Elections in Rivers State often come with intriguing twists and the 2023 election is no different from past elections in the State.
With over 3.5 million registered voters and the strategic importance of the State at the national level, the battle over who controls the resources of the State becomes even more interesting.
The current governor, Nyesom Wike, will be completing his second tenure by May 29. This means a brand new government will emerge and with the incumbent governor not in the race, it leaves the contest wide open.
In 2019 it seemed like a one way ticket for the Peoples Democratic Party in the Governorship election after the Supreme Court disqualified all the candidates of the All Progressives Congress in that election. Thanks to a suit by the Peoples Democratic Party which challenged the congresses that led to the emergence of all the APC candidates for the election.
The Supreme Court judgement took the APC off the ballot, leaving the PDP with the “small” political parties to battle with in that election.
However, the African Action Congress (AAC) which was adopted by the APC to challenge governor Wike in the election put up a big stunt that almost scuttled the victory of the PDP.
A member of the APC, Mark Uche said “AAC was leading in that election before it was suspended by the Independent National Electoral Commission”.
Fast forward to the 2023 election. Since the completion of party primaries in May 2022, the PDP in Rivers State has dragged most of the opposition parties to the Federal High Court seeking disqualification of their candidates.
Some of the parties include, the All Progressives Congress, Accord, Labour Party, Social Democratic Party, African Democratic Party, amongst others.
The PDP argued in the court that the parties failed to comply with the Electoral Act in the conduct of their party primaries.
So far, the PDP has lost almost all the cases either at the Federal High Court or the court of Appeal.
The Appeal Court in all the cases ruled that the PDP lacked the locus standi to challenge the primaries of other political parties.
Reacting to the suit filed by the PDP against the Labour party, the Rivers State chairman of the Party, Dienye Pepple said “the PDP is not the one to determine whether we followed due process or not, it’s INEC and if INEC could after the process shortlist our candidates for the election, then it means we followed due process.
“INEC is not stupid to shortlist the candidates names if due process was not followed. So PDP should not be the one saying that.
“INEC was satisfied with the way the primaries were done”.
Accord is one of the parties which got favourable judgement against the PDP at the Federal High Court over alleged non-compliance with the Electoral Act.
The Accord Governorship candidate, Dumo Lulu Briggs, while reacting to the judgement of the court had said “this is an internal affairs of other political parties, nobody in that party is questioning the conduct of the primaries and you, PDP, meddlesome interloper, you have your own issues in your own party and you think that you will drag everybody else to court. Today at least, justice has been served”.
However, Gov. Wike may have agreed that the PDP’s intention is to ensure that other parties do not contest in the election using whatever means available to it.
Speaking during a thanksgiving service of the PDP in Rivers State to mark the beginning of the campaigns in December 2022, the governor said “going to court is part of the electoral process. If two of us are supposed to go to the ring and it will take us 12 rounds and I see a loophole where I don’t have to wait till the 12th round and I knock you out in the first round, is anything wrong?
“All of you crying that they took you to court , you’re an amateur. When I know that you have made mistakes on how to run elections, should I leave you?
“All we are saying is INEC, comply with the laws. You made us to comply with the laws, why are these people not complying with the laws?”
The governor vowed that the matter would end at the Supreme Court.
While opposition parties were still battling to save themselves in the courts, the Rivers governor signed what is known as Executive Orders 21 and 22.
Yara reports that Executive order 21 seeks to regulate election campaigns with regards to venues for political rallies.
Part of the order reads: “Applicants will also deposit the sum of five million naira caution fees in case attendees destroy the facilities in the schools.”
Executive order 22 on its part prohibits the citing of campaign offices in residential areas without the express approval by the Rivers State government through the ministry of Urban Development and Physical Planning.
Observers and stakeholders described the orders as an attempt by the PDP-led administration to stifle political campaigns in the State.
The APC in Rivers State through its Publicity Secretary, Darlington Nwauju said the Executive orders contravened Section 91 of the 2022 Electoral Act.
Nwauju said, “No State government can amend any section of the Electoral Act by issuing decrees that are strange to the Electoral Act. The INEC Chairman recently warned State governments against using the power of incumbency to intimidate opponents.
“We suspect that there is a grand plot to deploy all sorts of underhand tactics to intimidate political opponents in the State, narrow the political space, shush every voice of reason and turn all known democratic ethos upside down.”
The APC had initially filed a suit against the Executive Orders but later withdrew the matter, describing the move as “tactical”.
Sources within the party, however, have confirmed that the party is preparing to refile the suit.
But Accord is currently in court over the issue after the State government threatened to seal off its office at GRA in Port Harcourt.
The South South National Vice Chairman of the Labour Party, Felix Reuben, while reacting to the executive orders, accused the PDP of being afraid of a free and fair contest.
He said, “he’s doing that because he has no candidate. SIM (PDP Governorship candidate) is not a candidate, he’s not accepted by anybody and that’s why Wike is jittery.
“2015 there was a governor in Rivers State, Wike was fighting the then governor to become governor and nobody put this type of stringent and draconian law.”
But governor Wike while defending the executive order 21 vowed to deal with any political party that disobeyed the order, including the PDP.
He said the N5million which the order mandates political parties to pay before the use of public schools for political rallies is to serve as a caution fee in the event government properties are damaged during a rally.
So far, no political party is known to have paid the money, even as none of them was yet to make use of public schools for their campaigns.