BY PETER DURU
THE outcome of the 2011 guber elections in Benue State and the declaration of Governor Gabriel Suswam of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as the winner elicited a political quagmire of sorts in the state following the reaction of the opposition parties especially the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which wasted no time in challenging the validity of the result announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The ACN, which is the leading opposition party in the state and it co-traveller the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) promptly headed for the Benue State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal to challenge the outcome of the process.
Their action was expected. The build up to the election indicated that petitions and protests would trail its outcome. And shortly after the declaration of the result a panel of jurists headed by Justice Daisy Okocha was constituted by the President of the Court of Appeal to hear cases arising from the polls.
However, that panel failed to sit on account of series of alleged threats to the lives of the jurists who were left with no option but to hurriedly packed out of town a few days after arriving Makurdi, the Benue State Capital.
The exit of Daisy Okocha-led panel prompted the reconstitution of a three man panel led by Justice Mumir Ladan, which commenced sitting in July 2011 and shortly after, the legal fireworks to wrestle power from Governor Suswam and the ruling PDP took the centre stage.
The opposition parties fought the legal battle from two fronts. While the duo of Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN) and Femi Falana led the ACN onslaught on behalf of Prof Steven Ugba, Bar. Chris Opine anchored that of Prof. Daniel Sarorand the ANPP.
Saror hinged his legal tussle on alleged non-qualification of Suswam to contest the election in the first place. He cited the governor’s alleged forged WAEC certificates and his failure to attach same to INEC Form CF 001 as the basis for his action.
On the other hand, Ugba tied his petition to general electoral malpractices at the polls and the Governor’s alleged forged certificates. Proceedings at the tribunal progressed steadily but midway, the panelists raised security concerns and at a point to adjourned indefinitely to allow for proper security arrangement to guarantee their safety in the state.
However, proceedings resumed when the security issues raised were properly addressed and the panel of judges were asked to resume sitting in Makurdi by the President of the Court of Appeal. And as hearing progressed, the issue of technicalities crept in and it also became the basis on which the two petitions were determined by the tribunal.
By early October 2011, Justice Mumir in separate rulings, dismissed Professors Ugba and Saror’s petitions on the premise that they failed to seek the leave of the tribunal before invoking pre-hearing sessions of their respective cases.
The petitioners were forced to head to the Court of Appeal in Makurdi for a reversal of the ruling. But upon hearing the case, the appellate court upheld the verdict of the tribunal and consequently dismissed the appeal.
However, respite came the way of the petitioners when the ACN took it’s appeal to the Supreme Court, insisting that there was miscarriage of justice by the lower courts.
The apex court heard the appeal and quashed the rulings of the lower courts and directed that the matter be heard on it’s merit. The ruling of the Supreme Court came just a few day to the expiration of the mandatory 180 days allowed by Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution for the adjudication of all matters arising from election disputes.
Consequently, a three man panel headed by Justice Halima Mohammed was constituted by the President of the Court of Appeal for the immediate commencement of proceedings. The re-constitued panel resumed sitting in Makurdi on November 22, 2011 with a promise to hear both cases on their merits as directed by the Supreme Court.
At this time, the 180 days as stipulated by the 1999 Constitution had already elapsed and Governor Suswam cashed in on this and challenged the jurisdiction of the tribunal to entertain the suit. His objection was thrown out by the tribunal likewise the Court of Appeal in Makurdi. Justice Dogongabn-Mensem of the Court of Appeal upheld the judgement of the apex court and reverted the parties back to the tribunal for the continuation of the proceedings.
As hearing progressed at the tribuanal, Prof. Saror gave evidence to close his case. Upon cross examination by Mr. Donald DeNwigwe SAN, the counsel representing Suswam,, Prof Saror told the tribunal that his allegation against the governor was premised on a certified true copy of Power Steering Magazine published in September 2010, another publication by National Life Weekly circulated last February and the INEC Form CF 001.
The former Minority Leader of the Senate also cited an ongoing case at the Federal High Court between Mr. Terver Kakir and Suswam as evidence. The ACN, on the other hand, through an application said that the issue of certificate forgery remained pivotal to the adjudication of it’s petition. The court upheld this application through a ruling andalso gave the ACN the leverage to call witnesses to that effect.
Ugbah’s Counsel, Rotimi Akeredolu, also made an oral application on the strength of Paragraph 50 of the First Schedule of the 2010 Electoral Act asking the court to permit a joint hearing of the suits of the ACN and the ANPP, which were both seeking the nullification of the election of the Governor.
Akeredolu had premised his argument on the fact that it would save the tribunal the pain of delivering two separate judgements in the suits which he claimed were similar in content and character.
His submission was however opposed by counsels of Suswam, PDP and INEC, Donald DenNwigwe, Solo Akuma and Jubrin Okutekpa, respectively, who insisted that Paragraph 47 of the First Schedule of the Electoral Act provided for a formal application, which should also put the parties on notice.
However, just when the court reserved it’s ruling on the application, a new twist surfaced in the matter when on the resumption of hearing on the suit between Saror of the ANPP and Suswam, counsel to the ANPP candidate, Mr. Chris Orpin raised an objection to the application by the ACN seeking a consolidated hearing of his case and that of the ACN.
Orpin insisted that he did not give his consent to the application, arguing that the move was not in the interest of his case hence, unacceptable. He stated: “Those seeking the consolidation of the cases lacked direction, we do not understand their mission, we know where we are going to, and therefore oppose the move for consolidation”.
At this point of proceedings at the tribunal, tension was heightened in the state. But on February 28, 2012, the opposition family in Benue State was jolted at the resumed sitting of the Justice Halima Mohammed-led tribunal. In a consolidate ruling, the court dismissed the ACN and ANPP’s petitions.
In a brief judgement delivered by the Chairman, Justice Halima Mohammed, the panel held that the court was bound by the earlier decision of the Supreme Court on the constitutional provision, which stipulates 180 days time frame within which petitions arising from gubernatorial elections are dispensed with by tribunals across the country.
Justice Mohammed held that the decision of the Supreme Court, which was premised on Section 285(6)(7) of the 1999 Constitution was explicit enough to guide the tribunal to reach it’s decision. She dismissed the two suits and awarded no costs to the parties.
ACN reacts: But in his reaction to the verdict, the lead counsel to Prof. Steve Ugba and the ACN, Rotimi Akeredolu said he would challenge the judgement.
According to him, “the Tribunal chose to deliver a consolidated judgment in two separate suits that were not consolidated from the beginning. That is a basis for an appeal”, he said. In his reaction, Governor Suswam, attributed the judgment to the handiwork of God. He also dedicated it to the people of Benue State.
However, there were indications a few days ago that the last might not have been heard on the tussle for the Benue State Government with ACN heading for the Supreme Court to challenge the ruling.
No dates have been fixed for the matter but political pundits are closely watching the unfolding drama in Benue State and not a few are of the view that it would only take a decisive pronouncement by the Supreme Court to finally drop the cotton on the Benue State governorship tussle.