A group of senior journalists working for a popular Lagos-based magazine had gone to interview Dr. Andy Uba, the controversial Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate in Anambra State, in Abuja.
Those who know him very well say he likes keeping his telephone line open for 24 hours. And it was so on the day of the interview, as his phone was put on silent answering mode.
However, as the interview progressed, a desperate telephone call kept on coming, distracting the interviewee’s attention, but unknown to Uba, the caller was just by the door leading to his palour, where the interview was taking place. When the caller could no longer wait for Uba to pick his call, he forced his way into the parlour and surprisingly met Uba granting an interview to the journalists. And sensing that he might have offended Uba, the "intruder" apologised profusely: "Sorry sir! I didn’t know you were granting an interview; I will come back, sir. Sorry for disturbing you".
Guess who was the intruder that dared walk int Uba’s parlour, where he was attending to "special visitors"? It was the Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Maurice Iwu.
The Man Iwu
Iwu is a Catholic. On several occasions, he had sworn in Jesus’ name that he would rather die than allow himself to be used by anybody to rig the April general election. Those who know his moral background had attested to the integrity of the INEC boss as a man with sound and high moral grounds, who can never be used. True? The utterances and doublespeak capacity of Iwu in the last few days, according to political players, do not suggest he is not being remote-controlled from somewhere against the popular expectation of most Nigerians and the international community: free, fair and acceptable elections.
Few days ago, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is having a running political battle with his boss, President Olusegun Obasanjo, cried loud and clear about Iwu’s dangerous political moves many say might truncate the ongoing electoral processes.
He said despite the March 7 Federal High Court judgment in Abuja by Justice B.O.Kuewumi that INEC did not have the powers under the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act, 2006 to disqualify a candidate for an election from contesting, Iwu was working against the rule of law. "The court had ruled that the power to disqualify any candidate sponsored by any political party from contesting an election is vested in the courts as provided for in Section 32(5) of the Electoral Act, 2006 and in any other legislation that is validly enacted in that behalf", said Atiku.
In spite of this "very clear and unambiguous ruling", the vice president said, Iwu was bent on denying him his fundamental human right as a free citizen of Nigeria to offer himself for elective office.
He accused INEC’s leadership of obviously acting on the instructions of the Presidency, which declared "rather arrogantly" on Thursday, March 8 that "court judgment or no court judgment, Vice President Atiku Abubakar remains disqualified from the April presidential election".
The vice president believed such blatant disregard for the decision of a sacred institution as the judiciary was dangerous to the future of the country.
"It is a clear invitation to anarchy and it is the beginning of the end of the institutions, which serve as the pillars of our young democracy. This is not right. This is criminal. And it must not be allowed to stand. It is sad and unfortunate that INEC has become part of the plot to scuttle our transition programme and indeed, our hard-earned democracy", the vice president added.
Atiku, who viewed Iwu’s utterances as very frightening, urged the National Assembly and the international community to, "in the name of God and for the love of our country", do something about these "serious threats" to the transition programme.
He urged them not to allow any individual or organisation scuttle the nation’s democracy as a result of "one man’s megalomaniacalquest for self-perpetuation". In a letter to heads of the two chambers of the National Assembly, European Union (EU) and the United States of America, Atiku said Nigeria was bigger than "all of us" and must not allow anyone to toy with its future.
Given the fragility of the country, the National Assembly, according to the vice president, should be concerned about potential threats to national peace and stability.
He insisted that the Iwu-led INEC had become an obstacle to free and fair elections in April, adding that the international community owed it a duty to Nigerians to check the alleged executive interference in the work of the commission and urgently take steps to restore its independence and integrity. The vice president trusted that they would act swiftly on the issues and save the country from a needless and dangerous crisis, saying: "This is a national emergency and you must act now to arrest the situation".
Can INEC Be Trusted?
Atiku is not a loner in the groundswell of doubt that has continued to choke whatever is left of INEC’s integrity to conduct credible elections in April.
Action Congress (AC) National Chairman, Bisi Akande, had also alerted the nation and the international community to the political implosion Obasanjo was about to plunge the nation into, using Iwu as a tool.
At a press conference, Akande had appealed to right-thinking Nigerians and friends of the nation to speak out before it was too late.
"I am using this press conference", he said, "to appeal to Nigerians and (the) international community, who love peace and democracy, to speak out against (the) political evil that President Obasanjo and his political party are about to create for the nation. PDP is a political thief; it is about to run away with Nigeria’s chance to enthrone true democracy in the country".
Akande, who accused INEC of working for Obasanjo, said AC had it on good authority that the president was not ready to quit office on May 29, this year.
The only way the president could achieve tenure extension, he claimed, was to create a political crisis in the nation–an excuse to stay in power beyond the terminal point of his tenure. But he pledged that AC was ready to sacrifice all it had to force the president from Aso Rock.
"He will never stay a day longer than May 29 this year", he assured.
Like Atiku, the AC boss wondered why in spite of a Federal High Court ruling deflating INEC’s claim to the power to disqualify election candidates, the commission was still under serious pressure from Obasanjo to prevent the party’s presidential candidate, besides some of its governorship candidates, from contesting the elections.
Convinced that PDP was afraid of contesting the elections with AC, Akande said there could be no acceptable elections in the country if the party was not allowed to participate.
"Nigerians and the international community have seen what we have done, using legal processes for political redress against illegality; they have seen that we are (a) law-abiding party, but President Obasanjo and INEC keep on pushing us; we hope they will not push us to the wall", he added.
He particularly described the situation in Anamabra State as very embarrassing. Said he: "All the candidates were disqualified by INEC so that Andy Uba, the PDP candidate, will not have any opposition. Is that not strange to you? Is that not (a) mockery of democracy?"
May 29: To Be Or Not To Be?
However, while Iwu finds pleasure assuring Nigerians and the international community of his determination to conduct credible elections, there are strong apprehensions in some quarters that INEC might use the legal processes against it by AC to put off the April general election. The theory of some political watchers: "there are plans not to include Vice President Abubakar on INEC’s final list and the commission will release the list few weeks to the elections, hoping that he and AC will go to court to stop the general election from holding. And even if a Magistrates’ Court gives any order stopping the elections from holding on grounds that the vice president’s name was not included, President Obasanjo and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice will surely advise INEC to obey the court order".
To be sure, political, watchers say, if the general election holds, it is neither because Obasanjo nor Iwu wanted it, but because of the resilience of the opposition and some civil society groups.
In the last few days, those in the corridors of the Presidency said, there had been several plots by agents of some hawks in the Presidency to push for the shifting of Obasanjo’s handover date by six months. But how to achieve the alleged plot, Daily Independent gathered, was the only major headache.
In all the plots, INEC appears to be the willing tool. And in spite of the consistent alert by opposition parties and right-thinking members of the civil society groups, it appears the controversial professor of science is committed to his dance to the dangerous drumbeat of the "enemies of democracy". And if anybody was still in doubt about the plot, a recent statement by the chief law officer of the federation, Bayo Ojo, appears to be unambiguously enough to erase that doubt.
Speaking after a poorly-attended Council of State meeting, the justice minister was quoted by both local and international media as saying the timeframe for the April polls was too short for the nation to accomplish its objective of organising free, fair and acceptable elections.
In other words, what he woefully failed to sell to Nigerians and the international community was: if they want INEC to conduct acceptable elections, the commission needed more time.
Ojo is a senior member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) by virtue of his position as Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). But some of his colleagues said, "He is a slow thinking lawyer". And could this be the reason that informed his suggestion about the elections? Or he wanted to deliver his master’s message and see how the public would react? If the latter was the case, he really got what his master would not be happy to hear. Nigerians and the international community had reacted angrily to the seemingly "silly and unreasonable" suggestion. The unanimous agreement of the public was: it is too late for Obasanjo, INEC and other "enemies of democracy" to stop Nigerians from effecting a change in their political lives after nearly eight years of "thieving, murderous, irresponsible and irresponsive" regime of PDP government.
To be sure, the Aminu Bello Masari-led House of Representatives responded to Ojo’s "treacherous comment". Speaker Masari had during the House’s sitting, expressed serious concern over the signals from INEC and the Presidency suggesting a plot to shift the May 29 terminal day for Obasanjo’s rule.
Reacting to the Ojo’s comment, the speaker said it was unbelievable and unthinkable that he could condescend so low to suggest that the general election would not take place.
His words: "Honourable members, we have to confirm from Ojo, because the Attorney General is the chief law officer of the country. And if he speaks, his voice is stronger than that of the INEC chairman".
Masari added: "I don’t think it is the responsibility of the Attorney General of the Federation to conduct elections. We have to find out the truth. There is so much anxiety in the country and we have the power to ensure that INEC conducts free and fair elections". Through Masari’s intervention, the House mandated its Committee on Judiciary to invite Ojo for a private meeting and seek his clarification over the comment.
But a member of the committee soon disclosed that the minister had since denied the comment.
In his usual defence of controversial issues, Ojo claimed he was quoted out of context by the media.
However, amid alleged secret moves by Obasanjo to scuttle the electoral process, there is cheering news from the Senate and the House of Representatives. The institutions, which political scientists regard as the "quintessence of democracy", have vowed not to allow the "enemies of democracy" stand in the way of Nigerians to effect a political change in their lives through the general election fixed for April 14 and 21.
Ask bookmakers what Nigeria has learnt from its 30-month civil war, the abrupt end of the Second Republic, which brought the military into mainstream politics, and the resultant backlashes, they would say nothing. Politicians, who bore the stick, still do things the terrible old ways.
Unless things change, the writings on the wall today hardly point at successful transition slated for May 29, no thanks to the Presidency, which seems hell-bent on staying on, and an INEC that is allegedly dangerously acting the script of Obasanjo.
Reactions have refused to thin out since INEC, as predicted, went ahead to disqualify the vice president from the April polls. Many of those who spoke with Daily Independent accused the electoral body of acting a script and deliberately trying to scuttle the polls. Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) said INEC was frustrating the transition programme, but warned that trouble might erupt in doing so.
TMG is the country’s leading non-governmental election-monitoring body, controlling scores of pro-democracy groups.
Its Executive Director, Innocent Chukwuma, said in a telephone interview that INEC "has got no ground to disqualify Vice President Atiku Abubakar" as a court ruling had restrained it from doing so.
Chukwuma spoke two days after human rights lawyer, Bamidele Aturu, warned that Atiku’s disqualification might stall the polls, as the Supreme Court was likely to uphold the ruling of the appellate court.
"As far as I am concerned, INEC and the Presidency are bent on truncating the transition by scuttling the election", Chukwuma said.
He added: "The disqualification of (Atiku) is uncalled for, because the court of appeal has ruled against it. INEC has got nothing to lose if it allows Atiku to go on with the polls until the Supreme Court rules otherwise. If the apex court rules against Atiku, then he would back down from the race. The commission stands to lose nothing if it allows him to continue.
"But what Iwu has done has vindicated critics that he has something up his sleeves. But, to me, the action is a mindless pursuit of selfish agenda, which can mar the whole electoral process and the transition".
Ben Nwabueze, a renowned constitutional lawyer, condemned what he considered Obasanjo’s manipulation of the electoral process, using INEC and other agencies.
He described Obasanjo’s alleged involvement in Atiku’s disqualification as a pursuit of tenure elongation–a situation that might occur should Atiku ask the courts to stop the polls.
His said of the Anambra situation: "They want Andy Uba to win in Anambra, so they disqualified other candidates". Similarly, he said, INEC’s intention was to disqualify Atiku so that the contest would be between Yar’Adua and Buhari.
"Why should any reasonable person who has ruled for eight years, in addition to a previous three and half years, still be nursing the ambition to continue in power?" he queried.
According to Nwabueze, INEC’s action was the height of illegality.
"Nobody has the authority to disregard the court’s judgment," he insisted, adding that "Section 137(1) (1), which is the grounds of disqualification being relied upon by INEC, are not self-executing for the additional reason that the ascertainment of the correctness of most of the grounds involves complex questions of fact or law requiring a process beyond the competence of INEC, i.e. the process of a court".
Yet NBA, the umbrella body of members of the bar, said it was against INEC’s action. Going ahead with the disqualification of Atiku and others, it said, could trigger another round of lawyers’ sit-at-home protest.
NBA President, Olisa Agbakoba, said INEC lacked the power to disqualify election candidates.
"We can only hope that INEC see reason and abide by the court’s decision", he added.
He advised those affected by INEC’s decision to take legal action.
"All the individuals affected", he urged, "should commence action to enforce their legal right".
If INEC continued to maintain its position, the NBA president warned, "the electoral process will be jeopardized."
In the same vein, Convener of the United for Democracy (UAD), Abiodun Aremu, said he was not surprised at Iwu’s pronouncement, because the writings on the wall told of an INEC briefed to truncate the transition and give way for tenure extension.
UAD threatened civil disobedience unless Abuja backed off its "destructive antics".
It urged Nigerians to brace up for another struggle to oust "the Obasanjo dictatorship on or before May 29, 2007".
He claimed: "INEC’s statement underscores the position of the UAD that the Obasanjo dictatorship is not interested in organising credible transition. It also underscores the desperation of the regime in manipulating the electoral process and encouraging INEC and other agencies as the EFCC that have no constitutional roles in the conduct and management of elections to flout the rule of law and due process.
"The INEC’s statement is not only contradictory, but is also diversionary and is a part of the last ploy by the regime to truncate the transition and pave the way for tenure elongation.
"It should be recalled that just a week ago the false death rumour of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)’s presidential candidate was engineered by chieftains of the regime in an attempt to cause confusions and blame the opposition to gain public sympathies. But the UAD is happy that Nigerians were not deceived by such petty intrigues of a dying regime that is haunted by life after office.
"We call on Nigerians to be prepared for a series of civil disobedience actions that would become inevitable should the regime carry out its theatrics to create anarchy, which is already imminent with the attempt by INEC to exclude some candidates.
"Nigerians should be resolved to terminate the life of this regime come May 29 irrespective of excuses INEC might give. INEC cannot interpret the law; the law is very clear on Atiku’s matter. There is a Court of Appeal ruling which says INEC cannot bar Atiku or any other candidates from the polls".
The Alliance for Credible Election (ACE-Nigeria), a conglomeration of civil society groups, is alarmed at what it called Iwu’s brazen disregard for the courts.
Its Secretary-General, Emma Ezeazu, said: "The disqualification of the presidential candidate of AC and the party’s governorship candidate in Anambra, amongst others, in the face of court rulings, is irresponsible and contemptuous of the courts".
He added: "Our courts have interpreted the laws of the land to say that INEC has powers to verify the claims of candidates, but has no powers to disqualify any candidate. The power to disqualify rests with the courts and the people, the latter by going to court to stop a candidate or by rejecting the candidates at the polls.
"While INEC has powers to verify the claims of candidates, it does not have powers to compel candidates to appear before it for purposes of verification nor does it have powers to disqualify any candidate that fails to appear before it for that exercise.
"The provision in the law to shield INEC from the politics of disqualification was deliberately inserted by lawmakers to prevent a repeat of past experiences where INEC was hijacked by incumbent powers. Unfortunately, INEC has deliberately stepped into the muddy waters of disqualification to rig the outcome of 2007 elections".
, Igbo apex socio-political group, also told Iwu that disqualification threatened democracy, unity and peace of the country, urging the INEC boss to observe the law.
President, Dozie Ikedife, argued in a statement that Iwu was quoting the law out of context, and urged him to retrace his steps.
"Whether he is an Igbo man or not is not the concern of the Ohanaeze, because he is conducting election for the whole country. Our concern is that Iwu must act according to the rules. We have a constitution in this country and he should consult it when he is taking certain decisions." But as things stand now, most Nigerians appear to have adopted a let’s–wait-and-see-where-Iwu-is-going posture.