INEC, Shekarau and NNPP, By Simbo Olorunfemi

“A political party shall not be allowed to change or substitute its candidate whose name has been submitted under section 29 of this Act, except in the case of death or withdrawal by the candidate, Provided that in the case of such withdrawal or death of a candidate the political party affected shall, within 14 days of the occurrence of the event, hold a fresh primary election to produce and submit a fresh candidate to the Commission for the election concerned.”

-Section 33, Electoral Act, 2022.

Last week, the Supreme Court was reported in the news of having removed Ibrahim Shekarau, former Governor of Kano State, as the Senator-elect for for Kano Central Senatorial District. Some reports claimed that the

the Supreme Court further declared the candidate of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), Rufai Hanga as the Senator-elect. This part of the story has now become a subject of dispute as another candidate queries that interpretation of the judgement.

Whereas many, led by the media, which only paid scant attention to the meat of the story, feasted on the fact of the removal of Shekarau, that was not really the issue that should have had our attention, as Shekarau was, in fact not on the ballot and was not interested in being a Senator. He was neither a part of the contest nor did he institute any action in court in that regard.

Rather, this was a novel case of INEC, the umpire insisting on Shekarau as the Candidate of the NNPP, a party he had publicly announced he had left, and winner in an election in which he did not participate in and never laid claim to. He didn’t show up at the presentation of certificates to Senators-elect, even though INEC had declared him as one. 

As a matter of fact, the matter over which the Supreme Court ruled was instituted by INEC, appealing against the decisions by the Federal High Court and Court of Appeal which had recognised Hanga, rather than Shekarau, as the NNPP for Kano Central Senatorial District.

On the face of it, this is quite strange. One would even conclude that INEC was being a busybody or meddlesome interloper in this matter. But on the other hand, one can see where INEC is coming from. The organisation must have looked at the letter of Section 33 of the Electoral Act and assure itself that it was on good footing. It must have also felt obliged to protect the sanctity of this provision, which was designed to curb arbitrariness on the part of political parties with regards to substitution of candidates.

But the Shekarau matter was clearly not one that could have been in the contemplation of the drafters of Section 33. The ‘mischief’ on his part was not what this clause was meant to cure. So, how would a strict application of the letter of the law, as sought by INEC in this instance, have been helpful?

Here is the background story. Shekarau had in May, last year left the APC for the NNPP. In doing so, he left with his supporters. The arrangement with Kwankwaso, he said, was that accommodation would be found for himself and his supporters in allocation of slots for elective forces. That agreement, he claimed, was breached. Even though he was given the Senatorial ticket for Kano central, he claimed that the bulk of his supporters were supposedly left in the lurch.  By August, Shekarau had dumped the red cap and the Senatorial ticket, moving on to join the PDP.

But here was the snag, whereas Shekarau publicly announced his defection, also claiming that he had written to withdraw his further participation as the NNPP candidate, which by virtue of Section 33 only he could do, INEC repeatedly claimed not to be aware of a withdrawal of candidacy by Shekarau. Yet, NNPP had proceeded to organise a fresh election, announcing Hanga as its new candidate.

INEC might have been right, as the law does not recognise verbal withdrawal but a written notice personally delivered by the Candidate himself. So, did the Shekarau do that? Did he even feel obliged to do so, knowing that would have amounted to helping NNPP now that he was in the PDP with a Candidate equally running in the election? Was there some element of mischief afoot that the law had not contemplated? 

Well, INEC opted to stay with the letter of the law, insisting that Shekarau, a man who had publicly announced his departure of from a party and renunciation of the ticket was the NNPP Candidate known to law and itself. It went ahead to publish his name as the Candidate of the party and then announced him as winner of the election he did not participate in. Absurd, one might say. But it is difficult to argue with that stance, keeping to a strict compliance with the letter of the law.

Unfortunately, this matter, which I consider highly important has not received as much attention as I think it deserves in the media. Reports in the media did not shed light on the grounds upon which judgement was entered against INEC at the 3 tiers. I have not seen any of the judgements in the matter.

But if indeed there was no properly submitted letter by Shekarau, and the court still found that his withdrawal and replacement was regular, then a valid query has been raised that might set INEC back in enforcing the provision of Section 33. The provision, as it relates to the process governing withdrawal of candidates might even be dead. But we can only know when we see. If there is any good to what has played out here, it is that it opens our eyes to the possibility of mischief. It just might be that the Court was quick to spot that and has tactically cured it. One can only hope in doing so, it does not open up the flank that was open before the new Electoral Act that had been closed.

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