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Stakeholders Tango Over Rivers LG Poll

Tony Ita Etim in Port Harcourt writes on the controversy surrounding the local government election- against a Federal Court ruling – barely six days to the terminal date of Governor Amaechi administration and the All Progressives Congress, APC, rule in the state.

Come Saturday May, 23 some voters in Rivers State, loyal or sympathetic to the All Progressive Congress, APC, administration will troop out to take part in a mock election that would “elect” council chairmen and councillors into 22 local government councils in the state. Since the state electoral commission announced a date for the council polls, a lot of questions have been raised concerning the intention of Governor Chibuike Amaechi’s administration to hold elections six days to the end of his government.

While the leading rival opposition party in Rivers state, the Peoples Democratic Party, alleged that the decision to conduct the election is for the Amaechi’s administration to justified a N4.5 billion allegedly stolen from the state coffers by the outgoing administration, others believe that Amaechi and the APC, whose political wings were clipped during the presidential and governorship elections by the PDP in the state, are calculating to trigger another round of crisis and violence that it may spill beyond the May 29 date and make a mess of the hand over to the PDP governor-elect, Barrister Nyesom Wike.

The expected violence is suppose to lead to the declaration of a state of emergency in Rivers State by the incoming General Mohammadu Buhari administration which is calculated to last until the Election Petition Tribunal in the state would have given judgement, hopefully in favour of the APC, thereby denying the PDP and Wike from taking over from Amaechi.

The Rivers APC calculation and hope is that any election in the state conducted under the Buhari administration would be a walk over for the party because of support from the federal government and the security agencies, who will take directives from the central government in Abuja.

Another school of thought is that Amaechi would like to put the local government in place to spy on the incoming PDP administration on how council fund will be managed by the incoming administration in order to raise allegation of fraud. If the elections hold the APC controlled councils will provide patronage to APC members in the state as the party will not longer have access to the state coffers to service its followership and oil its political structures. This group queried why Amaechi did not conduct council polls for nearly two years rather than his preference for caretaker committees.

They are of the opinion that the outgoing government does not mean well for the incoming administration and the people as Rivers state may remain a theatre of political crisis and violence for a long while and this will inhibits the political and economic growth of the state as well as create insecurity and division among the people.

On the night of Monday, April 20, 2015, the chairman of the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission, RSIEC, Professor Augustine Ahiauzu hurriedly addressed a select members of the press, who are considered in government circles as media practitioners and who are loyal to the government of Chubike Amaechi and the All Progressive Congress, APC.

Ahiauzu announced that his commission would conduct local government council elections in the state Saturday May 23, six days to end of Amaechi administration. He explained that that the election would take place in all the councils, except Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni local government. He also said the Commission was relying on the State Independent Electoral Law No.2 of 2001 as amended and State Local Government Law No.3 of 1999 as amended, to conduct the election. The RSIEC boss said political parties were eligible to sponsor candidates for the election, provided that they completed and submitted an expression of interest form to participate in the election on or before April 24.

Ahiauzu argued that the Commission had concluded arrangements with Security Agencies to ensure free and fair elections on May 23. According to Ahiauzu, ‘’ The Security Agencies will take care of security and ours will be to conduct the election.” On the timing of the election the chairman insisted that the period for the election was not short because it had 32 days to carry out the exercise. ‘’ The Law requires us to use 21 days to conduct the election. We have more days and we are within the law. According to him, our activities are law based and we cannot go outside the law and expressed hope that the election would be peaceful and successful.”

Justifying his administration decision to hold the election despite public outcry, Amaechi said the recent announcement by the State Independent Electoral Commission (RESIEC) to conduct local council elections in the state is in conformity with the law. According to the governor, RSIEC is mandated by law to organize local elections and has acted in accordance with the prescribed laws. The he flaunted his association with the incoming government at the center: “If they are complying with the law then they are in order, if they are not complying with the law then they (PDP) should go to the State High Court and stop it. If they go to the Federal High Court, they should know that the Federal High Court has no jurisdiction and I hope that everybody will be careful this time because the Federal Government will be serious with anybody who decides to manipulate the system” .

The governor, who played a pivotal role in the closure of courts in the state and the state judiciary for more than a year mockingly, asked the PDP to go to the state courts to seek redress. Inadvertently, the governor had disclosed why RSIEC has refused to abide by an order of a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt which ruled that the body should not hold the council polls.

Amaechi claimed that that the council elections will allow the electorates to choose who will govern them. “You know in the last (general) elections the people did not choose who will govern them. But this time it will allow the people to choose who will govern them as chairmen of council and councillors. I don’t see how they can stop the local government council elections from going on”.

The Rivers State Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Chief Davies Ikanya in his reaction to PDP’s opposition to the council polls, claimed that all the political parties had long been informed by the RISIEC, and were in agreement with the body for the election, except the PDP which he said were afraid of losing out.

Ikanya pointed out that the election was long overdue, and stated that the commission had long been making the announcement, arguing that it would have been conducted earlier, but for the general elections.

Ikanya further claimed “the PDP is not popular in the state that is why they are jittery. If they are on ground as they claim, let them come and test their popularity. ”On the poor performance of APC at the concluded general elections, Ikanya also claimed “We cleared the polls in the elections, but for the connivance of the Independence National Electoral Commission INEC, it’s Resident Electoral Commissioner REC Dame Gesila Khan with PDP.”    On the timing of the election, when Amaechi administration has barely six days to go, Ikanya pointed out that, so far the governor is still on seat, he has the authority to conduct the election.

But for the Rivers PDP chairman, Brother Felix Obuah, whose party had tried to stop the conduct of the council polls, the action of RSIEC as undemocratic, provocative and illegal. He pointed out that the state owned Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission RISIEC, should have as a matter of legal requirement given the political parties mandatory 90 days of notice, for relevant preparations.

He said: “The so-called governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi’s announcement to that effect is rather a wishful thinking, because it is illegal, and he knows it. It is not only illegal, but retrogressive, provocative and a colossal waste of the state’s resources. We will challenge the illegality in the court, and we will stop it there. Amaechi has always taken our people for a ride, ruling the state like his own private estate.

He has no respect for the rule of law, but we will floor him at the floor of the court room.. Aware of his ouster in the general elections, Amaechi is hell bent on setting the sate into violent crisis, as his hand over package.”.Obuah called on the other political parties, security agencies and entire state, to resist what he described as ‘governor Amaechi’s invitation to anarchy.’

The state PDP, which vowed not to take part in the council elections has gone to court to stop the elections but the electoral body and the state administration are bent on conducting the polls come May 23.

According to Obuah,“Governor Rotimi Amaechi is known for impunity, he has no respect for the rule of law. Amaechi takes interest in violating court order, but no matter what he does, the rule of law will prevail, when the PDP government comes to power.”

Obuah warned RSIEC that any attempt to proceed with the planned Local Government Election which has been scheduled for May 23, 2015 amounts to an open disrespect for the court of competent jurisdiction which had ordered that status-quo-ante be maintained and would be a wasteful exercise.

He argued that anything done to conduct the election against the decision of the court that all parties should maintain status quo ante, amounts to a nullity.

He alleged that the Chairman and members of the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission (RSIEC), are card carrying members of the All Progressives Congress, APC and do not have the moral standing to conduct the election.

The chairman of the Media Committee Rivers PDP Governorship Campaign Organisation, Barrister Emma Okah, accused Governor Rotimi Amaechi of setting aside the sum of N4.5 billion, part of which he allegedly planned to prosecute the local council poll in the state on May 23.

He alleged that “Out of the sum, the party claimed the governor would be giving out N2.5 billion to the State Independent Electoral Commission (RISIEC) for the council poll, while he allegedly planned to use the remaining Two Billion Naira to bribe members of the election petitions tribunal that would be handling all the cases pertaining to the just-concluded general election in the state.”

The Rivers PDP chieftain said what was painful was the fact that the spending was coming at a time when pensioners and public workers in the state were being owed arrears of pensions and salaries. “We are accusing the Rivers State governor, Rotimi Amaechi and the All Progressives Congress (APC) of setting aside the sum of N4.5b for the purpose of conducting his so-called May 23, 2015 local government election in the state.”

He continued “The irony of it all is that he is going ahead to do this when pensioners in the state have not been paid salaries; when many public servants are still being owed; when projects in the state have been stalled and a lot of contractors are being indebted to those who are handling projects in the various communities and villages, over 80 per cent of them have not been completed and they are being abandoned. This is in spite of the fact that the Karibi Whyte Hospital had not been done and so many other projects that Amaechi promised the people of Rivers State but he has failed to do. But the irony is not the fact that he is pretending to be voting N4.5 billion for the election. In truth, he is going to give N2.5 billion to RISIEC for the election. The remaining Two Billion Naira will be used to bribe, in his view, members of the election petitions tribunal who will be handling the cases, in respect of both the federal elections and the governorship and House of Assembly elections. In Rivers State.”

Okah declared that Rivers PDP would not participate in the local government election. “We also call on the public to take note of Amaechi’s recklessness and determination to go ahead with an election despite the fact that well-meaning Nigerians have spoken against it. He argued “First, it is untimely and secondly, the requisite notice have not been giving. Today (Friday, May 15) is the last day for the submission of candidates’ names. When will the parties hold primaries and all other things to be able to bring candidates? I am restating that we are not a party to the election.

How can we be part of an illegality? If the requisite notice is given and all are given equal opportunities to prepare, we will go and prepare. Of course, we know that we will beat them any day. But to come and give us two days notice to prepare candidates and all that, just after we had finished a major election is irregular. And as far as we are concerned, it is illegal. We require a minimum of 90 days notice, as stipulated by law.”

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and a former Commissioner of Justice and Attorney General in the old Rivers State, Chief OCJ Okocha, in his reaction to the forthcoming council polls advised Amaechi to drop the idea of Local Government Area election now and concentrate on transition into a new government. “The Rivers state government should be involved in transition programme, to ensure a proper and smooth transition into another government. The governor should set up a transition committee to interface with the incoming administration, for a smooth handing over.”

He declared that the time and mood of the state did not permit the conduct of LGA election now. The legal luminary, who claimed not to be aware of the amendment of electoral law by the State House of Assembly, also observed that, the Rivers State Independent Electoral Commission RISIEC, needed to conduct election within the ambit of the law establishing it, and within the limit of convenience and practicability of conducting elections. He observed that the commission had got it wrong, regarding the time line, and pointed out that the two week notice by the RISIEC was not enough, as the political parties needed to be informed of the date of the election, time to do its own primary election, submit to the body names of their candidates; time for the commission to verify qualification of candidates whose names were submitted to them. According to him too, for those who might be disqualified, there was also need for time to substitute disqualified ones.” By the time you put all these variables together, it would have been minimum of 60 days”.

Okocha a former National President of the Nigeria Bar Association and also a former member of the National Judicial Council lamented that the absence of Judiciary in the state was a big problem.

Tracing the situation to the retirement of the substantive Chief Justice of the state, Hon Justice Iche Ndu in August 2013, he regretted that since then, the governor had resisted the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge CJ, and querried who will set up the Panel of Inquiry to handle post election problems likely to emanate thereafter.

He called on well meaning Rivers people to criticize and oppose evil; and insisted that, he was not afraid of the victory of his party, the People’s Democratic Party PDP, against any other party in the state, “for that is the party on ground here”.

Okocha insisted “If governor Amaechi were sincere about the LGA election, why did he not order the RISIEC to conduct it since the past two years, instead he resorted to Care Taker Committee government, in the belief they would help him win elections, but thank God, our people could not blind folded to his misrule, impunity and disrespect for the rule of law” .

Political watchers and many Rivers people believe that the proposed council election as an attempt by Amaechi to get his own pound of flesh from the PDP for the humiliating defeat he suffered from the hands of his former party and political bedfellows during the March 28 presidential and April 11 governorship elections.

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