Ntufam Ekpo Okon, a former chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Cross River State and immediate past chairman of the state's water board spoke with David Odey, our correspondent in Calabar, about the botched PDP Southern Senatorial primaries, the impunity in PDP, the options open to him as one of the aspirants as well as other thorny issues. Excerpts:
What went wrong with the PDP Southern Senatorial primaries?
Well, the facts are very clear. The event was originally scheduled for the 2nd of October but the panel arrived quite late that day. So we expected that on Wednesday, the 4th, it was going to hold. Delegates were already in town and most of them were ready and started to move to the venue (UJ Esuene stadium) expecting to go for accreditation. At about 10 O'clock when nothing had happened, I went to Transcorp hotel and I was informed that the chairman of the panel was in Room 811. I went up there and found the state chairman of the party, Ntufam Edim Inok, the former state chairman Ntufam John Okon and a number of other aspirants were there. One of them is Bassey Eko Ewa who was a senatorial aspirant for the Central Senatorial ticket. And when I arrived there, I found there were arguments. The state chairman was questioning the approach to the panel, that after they arrived, they did not make contact with them. At that time, it became obvious that the secretary to the panel had gone out. He had already left for the central, supposedly, let me say so, with the materials meant for the conduct of the central senatorial primaries. And the chairman and other aspirants were questioning how? I have been a former chairman of the party and I know that the normal procedure is that when the panel arrives, you meet the state exco of the party. And thereafter you have a meeting with the stakeholders, especially the aspirants. There you have the briefings and thereafter materials are distributed. But in this case, materials were distributed before any meeting with them. They were actually quarreling with that when it was finally agreed that the rest of us who were aspirants should leave so that he and members of his panel can have a meeting with the state chairman of the party. So we left.
So, what happened thereafter?
By about 11:30, I noticed a bus that was leaving and I was informed that they were leaving for the north. At that point, I just believed that everything had been resolved so we were supposed to go in and actually it was only that of the south that was left. But unknown to us, while the state chairman was still there, the former chairman, John Okon also moved in. The chairman, to our consternation said the materials for the south had been released through one of the members, Azubuike Femi Nwuke. And the question was, how? We were still here, so how did you surreptitiously release the materials to him? So, we insisted that he called him because we needed to see what he had and then we can go to the stadium. For some of us while the state chairman was still arguing with the chairman, I decided to go to the venue which was the stadium. Nothing was happening there and there was nobody there. The concern was where would this man have gone with the materials? When after about an hour a number of delegates and other party members became aware that materials for the primaries were missing or were with the man who was supposed to be the returning officer, at that point, a lot of them started moving towards the Transcorp hotel from the stadium. So, that was exactly what happened.
I understand Transcorp became rowdy…
Yes, tension started building up. Then I was now informed that the chairman had spoken with Azubuike and that he was coming back to the hotel. Not long after, because I had met him in the room earlier before we were asked to leave so that they can have a meeting, I could remember the face. I didn't know his name, but I could remember his face. It was not long after, we now noticed at about 12 or so a black Camry car drove in and a young man came out and it was him. He had one envelope. Naturally, the party members went after him, asking 'where did you go?' They struggled with him and along the line seized the envelope. But what we now noticed was that the envelope contained scanned copies of result sheets, not the original. So they became a bit confrontational with him. And at that point I even helped with some security men to take him to the hotel. When we took him to the hotel, we went straight to the room. Argument started. Where is the original copy? Where are the ballot papers? He was not forthcoming until when people started showing anger and it became obvious that the way things were going they could become violent, he now agreed and mentioned that inside that car, the materials were there. The security men who were there, one of them a captain, I don't know how he became involved, I think the chairman of the panel was a retired colonel, I think he made contacts and the captain now came, but he was in mufti. He chose to come down and carry out the search. But I warned that if they searched that vehicle and found the materials in the milieu of that crowd, with their anger that car could be vandalized, that we should drive it out. And I said I need to be with them. So, we went to the police station at State Housing where we searched. We didn't find it immediately. Then we now had to place a call to him and he specifically mentioned that it was under the driver's seat. So, the driver knew obviously but refused to cooperate. At that point we asked the driver to open the door and we searched and found the materials. That was how we found four bundles of the ballot papers only. The original result sheets were not there. The ballot papers were not complete, because we had an estimated number of 783 delegates and each bundle contained a hundred leaflets. So, what they had there were only four. So I assumed appropriately eight bundles should have been given to take care of 783 and whatever was left was like what couldn't be used.
So, what happened to the other four bundles?
It became obvious that the other four may have been given with the result sheets to my opponent. It was then we now realized that the Camry vehicle belonged to Senator Gershom Bassey. The driver was his. So, how did the panel member find himself in Senator Gershom Bassey's vehicle? How did electoral materials get stuck under the seat of the driver of Senator Gershom Bassey's car? So, we came back and insisted Azubuike must bring those materials. But it became so obvious that he had already handed over those materials to Senator Gershom Bassey. That was how tension built up. More delegates and members of the party moved to Transcorp hotel. That was what happened. So, by the time senior police officers got involved, they took over the vehicle and the four bundles of ballot papers we found were handed over to the police at the police station. But the DPO insisted he wanted the matter to be moved to the state CID. And that was how those items were moved there. The driver surreptitiously handed over the key of the car to one of the aides of Senator Bassey who now found his way to the police station. So, even when they asked him to drive the vehicle to the police station, the key wasn't found. So they had to tow the vehicle to the police station, to the state police command headquarters. That was the kind of scenario that we found ourselves. They now said there should be a meeting between me, the panel chairman and Senator Gershom Bassey. I said I didn't have any problem provided it was going to lead to a proper conduct of the primaries. When he came, rather than address this anomaly, he came to attack me physically. But that is not an issue anyway. We sat down and he was insisting we go to the stadium to conduct the primaries. At this time it was already 6pm.So, I wondered, what were you going to conduct with? There are no result sheets, the ballot papers were not complete, you had 783 delegates and then you want to take 400 ballot papers into the election. How? Who will be allowed to vote and who will not vote? That was the scenario and it was agreed that the election should be postponed and the chairman of the panel was going to get contact with Abuja to get fresh materials so that primaries could be conducted. Up till now we are still waiting. For the attention of INEC, I am aware of the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended that every party's candidate must be produced through a democratic process monitored by INEC. For the attention of INEC, there has been no primaries in Cross River Southern PDP. The party has not conducted any primaries. And therefore if the PDP fails to conduct one, it should be clear that PDP does not have a candidate. PDP is not ready to field a candidate.
How come Gershom Bassey was declared a winner?
I am not aware that he has been declared a winner.
But that is the news everywhere….
I say whatever news it should be fake news. You and I know that there was no primaries conducted in Cross River south. So, if he smuggled or connived with electoral officials to divert result sheets and possibly write results for himself, was that primaries? That was not primaries. So, we've not had a democratic process to select a candidate. And INEC must know this. Unless INEC was in his house to supervise the filling of the result, then INEC should be able to act as an agency that is responsible and is ready to do its work.
Where does the chairman of the panel come in, since you postponed the election?
The last time I spoke with the chairman of the panel, he told me he was going to Abuja to collect the materials.
But the deadline for the primaries would have expired by the time a fresh primary is conducted. So, what happens?
That is why I am saying that our party does not intend to field a candidate for Cross River south because that is the requirement of the law. INEC did not witness any primaries in Cross River south PDP. And therefore, no candidate could have emerged. Let that be taken note of.
You were chairman of PDP in the state. What has changed about the party considering the events that have played out over the primaries?
I have never seen any situation in our party whereby we get this low. It has never been. I know that in the past, it used to be people in authority will put in words for certain preferred candidates, with delegates given a direction that this is a preferred candidate maybe they go and vote. Gershom knows that even if the national chairman says he is the preferred candidate, the delegates would vote against him because the man has not performed. The delegates are people who are his constituents. And his constituents are the ones to give judgement. So, he knows that of course no matter what happens if he comes to the field, he will fail.
As it is, if they insist that Gershom is the candidate of your party, will you defect to APC or the SDP?
The issue of defection has not arisen yet. The issue I am saying here is this: The law is clear. It is not something that if they choose. You cannot choose above the law. He cannot choose above the law. The Electoral Act wasn't meant for PDP alone. It was meant for all the parties. PDP must learn to comply with the law. So, if PDP is not ready to comply with the law, INEC must ensure that PDP complies with the law by insisting on a candidate who has gone through a process as prescribed by the law.
Where do we go from here?
If INEC know what to do they should come and conduct the primaries and if they cannot conduct it, they should know that they have made up their mind not to field a candidate. If you field a candidate, we all know that there was no primary and therefore the party does not have a candidate.
Will you seek redress in court if they insist Gershom is the PDP candidate?
Well, even the opposition parties know that PDP did not field a candidate because PDP did not conduct a primary to pick a candidate. So, it may not only be me because I know the opposition parties know and he knows the position of the law. INEC should not even wait for anybody to say it. INEC should be able to act as a proper agency that is law abiding and is insisting on the position of the law being respected.
Do you think PDP has learnt from the impunity that led to its downfall in 2015?
My experience in this particular one is worse. It has never been this low.