Gift Habib, Esther Blankson, Dayo Oyewo, Ada Wodu, Daniels Igoni, Tunde Oyekola, Abiodun Nejo, John Charles, Bola Bamigbola, Daud Olatunji, Animasahun Salman and Matthew Ochei
The Independent National Electoral Commission has postponed governorship and state assemblies elections earlier scheduled for Saturday to March 18.
The commission took the decision at its management meeting in Abuja, which was convened on Wednesday after the Court of Appeal gave it the go-ahead to reconfigure Bimodal Voter Accreditation machines.
The meeting, which started at 7pm and ended at 10pm, was presided over by its National Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu.
In a statement by its National Commissioner and Chairman Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye on Wednesday night, INEC said it could not go ahead with the governorship poll as earlier scheduled because it needed time to reconfigure BIVAS machines, which were used for the presidential election on February 25.
The Court of Appeal had earlier on Wednesday granted permission to INEC to reconfigure BIVAS used for the presidential election.
The appellate court panel held that allowing the objections of the Labour Party and its presidential candidate, Peter Obi, would amount to “tying the hands of the respondent, INEC.”
In the wake of the declaration of the All Progressives Congress candidate, Bola Tinubu as the president-elect, Obi had approached the appellate court where he secured an order restraining the commission from reconfiguring the BVAS used for the election.
The court handed down the order in the ruling it gave on Friday granting permission to Obi and his Peoples Democratic Party counterpart, Atiku Abubakar to inspect the sensitive materials used for the conduct of the election.
But the electoral body in an application asked the court to vary its order restraining it from tampering with the BVAS machines, which it argued, had to be reconfigured for the governorship and state assembly polls.
Delivering its ruling during proceedings on Wednesday which was attended by the LP standard bearer and a retinue of party bigwigs, the panel presided over by Justice Joseph Ikyegh, dismissed the objections by Obi and his party and held that the backup files on the server could not be lost.
Delivering the lead ruling, Justice Haruna Tsammani, said restraining INEC would affect next Saturday’s governorship election.
He also chided the applicants for repeating their request to be allowed to scan and make copies of the electoral materials in INEC’s possession, stating that it amounted to an abuse of the court process.
Tsammani noted that INEC had in an affidavit filed before the court assured that the accreditation data contained in the BVAS could not be tampered with or lost.
The jurist further stated that neither Obi nor LP filed a counter-affidavit to challenge the argument in INEC’s affidavit.
Tsammani said, “constraining or restricting the respondent (INEC) from the use of the BVAS machines for any other purpose, and particularly considering the governorship and Houses of Assembly elections coming up on the 11th of March 2013.”
Justice James Abundaga who delivered the lead ruling in the motion by INEC for the variation of the Presidential Election Tribunal’s earlier orders struck it out for being unmeritorious.
Abundaga said the apprehension expressed in the motion by INEC was unnecessary because the tribunal never granted any order for any applicant to scientifically access the electoral body’s database.
He said, “We made the orders of 3rd March 2023 which are sought to be varied by this application. The court did not in any of those orders authorise the applicants to access the database of the applicant (INEC).
“Therefore, the fear that the orders we made, if not varied, will expose the identities of the voters and who they cast their votes for is not genuine.
“We made the orders, very conscious of the court’s power to do so pursuant to the Electoral Act, particularly, Section 74 of the Act to enable the respondent herein (Obi and LP) to have simple access to electoral materials for the purpose of instituting and maintaining their petition if they ever wish to file any.
“We take judicial notice that similar applications to access electoral materials for the purpose of instituting petitions were made by other applicants.
“The respondents are hereby reminded, in case of any misapprehension by any of them, that the court did not, in any of those orders granted, authorise the applicants therein, the permission to electronically open the applicant’s database.”
Before the court gave INEC the go-ahead on BVAS reconfiguration the commission had yet to start the distribution of election materials in many states.
The commission had told the court on Tuesday that reconfiguration of BVAS would take two or three days.
But in the statement on Wednesday night, INEC recalled that on March 3, Presidential Election Petition Tribunal gave an ex-parte order for some political parties to inspect materials used for the presidential election, including the forensic inspection of over 176,000 BVAS used in the election.
INEC added that it approached the tribunal to reconsider the order, given that the BVAS systems were to be deployed for the Governorship and State Assembly elections and that the lack of a clearly defined timeframe for the inspection could disrupt the commission’s ability to conduct the outstanding elections.
“For instance, the BVAS can only be activated on the specific date and time of an election. Having been used for the Presidential and National Assembly elections on 25th February 2023, it is necessary to reconfigure the BVAS for activation on the date of the Governorship and State Assembly elections,” it added.
INEC further said while the ruling of the tribunal made it possible for it to commence the preparation of the BVAS for the governorship and state assembly elections, “it has come far too late for the reconfiguration to be concluded. Consequently, the Commission has taken the difficult but necessary decision to reschedule the Governorship and State Assembly elections which will now take place on Saturday 18th March 2023. By this decision, campaigns will continue until midnight of Thursday 16th March 2023 i.e. 24.”
Justifying its decision, the electoral umpire said the postponement was necessary “to ensure that there is adequate time to back up the data stored on the over 176,000 BVAS machines from the Presidential and National Assembly elections held on 25th February 2023 and then to reconfigure them for the Governorship and State Assembly elections. This has been the practice for all elections, including the period when the Commission was using the Smart Card Readers.”
It however said it was not against litigants inspecting election materials, adding that it would continue to grant all litigants access to the materials they required to pursue their cases in court.
“We wish to reassure all political parties and candidates that the data from the Presidential and National Assembly elections will be backed up and available in INEC cloud facilities, including the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV). Political parties can apply for Certified True Copies of the backend data of the BVAS.”
The PUNCH reports that unlike what happened during the presidential election when the distribution of sensitive materials started in many states on Wednesday, February 22, the exercise had yet to start in many states as of 6pm on Wednesday (yesterday).
States’ Resident Electoral Commissioners, who spoke to our correspondents, said the distribution of the materials ought to have started on Wednesday morning, but it was delayed because they were awaiting directives from INEC headquarters and the outcome of the commission’s suit on BVAS reconfiguration.
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The Resident Electoral Commissioner in Delta State, Mr Monday Tom, disclosed to The PUNCH they had not commenced deployment of election materials because they were waiting for directives from INEC headquarters.
He said, “We don’t have the go-ahead from the national (headquarters) to distribute materials.
“We are in the court now, so we are not doing anything and we have yet to distribute because of the court matter.”
INEC in Osun
Also, the spokesperson for the INEC in Osun State, Seun Osimosu, said the distribution of sensitive materials for Saturday’s election could not proceed on Wednesday earlier planned because of the court case on the BVAS.
She said after the court’s decision on the matter, the commission would proceed with its preparation, assuring that the development would not affect the preparation for the state assembly polls.
‘’We couldn’t distribute the sensitive materials today (Wednesday) because of the reconfiguration case of BVAS. The (matter) is still before the court.
“BVAS is important to the process of election and this is the reason why we are waiting for the court judgment, so as to know the next step to take.
“The delay won’t affect (preparation), because as soon as we have the go-ahead order, we will ensure that we work around the clock to ensure that we have a credible process,’’ she explained.
Though the governorship election will not be held in Bayelsa State, the Head of Voter Education and Publicity, Yenagoa INEC office, Wilfred Ifogah, said the distribution of materials for the state house of assembly election had not started as of Wednesday evening.
Findings also indicate that the electoral commission has postponed the deployment of sensitive materials in the 18 local government areas of Cross State.
Confirming this in a text message on behalf of the Resident Electoral Commissioner in the state, Prof Gabriel Yomere, the Head of Voter Education, Tonia Nwobi attributed the development to the suit.
She said, “Dear Sir, I wish to inform you that the management of INEC Cross River State has suspended the inspection of sensitive materials at the Central bank of Nigeria, Calabar branch scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, by 7am pending the Court of Appeal ruling on BVAS.”
The same situation was observed in Ekiti State where the election materials were awaiting distribution to the 16 local government areas.
The INEC Head of Voter Education and Publicity, Mr Temitope Akanmu, said, “The sensitive materials for the election are at the CBN branch in Ado Ekiti here. We are awaiting directives; the moment a directive is given, we will go ahead with the distribution.”
The INEC spokesperson said the electoral body was ready for the election into the 26 state constituencies in the state.
He also explained that all was set for the refresher training ordered by the INEC National Chairman, Prof Mahmoud Yakubu, for the various categories of ad hoc staff ahead of the election.
The commission will conduct only the state assembly election in Ekiti State as the governorship election had been held in June 2022.
The REC in charge of Ogun State, Niyi Ijalaye, affirmed that the distribution of electoral materials had not commenced.
Speaking with our correspondent in Abeokuta on Wednesday, he noted, “The materials are intact with the CBN. We have not called the stakeholders because of the court process. We have not got a directive from the national (headquarters).”
In Benue State, preparations were in top gear for the governorship election.
However, the REC for the state, Prof Sam Egwu disclosed that the distribution of election material was stalled by the BVAS suit.
The REC spoke during a meeting with political leaders in Benue State organised by the Commissioner of Police in the state, Wale Abass.
According to him, the commission is doing everything possible to overcome the challenges encountered during the last election.
Egwu said, “We have been doing everything possible to ensure that there is no hitch concerning Saturday’s election but I hope we are all aware of the court case.
“INEC had gone to court on the issue of BVAS and by 2pm today (Wednesday), we will know the situation of things.’’
Meanwhile, the commission Wednesday commenced the batching and distribution of sensitive election materials in Kwara State.
Addressing journalists at the CBN, Ilorin branch, the state Administrative Secretary of INEC, Mr Julius Yagba said the materials would be distributed across the 16 local government areas of the state.
According to him, the essence of batching is to ensure the timely distribution of the materials.
In Sokoto, the commission said the distribution of the materials would commence on Thursday after inspection by party leaders and other stakeholders on Wednesday evening.
The commission had earlier fixed Wednesday for the distribution of the sensitive materials but the exercise was postponed following meetings with leaders of political parties and security agents.
INEC National Commissioner, Maj Gen Modibo Alkali (retd.) who was deployed to the state from Abuja to supervise the governorship election, assured the residents that the polls would be free, fair and credible.
He cautioned that any votes cast without BVAS are invalid.