by-election when the margin of victory between highest and second highest votes scorers in an election is less than the total number of cancelled voters.
“This should not be that hard, we saw the precedent in Osun State governorship election last September,” Mr Itodo said.
The electoral umpire declared inconclusive, the governorship election that held in Osun State on September 22, 2018, citing insufficient lead by the PDP’s candidate in that election.
At the end of the collation of votes, the PDP candidate, Ademola Adeleke, won majority votes of about 254,698 votes while Gboyega Oyetola of the APC came a close second with 254,345 votes. Both leading candidates had a difference of about 354 votes.
The commission explained that the total registered voters in the five polling units where elections were cancelled is 3,498 votes. Since that figure was higher than the difference between the votes of the leading candidates, a re-run election had to be conducted, the INEC chief explained.
A re-run was held a few days later on September 28, and Mr Oyetola was declared the winner.
Similarly, in Abia South Senatorial District, INEC declared the election inconclusive after ballots were interrupted in some locations around Aba, the state’s commercial capital. Although leading by a good margin, incumbent Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe would have to wait until Saturday to know whether or not he would be returned to the Senate.
Mr Itodo said the senatorial election in Abia North should have similarly been declared inconclusive, warning INEC to be wary of arbitrary application of the law.
“We cannot have two different sets of electoral law,” Mr Itodo said.
As the nation prepares for governorship and state parliamentary elections on Saturday, Mr Itodo warned INEC officials to desist from declaring results under duress from politicians.
“Officials are coming under serious pressure to declare results without due process, and they often cave in,” Mr Itodo said. “This is a serious problem.”
Mr Itodo said politicians are exploiting a section of the electoral law that prohibits INEC officials from reversing themselves on pronouncements.
“The law says only the courts have the power to reverse any pronouncement by electoral officers, politicians know this and they are taken advantage,” he added.
Joseph Iloh, the resident electoral commissioner in Abia, was unable to clarify the decision more than a week after INEC had taken it, telling PREMIUM TIMES the matter would be addressed later by INEC.
It was not immediately clear whether INEC would reverse its decision before Saturday and allow supplementary elections to hold in the district, alongside several others were polls were cancelled on February 23.
A spokesperson for Mr Kalu was unavailable for comments Saturday afternoon. But an aide to the former governor said his principal should not be made to explain a decision taken by INEC.
“We are aware of the cancelled votes,” the aide said. “But all enquiries should be directed to INEC and not my principal.”
Mr Ohuabunwa argued that INEC cancelled over 31,000 votes in his home local government area of Arochukwu, where he expected huge returns.
The senator estimated about 76,889 votes were cancelled in across five local government areas that make up Abia North Senatorial District by INEC, but said even by the official figures of the commission, the election should have been declared inconclusive.
Mr Ohuabunwa, 61, has been in and out of the National Assembly since 1999 when he was first elected a member of the House of Representatives.
In 2015, he was elected senator representing Abia North, defeating Mr Kalu, who was the candidate of the Progressive Peoples Alliance, PPA, at the time.
Mr Kalu, who still has a corruption case with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), challenged the results in court and received a judgment for a rerun in early 2016.
Mr Ohuabunwa was again declared the winner in the March 2018 by-election, and Mr Kalu challenged the results again in court. The Court of Appeal, however, affirmed the election of Mr Ohuabunwa in November 2017, sealing the former governor’s fate.
Mr Kalu decamped to the APC ahead of the 2019 elections.
Legal analyst Liborous Oshoma described the declaration of Mr Kalu as the winner of the election as a “terrible anomaly,” calling for urgent reform of the electoral process.
“There has to be a reform that would make it difficult for officials to just announce results and ask people to go to court,” Mr Oshoma said. “There have to be consequences for electoral officers making arbitrary and undue pronouncements that usually undermine the electoral process.”
“We can describe what happened in Abia North as a terrible anomaly, but INEC has a window to address it by conducting a by-election in the cancelled areas on Saturday,” the legal analyst said.