By Roland Obasi
In a few days from now, the curtain would be permanently drawn on the legal battle between the governorship candidates of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Dr. Alex Otti, and Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu of the People Democratic Party in Abia state.
The battle, which started at the Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, which sat in Umuahia for about 180 days, moved to the Owerri Division of the Appeal Court and now to the Supreme Court, Abuja, which is the “final finality” for all the governorship tussles in Nigeria.
The Supreme Court’s judgment can easily be predicted looking at the sequence of the Abia governorship race, beginning with the campaigns to the election and the current legal fight.
As soon as the the political parties in the state concluded their primaries, political pundits concluded that the real battle would be between Otti and Ikpeazu, who emerged as the flag bearers of APGA and PDP, respectively.
As the campaigns progressed, the direction of the pendulum began to get clearer by the day and it did not take long for the electorate to decide where to pitch their tent between the two frontline contenders.
Expectedly, while Otti criss-crossed the entire length and breadth of the state, from Umunneochi to Ukwa down to Umuahia up to Arochukwu, showcasing his economic blueprint for the emancipation and transformation of the state in well-attended rallies, Ikpeazu on the other hand attempted to persuade the electorate to vote for “continuity.” Indeed, continuity in the face of mounting arrears of salary of civil servants, teachers, doctors and local government workers, in addition to arrears of pensions as well as continued deterioration in physical infrastructure in major cities of Umuahia, Aba and Ohafia.
With the massive followership from the above category of residents, coupled with the insensitive policies of Theodore Orji-led administration that pitched non-indigenes as well as market men and women in the state against Ikpeazu, it was easy to predict a landslide for Otti in the election.
APRIL GOVERNORSHIP POLL
The prediction by political analysts that Otti would sweep the poll was substantially proved during the election, considering the pattern of votes from across the three senatorial districts of Abia north, Abia South and Abia central.
Situation reports from across the state on the day of the election indicated clear victory for Otti. At the end of the counting of votes at every polling unit, Otti maintained a clear lead ahead of Ikpeazu and other candidates.
The only sad commentary on that day was that election in Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North Local Government Areas was marred by violence, snatching of election materials and other forms of intimidation and harassment of the electorate.
The supplementary election, which was ordered as a result of the inconclusive result at the end of the collation of results by the State Returning Officer, Prof. Benjamin Ozumba, even witnessed a more horrendous and terrifying experience never experienced in the history of elections in the state, nay Nigeria.
In the morning of April 25, when the supplementary poll was supposed to take place, desperate leaders from the Ngwa extraction of the state conspired to evoke fears in the electorate by depositing coffins at different strategic locations in Aba. The inscription on the fiery objects read, “Vote against PDP and die.”
This fetish act and the deployment of violence during the general and supplementary elections in the Ngwa area largely resulted in the disenfranchisement of the people. The barbaric act later proved to be counter-productive as many prospective voters kept away from going to exercise their franchise out of fear.
COLLATION OF GOVERNORSHIP ELECTION RESULTS
The collation of the governorship election results by the State Returning Officer commenced smoothly until he (Ozumba) cancelled the results of the election in Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North LGAs, citing “incontrovertible evidence of massive violence and snatching of ballot boxes” reported by the local and international election observers as his reason.
But barely 20 minutes after the cancellation, former Gov. Theodore Orji led other chieftains of PDP, including the embattled National Publicity Secretary, Chief Olise Metuh, to disrupt the collation. Before this time, Otti was already leading in nine out of the 14 council areas already declared. Arising from a closed-door meeting in the office of Prof. Selina Oko, the former Resident Electoral Commissioner in the state, Ozumba returned to his seat and proceeded to de-annul the already cancelled results of the three controversial council areas. He was reportedly intimidated, harassed and coerced during the closed-door meeting by the PDP stalwarts to reverse himself, thus paving the way for the eventual declaration of Ikpeazu as governor. It was therefore not surprising when Ozumba finally declared Ikpeazu the winner on April 25, 2015, albeit under controversial circumstances, culminating in the current legal tussle.
OVER-VIEW OF THE TRIBUNAL AND COURT OF APPEAL JUDGMENTS
At the end of its sitting in Umuahia, the three-member tribunal, headed by Hon. Justice Usman Bwala, dismissed all the reliefs pleaded by the petitioners (Otti and APGA) and proceeded to affirm the election of Ikpeazu as governor.
But the Court of Appeal did not waste time in tearing the Bwala judgment into shreds and proceeded to do the needful by declaring Otti the winner of the April governorship election, saying that he won the highest number of lawful votes cast at the election and should be sworn in.
To appreciate the shoddy job done by the tribunal, hear what the Court of Appeal has to say: ‘’We find it perplexing that the tribunal, instead of reading and considering carefully the pleadings and evidence adduced in the petition and determining all the issues raised by the respective parties, seemed more concerned with getting rid of as many of the reliefs as possible by striking them out for one unacceptable reason or the other.
‘’All the reasons given are untenable and at the end of the day amount to depriving the Appellants of fair hearing guaranteed under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
‘’These generalizations that the claims of the Appellants/Petitioners were not grantable without giving plausible and definite reasons are unacceptable in law.’’ This was the unassailable, infallible and unanimous finding of the eminent jurists, led by Hon. Justice Oyebisi Omoleye.
The Court also made a caricature of the tribunal in its handling of the issue concerning the cancellation and de-annulment of the controversial results of the three LGAs of Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North.
On page 64 of the judgment, the Court said: “In the instance case, the tribunal, upon finding and holding that the State Returning Officer had no power to annul and de-annul the election results, would have gone ahead to consider the grievances of the Appellants on the merit.
“Rather, in what appeared to be a conscious resolve to aviod and evade the determination of the petition on the merit, chose to embark on swinging forward and backward…”
Further more, the Court of Appeal decided the case in favour of Otti by establishing the case of over-voting in the three contentious LGAs of Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North.
The Court further demonstrated it’s thoroughness in its consideration of the evidence tendered by Otti’s state collation agent, Barr. Ahamdi Nweke (PW20), on page 69 of the judgment. It stated inter alia: “We have earlier noted that PW20, in his Statement on Oath, testified in paragraphs…not only that the total number of accredited voters announced by the State Returning Officer exceeds the total number of accredited voters in the INEC Data Base, he also testified to the effect that the total number of votes ascribed to the 1st Respondent by the State Returning Officer in the final results was in excess of the total number of accredited voters indicated thereon.”
Contnuing, the Court remarked “This piece of evidence was neither challenged nor contradicted by any of the Respondents even during the cross-examination of PW20.”
On pages 69 and 70 of the judgment, the Court went further to dissect the testimony and evidence tendered and admitted as Exhibit PWC2 by the Head of Unit, Data Management, ICT Deptartment of INEC, Mrs Abimbola Oladoye, referred to as (PW19), and stated, among other things “That I know that as directed by the commission, smart card readers were used for the accreditation of voters eligible to participate in the elections for the governorship elections held in Abia state in April 2015.
“That I also know that the information of accredited voters at different polling units of the state were uploaded unto the database of the commission.
“That I know that the said voters accreditation data for the five local government of the governorship elections in Abia state reproduced for the 11th and 25th April 2015 election is conclusive and correct and is looking the data uploaded to the Central server at the headquarters…”
The Court went further to state that “The purport of the testimony of PW19 as reproduced above is that not only were smart card readers used for accreditation of voters in the affected local government election, information of accredited voters at different polling units of the state were uploaded unto the database of the 3rd Respondent and the information is conclusive and correct as to the number of accredited voters.”
According to the Court, “in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the figures indicated on the INEC Database Report can be taken as conclusive and correct in proof of the figures of the total number of accredited voters.
“Quite surprisingly, none of the Respondents deemed it fit to cross-examine the witness on the testimony given by her at the trial of the petition. The law is settled that where evidence given by a witness in favour of a party was not challenged by the opposing party, who had the opportunity to do so, same can be relied upon by the court, which will in turn ascribe probative value to it, as evidence that is neither contradicted nor debunked remains good and reliable evidence.”
The Court held that contrary to the argument of Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), counsel for Ikpeazu, “Overwhelming evidence was led by witnesses led by the Appellants in proof of over-voting, especially the evidence of PW19 and PW20.”
In conclusion, the eminent jurists submitted, “It is obvious from Exhibit PWC2 and FORM EC8D that at each of the disputed three local government areas, the number of votes credited in favour of the 1st Respondent is in excess of the total number of accredited voters as shown in Exhibit PWC2.
“In this circumstance, it is apparent that there was over-voting in Osisioma, Isialangwa North and Obingwa LGAs and the votes purportedly generated therefrom are smared and infested with illegality, by reason of the clear provisions of Section 53 (2) of the Electoral Act 2000 (as amended)…”
It was this unassailable judgment that Ikpeazu is urging the nation’s apex court to reverse. But the effort is seen as a ploy to buy time for an administration that is counting it’s last days. As noted by some legal luminaries, the Appeal Court judges discharged their assignment meticulously, conscious that their decision would be subject to a review by the Supreme Court.
But Otti also proceeded to the Supreme Court with a cross-appeal to seek the apex court’s decision on other reliefs contained in his petition, which are also fatal to Ikpeazu’s purported election, aside from over-voting, which are still yearning for judicial attention.
For instance, Otti expects the Supreme Court to decide on the propriety or otherwise of Local Government Agents of PDP signing multiple result sheets for wards and the three local government areas in contention and the compliance of such action with the specific provisions of the Electoral Act 2000 (as amended), concerning the signing of election results.
There is also the need for the apex court to give a finite legal interpretation to the action of the state Returning Officer in cancelling and de-annulling the results of the three controversial council areas after he was psychologically brutalised, intimidated and blackmailed in a closed-door meeting with the PDP chieftains.
This final onslaught is designed to further nail Ikpeazu, who is also facing another legal battle on allegations of fraudulently obtaining tax certificate for three consecutive years in order to qualify to contest the governorship election.
It is instructive for the world to know that the current battle for the soul of Abia is between the well-meaning people of Abia, represented by Otti, and PDP mafia, who have plundered the commonwealth of the state in the past 16 years, leaving the people and the state more impoverished than they met them.
Chief Roland Obasi is a public affairs analyst in Ohafia, Abia State
Abia Governorship: The Final Battle
By Roland Obasi