Since 1996 when the military administration of General Sani Abacha, through the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) conducted a delimitation of constituency that pushed the number of electoral wards in Igbo-Etiti Local Council in Enugu State downwards form 20 to 11, the ward structure of the council has remained altered despite the 1998 resolution of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which was ratified by the Federal Government that local councils that were not affected in the 1996 local council creation exercise should revert to its old structure prior to the exercise, and also a court ruling to that effect.
By Onyedika Agbedo, Guardian Newspapers
Eleven years after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) passed a resolution that local councils that were not affected in the 1996 local council creation by the military administration of late General Sani Abacha should revert to the its old structure, the Enugu State Independent Electoral Commission (ENSIEC) is yet to comply with the directive in Igbo-Etiti Local Council of the state. Rather, what obtains in the council, according to a group of nine communities, which feels marginalised in the present structure, "is a bastardly arbitrary arrangement imposed on the people in place of the pre-1996 status quo."
Created in 1976 through the local council reforms, the council was made up 20 federal constitutionally recognised electoral wards. However, in 1996, the Abacha administration delimited the wards to 11 in order to curtail administrative expenses. But following petitions condemning the exercise by various communities to INEC, the commission in 1998 decided to revert to the status quo in the petitioning councils and directed the States Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) in the affected states to effect same.
In a letter to the Chief of General Staff dated October 14, 1998 and signed by the commission's secretary, Alhaji A. B. Mu'azu conveying the decision, which was made available to The Guardian, the commission noted that not doing otherwise would threaten the transition programme of the government.
"After the inauguration of INEC, no sooner had members settled down to work than they became inundated with deluge of petitions and physical representations condemning the delimitation carried out by NECON with particular reference to ward delimitation. The petitioners claimed that their wards were merged and even threatened to boycott electoral activities if nothing was done. The commission having been given the power under the decree establishing it to undertake such assignment, felt obliged to examine the complaints.
"After examining the over 500 petitions received nationwide, the commission found sufficient reason to review the ward delimitation of the defunct NECON so as to de-merge the numerous wards. Accordingly, the following criteria were used in the review exercise: Local councils not affected in the 1996 local council creation were to revert to the number of wards they had prior to the exercise; in the case of council areas that were split, the parent local council area were to retain the number of wards remaining after the split provided that the number of wards were up to 10 or more. Where they were less than 10, they should be made up to 10; all new council areas created in 1996 were to be left as delimited by NECON," the letter said.
But in a petition to INEC chairman, dated December 3, 2000 and titled 'Discrimination and naked injustice in the distribution of the 20 political wards in Igbo-Etiti local council area: A case of brazen marginalisation and disenfranchisement,' leaders of the nine allegedly marginalised communities (Diogbe, Idoha, Ikolo, Ochima, Ohebe-Dim, Onyohor, Udueme, Umuna and Umunko) claimed that the INEC directive was complied with in all the affected local councils in Enugu State (Ezeagu, Udi, Nsukka, Oji-River and Uzo-Uwani) except in Igbo-Etiti.
They alleged: "In Igbo-Etiti Local Council, a bastardly arbitrary arrangement was imposed on the people in place of the pre-1996 status quo. On enquiry, we were told with bravado that the arrangement was 'from above'. We protested against the 'arrangement from above' in a letter dated October 10, 1998 to INEC, a copy of which was delivered personally to the then INEC chairman, late Justice Akpata who was then on tour of the Eastern states. He promised to redirect the authorities in the state to redress the discrimination. In the contrary, the authorities hung on to the arrangement 'from above' to this day.
They added: " The present arrangement imposed on the local council is a brazen display of injustice, insensitivity and bravado reminding one of the military era. A situation where five towns share 16 wards leaving only 4 wards for nine towns in total disregard of the INEC directive is tantamount to gross marginalisation and disenfranchisement."
The leaders alleged that the towns had never in the history of the council produced any political appointee at the state or federal level while their only stint at the chairmanship seat of the council was during the Babangida regime when the seat was conceded to the zone, a gesture that lasted for just one year before the military removed them from office. They, therefore, noted that the only channel or opportunity by which the impact of the government can be felt by the communities was the political wards.
"The councilor remains the only government access to the grassroots. The ward, therefore, remains the only government unit for democracy dividends to the people. An autonomous community denied of this is as bad as not politically existing. This last card of the affected communities has been robbed of them in broad daylight with an air of bravado in a democratic era, where the rule of law should hold supreme," they noted.
The Guardian gathered that the communities after failing to arrive at a political solution to the issue through petitions and intensive lobby proceeded to the Federal High Court, Enugu seeking an order of the court that would declare the existing wards structure in the council illegal and order the ENSIEC to implement the INEC directive in toto. The court, in its ruling on June 19, 2003, granted the prayers of the plaintiffs and consequently ordered the ENSIEC to revert to the pre-1996 ward structure in the council as not doing so would amount to a breach of their constitutional rights. However, ENSIEC has allegedly despite the court ruling continued to conduct elections into the council using the 'illegal' wards.
Nevertheless, the communities have continued to cry out for justice. In an appeal letter to the state governor, Mr. Sullivan Chime dated March 3, 2009 signed by Agbo John, D.N. Aro, C. Eze, F.O. Omeje, J.U. Ugbor, S. Ugwuanyi and M.E. Ukpazi, L. Ugwu, J. Ezeugwu and D. U. Okegbe, the communities said the action of ENSIEC amounts to a clear disrespect of the rule of law and urged the governor, who was the attorney general of the state when the judgment was delivered in 2003 to prevail on ENSIEC to implement the court order.
They said: "As this act was seen as clear disrespect to rule of law, we had no option than to take the matter to our legal counsel who approached the Federal High Court, Enugu and ENSIEC chairman was charged with committal to prison.
"This action attracted the attention of the then attorney general of the state who presented himself on March 24, 2004 and appealed to the Court to step the matter aside, promising that the order of the court would be obeyed. On this promise, our counsel, Chief Enechi Onyia (SAN) agreed to drop the committal charge since the attorney general, on behalf of ENSIEC accepted to implement the order of the court.
"But on March 27, 2004, the same ENSIEC went ahead and conducted the election with illegal wards in Igbo-Etiti Local Council. Igbo-Itolu (the nine communities) mistook the action to be that it was done in view of the fact that there was not enough time for the commission to re-arrange the wards and restore it to the rightful owners before the election as only three days interval was left between the date the agreement was reached and the date of the election. We endured the injury and consoled ourselves that it would be corrected at least by the next election.
They continued: "As the time of 2007 local council election approached, we wrote several letters to the chairman of the ENSIEC and the Attorney general of the state reminding them of the order and the agreement made before the Federal High Court and equally made personal contact with the ENSIEC chairman on November 7, 2007. The ENSIEC Chairman, Chief A. Nwobodo promised verbally to carry out the court order as enough materials were provided to him to define and incorporate our concerns as was directed by the court.
"When we noticed that ENSIEC was determined to disobey the order of the Federal High Court for the second time, we allowed our counsel to move in and a committal charge was arraigned against Nwobodo. At our utmost surprise, the attorney general of the state came up with an application asking the same court to set aside the ruling of June 19, 2003, which he had already made an undertaking to carry out. The ground of the application was that the court lacks jurisdiction to entertain the matter despite the fact that the issue was raised ab initio and the court assumed jurisdiction on March 31, 2003.
They added: "As court proceedings were going on this application, the chairman of ENSIEC went ahead for the second time and conducted the local council election of December 15, 2007 without regard to the authority of the Federal High Court. On February 17, 2009, a ruling was made on the application and it was described by the presiding judge as not only an abuse of the court process but was also brought in bad faith."
The leaders noted that while they condemn anarchy, they were constantly losing grip of their subjects who were beginning to see them as saboteurs for reining them in. However, "we are convinced that as your government is determined to put smiles on the faces of Enugu state indigenes, our own will not be an exception. It is our firm belief that your government cannot subscribe or surrender to accept and hold or make use of a relay baton of oppression race to the people it owes a duty of care. We sincerely and honestly implore you to join us in asking ENSIEC to obey the rule of law and return our Federal Electoral constitutionally recognised wards as was directed by the Federal Government in 1998 and ratified by the Federal High Court on June 19, 2003," the leaders appealed.