Ifeanyi Ararume•Political watchers narrow contest to 3 contestantsThe much-awaited bye-election into Imo North Senatorial District (also known as Okigwe zone) will hold on Saturday. To ensure free, fair and credible poll, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has recruited over 3,000 ad hoc staff, including the Supervisory Presiding Officers, for the election scheduled to hold in 710 voting and polling units (i.e. 692 polling units and 18 voting points) spread in the six local government areas of the state. The LGAs are Ehime Mbano, Isiala Mbano, Okigwe, Ihitteuboma, Obowo and Onuimo.The senatorial seat became vacant following the death of the erstwhile occupant, Sen. Benjamin Uwajumogu, who died in Abuja a year ago. After the electoral agency fixed the initial exercise for October 31, it was forced to postpone it due to the nationwide #ENDSARS protests, and rescheduled it for December 5.While briefing on preparation, the Imo State Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Prof. Francis Ezeonu, hinted that though hoodlums had burnt down the offices where some materials were kept, carting away electricity generating sets in the commission’s offices in Ehime Mbano, and Ezinihitte Mbaise LGAs, the commission was not perturbed by the set back. He disclosed that the poll would take place in Ihitte Uboma with 108 voting points; Ehime Mbano, 132 voting points; Isiala Mbano, 150 voting points; Obowo, with 108 voting points; Okigwe, 117 voting points, and Onuimo with 95 voting points.According to Ezeonu, the commission created 64 Registration Area Centres (RACs) for easy deployment and dispatch of non-sensitive materials to the polling units, stressing that training of all ad hoc workers had been concluded.According to the Imo REC, the commission has confirmed and documented 14 candidates in 14 political parties out of the initial 18 parties that emerged after the primaries, and has consequently authenticated them as candidates for the election.The candidates, according to him, are Senator Ifeanyi Godwin Ararume of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Ndubueze Patrick (Accord), Emmanuel Ogueri (Action Alliance), Nathaniel Uba (AAC), Chigozie Onyinye (ADC), Charles Onyeirimba of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Raphael Nnadozie (APM), and Ernest Ezirim (APP).Others are Okorondu Sunday of Labour Party (LP), Okereafor Chukwujieze (NNPP), Charles Amajouyi (NRM), Emmanuel Okewulonu (Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Rita Okoroafor (SDP), and Promise Nwadigos (YPP).Ezeonu disclosed that the Acting Chairman of INEC, Air Vice Marshall Ahmed Mu’azu (rtd.), had approved that commissioners, including the commissioner in charge of Voter Education, Festus Okoye, and other directors would join officials in Imo in the supervision and monitoring of the exercise for free and fair election.He also stated that non-sensitive materials were ready, while sensitive materials will be dispatched to the various RACs on Thursday (today). He explained that on voting day, accreditation and voting would take place between 8. 30am and 2.30pm. All the voters who may be on the line within the period, he said, would be attended to no matter the time.According to him, in line with the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) protocol, world standard safety protocol must be observed, which includes that voters and officials must wear facemasks, face shields, maintain social distance, while mentholated spirits would be provided for voters at the various polling and voting points/units.On security matters, Ezeonu explained that necessary arrangements and interface had been made with the security chiefs to ensure a hitch-free exercise, stressing: “I do not envisage we cannot handle the security of that area. We have met with the security personnel/chiefs in that respect.”He reiterated that arrangements had been concluded to ensure that an election-viewing portal provided to transmit the results as they are received would be put in place on election day. He also stated that no voter would be allowed to enter the voting arena with phones and cameras to prevent vote-buying issues.To show the level of seriousness attached to the bye-election, the commission’s Acting Chairman, Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Ahmed Mu’azu (rtd.) and senior officials of the agency arrived the state last weekend, urging the security personnel to be deployed to various locations on election day to discharge their duties diligently without compromise.Mu’azu, who was flanked by other officials and the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Imo State, Ezeonu, made the plea at a consultative meeting with Imo State Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security and Appraisal, noting that the election was first delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and “security concerns.”The INEC boss also warned all election officials to abide by the oath of neutrality, which they swore to, while cautioning politicians to exhaust all legal options according to the constitution and relevant provisions of the Electoral Act. He noted that the election umpire would abide by the outcomes and decisions of the various courts, accordingly.His words: “We appeal to the security agencies to act professionally and ethically in securing our materials, election staff and the electoral environment. In other words, we expect robust synergy between the security agencies and the electoral management body. In this regards, we propose that the various security agencies maintain their operational commands in their jurisdictions while the commission will activate a Joint Situation Room in INEC state office with all representatives of all the security agencies, the National Youth Service Corp and the National Orientation agency.“We urge the security agencies to provide adequate protection for these class of Nigerians that are on national assignment. We also expect professionalism and good ethical conduct from these election staff. They must not, on any account, depart from their oath of neutrality and code of conduct as the abridgement of same or departure from it poses danger to the electoral process and danger to their safety.”While stating that the Joint Situation Room will coordinate security deployment and operations before, during and immediately after the election, the acting chairman disclosed that the election would take place in six Local Government Areas spanning 64 registration areas with a registered voter population of 389,245.MEANWHILE, political watchers in the state and the election district see the race as a contest among three major contenders, namely, Ararume of APC, Okewulonu of PDP, and Onyirimba of APGA.Ararume, a two-time senator (1999 -2007), had a political face-off with a former governor of the state, Rochas Okorocha, during the 2019 governorship election. The grouse resulted in Ararume challenging Okorocha, who wanted his son in-law, Uche Nwosu, to succeed him. Okorocha had advised the former senator contest the Senate seat, opining that it would have afforded him the opportunity to be elected deputy senate president.On another hand, the governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodimma, and the Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba, were said to have supported the failed candidacy of Frank Ibezim for the senatorial seat. But Okorocha, who is the senator representing Imo West Senatorial District, and his supporters, using his Rescue Mission political structure, settled for Ararume.A fortnight ago, Okorocha had openly urged members of his political structure to campaign and cast their votes for Ararume. He explained that after the election, every structure (his and Ararume’s) would go their separate ways and return to base.Ibezim had emerged after the APC primary. However, Ararume had approached the Federal High Court in Owerri to seek redress. The court declared him winner, ordering the INEC to remove Ibezim and insert Ararume’s name on the ballot.On his part, Okewulonu is of the PDP, the major opposition party in the state still struggling to recover from Emeka Ihedioha’s loss of the governorship seat. Okewulonu is counting on the sympathy of majority of Imo people who described what happened to Ihedioha as daylight robbery and rape of democracy.Onyirimba of APGA may have a hard time selling his candidacy with the fortunes of the party diminishing at every election circle in the state. Yet, not a few believes he could spring a surprise in the election.

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