New billboards urging Nigerian voters to vote for President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election have sprang up at strategic corners of Abuja against repeated warnings by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to politicians not to commence campaign before the stipulated time.
PREMIUM TIMES sighted some of the billboards at the roundabout adjoining Shehu Shagari Way and Ibrahim Babangida Boulevard in the Maitama District as well as the Ahmadu Bello Way/Kur Mohammed Street junction (opposite ThisDay Dome) in the Central Business District of the federal capital territory.
Unlike the previous ones scattered around the country, the new billboards, sponsored by a group, Jonathan Actualization Movement, JAM, are offensive to the provisions of the Electoral Act 2006 (as amended) because it is urging Nigerians to vote for the president.
They read, "2015 VOTE JONATHAN FOR EQUITY INTEGRITY & GOOD GOVERNANCE."
With green backgrounds, the billboards have the picture of the president adorning the traditional caps and attires of the three major ethnic groups, Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo, on them.
The message on the billboards does not only suggest that the president has been picked by his party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, as its standard bearer, it also indicates that he has opened campaign in violation of the Electoral Act, which specifies that campaigns should commence 90 days before any election.
Section 99 (1-3) of the Electoral Act says: "For the purpose of this Act, the period of campaigning in public by every political party shall commence 90 days before polling day and end 24 hours prior to that day.
"A registered political party which through any person acting on its behalf during the 24 hours before polling day"
"Procures for publication or acquiesces in the publication of an advertisement in a Newspaper for the purpose of promoting or opposing a particular candidates, commits an offence under this Act and upon conviction is liable to a maximum fine of N500,000."
No official of JAM could be reached for comments. However, information on the group, pieced together by this newspapers, shows that it is headed by one Basirat Nahibi, who was one of the major financiers of the previous presidential campaigns of a former head of state and a leader of the opposition All Progressive Congress, APC, Muhammadu Buhari.
Mr. Nahibi, who defected to the PDP last year, was quoted as listing the group's objective to include support for Jonathan administration in actualizing its political programme; re-brand Mr. Jonathan as the right candidate for Nigerian in the 2015 election; and promote peace and stability by educating the populace on the need for unity, religion and tribal tolerance.
Repeated attempts to get the Special Adviser to the President of Political Matters, Rufa'i Alkali to comment for this story failed.
When PREMIUM TIMES first contacted him on his mobile telephone on Friday night, the presidential aide said he was in a short meeting.
"Can we talk later because I'm in a small meeting," he said.
A few minutes later, Mr. Rufai, a professor, who was once a spokesperson for the PDP, called back to find out the name of the reporter who called on behalf of this newspaper and also assured him that he would call back.
He is yet to do so as at Saturday morning when this report was published.
The Independent National Election Commission, INEC, said it is not aware of the existence of the billboards in question.
Kayode Idowu, the media aide to the INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega, who stated this in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES said virtually all parties are guilty of mounting campaign billboards and pasting posters ahead of the lawful campaign period.
"That unfortunately is the breach being replicated across board," he said.
He said, "Section 99 or 100 of the Electoral Act does not really spell out what constitutes campaign breaches."
The Chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC, Yinusa Tanko, said although he was not also aware of the billboards in question, the message on it was wrong.
He said during a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday evening that although Mr. Jonathan might blame some mischief makers for mounting the billboards, he (president) ought to have ordered them to be pulled down to prove he did not authorise it.
"It is wrong. The president will tell you it is some mischief makers that are doing it. But if you think so then bring it down," Mr. Tanko, who is also the national chairman of the National Conscience Party, NCP, said.
Between 2012 and this year, various campaign posters, either urging Mr. Jonathan to run in the coming presidential poll or announcing his preparedness to do so, were sighted in many parts of the country.
Some of the earliest posters sighted by this newspaper in January 2013 were strategically posted in high brow areas of the capital city, including Central Business District, Garki, Asokoro, Wuse, and the PDP Headquarters in the Wuse Zone 5 district of the capital.
The all-glossy giant posters, which had the portrait of the president, reads, "2015: No vacancy in Aso Rock. Let's do more. One good term deserves another; support Dr. Goodluck Azikiwe Jonathan for 2015 Presidency."
The then Special Adviser to the President of Political Matters, Ahmed Gulak, disowned the posters, saying the president did not authorise anybody to print any campaign poster for him as regards the 2015 elections.
On another occasion, Mr. Jonathan's media aide, Reuben Abati, disclaimed the posters, saying the president had not publicly announced his political decision for 2015 and as a result it would be improper for him to begin to paste posters for 2015.
Despite the presence of posters and billboards as well as the emergence of motley groups falling over one another in the quest to railroad him into entering the contest, Mr. Jonathan has consistently said it was too early for him to announce his political future because he presently has a job to do.
But the president is not the only Nigerian politician beginning the game before the whistle is blown.
Sometime last year, the campaign posters of a national leader of the All Progressives Congress, Muhammadu Buhari, flooded some parts of Abuja.
The green background posters were strategically posted in the Asokoro District and other areas of the federal capital.
The APC Youth Forum, which sponsored the posters, announced Mr. Buhari, a former military head of state, as the consensus presidential candidate of the party.
The posters, which had the portrait of Mr Buhari, read: "Here comes the only saviour for Nigeria, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, APC Consensus candidate for 2015 presidential election; Support Buhari All Progressives Congress, Support Buhari: The only man for the job."
The posters surprisingly emerged even when the APC was finalizing plan to file application for registration with INEC.
Mr. Buhari was the presidential candidate of the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP, on two occasions (2003 and 2007) and was the candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, in the 2011 election.
In early 2013, presidential campaign posters featuring the pair of Sule Lamido and Rotimi Amaechi, governors of Jigawa and Rivers States, as presidential and vice presidential aspirants of the PDP for the 2015 election, were also noticed in some parts of the country.
Another one announcing the Niger State governor as a presidential aspirant also hit some parts of the North.
But like the president, they all blamed it on the activities of political jobbers.
Following the flurry of the posters and campaign boards, INEC repeatedly asked politicians to desist from violating the Electoral Law.
"As at now, none of the parties has held any primaries. It is therefore preposterous and hasty for individuals to erect billboards or print posters urging voters to vote for them," Mr. Jega was quoted in an edition of INEC Bulletin.
In March, Mr. Jega repeated the warning and threatened to sanction politicians over illegal campaign. He said he was sick of politicians breaching the Electoral Act, which stipulates that campaigns can only commence 90 days to an election.
"When you look around, what you see are fundamental breaches against these agreements," he said adding that the police and other security agencies were already compiling names of defaulters for possible sanction," he said.
He stated that posting of campaign posters and billboards were parts of the breaches and that candidates or aspirants who allowed their associates or friends paste them were culpable.
Mr. Jega said, "Posters and billboards fall within the offence. Candidates and parties have an obligation to prevent their candidates and sympathisers from breaking the law.
"There is a thin line in rallies. It may be to promote the natural progress of the party and not the candidate. If a party goes ahead there to say vote for me, then you have crossed the rubicon.
"You can't have your poster pasted and you sit back and say someone put it there on my behalf. If someone put it there, why did you not stop him?"
In one of the statements INEC threatened to prosecute any politician found violating the laws. It is yet to do so.
Mr. Idowu, the INEC chairman's spokesperson, explained it away. According to him, INEC cannot punish anybody now because of the ambiguity of the Electoral Act.
He disclosed that the Commission recently drafted some guidelines on what constitute campaign breaches and distributed the document to all the registered political parties. The parties are expected to make their inputs before it is adopted.
He added that the guidelines would be incorporated into the Electoral Act.
"The Commission has come up with draft guidelines of specific things that constitute a breach and the parties see it and make their input and agree to it. Once you are agreed to it then it is binding on you. You cannot say well and you are violating and the sanctions can be applied.
"Both the Electoral Act and Constitution give INEC powers to make guidelines for the electoral process and they have the force of law. They give INEC powers to make guidelines."
Mr. Idowu said INEC is bothered about the violation of the Electoral Act and that it is affecting its operations.
"It gives us concern, so much concern that we have even issued a statement calling their attention to it. When players don't play by the rule, it is not healthy.
"So surely it concerns INEC and that is why it is using any opportunity pending when we have those guidelines to appeal to the players and take their minds to what the law says.
"Once the guidelines are perfected and adopted it will have the force of law and you can ask the security agencies to also act on the basis of those guidelines.
"INEC does not have the enforcement powers. We have to rely on security agencies to implement the law. You can use these guidelines to ask the security this particular thing is a breach, please intervene."
Mr. Tanko confirmed that the parties were given the draft guidelines, but that they were yet to make their inputs.
"We have not been able to punish anybody because there is no clear definition as to what constitutes the breach, especially those in government because you don't know when somebody is doing government work or campaigning," he said.