By Kenneth Osaro
The Abia State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, which sat in Umuahia, the capital city, wound down its activities on Tuesday after almost 180 days of its mission in the state.
Although the judgement is still hazy as legal experts continue to ruminate on it, pending the release and careful study of the true certified copy, the summary is that the three-member jurists dismissed the petition filed by Dr. Alex Otti, the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
Otti had gone to the tribunal to seek the nullification of the declaration of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, the PDP candidate, as governor by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) at the end of the April general elections in the state.
He also prayed the tribunal to declare him the rightful winner of the governorship poll.
Specifically, he asked for the nullification of results of Obingwa, Osisoma and Isialangwa North Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Abia, where the election was reportedly marred by massive fraud, irregularities and substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2010.
Otti also urged the tribunal to uphold the cancellation of the results from the three LGAs as announced by the State Returning Officer, Prof. Damian Ozumba, citing the reports and evidence from local and international election observers, who monitored the exercise in those areas.
Ozumba, however, reversed himself after allegedly being coerced by former Governor Theodore Orji, who was alleged to have led other chieftains of the PDP to the collation centre.
Having reversed himself, he was alleged to have been compelled to re-admit the cancelled results. But Otti insisted that having cancelled the results, the Returning Officer lacked the legal power to reverse himself. He said the cancellation could only be reversed by a competent tribunal.
The eventual collation of the results turned the table against APGA, which was already leading with more than 55,000 votes, having clearly defeated PDP in nine out of the other 14 local government areas.
The tribunal held that the Returning Officer’s cancellation was not backed by law. But notwithstanding this summation as well as its consideration of oral and documentary evidence, in addition to the final written addresses of all the parties, the tribunal upheld the collation of the results and ultimately the election of Ikpeazu.
Many Abians view this judgement as a judicial process of robbing Peter to pay Paul and using the tribunal to legalise rigging in an election that was clearly won by Otti.
So, by its approval of the cancellation and subsequent reversal of the controversial results by the Returning Officer as having no legal consequence, the tribunal upheld the disputed results from the three council areas even when it was obvious that the total votes purportedly polled by all the political parties that contested the election in the areas were far above the number of registered and accredited voters.
It was against the backdrop of the massive electoral fraud evident in the election in Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North LGAs that the masses, who gave their support and votes to Otti, waited patiently, believing that the tribunal would reverse the INEC result in favour of the true winner of the election.
Curiously, whereas the tribunal, which heard petitions arising from the national and state assemblies elections, nullified Sen. Enyinnaya Abaribe’s election, due to the alleged massive fraud in the same Obingwa, Bwala’s tribunal upheld the result from the area in the case of Otti’s petition.
To Mr Darlington Ezenwa, a produce merchant in Aba, the commercial hub of Abia, Bwala’s judgement was ‘’sun set at dawn” in Abia.
“The tribunal has murdered sleep in Abia. I do not believe there is justice in the tribunal’s verdict. This is unfortunate”, Ezenwa said.
A popular hotelier on Ogbor Hill area of the city, who was made numb by the judgement, sighed repeatedly, paced round the passage of his office and shaking his head intermittently in disbelief, after he received the report of the tribunal’s verdict.
Finally, he braced up and muttered: “This is shocking, we are finished in Aba. This tribunal has dealt with Abia, especially those of us in Aba. Where do we go from here?”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said: ‘’Aba would have gone agog in celebration today and, as a visitor, nobody would tell you that something great has happened to the city and its people, if Otti was declared winner by the tribunal because we voted massively for him”.
The same coldness pervaded other major towns in Abia. In commuter buses, tricycles and public places, the judgement dominated discussions and many residents of the town expressed utter disappointment.
And from Umuahia, a journey that lasted for about one-a-half hour, due to the dilapidated road network, commuters in the mass transit bus took turns to lampoon the judgement.
In Umuahia, the seat of government, the atmosphere was one of mourning, people wore long faces. Except around the Government House on Bank Road, Umuahia, where the judgement was celebrated, characteristics of celebration were conspicuously absent on the streets of Umuahia.
Although, while some urged patience with the new government of Ikpeazu, many feared that his albatross would be the system that threw him up. Not many are convinced that he would make any difference.
Addressing a crowd of supporters at the APGA secretariat, located on Ikot Elpene Road, immediately after the judgement, the National Chairman of the party, Chief Victor Ike Oye, urged them to remain calm and prayerful.
Oye said that the party ‘’was not expecting justice from the tribunal,” describing the judgement as a parody of justice.
He said: ‘’Dr. Alex Otti won the election and had tendered overwhelming evidence at the tribunal to recover his mandate.
‘’We will take this petition to the highest court of the land to recover the people’s mandate given to our candidate and party”.
Reacting to the judgement, in a press statement issued by his Media Assistant, Mrs Jennifer Ben-Okereke, Otti, himself, described the judgement as ‘’nothing other than a travesty of justice and rape of democracy’
In the statement, entitled, ‘’Judgement may have been delivered but justice is on the way, ‘’ he expressed regrets that ‘’the trial tribunal has again scuttled the people’s hope and desire for positive change, quality and credible governance in the state.
He went on: ‘’It is also unfortunate that the tribunal has unwittingly acquiesced in the sinister conspiracy by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to silence and deny the people the mandate, which they freely gave to me and my party”.
Continuing, he said, ‘’It is obvious from the mournful looks on the common man on the streets of the major towns, cities and villages of Abia state that today’s judgement failed to deliver justice and certainly did not reflect the wishes and aspirations of the people expressed through the ballot. Therefore, it certainly cannot stand.”
He said that the cold and quiet atmosphere in different parts of the state ”demonstrates the feeling of a people shortchanged by an incredible electoral process.
‘’It is further compounded by the incomprehensible affirmation by the tribunal’s judgement, which legalized the broad-day ambush and robbery of the peoples mandate by PDP.
‘’I share in the agony, pain, disbelief and frustration of our people. Nevertheless, I encourage our supporters not to despair but to further gird their loins,” he told his teeming supporters, saying that ‘’the battle has not ended.”
He said that he would explore the next judicial window to seek redress in order to ensure that justice is done and that we recover our stolen mandate.‘’
The former Managing Director / Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Bank Plc. urged the people to remain calm, peaceful and law abiding, saying that his legal team of erudite lawyers would study the judgement and initiate the next line of action.”
‘We did not envisage that the struggle to liberate our dear state from the stranglehold of the slave masters, who have held down the state from growth and development in the last 16 years, would be a tea party.
‘’We are committed and resolute and this warped judgement cannot deter us or vitiate our determination and commitment. Rather, it has only strengthened our resolve to fight on until justice is done.
‘’The struggle is not about the person of Alex Otti but about our state, our impoverished people, our future and that of our future generation”.