All Progressives Congress’ candidate for Benue-South Senatorial District, Daniel Onjeh, reveals his efforts to replace David Mark at the Senate among other matters in an exclusive interview with reporters.
How long have you been a member of the All Progressives Congress?
I have been a member of the APC since the time of its formation. I was in the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, one of the legacy parties that merged to form the APC.
How did you get the party’s ticket to contest the Benue-South Senatorial District election?
Like every other person, I contested for it since I was qualified by all standards. By age and educational standard, I was qualified. I am also a member of a political party. I purchased the intent form and I went into the primary and emerged as the candidate of the APC for the senatorial district.
What is your assessment of the February 20 rerun in the district?
Although there was a lot of improvement from previous elections that had been held in Benue-South, we cannot completely rule out irregularities and acts of non-compliance with the extant electoral law during the election. And that is why the election is short of being considered as a free and fair contest as there were malpractices and rigging. My assessment of the election is that I defeated David Mark with a landslide victory. What made him to have those votes was merely the padding of results from the various local government areas to catch up with my votes and subsequently have a lead of about 12,000 votes. I say this because from the records we had from the election situation room, I was leading him and suddenly votes started coming in from areas where they were deliberately delayed. They were watching to see what I would get from my strongholds so that they could pad up votes, which was what they did. The election lasted into the late hours of the day and that was the period they began to manipulate results as usual by mass thumb printing of ballot papers and stuffing of ballot boxes. They took advantage of the Supreme Court decision on the relevance of the card reader to our electoral system and embarked on these irregularities. Over 29,000 of our votes were cancelled and the purported margin of victory between Senator David Mark and I was 12,000. There has been precedence. The situations that ensued during the past governorship elections in Kogi, Bayelsa and Taraba states are all locus classical on this issue of the margin of win being lower than the cancelled or rejected votes. The decision taken in these elections was to declare them inconclusive and order a rerun in the affected areas.
What do you think should have been done?
We expected the same thing to have been done in this election because the law cannot be selective. INEC cannot choose where to apply the law of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The law must be equally and fairly applied to all. What I feel about this issue is that when big names were involved, the law took its due course but because a humble and poor person is involved and appears not to have any godfather anywhere to stand for him, there was this fragrant act of impunity by INEC to have gone ahead to declare Mark winner, in spite of the protest by my zonal collation agent. The results were announced and INEC itself announced the cancellation of 29,000 votes. Despite this, Mark was still declared as the winner. We totally reject the outcome of the election. We are calling on INEC to rescind its decision. Whether it is possible or not to rescind, the answer is also with the recently conducted election in Kogi that was held on February 20. The INEC declared the election inconclusive and the following day it rescinded its decision because, according to the INEC officials, they had found results that closed the gap to ensure that the number of cancelled votes was less than the margin of win. They rescinded their decision and declared one of the candidates winner. Apart from going to the tribunal, I am going to personally sue INEC in a conventional court to claim damages for the psychological trauma they are going to put me through by going through another round of tribunal. I am going to seek redress in the court because it is something they (INEC) have done before and for them to deviate from it means that they have vested interests.
To make the situation worse, I had a phone conversation on February 22 with the resident electoral commissioner in the evening. I called him to inquire why he went ahead to declare Mark (as winner) when there were actually more number of votes that were cancelled than the margin of victory. And he admitted that the election ought to have been inconclusive but he did it in the interest of the people of Benue-South. And I asked him further, how. He said because if we went into another rerun, from what he had foreseen, there would be violence. This means that he took an anticipatory step which, in his own opinion and thinking, is justifiable enough to subvert or undermine the provision of extant electoral laws, which shouldn’t be acting on anticipatory note to commit error. They must rescind the decision that was taken. That is our position.
Do you think Mark’s political experience paved the way for his victory?
Political experience is relative. In politics, we have the positive and negative angles to political experience. I will say yes, I give the negative angle to him. But in spite of it, I have been able to muzzle him out and score a total number of 71,000 votes and I assure you that my votes are not limited to that. Some of the votes that were cancelled, if not (that they were) cancelled, I assure you that I would have defeated him by a wide margin.
Some people believe that Mark was elected because he is more popular than you. Do you agree?
That assertion is not true by any standard. I will describe it as a figment of the imagination of those who said it. He was never popular; it wasn’t his popularity. Clearly, from the results, it has been shown that the Benue-South people have completely rejected him and that is the situation.
What did you intend doing differently if you had won the senatorial seat?
What I intended to do differently was to effectively carry out my oversight functions to ensure that the dividends of democracy and good governance trickle down from the federal desk to my constituents and also to ensure that whatever that is due to my people with respect to federal constituency development projects get to them. That is where my opponent is deficient. He is always quick to say that he is not a contractor. He is quick to say that the primary role of a legislator is to legislate. Yes, we agree; no doubt. But we also know that our legal and constitutional framework expands the role beyond the primary function to a secondary function of carrying out oversight functions and that is to ensure that the dividends of democracy trickle down to the legislature’s constituency. The failure of any legislator to carry out oversight function on issues that bother his people is a clear pointer and indication to his culpability in the socio-political and economic crisis against his people. And that is where the former senate president is found wanting.
Only recently, President Muhammadu Buhari cut off N40bn from the allocation to the National Assembly. What was this N40bn meant for? It was annually earmarked for federal constituency projects in the constituency of the principal officers of the National Assembly, which David Mark was the chairman. In essence, N40bn could be separated for the development of constituencies of only about 13 to 14 principal officers of the National Assembly in both chambers. It means amongst them, there will also be considerations to the top hierarchy of the principal officers. And by implication, more could have accrued to Mark in his eight years of being the senate president. Yet, there is nothing commensurate on the ground with respect to the development of Benue-South.
Did you make any complaint before the votes were collated and results announced?
We made some complaints but they all fell on deaf ears. Also, my agents made written complaints to the officials of INEC over some of the results and why they must not be accepted. But all INEC staff kept telling us was that we should go to court if unsatisfied.
Did your people keep tabs on the movement of the electoral materials?
Yes, we kept tabs on them. There were two local government areas where materials were almost diverted. One prominent one is the Ado Local Government Area.