There is palpable tension in Akwa Ibom State, particularly in the camps of the People's Democratic Party, PDP, and the All Progressives Congress, APC, ahead of the Saturday January, 25, 2020 court ordered re-run election in Essien Udim local council.
This followed widespread allegations in the state that some political stakeholders from Essien Udim LGA and Akwa Ibom North-West Senatorial district have perfected plans to use thugs to foment trouble during the election.
Paramount Ruler of Essien Udim, HRH, Cosmas Akpan who is also chairman of Essien Udim Traditional Rulers Council, had on Monday January 20, assisted by members of the Council, convened a peace talk for all candidates participating in the re-run and political stakeholders from the LGA at his palace in Ekpenyong Atai 1, in view of the re-run election holding in his domain.
It was learned that though APC stakeholders and contestants boycotted the peace parley, it did not stop the paramount ruler and his council from issuing a traditional peace Injunction with the presentation of the symbol of peace known as 'Ajei' to the PDP family, for peace to reign in the area throughout the re-run election.
Though the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, said only the 19 political parties that fielded candidates during the last general elections in 2019 will participate in the Saturday exercise, the election is actually between the candidates of the two most visible and rival political parties, the PDP and the APC.
The re-run election was ordered in Essien Udim LGA for Akwa Ibom Northwest Senatorial district, Ikot Ekpene federal constituency and Essien Udim state constituency.
There have been propaganda, and arguments in the different political circles ahead of the poll with many assuming that the re-run election was only ordered for the Senate seat.
Senator Godswill Akpabio's claim of withdrawal from the Akwa Ibom Northwest senatorial re-run between him and Senator Christopher Ekpenyong of the PDP and his claim that another candidate of APC has been nominated to replace him have dominated arguments and discussions among political analysts.
It could be recalled that when Akpabio's withdrawal and substitution issue first came up around second week of December 2019, it generated heated arguments and debates in the polity.
Akpabio remains on the ballot - INEC
However, the explanation by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, at both the state and national levels helped to douse the tension then.
A copy of INEC's reply to Akpabio's letter signed by its secretary stated reasons why the Commission could not allow or admit any other candidate other than the candidate that contested the Akwa Ibom Northwest Senatorial election in 2019.
The reply dated December 12, 2019 reads: "Re: Submission of INEC forms: Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial district re-run'.
"Your letter dated 10th December 2019 wherein you forwarded nomination forms of one Hon. Ekperikpe Luke Ekpo as a substitute candidate of your party for the court ordered re-run'.
"Please note that the timetable and schedule of activities for the 2019 general elections has 17th November, 2018 as the last date for the withdrawal/substitution of candidates for the 2019 National Assembly elections and the said period has elapsed.
"Furthermore, the said re-run' election is to be conducted among the same political parties and candidates who participated in the nullified election.
"Consequent upon the above, the Commission cannot accede to your request and Senator Godswill Akpabio remains the candidate of the APC for the re-run election. Accept the assurances of the commission's highest regards please."
However, last Saturday, the Niger Delta Affairs minister issued another statement signed by Mr. Anietie Ekong, his chief press secretary reiterating his withdrawal and it reads in part: "The Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio has reiterated his earlier withdrawal from the court-ordered election into the vacant seat of Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District.
I have withdrawn for Ekpo - Akpabio
"He however declared his full support for a former member of the House of Representatives, Hon Ekperikpe Ekpo whom his party, the All Progressives Congress had picked as his replacement, having emerged as the runner up in the primaries, and urged his supporters and the people of Essien Udim to massively vote for him."
This came as a surprise to majority of Akwa Ibom electorates especially those from Akwa Ibom Northwest senatorial district who may have thought that the initial clarifications by the electoral umpire may have put the issue to rest.
The news about Ekperikpo Ekpo, a former member of House Representatives being a substitute for Akpabio had been widely circulated in APC quarters in state even before Akpabio's latest statement.
A lot of people, particularly PDP supporters are even quick to conclude that the action was suspicious and that Akpabio and the APC maybe planning something sinister.
In fact some stakeholders of political parties participating in the election even appeared worried and confused.
But INEC in the state had swiftly issued a statement through its Head of Department, Voter Education & Publicity in the state, Mr. Odaro Aisien to dismiss the claims and restate its position on the matter entitled "NO Substitution/Withdrawal of candidates for Essien Udim LGA Rerun election"
It simply reads, "The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Akwa Ibom State, has of late, been inundated with enquiries as to whether political parties can substitute candidates in the upcoming rerun elections in Essien Udim LGA, scheduled for 25th January, 2020.
"The Commission wishes to restate that there will be no substitution or withdrawal of candidates who contested the 2019 general elections in this court-ordered rerun elections in Essien Udim LGA"
However, reacting to Akpabio's withdrawal, a PDP youth of from Essien Udim LGA, who did not want his name mentioned said, "We are ready for the re-run in Essien Udim on Saturday and we are relying on the position of INEC on the matter.
"It is what the electoral umpire says that stands and not what the runaway APC candidate is saying. So I will not comment much on that because that is a concluded issue."
Even some analysts in the state were of the opinion that the controversial Akpabio's statement on his withdrawal was not unexpected to them.
They reasoned that though it was obvious that Akpabio knows that he has no chance of winning the re-run under a free, fair contest, they know that he (Akpabio's) would not just want to walk away without a fight.
Meanwhile, INEC said it is working hard in preparation for the re-run to ensure that the exercise was successful, and peaceful a reason it has held series of interactions and briefing of parties' stakeholder, security agencies and the staff.
While declaring a two-day pre-election training exercise open last week, the Resident Electoral Commissioner in the state, Mr. Mike Igini, regretted that elections have been allowed to degenerate to contests decided finally by the courts instead of the electorates.
"The trend does not only erode the pride of the umpire but ultimately undermines the democratic process. The will of the people demonstrated at the polling units must always determine the outcome of elections," he said.
There are fears in the state that voter apathy, low turnout may mar the Essien Udim LG re-run due to what they experienced in the last general elections.