INTERVIEW: IGP, INEC should investigate allegations of BVAS report forgery by Umahi, others- Okorie

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Hon. Linus Abaa Okorie is a former two-term House of Representatives member and the Labour Party Senatorial candidate for Ebonyi South in the 2023 general elections. In this interview with PAUL OKAH, he urges the acting Inspector-General of Police (IGP), AIG Kayode Egbetokun, to investigate allegations of BVAS report forgery reported by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) against the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate and former governor of Ebonyi State, David Umahi, the proliferation of forged INEC documents in different tribunals, among other pertinent issues.

How did you become LP Senatorial candidate?

Any life without challenge is a life without purpose. Starting from the beginning was to get the ticket. First was the PDP. We had the primary and I won out rightly. It was clear, very clear. However, for internal political reasons, PDP wasn’t prepared to give me the ticket. I even went as far as going to court, but at a point, it became clear to me that the party had made up its mind. Even if I got the ticket from the court, I will still need party people, especially the party leaders, as they are so called, to run the election. So, I convinced myself that it would be suicidal for me to force myself on such a crop of elites, who apparently had made up their minds they didn’t want me to hold the ticket. So, I withdrew my case from court and that’s when I sought the ticket of the Labour Party. That was at the point they were about conducting replacement primary, because those who had their tickets had apparently withdrawn and they were looking for viable candidates.

I was approached previously and looking at the scenarios and the situation, I decided to contest that primary, which I won. Again, certain interests pushed somebody who lost woefully to also still challenge that ticket and that person went to the Federal High Court in Abakaliki. For whatever reason, the judge said that the person was the candidate. However, with our faith in the judiciary, I approached the court of appeal that said no, that the judgement of the Federal High Court had no basis and confirmed me as the candidate. The person still went to the Supreme Court. However, on February 2nd, just about 2 weeks before the election, the Supreme Court affirmed my candidature. So, you see the journey. That’s the challenge and that actually is the motivation to push harder.

What transpired at the election?

So, after the primaries and court cases, we went into the elections. I had very formidable opponents. All 10 of them were qualified to represent the zone. But top on the list were the sitting governor then, David Umahi, who somehow became the candidate of the APC, the then sitting senator, Michael Ama Nnachi, who was the candidate of the PDP and, of course, Sir Ifeanyi Eleje. who is a very strong private sector personality, an accomplished person, who was for the APGA and then many other candidates for other parties. So, the first thing that happened was that David Umahi, who then was the governor in charge and candidate of APC, started using the instrumentality of the state government to close up spaces against the opposition. You can’t campaign in public places, you can’t campaign in market place, you can’t campaign in schools, you can’t campaign in government facilities. You can’t campaign even in your own village square. We said okay. We started using street marches for our campaign. You can’t even do procession or campaign on the streets. So, we said all the while what was important was to reach the people and convince them to make a choice. After all, they too were watching and seeing what was going on. That too was a campaign on our behalf. So, we designed a method and started reaching people village by village, house by house, community by community and I’m sure we were very well accepted.

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There’re reports you were you abducted and tortured, what really happened?

Talking again about the challenge, on October 16, 2022, the same Dave Umahi, as governor, had also caused his Ebubeagu then to abduct me and I was to be killed. As a matter of fact, that’s a notorious story. I was abducted just before 11am on Sunday, October 16. They took me all the way past the police headquarters, past everywhere into the Old Government House, into their dungeon. I was stripped naked. I was tortured. I was videoed naked, with the videos sent to Umahi. At about 11pm, after a lot of outcry all over, my wife did a very touching video that went viral. My people had to engage a foreign tracker. That was how they were able to track me and found out that I was at the Old Government House in Abakaliki.

They had taken my two phones away from me. One to Edda and one to Onueke, You know the side of Edda was over 70km, but Onueke was just about 15-20km away. So, when you track my phone, you will see two different locations, 40km apart. So, while the security were trying to look for me in those places around the phone, I was being kept quietly away from any communication just within the Old Government House. And this people had said that by 2am, they will come and take me. Where are you taking somebody to by 2am? Nobody answered me. The only thing they asked me was why should I be running for Senate against the governor, that it was an insult.

As God would have it, we overcame that challenge. When the police rescued me that night, they told me I was on protective custody. The next morning, I was hit with two petitions that were all more than 8 months old. Petitions that were the substance of a case I had taken to the Federal High Court and got judgment against the state government, against the police in Abuja and they were all fully represented. I told them simply, this two petitions are subject of a judgment already and I got my lawyer to send the judgment and I gave them to the police. They got confused. They kept me that day, on Monday. By Tuesday, they knew they had to do something. Around 4pm, I was taken to Chief Magistrate Court 1. Right there, I was charged with murder of four persons.

Nobody asked me about it before. No statement, no petition. Standing right there in the dock, I heard I was being charged for murder. They sent me to prison and I remained in prison for 42 days, before the push from the judiciary, the Federal High Court were I had gone to all the struggle and they finally went and withdrew the charges on the 29th of November. The challenges were many, but like I said, no venture, no success. Without challenge, you are making no progress. It was all interesting to me. For me to go through all of these things, I must have occupied a very strong ranking in the sight and mind of a man who saw himself as the emperor of the state. It encouraged me and I was also challenged by the acceptance of the people. That was another substance of my challenge. The people so accepted our campaign and our candidature that it was all too clear that nothing, except death and God, was going to stop us. So, it was all a beautiful time, difficult, but very interesting. We learnt from all of it. We were encouraged to push on harder all through the election.

Can you talk about the election?

Of course! Clearly, the election was one very important event. Very important because this is the first election ever that I didn’t give any money to any agent. I didn’t release one kobo on the day of election. Not to the police, not to the INEC, not to the security, not to DSS, not to the Army, not to agent, not to the party officials, not to voters, not a kobo. Not a single kobo and it’s on record. Nobody can come out and say that on that day, I gave him or her a kobo for any purpose. But the people overwhelmingly voted for me. It was so obvious. In fact, by 8pm on that day, February 25, people were already celebrating. Lo and behold, before the day broke, when we got into Sunday 26th, stories started coming out that certain INEC officials were being pressured. Finally, from Afikpo South, it became clear that some untold things had happened. Lo and behold, before Sunday was over, Dave Umahi of APC was declared the winner. But before they declared that victory, I was put on notice. I had to do a very quick hand-written petition to the Returning Officer.

I rushed my agent to get to Afikpo, where the collation was going on, and tendered that petition. I said, from the figures you are about to declare, the margin between Dave Umahi and myself is 2,882, but in this petition, there are places where election did not hold. Where they held and they did not allow them to write the result, where they took away materials and destroyed them, where BVAS could not work. All these votes totalled somewhere around 12,000. By section 24(2) of the Electoral Act and clause 62 of the guidelines and regulations for the election and by Chapter 3, Paragraph 4(1), (2), (3), especially stake 24&26 of the manual for the elections, you cannot return this election. It is inconclusive because it says that where the margin of lead between the person with the highest vote and the next person is not more than the number of PVC collected in areas where election did not hold, either under section 24(2) or 43 (1), that election should be declared inconclusive and no return shall be made until election has been conducted in those areas and added to what was the vote in the first election. It is only then that you can be declared in that election.

The Returning Officer said his hands were tied The REC called him to say he will not be able to do anything. My agent told him, look, you are the one on the field. You are the one with the mandate, you are the one in power by the law and you are not under the control or directions of any other person. But if you think that you need the input of the REC, then call her on phone and bring this situation to her. He said he wouldn’t do that and went ahead to declare the result. 

What happened after the declaration of Umahi as winner?

The Electoral Act provides that even though that a return has been made, that INEC has 7 days window to review an election if it is considered that a wrongful return has been done. Therefore, on March 1st, I dispatched a petition to INEC Chairman in Abuja. Remember that from 26th when it was declared, we still had up to the 2nd and 3rd of March to take a position. They called that Saturday evening that a position had been taken and they will announce it on Sunday. It was never announced. Rather, the next Wednesday, they gave a Certificate of Return to Dave Umahi of the APC. Of course, we went to court. We decided that we will be all lawful and obedient to the law all through these processes. Having approached the tribunal, they were required to respond. INEC is the 1st respondent, Dave Umahi 2nd respondent and APC 3rd respondent. I am the 1st petitioner, Labour Party is 2nd petitioner. In my petition, I mentioned documents that I will rely on in proving my case, including the different result sheets, BVAS report and others. So, we had to apply to INEC for the Certified True Copies (CTCs) of these documents.

Abakaliki gave us the CTC of the physical result sheets and said there was a new policy that anyone that is electronic can only be gotten from Abuja. So, we came to Abuja and applied for the BVAS report and other ones that were electronic. On 24th of March, a Certificate of Compliance, which is required under section 84 of the Electoral Act, was signed. On the 25th, the BVAS report, which showed the polling unit by polling unit accreditation that was done in the entire Ebonyi South Senatorial Zone, wherever there was an election or wherever there was any form of accreditation, was certified for us. We obtained it on the 28 of March. We went and compared it with the polling unit results, which we had gotten the CTC and they tallied 100 per cent. Lo and behold, later in April, we were served with the reply of the second respondent, Dave Umahi, the former governor, candidate of the APC, who was now declared senator-elect.

In there, he was challenging 88 polling units that had been declared in my favour. He  said he was challenging the votes because there was a right under the Electoral Act that where you are the respondent and a petitioner is challenging results and claiming he should be returned, not you, you have a right to challenge any vote you think a petitioner earned illegitimately. So, he chose certain polling units where I had won to challenge. With that, if allowed to stand or if found to be true, they will further reduce my votes by about 7,500 votes and reduce his own that was in lead by about 1,500 votes. That will further reduce the margin of lead. That was the idea to see if he can achieve over the number of PVCs that were not collected, where there was no election to show there was no need coming to do supplementary election in those places as the law provided.

How was the BVAS report forgery detected?

Dave Umahi he said he was basing his claim or argument on the BVAS report issued to him by INEC. So, we got curious. How would INEC give us a BVAS report that we have compared on all forms to be the same with their own result that had already been declared and used in declaring him winner? How would they now give another BVAS report that now showed that 88 polling units, where my votes were higher than his own, where I won, were now over-voting? We had to go through them one after the other and found out that one of them was different from what INEC had given to us and from the result declared. We were concerned. We thought maybe there was a mistake. We now approached the candidate of the LP in the House of Reps election, who had been declared winner and whose election was being challenged by the APC candidate. He too had obtained the CTC of his own BVAS report. We asked him to let us see his own BVAS report because all of these polling units, which are my own stronghold, are in Ivo, Ohaozara and Onicha LGAs, which make up OHANIVO federal constituency. All the 88 polling units were selected in OHANIVO.

We took it and compared with the one given to Umahi and it was different. We compared it with the one we were given and it tallied. Incidentally, it was signed by the same INEC official. The same INEC official signed the one Umahi was given and the one the LP candidate for House of Reps was given. The one I was given was signed by a different person. The one who signed the two reports was one Nnenna Essien, an Assistant Director, Data Management in the ICT Department of INEC headquarters, whom we found out is from Afikpo, but married to someone from either Akwa Ibom or Cross River.

In this concern, we applied again to INEC to find out what was wrong. In the meantime, our lawyer took the one that we were given and the one that Dave used in replying our petition, attached both of them to INEC for confirmation of which one that was authentic, because the two BVAS reports came from the same polling units, from the same election that was done the same day. Before that one came out, we had applied again for the same BVAS report, which was signed by the same woman that signed the one Dave was given, who signed the House of Reps own and the second one we were given. Then the senatorial candidate of the PDP, who was the incumbent senator, Senator Michael Ama Nnachi, also got a CTC from INEC for the same election, the same polling units, the same zone. It was the same as the first and second ones I was given, the same one the House of Reps candidate was given and signed by the same Nnenna Essien. So, Nnenna Essien signed the second one I was given, the same one the House of Reps candidate was given, the one Ama Nnachi was given and the different one Umahi is presently parading. That is 4 out of 5. Four were the same, but 4 were signed by her, one was signed by a different person. The letter came from INEC to confirm that the one we were given is the authentic one. We now found a case of forgery on our hands.

What is the situation now?

Remember that all of these are not documents before the court, so to say. Because, except for the first one we were given, which was adopted by the court, they had not adopted their own by the court and they are not even making any effort to adopt. We made every effort to subpoena the woman from INEC. However, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd respondent lawyers frustrated it by all means so that INEC will not come to identify in the open court.  So, as it is now, they have presented a forged document. What I am saying is that we are not discussing the case that is in court. We are discussing the manipulation of INEC documents by a suspected cartel that is working with outside collaborators. One of them has been identified now as Dave Umahi. Who knows how many more outside collaborators are working with them? Who knows how many tribunals are using fake and forged documents from these cartel within INEC, to use in deliberating these sensitive election cases before them? To pervert justice, to truncate democracy, to send us back to the abyss, where we have long passed since 1999. So, I am not talking about what is happening at the tribunal, which will be subjudice. What I am talking about, which is clear now, is there is a cartel at INEC headquarters that specializes in churning out conflicting documents, conflicting CTCs of the same documents and giving them to opposing camps in the same cases. In this instance, we have caught them red handed.

That letter was signed by the Secretary of the Commission, confirming that the particular one that was given to other parties, as long as Ebonyi South was concerned, was authentic, except for the one given to Umahi. Out of 5, that one stands apart. So, how many more tribunals across the country are deciding cases based on forged documents? Is this not worrisome that conflicting CTCs are coming from INEC headquarters, all certified by INEC staff? One person certifying two conflicting documents? Can that be the reason, from the lowest tribunal to the presidential tribunal, INEC is denying every document that emanated from them? The same document they certified themselves? They are denying all of them, saying they are reserving their reason till their final address. Is there a plot somewhere to import forged and fake documents and push them on these judges and create unfavourable conditions where justice will be marred? What we are crying out against is not just the fact that, in my particular case, Dave Umahi allowed himself to get involved in desperation, in working with a cartel in INEC to forge INEC documents. We want Nigerians to ask the question: How many more cases are being decided with forged documents? In this very sensitive presidential tribunal, is it likely that forged documents have been brought in to mislead judges? What would be the impact if Nigerians rise? Would we not have social crisis? There could be breakdown of law and order.

What is your charge to the police?

So, it is in this line of thought that I told my lawyers that we can’t go into self-help, but for them to write a petition to the IGP. These are all allegations, though the INEC papers are speaking for themselves. Let the IGP conduct an unbiased, detailed and comprehensive investigation into the documents. Find out who did what and why. In this particular circumstance, find out why and how Dave Umahi got the forged document. Nnenna Essien is just one person, so the IGP should find out how many more people in INEC are working with her. To what extent have they given these conflicting documents? Which other tribunal may be facing the same situation? Is it affecting the presidential tribunal in this sensitive time? Then all those who are indicted: Dave Umahi, Nnenna Essien and other collaborators should be arrested, charged to court and prosecuted as provided by the law. Incidentally, there is no immunity covering any of them. Nobody is above the law.

As God would have it, fortuitously, while this petition just got in, on the 14th of June, a few days later, Mr President caused a change of guards in the police hierarchy and brought in a new IGP. An IGP who, on assumption of duties, said he is feeling like a lion out to fight the enemies of Nigeria. The greatest enemy Nigeria can suffer now are people who are out to truncate its political development. Insecurity, poverty, unemployment will grow, the economy will suffer depending on governance. Therefore, how we select our political leadership becomes key. The position the IGP is occupying is a product of political evolution. If the president didn’t win, the IGP probably wouldn’t have been appointed at this time. Therefore, the IGP holds a duty to protect democracy at this sensitive time when we are looking for credibility for the electoral and judicial process. The IGP has the responsibility to channel the investigation to a crack team of investigators and then provide personal supervision and overview to ensure that the petition is investigated properly; without bias, hate or love for any party, but for focus on the development of democracy in Nigeria and protection of rule of law. That is what we are asking for. We are concerned on how it impinges on the electoral process or tribunal. We are also saying he needs to do this quickly to help the judges so that they are not pranked into deciding any case on the basis of forged document that have been sneaked into their processes.

What can you say about the movement of tribunal from Ebonyi to Abuja?

The movement of the tribunal from Ebonyi to Abuja has its advantages and disadvantages, like everything in life. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages because whenever security is involved or possibility of breakdown of security is involved, that must be given highest priority. For instance, the Electoral Act provides that a party who doesn’t come or his lawyer doesn’t come on a day set for the hearing of his or her matter that the court can summarily strike it out. I gave you an instance where I was abducted and taken to Old Government House by government agents. I was videoed and the video sent to a man who was head of the state at that time. Nothing happened. The police were forced to come and get me out after 12 hours. Having gotten me out, they were still pressured to put me on murder trial without any evidence. Just imagine if the court was sitting in Abuja. Can I and my lawyers get into the court premises? Very easily, government actors would have used protest and other guise to block our entering the court and their lawyer will be inside asking for our case to be struck out. The judges will not even know why we were not there. That is just one instance that will tell you the delicacy of the tribunal.

More importantly, what caused the movement to Abuja is that when the tribunal arrived, they chose a neutral place to stay and do their work. However, the then governor put all forms of pressure and insisted they can only function in one of the state high courts and that they will have to be lodged in Cirenes hotel. In fact, they had already lodged in a different hotel owned by an Anambra businessman, but Umahi insisted that the judges must be moved to Cirenes hotel, which is owned by an APC member and contractor. So, by staying in a hotel by an APC member and contractor and functioning in state high courts, both facilities can be closed out for opposition members. All efforts to make him see reason failed. So, a petition had to be written to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal saw reasons and moved the tribunal to Abuja. So, it boils down to the security of the lives of panel members and others who are not in tandem with Umahi and other parties. So, it is to the benefit of justice for everybody. The disadvantage is that you have to spend more money to bring witnesses to Abuja, but then what is costlier than life? There is none. So, people can just determine their most important witnesses and bring them to Abuja.

What is your advice to your supporters in Ebonyi?

My advice to all my supporters in the whole of Ebonyi state is to remain steadfast, prayerful, positive and never lose hope. Like I said on the first day, the same mandate you gave me will be retrieved by the hand of God working through men and women using the judiciary. Rest assured that we are doing all we should do by our own might and we are not going to be intimidated or discouraged. As long as we have your support and the support of God, which comes from your collective prayer, this mandate of yours shall be retrieved for you. Like I said from day one, I am the senator for all. I will remain the senator for all and this journey shall be won fairly and reflectively for all of us. They have boasted they will use 10 billion or all the money in Nigeria to frustrate us, but like everything that is not ordained by God, the money will be wasted. Justice shall be done in our case and your mandate shall be returned. I will stand for you, I will stand by you and will do the bidding of the electorate and God.