In the wake of the deregistration of some political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC). INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, spoke in this interview with Sunday Tribune Deputy Group Politics Editor, TAIWO AMODU, on this burning issue, among others.
INEC has since axed 74 political parties. Some of those deregistered are kicking against it that INEC’s action was preemptive and meant to destroy the resolution of a pending case. What is your reaction to this?
The Independent National Electoral Commission is a creation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with specified powers and functions. Its powers are complemented by elaborate provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended).
The commission regulates the registration and existence of political parties. The commission is empowered to monitor the organization and operation of political parties, including their finances, conventions, congresses and party primaries. The commission has power to examine and audit the accounts of political parties. The commission has power to monitor their campaigns and provide rules and regulations which shall govern political parties. These powers of the commission are provided in the third schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended).
By section 40 of the same constitution, only political parties that the commission accords recognition are qualified and permitted to exist. Therefore, political parties that satisfy the six-qualifying threshold in section 222 of the constitution are permitted to exist.
Furthermore, on the 7thday of June 2018, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria assented to the 4th alteration of the constitution. In section 225A of the constitution the commission was given extensive powers to deregister political parties that fail to meet certain threshold.
The commission has a constitutional obligation and responsibility to give effect to and enforce the provisions of the constitution. Section 225A therefore gives the commission the power to de-register a political party for breach of any of the requirements for registration such as failure to win at least twenty-five percent of votes cast in one state of the federation in a presidential election or one local government of the state in a governorship election or failure to win at least one ward in the chairmanship election, one seat in the national or state house of assembly elections or one seat in the councillorship election.
On the 6th day of February 2020, the commission in the exercise of its constitutional powers deregistered 74 political parties. The commission deregistered some of them for breach of the conditions for their registration. The commission can deregister any political party that no longer maintains an office in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
The commission can deregister a political party if the membership of its national executive committee no longer reflects the federal character. The commission can deregister a political party if its symbol or logo depicts ethnic or religious connotation or give the appearance that the activities of the party are confined to a part of the geographical area of Nigeria.
The commission is a law-abiding institution and has good record in obeying court orders. As of the date of deregistration, only the Action Peoples Party served the commission with a restraining order and the commission obeyed and did not deregister it. The Labour Party and the African Democratic Congress were in court but the commission did not deregister them because they met the constitutional threshold.
The parties you mentioned peremptorily went to court to tie the hands of the commission from carrying out its constitutional and regulatory functions. The order they obtained was obtained after they had been deregistered and it is a notorious fact that courts do not stay a completed act.
Twenty-five of the political parties approached the Federal High Court, Abuja on the 18th day of April 2019 seeking various reliefs. They posed questions to the court including whether section 225A of the constitution is intended to have a retroactive effect and whether it should be interpreted and construed disjunctively. They also sought a declaration that the 2019 elections were not “conclusive and democratic” and that they would have won seats if the elections were free and fair.
It is a notorious fact that election petition tribunals are vested with the power to entertain petitions relating to the fairness or otherwise of elections and all election petitions have been disposed of. The Federal High Court has granted accelerated hearing and adjourned their matter to the 27th day of February 2020.
Now that the court has asked you to reverse yourself, what is the way forward?
The plaintiffs filed a motion on the 14th day of February 2020 praying the court for an order of mandatory injunction directing the commission to forthwith restore them to their original status as registered political parties and thereby reversing the announcement of their deregistration as made by the chairman of the commission on the 6th day of February 2020. The said motion has not been taken and they are aware of their deregistration.
The order made by the court on the 7th day of February 2020 was a product of a motion filed by the plaintiffs on the 15th day of May 2019. I believe that it is tidier and more respectful to await the outcome of the substantive matter. The parties stand deregistered pending the hearing and disposal of the substantive matter.
Some people are of the opinion that you acted outside provisions of the law. That you should have waited for the local government elections to be conducted in the 774 local government areas across the country before deregistering the parties. What is your take?
The State Independent Electoral Commissions don’t register political parties and do not register voters. The list of political parties and the register of voters used by the state Independent Electoral Commissions to conduct local government elections are supplied and or given to them by the Independent National Electoral Commission.
The Independent National Electoral Commission is empowered to deregister a political party for breach of the requirements for its registration and this has nothing to do with local government elections. A breach of one of the requirements for registration is enough for the commission to deregister a political party.
Furthermore, section 225A of the constitution does not admit of futuristic projections. Section 225A(b) and (c) talks of “failure to win.” This presupposes elections that have already taken place and not those that will take place in the future. Section 225A cannot remain inchoate and in abeyance pending the happening of an event. Section 225A does not contain a transitional provision suspending its coming into force and does not have a sunshine clause terminating its application. It is preposterous to insist that the commission must wait for the conduct of indeterminate elections before it can exercise its constitutionally assigned powers.
Last year, when the Commission met with the Senate Committee on INEC, its chairman, Senator Kabiru Gaya, frowned upon the number of existing parties and called for five parties. Is it a suggestion that INEC will like to align with?
The commission will only align with the provisions of the constitution, the Electoral Act and its regulations and guidelines in the registration and deregistration of political parties. The commission has the power and the constitutional duty and obligation to register political associations that meet the constitutional threshold for registration and deregister those that breach the conditions for their registration and/or fail to meet the constitutional threshold prescribed by section 225A of the Constitution.
Despite your recent action, is the commission still considering the registration of more parties?
The commission is under a constitutional and legal obligation to register political associations that satisfy the conditions for registration as stipulated in sections 222-229 of the constitution as well as sections 78-83 of the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended).
It is for Nigerians and the National Assembly to determine the number of parties they want to exist. It is not the responsibility of the commission. Our responsibility is to register political associations that meet the conditions for registration and deregister those that fall off the cliff. .
As the National Assembly Committee on Constitution Review commences its work, what are the expectations of INEC on electoral reforms? What are you bringing before the committee?
The commission will make proposals for the reform of the electoral legal framework for the conduct of elections. The commission will forward proposals relating to the timelines for the disposal of pre-election matters. The commission will forward proposals relating to its powers to determine the validity of nominations. The commission will forward proposals relating to the conditions for the registration and deregistration of political parties.
The commission will forward far reaching proposals relating to the amendment of sections of the Electoral Act to aid the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections. The commission has harvested proposals in-house and with external stakeholders and we believe that we have what it takes to guarantee a good election in 2023 and beyond.
The APC has kicked against the presentation of certificate of return to PDP’s candidate in Bayelsa, Senator Douye Diri, who has since been sworn in as governor, claiming that INEC acted beyond its brief. What is your reaction?
The judgement and orders of the Supreme Court of Nigeria made on the 13th day of February 20120 were clear and unambiguous.
The Supreme Court ordered that “the joint ticket of the 1st and 2nd respondents sponsored by the 3rd respondent was vitiated by the disqualification of the 1st respondent”. The Supreme Court further ordered that “both candidates disqualified be and are hereby deemed not to be candidates at the governorship election conducted in Bayelsa State”. The Supreme Court further ordered that “the judgement of the trial court delivered on the 12th day of November 2019 including all the orders made therein be and is hereby reinstated.”
The implication is that the APC as a political party was never in the ballot and had no votes in the election conducted on the 16th day of November 2019 in Bayelsa State and the votes they secured in the said election are wasted votes and cannot be reckoned with in the calculation of valid votes.
In our calculation, the candidate of the PDP secured the highest number of valid votes cast and had the required constitutional (geographical spread)
The All Progressives Congress has since proceeded to the Supreme Court to seek for a review of its judicial pronouncement on Bayelsa. As a lawyer, is there precedence for this?
The Imo governorship election judgement is in the Supreme Court for review. The Zamfara governorship election judgement is in the Supreme Court for review. The Bayelsa Governorship election judgement is in the Supreme Court for review and some other parties and individuals are approaching the Supreme Court for review.
While individuals and parties have the right to approach the Court, we as a people and as a nation must seriously reflect and ponder on the implications of such course of action.
Senior members of the Bar must on no account allow temporary material and political gains to becloud their sense of judgement. We must always be truthful to our clients. The Supreme Court is the final court of the land and it is not a Court of Appeal. The moment we whittle down the finality of the judgement of the Supreme Court and convert it into a Court of Appeal, we must create a Court that its judgement must be final. Senior members of the Bar must therefore be reflective and ponder on the damage their rushing to the Supreme Court for review will do to the image of the Court and the finality of its judgements.