By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
IN the past few weeks, there has been anxiety in Delta State over the legal and opinionated cross-fires between the camps of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan and Chief Great Ogboru, the governorship candidate of the Democratic Peoples Party, DPP, both within and outside the two governorship tribunals, currently sitting in Asaba, the state capital.
Delta is the only state in the country where two governorship tribunals are sitting concurrently on the same issue. One panel is on the January 6 governorship re-run and the other on the April 26 governorship election, but, by Thursday, the perplexity started petering out.
The initial confusion was the propriety of the continued sitting of the Delta State governorship re-run petition tribunal, headed by Justice Uzoamaka Ogwurike, when the governorship re-run election of January 6, which it was constituted to adjudicate upon, had been overtaken by another governorship election, about three months later, precisely April 26.
The other two members of the re-run panel are Justices Louis Ogbonna Okereke and Bello Duwale.
The other uncertainty was the technical siege laid to the Justice Abisoye Ayo-led Delta State governorship petition tribunal for the April 26 election. The contention by Uduaghan, who vied on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in both polls, was that Ogboru had abandoned the petition, which he brought to the tribunal challenging the declaration of Uduaghan as the winner of the said election by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and, for that reason, the tribunal should throw out the petition. The application sparked not a few controversies because of its intendment to permanently kill the case.
Uduaghan’s legal team had employed the same tactics, early in the month, before the re-run tribunal, but the panel dismissed the application for lack of merit. The three-man panel held that it would amount to injustice to shut the door against the petitioner without granting him fair hearing, stressing, “The proper legislative intent of the petition must be perused.”
At the inaugural sitting of the panel, Mr. Wole Olanipekun (SAN), had urged the tribunal “to see the petition as abandoned and (an) abuse of judicial process” and strike it out for lack of merit, but Ogboru’s counsel, Professor Mogbeyi Sagay, SAN, countered his submissions. In her ruling, Ogwurike said, “I hold, therefore, that the application of the petitioner, brought before the registry of the tribunal, received and accessed, is accepted as valid…Application by the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd respondents (Uduaghan, PDP and INEC) is hereby dismissed.”
With the air cleared on the hearing of the petition by the re-run tribunal, it was thought the “surprise attack” was over, but Olanipekun, the lead counsel to Uduaghan and a former national president of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, surfaced at the Justice Ayo-led three –man tribunal on the April 26 election with the same line of attack.
Again, Olanipekun, citing legal authorities, was more daring, insisting that the tribunal could not go ahead with the hearing of the petition as the petitioners did not comply with the time frame stipulated by the Electoral Act for the filing of their processes before the tribunal.
Ogboru’s counsel, Nichols Ichekor, fiercely opposed the submissions of Olanipekun, saying there was a lacuna in the paragraphs 16 (1) and 18 (1) of the first schedule of the Electoral Act, which Uduaghan’s counsel strongly relied on in computing the five days and eight days stipulated for filing of replies and bringing application for pre-hearing session notice.
While Olanipekun said the petitioners’ five days for filing replies to the first respondent’s replies ended June 20, the first respondent, having served the petitioners on June 16, Ichekor said the petitioners’ time started running on June 17 and his clients duly filed their replies by June 22, well within the five days contemplated by paragraph 16 (1).
It was a ding-dong matter until Thursday, July 14, when Justice Ayo delivered the panel’s ruling, throwing out the application for lack of merit; and ordered that pre-hearing session notice be issued to all parties, while setting July 27 for commencement of the session.
The tribunal said it was inclined to believe that Ogboru never, at any time, abandoned his petition before the tribunal, as he complied with the statutory steps, adding, in respect of the trenchant opposition mounted against the application for serving of pre-hearing session notice on all the parties, “All submissions made against the application by the first respondent go to no issue in view of the above ruling of the tribunal. The petitioners’ motion is accordingly hereby granted and we hereby set this petition down for pre-hearing session to commence on Wednesday, June 27”.
Claim and counter-claim
However, before the July 14 ruling, three days ago, and even the preceding ruling by the governorship re-run tribunal, it had been a war of words between the parties over the joint inspection of ballot materials used for both elections by the parties, as well as the prosecution and defence witnesses, who gave differing versions of what happened on January 6 at the re-run tribunal.
For instance, while prosecution witness nine, PW9, Sylvester Okoroware , who testified in favour of the petitioner, Ogboru, said that the governorship re-run election held only in two wards of Bomadi local government area and did not hold in the other wards, Tom Perekumor, a voter and other witnesses from the area, testified that Okoroware lied when he told the tribunal that there was no election in their wards.
So far, Ogboru and Uduaghan have called about 15 witnesses apiece or more in the re-run tribunal in furtherance of their respective cases. The trend of the testimonies is that while the prosecution witnesses picked holes in the election in some local government areas, the defence witnesses presented same as being free and fair, except in some few areas. Specifically, Ogboru is challenging results declared by INEC in eight local governments, namely, Warri North, Warri South, Warri South West, Patani, Ika North East, Ethiope West, Bomadi and Isoko South, in that election. His contention was that the election in these areas was not duly conducted, but the PDP maintained that it was duly conducted.
According to Ogboru’s lead counsel, Sagay, “Our claim is that we want the petitioner to be declared the winner and, in the relief being sought in the petition, we are asking that the votes that were declared there were invalid votes”. He urged the tribunal to remove the contentious votes and use the remaining valid votes to declare the petitioner as having won the majority of the lawful votes and also having won 25 percent of at least two-third of all the local governments in accordance with the Electoral Act.
Among the witnesses called by the petitioner are a former commissioner in Uduaghan’s cabinet, Mr. George Timinimi; younger brother to the newly sworn-in commissioner for environment, Barrister Eric Omare; Arch. Sylvester Obi Adoye; Charles Omanele; Tony Olubo; Chief Duncan Ewere; Rev. Martins Eboigbe; Sunny Okpoye; Mr. Sylvester Okoroware; Henry Obaha; Tosan Awani; Johnson Okwho and Peter Emabamije.
The witnesses averred that election did not hold in their respective units and wards, adding that the votes cast returned from the eight local government areas and announced by INEC did no emanate from the various units and wards since the party agents were not privy to the said voting materials allegedly distributed by the elecdtoral body during the election. The tribunal had issued 10 minutes each for witnesses’ appearances and cross-examination.
The defence called, among others, Mr. Ama Agbajoh, party chairman in Warri South, Lucky Ibori, party agent in Ethiope-West, Gospel Golly, voter- Ethiope West, Ebitemi John, Mrs. Helen Idjerhe Ethiope West, Kenke Temike, Jackson Okuodolor, Tom Perekumor, Augustine Adu, Erijo Gibson, Toju Aziz, George Guoti, ward supervisor, Warri South-West, Commissioner of Police, Egbuna Vincent . O, Prof Patrick Igbigbi, a forensic expert, Mr. Stephen Akowe-Ethiope West-Warri South, Mercy French, Pension Awani-Warri South, Ugoti Bawo- Warri South West, Stephen Adeleke-Patani and Douglas Eneke- Burutu, to prove that elections were properly held by INEC in the presence of security agents, at their various areas and the results duly declared by the commission.
There was a new dimension to the case on July 12, when a police forensic expert, who is in-charge of Forensic Department, Alagbon, Lagos, Egbuna, told the tribunal that a prosecution witness, PW18, Ahmed Ibrahim, who had earlier identified himself as an Assistant Superintendent of Police, ASP, and also presented a report on his forensic investigation on the ballot papers used for the January 6 re-run polls, was an impostor, having retired from the Nigeria Police as at the date he came to testify before the tribunal.
The police officer said that, as the head of the Forensic Department, which Ibrahim claimed to have represented, he never gave him any authorization to carry out forensic investigation in Delta State, though, he admitted under cross examination that he never carried out forensic examination on the ballot papers used for the polls.
Igbigbi, a fingerprint expert, who performed a forensic analysis on the ballot papers, said findings showed that 55 per of the ballot papers used in the voting had blurred finger prints, while the ballot papers with partial and legible prints were 25 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.
The fingerprint expert, who was subpoenaed by the court and called as a witness by the first respondent, Uduaghan, said most of the ballot papers had fingermarks and not fingerprints, and it would be extremely impossible to use those prints to indicate multiple voting.
He, however, said the fingermarks could be used to count votes, but that INEC did not meet the standard condition to make meaningful deduction for fingerprints under the environment the January 6 re-run election was conducted, among which are visibility of prints, complete finger prints and comprehensibility.
Joint inspection palaver
Both parties have also traded allegations on the joint inspection of electoral materials ordered by both tribunals. Up till last week, the petitioner maintained that the respondent and INEC frustrated its efforts to inspect voting materials as ordered by the tribunal.
Sagay said that INEC did not make available the voter register and other materials to the petitioners’ legal team for inspection, but INEC’s counsel, Oluefemi Adeyemi, insisted that the commission complied with the re-run tribunal’s directive.
Regarding the inspection by the April 26 governorship election tribunal, the chairman of the PDP Campaign Council, Chief Paulinus Akpeki, debunked insinuations that the PDP connived with INEC to frustrate the order of the tribunal, saying that PDP displayed “great enthusiasm” by collaborating with all the stakeholders in the electoral process with a view to complying with the order, only for the DPP to resort to “premature gimmicks of blackmail” when it did not show seriousness in complying with the tribunal order.
“It is the collective moral duty and responsibility of both parties and stakeholders involved and/or affected by judicial investigation, pursuant to the already concluded governorship election exercise to wait patiently for the conclusion of the judicial exercise, rather than make inflammatory utterances that cannot be substantiated by verifiable facts”, he stated, adding, “The PDP as a responsible party has never and will not in any way interfere with or connive with anybody or group to prevent the course of justice and the sanctity of the judiciary, either surreptitiously or otherwise.”
With the dismissal of the ambush by Uduaghan’s legal team to stop Ogboru by both tribunals, the stage is now set for the real pyrotechnics by the two camps. Speaking in the language of the wise, the battle has come to the stage where the cudgel is hidden. It is now time to sift the chaff from the grains.