There are strong indications on Friday that the Senate Committee on the Independent National Electoral Commission may recommend the confirmation of the appointment of a presidential aide, Lauretta Onochie, as a National Commissioner for the electoral umpire.
President Muhammadu Buhari had in a letter dated 12th October, 2020, and read by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, the following week, sought the Senate confirmation for Onochie and other nominees.
The letter read, “Pursuant to Paragraph 14 of Part I(F) of the Third Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, as amended, I hereby forward for confirmation by the Senate, the appointment of the following four (4) Commissioners for the Independent National Electoral Commission.”
The nominees listed by the President are Prof. Muhammad Sani Kallah (Katsina); Prof. Kunle Ajayi (Ekiti); and Saidu Ahmad (Jigawa)
The red chamber suspended action on the nominees based on the controversy it generated with the inclusion of Onochie, the Special Assistant to the President on New Media, who critics believed is a card-carrying member of the All Progressives Congress.
However, Lawan on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, surprisingly, asked the committee on INEC to screen for confirmation, the appointments of Onochie and five others as INEC commissioners.
Two new nominees, Professors Sani Adam (North-Central), and Baba Bila (North-East), were added to the list.
The development came eight months after the President sent the list of the nominees to the Senate for screening.
The Senate INEC Committee led by Kabiru Gaya, screened the nominees including Onochie on Thursday.
Onochie in her opening remarks, acknowledged a series of petitions against her which bothered on her membership of the APC and the fact that someone from her state was already on the board of INEC.
She renounced the party three times before the Senate committee.
She admitted being part of the Buhari’s campaign organisation in 2015 before her appointment as Special Assistant on Social Media.
Onochie also, admitted deposing an affidavit at the Abuja Federal High Court that she was a member of the APC.
She nevertheless said she stopped being a member of the party immediately after the 2019 elections.
She said, “Since 2019, I have not had anything to do with any political organisation, including Buhari support groups.
“When the APC was doing re-validation of party members, I did not take part in that exercise.
“As I’m sitting down here, I’m not a member of any political party in this country. I have no partisanship in my blood.
“I have seen many petitions against my nomination not only from the Peoples Democratic Party, but also from some APC members.
“I’m not partisan, they know. It is about the law. No one has any reason to fear for my nomination as INEC commissioner representing Delta.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m madam due process. That’s why all the attacks. I follow due process, I follow the law.”
However, an affidavit dated 30th June, 2021, she swore to at an FCT High Court, attached to one of the petitions against her, contradicted her claims.
She deposed to the affidavit at the High Court of the FCT in a case involving her as plaintiff an Emeka Ugwuonye (defendant).
Onochie in her witness statement on oath, affirmed among others that, “I am also a member of the All Progressives Congress and a volunteer at the Buhari Support Organisation.”
She further told the panel that Mrs May Agbamuche, a serving INEC national commissioner from Delta State, is actually representing Cross River on the board of the electoral umpire.
There was a sharp disagreement among the senators on whether Onochie should say the denial on oath or not but Gaya ruled that it was not necessary for her to do so, and subsequently adjourned the proceedings.
Meanwhile, investigations by our correspondent have revealed that some APC members in the panel are currently trying to influence the confirmation of Onochie by putting it in the committee report which would be laid next week.
A member of the panel told our correspondent on condition of anonymity that the basis for writing petitions against Onochie had been defeated.
He said, ‘The various petitions that we received on Onochie centred on her membership of the APC and the fact that her confirmation would make Delta State produce the two slots meant for the South-South region on the board of INEC.
“However, Onochie has told the panel that she is not a member of the APC. She has also said the Delta State-born woman on the INEC board is actually representing Cross River.
“If the argument is that she is a political appointee, even the Chairman of INEC, Mahmood Yakubu, was a Federal Government appointee because he served as the Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund during former President Goodluck Jonathan administration.
“Personally, despite being an APC card-carrying member and senator, I don’t want Lauretta Onochie to be confirmed but we really don’t have anything to hold her back because she has cleared herself.”
Asked if the affidavit she swore to at the court could not be used against her, the Senator argued that events had overtaken it.
He said, “You can only argue based on moral grounds but the facts before us did not really empower us to disqualify her.
“The law said nominees for INEC appointment should not be a card-carrying member of any party and she said she had stopped being a member of the APC since 2019.”
Another senator, who equally spoke on condition of anonymity, said the committee was already in possession of a letter from the APC Secretariat, declaring that Onochie had ceased to be a member of the party.
He said, “I don’t know how else they want the woman to defend herself. She has said that she is not a member of the party and we have a letter written from the APC National Secretariat that she is not their member.
“As far as the committee is concerned, the petitions before us seeking Onochie’s disqualification has been addressed,” the source added.
Senator Lawal Gumau warned other members of the committee against taking any hasty decision that the Senate might regret later.
He said, “Nigerians were quick to condemn the former Minister of Finance (Kemi Adeosun) but we are all surprised when the court vindicated her recently.
“I don’t want us to do anything that we will regret in case we discovered later that she is not a card-carrying member of the APC.”
But a PDP Senator, who is a member of the committee, insisted that Onochie must be disqualified because she should not be appointed.
He told our correspondent on condition of anonymity that “the section of the constitution which disqualified her from the appointment states that she should never have been a member of any political party.’
When contacted on Friday, the Chairman of the INEC Committee, declined comments on the issue.
Gaya said, “I will not make any comments on the issue now. Our committee is still working on the report.”
Meanwhile, further findings by our correspondent revealed that the opposition senators have vowed to resolve the issue by physical voting during the confirmation at the Senate panel.