By Chioma Onuegbu
AFTER legal fisticuffs at the Election Petition Tribunal, there is anxiety in Akwa Ibom ahead of the tribunal’s ruling in the battle for Akwa Ibom North West between Senators Godswill Akpabio and Christopher Ekpenyong.
Akpabio is the immediate governor of the state and Minister-Designate while Ekpenyong was deputy governor between 1999 and 2007. The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC returned Ekpenyong, who contested on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, as the winner of the election and Akpabio, who ran on the card of the All Progressives Congress, APC, kicked against it and want the court to return the mandate to him. Akpabio won the Senate seat on the platform of the PDP in 2015 general election and defected to the APC before the 2019 general election.
Senator Ekpenyong of the PDP polled a total of 118, 215 votes to emerge winner of the election as against Akpabio’s 83,158 votes.
As the tribunal adjourned for judgement last Thursday, Akpabio’s counsel alleged conspiracy in favour of Ekpenyong.
The Tribunal Chairman Justice A. W. Akanbi after adopting the written addresses presented before his panel by counsels to both parties announced that a date will be fixed later for ruling.
Ameh told the tribunal that the Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC in the state, Mike Igini, falsified Akpabio’s result in favour of Ekpenyong.
Based on the anomalies observed, Ameh urged the tribunal to declare Akpabio as winner of the senatorial election.
He submitted that Akpabio is the validly elected senator for Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District having scored majority of the lawful votes cast in the election.
Ameh also submitted that Ekpenyong, who was declared winner of the election, was not elected by lawful votes cast as evidence showed that Akpabio had the highest votes scored.
The tribunal was thrown into shock when Ameh exposed how the INEC Returning Officer for Essien Udim Local Government Area , Dr Olosunde William, after recording the result for the Local Government Area took the result to INEC office in Uyo and cancelled the votes of Akpabio to give an edge to his opponent.
According to Ameh, the Returning Officer had admitted that he collated the result for 11 Wards of Essien Udim Local Government in Form EC8B1 handed over to him by the various collation officers. He had also stated that the results were compiled by him in Essien Udim and Akpabio scored 61, 329 votes while Ekpenyong scored 9, 050 votes.
However, in a curious twist the Returning Officer without the presence of the party agents and other officials unilaterally reduced the votes of Akpabio to 6, 241 in INEC’s office in Uyo.
Ameh submitted that the alteration of Akpabio’s votes at INEC office in Uyo was illegal.
“Form EC8C1 which showed the adjustment of the result is dated February 24, 2019. While Form EC8CD1 which showed the result collated by INEC in Essien Udim is dated February 25, 2019. My Lord, that is dishonesty,” Ameh submitted.
Counsel to Akpabio said the appropriate person to write the report of election not holding or cancellation of the result is the Presiding Officer at each polling unit.
He posited further that all the Presiding Officers who appeared in court when cross-examined responded that they did not cancel any result and they did not know what Form EC40G which should have been used in event of any cancellation was.
According to Ameh: “In the absence of any valid report for the cancellation, the respondents cannot impugn the integrity of the result that were collated by INEC in Form EC81 tendered before this tribunal,” he submitted.
He drew the attention of the tribunal to the submission by PDP witnesses during cross examination, alleging that APC thugs carted away all electoral materials in some Wards in Essien Udim, however, they had no explanation when shown the card reader reports and voter registers of the same units they claimed were carted away.
However, the 1st Respondent, Senator Christopher Ekpenyong and other Respondents’ had in their written addresses asked the Tribunal to dismiss Senator Akpabio’s petition on the basis of incompetence and failure to produce witnesses from all the local government areas of the senatorial district.
According to Ekpenyong, of the 10 local government areas that make up the Senatorial district, witnesses were called by the Petitioner for only two local government areas which included his own local government, Essien Udim and Ikot Ekpene.
Ikot Ekpene senatorial district, (AkwaIbom North West) consists of Abak, Ikot Ekpene, Oruk Anam, Ukanafun, Essien Udim, Obot Akara, Ikono, Ini, Etim Ekpo and Ika local government areas.
Continuing, Ekpenyong through his Counsel Kanu Agabi, SAN, also argued that the reliefs sought by Akpabio differed from the grounds of his petition and that he could not substantiate his claims, as the depositions he relied on had no evidential value.
“My lord, you remember each and every one of his witnesses saying my deposition is made up of what I saw and what I was told.
“On the authority of Gungiri Vs Nyan, the Supreme Court said, if a witness does not distinguish in his deposition, between what he heard and the things he saw, that such depositions have no evidential value.
“The depositions were chorusing one another. Why would A who was in Jericho have an identical situation with B who was in Jerusalem? The relief of being declared the winner is only available to a petitioner who pleads majority of lawful votes.”
PDP, INEC’s positions
Similarly, Solomon Umoh, SAN, Counsel to the PDP told the tribunal to dismiss the petition, saying that “a petitioner who brings his case on fraudulent cancellations must establish two ingredients- that there were cancellations, alterations or mutilations in the electoral document and that the cancellation, alteration or mutilation were dishonestly made in a view to falsify the result of the election.”
Umoh, who had submitted that the effective way to unravel the truth was based on the integrity of Form EC8A, the unit result, where the votes are generated, wondered why the petitioner failed to present any polling unit witness before the tribunal, thereby making Form EC8As to appear helpless.
“In any matter of this magnitude, Polling Unit agents must be witnesses to how they were produced and must be signatories to them, otherwise it has a doubtful and suspicious origin.” he stressed.
On his part Counsel to the 3rd Respondent, INEC, Robert Emukpoeruo, while citing the poor foundation of the petition, noted that the petitioners were obliged to bring unit results and not just result from the collation centre because their petition claimed that the first respondent did not win by majority of lawful votes.
Given the arguments of all parties, all eyes are now on the tribunal to see how it will deliver justice.