After serving as a referee for Nigeria’s electoral process for over four years, the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for Benue State, Nentawe Yilwatda, has resigned from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and immediately joined partisan politics, PREMIUM TIMES can exclusively report.
Mr Yilwatda, a former engineering lecturer at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, was appointed REC in July 2017 and posted to Benue State. During his four-year stay in office, he participated in the conduct of elections in Benue, Anambra, Osun, Rivers and Cross River states.
But in December 2021, the 53-year-old electrical/electronics engineer suddenly resigned from his post and relocated to his native Plateau State, north-central Nigeria, where he immediately began romancing the governing All Progressives Congress (APC).
When contacted Wednesday, the former REC said he stepped down from INEC for personal reasons. He also confirmed that he had joined partisan politics.
He, however, said he was yet to formally join the APC but that he would be doing so “very soon”.
INEC also confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that the former lecturer had since left the electoral body.
“It is true that he resigned,” Festus Okoye, the INEC commissioner for information and voter education, said. “He has disengaged from the Commission.”
Mr Okoye said he is unaware of the real reason for Mr Yilwatda’s departure from the Commission before the expiration of his five-year tenure. But this newspaper can report that the official resigned to enable him to join the governorship race in Plateau State.
He has since commenced a spirited campaign to clinch the gubernatorial ticket of the APC later this year ahead of the 2023 Nigeria general elections.
On January 9, the former REC announced the commencement of his campaign via his Facebook Page saying his ‘Generation Next Philosophy’ is predicated on
“harnessing the potentials, creativities and capacities of this generation to consolidate on the efforts of our leaders past devoid of political, ethnic or religious bias to deliver a secured, united and prosperous plateau to the next generation”.
Mr Yilwatda also recently unveiled a campaign website where he described himself as a “2023 governorship candidate”.
INEC and a pattern
The resignation of the Benue REC and his immediate embrace of politics came 29 months after another INEC official took a similar path.
Frankland Briyai, then a REC in Cross River State, had in August 2019 resigned from his post in a bid to run for that year’s governorship election in Bayelsa, which was only three months away at the time.
He announced his governorship bid right inside INEC’s premises in Calabar, the Cross River State capital, an act that angered the electoral body.
Mr Okoye later issued a statement saying Mr Briyai had been “relieved of his duties” for using INEC’s premises to make a political announcement.
When the Bayelsa governorship election held on November 16, 2019, the former INEC REC was not on the ballot because the APC, the political party he joined, eventually did not nominate him as its candidate.
Mr Yilwatda’s action morally wrong — Lawyer
Abdul Mahmud, an Abuja-based lawyer and rights activist, said it is morally wrong for INEC commissioners to resign and immediately run for elective offices.
“Such an official understands the internal operation of INEC and will most likely explore and exploit such knowledge to his advantage in any election,” Mr Mahmud said.
The lawyer urged the National Assembly to take note of the lacuna in Nigeria’s electoral law which does not forbid top officials of INEC from contesting election for any period of time after leaving office.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (Establishment, Etc.,) Decree 17 of 1998 clearly envisaged what is currently unfolding when it barred INEC commissioners from elective office for five years after their tenures.
Section 17 of that Decree stated, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any law, a person who holds or has held office as a member of the Commission under this Decree shall not, after a period of 5 years immediately thereafter, be qualified for any elective office provided in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979, as amended or any enactment or law.”
That provision was later expunged from Nigeria’s electoral laws.
“With what is going on, we may have to restore that provision to our laws,” Mr Mahmud said.
Lawmaker tries to help
A member of the House of Representatives, Olawale Raji (APC-Lagos), had also in 2019 proposed a bill to amend Nigeria’s Electoral Act “to prohibit members of the National Electoral Commission and Resident Electoral Commissioners from engaging in partisan politics within five (5) years of retirement, resignation and official relief of duties”.
The bill reads as follows:
This bill, known as the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill, 2019, passed second reading on July 14, 2020 and was referred to the House Committee on Electoral Matters. The committee’s report is still being awaited.