At the conclusion of the April 2011 general elections it was considered expedient to have three election petitions tribunals established forAnambra State.
The state thus became the only one throughout the federation with three election petition tribunals. The reason for this is simple: about 70 petitions were filed by aggrieved politicians in the state following the conduct of the elections. This is so in order to allow for speedy trial of the petitions since the new Electoral Act 2010 as amended prescribed a timeline of 180 days within which every petition should be disposed of at the tribunal.
Not many were surprised to hear recently that one of the tribunals sitting at Awka has been dissolved. It was a relief being expected with high hopes, a development which was long overdue given the type of judgements reeling out from that tribunal christened Election Petitions Tribunal I.
Sometime in May, during its inaugural press briefing, the chairman of the tribunal, Justice U. B. Bwala, had warned sternly that members of the public, especially parties to the petitions pending before it for determination, should stay away from members of the tribunal who also include Justice I. T. Cocodia and Justice Adaigbe. He promised that the team was in Anambra to render justice, stating that he and his colleagues were incorrigible and would not want to be stained with bribery by overzealous and desperate politicians in Anambra. It was on this kind of note that the tribunal settled down to do its work at Awka.
The warning was apt and came at a time the people of Anambra were full of expectations that the tribunal would indeed deliver justice, although it was received with mixed feelings by close watchers, including pressmen who were present at the briefing. Pessimists on the other hand had instantly dismissed the warning as one coming from a tribunal that was morally and ethically empty, and therefore merely trying to impress people with a nonexistent conscience. To some others, caution was the watch word as not everything that glitters is gold. This is because of the level of notoriety some dubious individuals in the state have attained in trying to induce and lure judicial officers engaged in the settlement of election petitions in the past.
It is a saying that whenever a bird flaps its wings, it is an indication of where it is going to perch. Barely had the tribunal taken off did its bent and partiality become manifest. For instance, over a dozen petitions before it were said to have been struck out on flimsy excuses bordering on denial of jurisdiction by the tribunal, inconsistency of judgments, acquiescence to alleged lack of petitioners’ locus standi, refusal to disqualify itself from continuing with matters as expressly applied for by parties, etc. In fact, this impunity and unbridled striking out of petitions happened even before they could get to pretrial stage. Tongues started wagging as to the propriety or otherwise of the tribunal’s rulings. It became glaring that something was amiss, especially when compared with rulings in similar matters from their counterpart tribunals in both Anambra and other states of the federation as reported in the media.
Before this time, there were very strong rumours of various behind-the-door dirty deals and exchange of commitments by the tribunal and a certain clique of desperadoes operating on Anambra’s political landscape. The decisions of the tribunal were said to have been unwittingly influenced by the said commitment because there is no smoke without fire. Within a few weeks, the scandal had already flowered to an alarming proportion prompting the dissolution of the tribunal last Monday by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami. The action has been hailed by many political observers in the state and beyond who are unanimous in concluding that it is a right step in the right direction if only it will help to bring sanity to the state embroiled in several political controversies.
Curiously, one is compelled to ask if Anambra State must always dominate in the pool of notorious and antisocial-cum-political quagmire in the country. Within the past 10 years, the state has set enviable records in various fields of crime and fraud which has often claimed high profile and prominent individuals as victims.
In 2003, the state witnessed the worst incident of arson on its properties. That deliberate burning, looting and destruction of government properties was adjudged to be the worst ever since the civil war. This was preceded by the abduction of Senator Chris Ngige, the then state governor, by his political adversaries. Till date, nobody has been arrested or punished for those acts of brigandage and arson. Instead the individuals behind them were given appointments as ministers, or voted into office as senators.
Again, in 2004, an Enugu Appeal Court panel sitting in the case of Ukachukwu and Dr Ugochukwu Uba was to be prevented from completing the delivery of its judgement on the matter on the appointed day by an angry mob. The drama was happening right inside the court room. The reason was that two of the three-man panel members were said to have collected a staggering amount of money and rewrote its judgment overnight against Ukachukwu. Indeed, Justice Opene, chairman of the said appeal court, and his co-conspirator were subsequently dismissed from service when it turned out after investigations that the allegation of “sale of judgment” levelled against them was true. But then, the harm had already been done because as a result of the arrested judgement, Senator Uba continued to enjoy his office as a senator instead of Ukachukwu who was to be genuinely favoured by the judgement.
About two weeks ago, the media was awash with allegations of irregular practices by the tribunal. There was apprehension and worry that the tribunal has been compromised. It was noted that delivery of ruling which the tribunal gives in a matter of minutes takes over two weeks to be produced in print. The implication of this is that an adverse party would lack sufficient time to put the records of the proceedings together for an appeal. This is happening in an election petition that is bound by timeline. It was a practice that has never happened in any other law court but only in Anambra State; a deliberate frustration that has bedeviled many petitions before now.
The latest development, the sacking of the tribunal, one would say, is a good riddance to bad rubbish. However, must it stop at this? Regrettably, the tribunal has handed down its rulings on the affected petitions and caused the damage. What will happen to the cases that were already mishandled or misjudged? How to reconstruct and remedy the situation should be the ultimate challenge.
Engr Pascal Okeke