By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
Given the resolve of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC that it would not postpone the long-scheduled Edo and Ondo governorship elections on account of the outbreak and continued prevalence of the Coronavirus pandemic, stakeholders involved in the process have currently returned to the drawing board and commenced a frenetic run to ensure that they emerge the favourites at the close of the polls process in September.
Though the commission had like many other government agencies, earlier suspended virtually all of its activities across Nigeria, a development that had affected previously scheduled bye-elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Plateau, it has however now insisted that it would be going on with the conduct of the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Edo and Ondo states despite the ravaging coronavirus pandemic in the country.
Addressing the issue last week, INEC Spokesperson, Festus Okoye, said that postponing the governorship elections in Ondo and Edo states at this point could raise massive challenges for the system going forward.
It will be recalled that INEC had in February fixed the date for the governorship election in Edo for September 19, while that of Ondo State was fixed for October 10.
Citing the 1999 constitution, which provides INEC with the elbow room to conduct elections “not earlier than 150 days and not lesser than 30 days to the expiration of the tenure of an elected officeholder,” Okoye avers that most significantly, “the implication of not adhering to the law, could make INEC lose the right to pick the date of elections going forward.”
He explains further:
“The commission is a constitutional body, and its powers are derived directly from the constitution section 178(1) says that it is the function of INEC to fix the date of elections, but subsection 2 says that an election to the office of the governor shall be conducted not earlier than 150 days and not lesser than 30 days to the expiration of the tenure of the last holder of the office.
“The implication is that the governor of Edo was sworn in on November 11 and we must conduct the governorship election in Edo State on or before October 13, 2020; while that of Ondo State must be conducted on or before January 25, 2021.
“The truth of the matter is that the country is faced with a situation of conflicting rights: the right of the Nigerian people to elect their representative and also their right to life, not to go to a polling unit and die.
“So, we recognise there will be challenges, but we are on point and we are determined to deliver on our mandate,” Okoye expressed.
Following on this, the Commission has ordered its Edo and Ondo State offices to reopen the shop in preparation for the upcoming elections.
The electoral umpire stated this on Wednesday in its “Guidelines for Resumption after COVID-19 Lockdown” released via Facebook, where it equally directed staff to work three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays between 8 am and 2 pm. As for those who do not have personal means of transportation, they are permitted to work from home.
“Ondo and Edo State offices should reopen immediately due to the upcoming gubernatorial elections in consultation with the relevant State Governments for issuance of necessary permits.
“Funds required to meet the hygiene protocols (decontamination, hand sanitisers, etc) will be made available to these two state offices as soon as possible and to all other state offices as the need arises.
“All staff above age 58 with underlying medical conditions (hypertension, diabetes, asthma, renal and hepatic diseases) should work from home.
“Pregnant staff and nursing mothers should work from home.”
The Commission equally advised operatives at its state and Local Government offices nationwide to endeavour to maintain high hygiene standards, observe social distancing, and ensure persons without face masks were not allowed into any of its premises. But are these admonitions enough under the circumstance?
Asked on what more INEC should do as per the conduct of the Edo polls process in the COVID-19 era, the polity watcher, Sunday Okoroma says that he does not see much tinkering being done and he puts it down to what he calls the structure of the Edo society.
‘The Edo society is quite different from that of, say Lagos. INEC may come up with all the preventive measures it can think of but Edo is Edo. I am very conversant with this society and know that the fear of COVID-19 cannot stop elections in Edo from going on the way they are used to being done. In the first place, the people here are relatively not very affluent and ordinarily do not bother much about the COVID-19 fear. Indeed, it mainly takes the presence of the police and the controls at the banks to remind them of the virus. It’s just the way things are in Edo, like so many other less-hyped parts of Nigeria so INEC has all the time to fine-tune its operational modalities for the polls and also train its personnel to guide the electorate on how to avoid overcrowding at polling booths and collation centres; so let them do it.’
On the primaries and elections proper being held even in the season of COVID-19, another commentator, Macaulay Edema averred that this could be pulled through:
‘It would depend on the guidelines being issued. The guidelines should be fully explicit on all of the processes. I think with good monitoring and enforcement, it can be done.’
For the Benin-based journalist, Patrick Ahanor, the hope is that the virus would have been defeated at the time of polling. Speaking with Business Hallmark on Friday, he said that the situation in the state at the moment was one in which people were indoors, government offices were yet to open, children were not going to school and there was also a night-time curfew from about 8 pm.
On the envisaged mode for the party primaries which is expected to hold next month, he observed that they were still awaiting specific guidelines to be unveiled by INEC and the parties and it was only after that that the coast would have become much clearer.
Combatants take positions
And even as the public awaits word on the specific details of how things would play the principal combatants in the turbo-charged gubernatorial fray in Edo State are already rolling out about all of the drums of war in their arsenal. A few days ago, the jostling for advantage reportedly claimed the job of the Chief of Staff to the Governor, Taiwo Akerele. While no clear word has been given on what exactly had transpired relating to him, insider sources say that he may have been relieved of his position simply because he could no longer be trusted.
It is a similar claim that has been made about another APC chieftain, Tony Kabaka, whose hotel had been demolished months ago in what polity watchers say was a move to send signals to everyone else that only one person and the camp was in control of the political direction in the state. This time, the heat is allegedly being put further on him with claims that he has currently been slammed with an invoice to pay a princely sum of eighteen million naira to the state authorities as costs incurred in the process of the demolition of his hotel.
And as the continuing ding-dong over control of the political fortunes of the state persists, the latest is the finding of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the construction of the Edo Specialist Hospital and supply of equipment for the hospital. The commission has now risen with an indictment of the administration of the former Governor of Edo State, Mr Adams Oshiomhole in respect of a breach of the state’s Public Procurement Law, a verdict that has equally sent the camp of the former Governor and incumbent national chairman of the ruling party scampering to the courts in search of an injunction restraining the state government from giving heed to the content of the commission’s findings and ruling.
Presenting their findings to Governor Obaseki in Benin City last week, the Chairman of the Commission, Justice James Oyomire (rtd), said the award of the contract for the construction of the hospital had breached the state’s procurement laws.
According to him, the procurement law clearly states that any contractor working on a government project should not receive more than 25 per cent upfront payment upon contract award.
However, “the immediate past administration paid 75 per cent of the contract sum upfront for the project to Vamed Engineering,” Oyomire disclosed.
Among others then, the commission’s eight-point recommendation includes one instructing that the Ministry of Justice institute civil and criminal actions against those found culpable in the breach of the law.
Others include the strengthening of the state’s public procurement agency and ensuring strict adherence to the provision of the agency’s law on award of contract.
Responding, Obaseki affirmed that anyone found culpable, no matter how highly-placed, will be called to account for their action.
“We have been putting the right measures in place and if there are resources of government that need to be returned, we will not hesitate to ask for it,” the governor underscored.
As is to be expected, at the moment, all kinds of reactions have been coming out on this new indictment. According to a former Commissioner for Education in the Oshiomhole era, Hon. Washington Osifo, Governor Godwin Obaseki may have even indicted himself in the process as he had served as Chairman of the Economic Team and Chief Economic Adviser to Oshiomhole as governor.
Arguing that the commission of inquiry simply did the governor’s bidding by focusing on a particular area when it came up with an indictment on the breach of Public Procurement Law, he explained that there was a clear difference between projects and purchase of items.
He also asserted that Obaseki had previously tried to use the state’s lawmakers to hunt Oshiomhole about the same project.
“Having failed in that bid, he now resorted to using a Commission of Inquiry who merely focused their attention on 75 per cent upfront payment without knowing the difference between contracts for infrastructure and purchase of items. Equipment is something you buy off and not the same as project execution like building or road construction.”
As the brickbats continue, many are becoming worried and Ahanor also confirmed that the Obaseki-Oshiomhole feud was indeed getting quite troubling.
Indeed, many analysts reason that this would raise the ante in the state.
In the view of the Edo-born political analyst, Frank Uzeba who spoke to Business Hallmark on the developing storm, the new probe panel report allegedly indicting former Governor Adams Oshiomhole on hospital contract matters, would not be unconnected with the game-plan to ensure that nothing would be in the way as per Obaseki’s second term bid. But how would this pan out?
First, he gives it some context:
‘There are two sides to this hospital matter. On the one hand, Cyril, Oshiomole’s firstborn son is a medical doctor, and I know there have been allegations flying all around that most health contracts that were given and executed during the Adams Oshiomhole era were via Cyril. On the other hand, there is also the 5-star hospital that had been built in Iyamoh, with a reported 75% completion and with reportedly stellar 5-star facilities, and from what I know about the workings of the system, I can safely hazard that contracts related to this infrastructure would only have been given to the comrade’s allies.’
Broken down, however, Uzeba is worried that the overall process may get off the rails and leave the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC in a sorry spot.
‘I think such probes at this time will further deepen the bitter relationship between the two elephants in the fray and cause a further severing of the party structure. And as we know, no house survives in such an atmosphere of division. But at the moment, I foresee APC not getting over its internal fights very quickly to the point of presenting a common and mutually acceptable candidate to INEC at the end of the day; something in the mould of the sour grapes that played out in the Rivers State gubernatorial story only a few months ago. It could get that bad I am afraid to say.’