A thick cloud of uncertainty now pervades the political space in Cross River State, where the hope of politicians seeking to occupy elected offices in the local government is now hanging in the balance.
Last week, there was confusion in the state over the matter. While a notice pasted at the PDP secretariat alerted the aspirants and other stakeholders to the readiness of the party to conduct its primaries in readiness for an election that was speculated to hold in November, another notice emerged 24 hours after, annulling the first.
The confusion created by the development has caused a sharp division between two APC chieftains in the state. Presidential adviser, Okoi Obono-Obla and Chief Utum Eteng, for the first time disagreed publicly on the matter. The duo are arguing on what may happen in the state if the National Assembly amends the constitution and gives the power to conduct local government elections to INEC.
Obla's legal opinion is that the change resulting from such amendment will not be immediate. “The amendment will come into force at the expiration of the tenure of the present government which is 2019. For instance if the amendment of Section 3 subsection 1 of Part 11 of the third schedule to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria , 1999 (as amended) by the National Assembly is supported eventually by 2/3 of the state assemblies, it will result in the abolition or scrapping of the present states electoral commissions.
“It follows that the conduct of local government council elections will be taken over by the Independent National Electoral Commission. It goes without saying that the change brought by the amendment will take place in 2019 not now or even in 2018. The applicable law in force is the one in place when the cause of action took place. What are labouring to say is that any event that occurs between now and 2019 will be shaped by the 1999 Constitution as it presently is.”
But Eteng, who is the APC counsel and in most cases, counsel to Obla, countered the presidential adviser on prosecution. Reacting to Obla's postulations, Eteng said “I wish to differ with you to some extent on the issue of abolishing state independent electoral commissions as it relates to when the conduct of local government elections take place. If there is an amendment today which is signed into law by the president, it takes effect from the day it was signed into law. However where local govt council elections that already give a term is conducted before the signing into law after the amendment process is completed, the law that existed before giving a term to the existing elected council will continue on the term so given.
“It will not be the same as soon as the term expires, let us say in February 2018. INEC will automatically take over the conduct of the council election to that particular state. It will not wait until 2019 before it conducts the council election. No. This is in consonant with section 7 (1) of the constitution as amended and the recent Supreme Court Ekiti judgment which leaves no vacuum at any time for administration of the council by a undemocratically elected council.
“The only elective positions that are contestable in 2019, following an amendment of the constitution are to office of the president, state governor, legislators across board. This so because their term will expire in 2019.
“The effect given to any law to be operational is when it is signed into law. This is so by the Interpretation Act except otherwise provided in the amendment. The recent madness by state governors which for years did not attempt to conduct council polls to do so now is to overtake any such amendment which scrapes state electoral body and gives that function to INEC.
There was a sudden frenzy in political activities when the first publication was made. Sources said the state governor, Prof Ben Ayade may have received conflicting pieces of advice on the matter.
Realising the confusion the time table was causing, the PDP quickly issued a rejoinder on Friday, 27 October which it addressed to the General Manager, Cross River Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC), to clear the air surrounding preparations for the polls.
The rejoinder reads:
“The entire members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Cross River State and aspirants to the office of councilors and chairmen of local government councils are informed that information making the rounds about the Local Government Council elections is incorrect as the time table displayed was a proposal to the leadership of the party which is yet to be approved.
“Consequently, PDP members and aspirants are to discontinue any meetings or gathering or campaigns as Cross River State Independent Electoral Commission (CROSIEC) charged with conducting local government elections has not come up with time table to that effect. All concerned are advised to abide by the notice.”
The rejoinder, which was signed by state secretary of the party, Omaga Victor Odo, is expected to lay to rest the strident speculation about the council polls.
The suddenness of the PDP time table took many, especially the aspirants, by surprise, leading to political meetings and gathering to kick-start campaigns for the polls.
Chairman of CROSIEC, Dr Mike Ushie had earlier expressed surprise about where people got information that the postponed local government elections will hold in November 2017.
The election, which was earlier scheduled for 17 June this year, was postponed when some political parties went to court to stop it to enable Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conduct the continuous voter registration exercise.
On why the government changed its mind on the council polls and whether it was due to lack of funds to carry out the exercise, the governor's Chief Press Secretary, Christian Ita, responded to a text message sent to him by our correspondent: “The governor is not the Cross State Independent Electoral Commission. It is an independent body, responsible for its actions. So if elections have been shifted as you claim, then it should be CROSIEC that you should direct your question to. The governor does not run CROSIEC.
“Let us not be presumptuous. Find out first from the electoral body if the elections have been shifted and why.”
The delay in conducting the polls is now causing unease among the stakeholders. The Chairman of the state's Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Pastor Sunday Michael, has expressed worry over the delay and said steps must be taken to ensure that the polls are conducted as soon as possible.
Similarly, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state recently issued a threat to swear in their candidates if the polls were delayed beyond the ultimatum they will give to CROSIEC.
Bishop Victor Ebong, the state secretary of the party who issued the threat, said it was ready for the polls since June when it was postponed.
He accused CROSIEC of being an appendage of the state governor, adding that CROSIEC would conduct the polls only when the governor was ready to do so.
The tenure of local government council chairmen elapsed in December 2106 and since then, Heads of Local Government Administration (HOLGA) have been administering local governments in the state.
This arrangement, seen as an aberration by many, is seriously frowned upon by the opposition parties which had earlier gone to court to compel CROSIEC to conduct the polls so that elected chairmen and councilors could run the affairs of the councils in accordance with constitutional provisions.