A few days ago, a large crowd of people trooped out in Umuahia, the Abia State capital, to celebrate the victory of Dr Alex Otti at the Court of Appeal sitting in Owerri. Otti was the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance in the April 2015 governorship election in Abia State. Dr Okezie Ikpeazu was the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party and the incumbent governor. Otti had appealed against the ruling of the Abia Governorship Election Tribunal that affirmed the election of Ikpeazu.
Media reports indicated that Otti’s supporters marched through School Road/Ikot Ekpene Road, Umuwaya, Isi-Gate, Uzuakoli, Uwalaka, Lagos, Bende, and St. Finbarr’s Roads. They chanted pro-Otti songs and danced joyfully on the streets as by-standers, shop owners, street traders, artisans, tricycle (keke) operators and motorists, lined up the street in solidarity.
Before this hotly contested election, Ikpeazu had a lot going for him. He was the candidate of the ruling party in the state and the favourite of the then Governor, Chief T.A. Orji. He had the state arsenal marshalled out for him.
But like the proverbial small David who silenced the giant Goliath, Otti trudged on and decided to prove his mettle during the election. He won the majority of valid votes cast that day. Ikpeazu was declared winner on account of some bogus votes obtained from Obingwa, Osisioma Ngwa and Isiala Ngwa.
The tribunal that first handled this case affirmed Ikpeazu’s election. In the wisdom of the judges, Otti and APGA failed to prove their claim to have won the election beyond reasonable doubt.
But the Appeal Court upturned this judgement. In setting aside the tribunal ruling, the five-member Appeal Court panel, headed by Justice Oyebisi Omoleye, said the APGA candidate scored 164, 444 valid votes to defeat Ikpeazu who scored 114, 444 votes.
Justice Omoleye, though, faulted the cancellation of the elections held in three Local Government Areas of Obingwa, Osisioma Ngwa and Isiala Ngwa by the returning officers after the results were uploaded to INEC.
Omoleye said, “This panel discovered that the earlier results uploaded to INEC headquarters correspond with the correct valid registered voters in the three LGAs, while that awarded to the respondent shows over-voting and therefore null and void.’’
The court insisted that there was no need to call for a rerun because the result of the April 11 and 25 polls clearly present Otti as the genuine winner of the exercise.
But some sympathizers of Ikpeazu who oppose this judgement believe that the Appeal Court should have ordered a rerun in the three contentious local government areas. They faulted the Appeal Court for relying on the card reader to determine the issue of over-voting.
I disagree with them. What the Appeal Court did was to rely on the report of the number of voters that were accredited by the card reader and uploaded on INEC’s system. Anything outside this was regarded as over-voting and such votes were cancelled. What matters here is not the number of registered voters but the number of voters who were accredited to vote.
The justices of the Appeal Court deserve commendation for standing firm for the underdog. Clearly, Otti is an underdog in this matter. He is an individual fighting the might of a state. In terms of money and influence, the sitting governor has all it takes to push his way through. But the judges did not reckon with that. They based their judgement on empirical facts presented before them.
This judgement has some precedents. In November 2010, the Court of Appeal nullified the election of Gov. Olagunsoye Oyinlola of Osun state and installed Rauf Aregbesola as governor. The Court had cancelled results of 10 out of 30 local governments areas of the state.
Similarly, the same Appeal Court had sacked Segun Oni of Ekiti state and installed Kayode Fayemi as governor after cancelling fraudulent results from two local council areas.
There are people who have based their protest against the Appeal Court judgement on the so-called Abia Charter of Equity. Ikpeazu, they say, comes from Ngwa clan, which is believed to have been marginalized by the Old Bende axis. Since the inception of this democratic experiment in 1999, they say, this is the first time an Old Aba district person would win governorship election in the state. The fear of supporters from the Old Aba axis is that they might again be denied the opportunity to rule the state for the first time. In order to foist Ikpeazu at all cost, the PDP supporters in Abia debunked Otti’s claim to be Ngwa. They say he is from the Old Bende axis, precisely Arochukwu, and that his running mate is also from Arochukwu.
The question is, should one be denied an opportunity to rule his state because of where he comes from? Such sentiments belong to the past and should never be an issue in 21st century Nigeria. Democracy is a game of numbers. What the Old Aba axis people should do is to woo people from the Old Bende to support their aspiration. It is left for the Old Bende people to agree or not. In democracy, any bona fide citizen of the country is free to contest election in any part of the country. Barack Obama did not become the President of the United States on the sentiments that Blacks had never had an opportunity to rule America. He fought for it and got it on merit.
If Ikpeazu had won convincingly, there wouldn’t have been any agitation from anywhere. In any case, the Supreme Court justices are men of integrity and wisdom. It is the wish of genuine democrats in the state and in the country that they should uphold the judgment of the Appeal Court and should not listen to mundane sentiments from any quarters.
Mr. Muo, a public affairs analyst, wrote from 21 Ikeji Street, Okota, Lagos.