By Peter Duru, Makurdi
It was not unexpected to many when few days ago the Abuja Appeal Court upheld the ruling of the Benue State Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal which declared Governor Samuel Ortom of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP winner of the 2019 gubernatorial election in state.
Governor Ortom at the March 9 election and the supplementary election of March 23 polled a total of 434,473 votes to defeat Mr. Emmanuel Jime of the All Progressives Congress, APC who garnered 345,155 votes.
However Mr. Jime and his party the APC petitioned the tribunal to challenge the validity of that victory raising three grounds among which were that the election that returned Mr. Ortom failed to comply with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 (as ammeded).
The petitioners also contended that Mr. Jime scored the majority of the valid votes cast in the election and that he should be duly returned as winner of the election.
The parties were locked in legal fireworks at the tribunal that lasted about six months while the people anxiously waited for the ruling of the tribunal.
The petitioners in the course of the trial called 59 witnesses while Governor Ortom called a witness who was the PDP Collation Officer during the poll.
As the hearing gained momentum it turned out that most of the witnesses called by the petitioners inexplicably put up poor showings blundering and faltering in the testimonies and evidences adduced before the trial court thereby compounding the case of the petitioners.
A typical example of such incidents was when the Petitioners Witness, PW54 drew the ire of the court after he had denied the names he swore under oath as his name and claimed other names.
The witness under oath had sworn that his name was Jirgba Jacob Teghtegh from Tser Market Square in Buruku Local Government Area, LGA. He complained of over voting in his polling unit and told the tribunal that as an agent of the APC he was the first person that voted in his polling unit on the day of the governorship election.
The witness however faltered during cross examination by counsel to Governor Ortom, Mr. Sebastian Hon who gave him the voters’ register of his polling unit to identify his name.
After going through the register, the witness identified another name, Jooji Iornumbe which did not vote in the governorship election, as his name.
When asked to tell the court his name as it appeared on his Permanent Voters Card, he replied “Jooji Iorwuese” which was also not found on the voters’ register of the said polling unit.
During cross examination by the PDP counsel, Mr. Oba Maduabuchi, the witness was asked to write down his name and date of birth and he ended up writing ‘Jooji Iorwuese’ as against the Jirgba Jacob Teghtegh he swore to in his oath and the Jorji Iornumbe which he claimed on the voters register.
It was at that point that the tribunal chairman, Justice Adebola Olusiyi cautioned the witness against bearing multiple names which was an offence under the law.
Justice Olusiyi noted also that “under normal circumstances you would have been taken to the police for necessary action but the court would allow you to go and not to sin again.”
Another witness of the petitioners, Mr. Moses Agenda failed to satisfactorily prove that he was an appointed agent of the party during the general elections at Adamu village, Katsina/Ala local government area of the state.
The witness who was led in evidence by counsel to the governor, Mr. Hon was asked if he had any document or identity card to prove that he was Agende Moses or the agent of his party, he replied “I was attacked by terrorists and they took all my possessions.”
Asked to sign his signature to verify if he was the one that signed the result sheet for his party, the witness said: “I have three signatures, one is for security.”
He eventually signed the three signatures on a sheet of paper but none of them matched that which was signed by the APC agent on the result sheet.
During cross examination by PDP counsel, Emeka Okafor, the witness was asked to tell the Tribunal what he understood by over voting, his response to the chagrin of all present was “I don’t know what over voting is.”
14 days after opening their case the petitioners closed same after calling 59 witnesses and tendering over 1,000 electoral materials and exhibits.
Though they had indicated during the pre-hearing conference to call 200 witnesses in the matter but on the 14th day counsel to the petitioners, Mr. Adebayo Adelodun led the last witness, PW59, in evidence through who the Smart Card Reader Report of the election was tendered before the court.
Governor Ortom’s only witness was the PDP Collation Officer whose evidence was adopted by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and the PDP even as they also relied on the evidences of the petitioners’ witnesses.
At the end of the hearing it became apparent that the evidences of majority of the petitioners’ witnesses negated the essence of the petition and instead of helping the course of the petitioners dealt a devastating blow to their chances of putting up a good fight to sway judgement in their favour.
This was the position of the tribunal when Justice Olusiyi in a 10 hour judgement on October 7, 2019 held that the evidences adduced by the 59 petitioners’ witnesses were hearsay and had no evidential value.
According to him, “they gave evidences that were not credible, reliable and lacked probative value. The onus of proving a fact, in this case electoral malpractices, lied with he who alleges, the petitioners, who failed to discharge that responsibility.
“The petitioners had the burden to prove before the court that the non compliance substantially effected the outcome of the election as provided for in section 141 of the Electoral Act, as amended, but they failed to do so.
“It is also our position that the function of the Smart Card Reader in an election stops at verifying the Permanent Voters’ Card. We are satisfied that the result sheets presented to us by INEC is a true representation of the number of votes cast in that election.
“It is our position that the petitioners have failed to prove that the second respondent (Ortom) was not duly elected on March 9 and 23 2019.
“All the issues raised have been resolved against the petitioners. We find no merit in the petition, it failed woefully and consequently dismissed. And we hereby affirm the election of the second respondent,” Justice Olusiyi held.
Not satisfied with the ruling of the trial court, the petitioners approached the Court of Appeal to upturn the judgement.
But after hearing both parties and scrutinizing the ruling of the tribunal the appellate court in a unanimous judgement delivered by Justice Fred Oho equally resolved all the issues raised against the appellants and dismissed the appeal for lacking in merit.
The court also went further to award N150,000 judgement cost against the appellants to be paid to each of the respondents.
With the judgment which sparked wild celebrations in the state, it is now left to be seen if Mr. Jime and his party would still undertake the quest of exploring the apex court though pundits had after comparing the judgments of the tribunal and the appellate court, insisted that the odds obviously seem not to be in his favour given the skewed evidences of most of his witnesses in the course of the hearing.