Simon Bako Lalong and Nkeiruka Chidubem Onyejeocha are two dogged fighters. Over time, both of them have earned their ranks in the rough terrain of Nigerian politics, fighting and winning notable battles along the way. Today, the two who are still settling down in office as President Bola Tinubu’s ministers, are in the centre of an intriguing challenge of what to do with their National Assembly election mandates which they have just retrieved from the tribunals.
Two people of two different genders from two different political backgrounds with a similar fairy tale of a story weaved by several twists of fate.
Lalong served two terms as Speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly between 1999 and 2007 before he went for the ultimate prize as governor in 2015. After serving as Plateau State governor for 8 eight long years, the contest for the Plateau South Senate seat was supposed to be pretty predictable in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate.
When the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, called the election, Lalong who doubled as Director-General of Bola Tinubu’s presidential campaign organization, ‘lost’ to Napoleon Bali of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Onyejeocha’s record is no less impressive. After serving as Abia State Commissioner for Resource Management and Manpower Development under Governor Orji Uzor Kalu, she contested and won the 2007 election to represent Isiukwuato/Umunneochi constituency in the Federal House of Representatives on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party. She remained in the Green Chamber for an unprecedented four terms. Her fifth term, this time on the platform of the APC, was also supposed to be a straightforward matter, but when INEC announced the result on February 28, 2023, Onyejeocha ‘lost’ to Amobi Ogah of the Labour Party.
Like in most electoral contests in Nigeria, final outcomes are never known until the courts speak; the euphoria of victories called by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, may sometimes be short lived. Both Lalong and Onyejeocha were obviously not satisfied with the declarations by the electoral body, hence their decision to head for the election tribunals in Jos and Umuahia, respectively. In their usual dogged manner, each of them put up a good fight and hoped that jubilation may come their way in the end.
Nobody has told us if they lobbied for it, but when President Tinubu tapped them for ministerial appointments, it resonated with party chieftains. It would be unfair to shut out the former Campaign DG, just as there was need to accommodate the woman who stepped down for Gbajabiamila during the 2019 race for Speaker of the House of Representatives.
They did what most Nigerians in their positions will do in the circumstances by taking up the offers, after all, many sitting parliamentarians abandon their mandates when offered ministerial positions. The former governor of Ebonyi State, Engr. Dave Umahi is a recent example: he had already bagged the position of Deputy Majority Whip in the Senate but was at the time already gearing to join the federal executive council.
So, rather than wait for an uncertain judicial outcome, they opted to accept. That notwithstanding, the Judicial process, like a coach already in motion, continued to run its course. Meanwhile, on 21 August 2023, they were sworn in as ministers and posted, coincidentally, into the same Ministry of Labour and Employment; one as Minister and the other as Minister of State.
They plunged into the unenviable task of resolving, through hard negotiations with the organized labour, the myriad of outstanding industrial and labour issues involving the Federal Government. The sudden announcement on May 29, that fuel subsidy had been removed, pitched the government against the Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress and their affiliates that pencilled down a list of demands to cushion the biting effects brought about by the policy reversal.
While still battling over the thorny issues with the labour unions, however, providence struck. The news filtered that the petition filed by Onyejeocha before the Tribunal sitting in Umuahia, against the election of Labour Party’s Hon. Amobi Ogah representing Isiukwuato/Umunneochi Federal Constituency, had succeeded. Delivering judgement in the petition EPT/AB/HR/8/2023, the three-member panel nullified the election that returned Ogar for substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act.
Days later, a similar news also came from the Elections Petitions Tribunal in Jos headed by Omaka Elekwo. The tribunal similarly nullified the election of Senator Napoleon Bali of the PDP because of the party’s refusal to respect the order of a Jos High court to conduct ward congresses before the last general elections. With all the votes cast for the PDP candidate invalidated, the senator representing Plateau South was sacked and Simon Lalong of the APC subsequently declared the validly elected candidate for the seat.
They are not alone. Hundreds of other candidates who contested the 2023 elections and found themselves, either as petitioners or respondents, in the many Tribunals across the country, were also affected in the judicial topsy-turvy. While many are jubilating, others gnash their teeth. But everybody knows, in most cases, that the last words have not been heard. Sixty more days of appeal is a long period in the courts, especially when election matters are in issue.
While the losers in both cases, legislators in the green and the red chambers of the National Assembly, respectively, have indicated interest in appealing the judgments, attention has returned to the two ministers. Have Lalong and Onyejeocha just laboured in vain? Even if their tribunal victories are sustained on appeal, to what effect will their victories be? Will they opt out of the federal cabinet to enjoy the fruits of their labour in the National Assembly or continue in the ministry of Labour?
Sheddy Ozoene, Editor-in-Chief of People&Politics, is the Vice President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.