The relocation of Election Petition Tribunals from Akwa-Ibom, Rivers and Taraba States to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja is currently generating controversy in the affected states.
By Gbenga Oke
Various reasons have been adduced as being responsible for the development, which some argue was done in bad faith.
The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, had cited security concerns for the relocation.
Deborah Musa, secretary of the tribunal had said that Justice Ishaq Bello, acting Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court, approved the FCT High Court, Apo, as the secretariat and trial court for the tribunals.
In Rivers and Akwa Ibom, insecurity was cited as being responsible.
Rather than addressing the fears of the people, the supposed rationale only ignited fresh round of antagonism between the leading political parties, All Progressives Congress, APC, and Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
The APC which lost elections in the three states is leaving no stone unturned at ensuring that they upturn the elections they claimed were massively rigged by the PDP.
Since the relocation saga began, both parties have been throwing tantrums at each other with the PDP accusing the ruling party of planning to wrestle key South-South states from the party.
The APC had maintained that the PDP is afraid of its shadows having allegedly rigged the elections.
Lawyers are not also left out in the argument.
In his submission, human rights activist, Mr Festus Keyamo, said since it was the Chief Justice of Nigeria that ordered the relocation, the decision remained lawful given the reasons cited.
“Once violence is threatened or there is likelihood of break-down of law and order, there is no reason why the safety of its members that the tribunal cannot sit elsewhere. Don’t forget that by sitting in Abuja it does not lose its nomenclature or its character. It remains the state’s election tribunal; it’s only that there is a sitting somewhere else for the purpose of security. There is nothing wrong about that” he said.
But another legal practitioner, Mr. Armstrong Chinagorom, who is a senior Legal and Advocacy Officer, International Centre for Development & Budget Advocacy, said section 285(2) of the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides that “there shall be established in each state of the federation an election tribunal to be known as the governorship election tribunal which shall to the exclusion of any court or tribunal, have original jurisdiction to hear and determine petitions as to whether any person has been validly elected to the office of governor or deputy governor of a state.”
He further said: “The section reads that there shall be established in each state of the federation, not that there shall be established for each state of the Federation. This shows that the tribunal shall be established in the state in question and not outside the state”.
PDP rejects tribunal relocation
The governors are insisting a reversion to the status quo.
Speaking after their meeting, the newly elected Chairman of the PDP Governors Forum, Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State said, “The governors of the 13 PDP controlled states condemn the relocation of the governorship election tribunals of Rivers, Taraba and Akwa-Ibom states to Abuja”.
Recently, National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, alleged that President Buhari is part of a plot to influence the election petition tribunals in Akwa-Ibom and Rivers States and other states to reach a verdict in favour APC.
Metuh who maintained that PDP worked very hard to get victories particularly in the Niger Delta states will not watch the APC take away its victory.
According to him, “We are aware that there are moves by the APC to cause the doctoring of the membership of the gubernatorial elections tribunals in some PDP states, particularly Akwa-Ibom, Rivers and Delta with the aim to bring in friendly officers possibly to push through their agenda against our great party. We question the so called security reasons adduced for the decision to relocate the tribunals out of the state and wonder why these few states are singled out”.
The battle which is between the governorship candidate of the APC, Umana Okon Umana and the incumbent, Governor Udom Emmanuel has taken a new dimension since the relocation.
Leaders of both parties have been attacking themselves over the relocation while the APC have been claiming that INEC and the PDP have been colluding together to frustrate its petition.
Filing its petition, the APC had alleged that the elections in the state were marred by widespread irregularities, disenfranchisement of its supporters and declaration of votes for the PDP.
Members of the legal team of the APC maintained that the party has not been granted access to the materials and documents required to prove its case at the tribunal. The legal team also said they had to seek for relocation because of threats of insecurity as well as to guarantee fair hearing and justice.
The division among elders of the state has further introduced another dimension in the relocation of the tribunal. While former Minister of Petroleum, Chief Don Etiebet is embittered over what he described as disenfranchisement of voters during the election his long time friend, Senator Aniete Okon is strongly supportive of the mandate of Governor Emmanuel.
At a press conference in Uyo recently, the elders under the auspices of Concerned Akwa-Ibom State accused the APC of conspiring to strip the PDP of the election it clearly won.
Among the leaders were Senators Anietie-Okon, Effiong Bob, Emmanuel Ibok-Essien, Engr. Larry Esin and Hon. Nduese Essien. They said the movement of the election petition tribunal from Akwa-Ibom state to Abuja is uncalled for as the state is relatively peaceful.
“The spurious, baseless and false advance of so-called security concerns by the APC who lost the elections in the state and the subsequent glee with which her sympathizers have celebrated the movement of the tribunal smacks of forum shopping by the petitioners,” they alleged.
That assertion was quickly dismissed by Etiebet.
“The argument that the tribunals could not be moved to safer grounds in the face of persistent security threats to both the tribunal members and witnesses for petitioners before the tribunals reflects gross ignorance of the law.
The Rivers State Election Petition Tribunal was also relocated to Abuja over security concerns in the state.
Before the governorship elections, Rivers State had been labelled one of the most volatile states. The fears eventually came to light with revelations that more than 30 persons were killed during the election.
The APC alleged that there were no presidential and National Assembly polls and that the governorship and House of Assembly elections were marred by irregularities orchestrated by the PDP whose governorship candidate Nyesom Wike was declared winner.
Remarkably, the Rivers Election Petition Tribunal now sitting in Abuja said that it had so far received petitions from 2015 general elections from the APC in Rivers state.
The assertions that he won through a rigged election have been dismissed by Wike who boasted that if elections are held 100 times in Rivers State, that he will win.
Responding to the Governor, Chairman of the APC in Rivers State, Mr David Ikanya said, “The mandate stolen by the PDP in connivance with the Independent National Electoral Commission and the police will be retrieved.
After the election, the candidate of the APC in Taraba State, Senator Aisha Jummai Alhassan protested that the election was rigged in favour of the PDP candidate, Mr. Darius Ishaku. She as such welcomed it when the Election Petition Tribunal for Taraba State was also transferred to Abuja over security concerns in the state.
Responding on behalf of Ishaku, a group within the PDP called Southern Taraba Forum for a Just Society (TFS) urged Alhassan to allow the election petition tribunal do its job.