The best invention in the electoral management process is the provision to seek redress through the instrumentality of law. Where a party to an election is dissatisfied with the procedures and outcome, he can approach an election petitions tribunal. Similarly, there is no better invention by man to guarantee fair trial like the hierarchical order of courts. In other words, if a litigant feels denied of fair hearing, he has every right of appeal up to the level the constitution permits.
The November 16, 2019, governorship election in Kogi state was more of a straight fight between Alhaji Yahaya Bello of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Musa Atayi Wada of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The results of the election showed that Bello of the APC emerged winner having polled 406, 222 votes to defeat the PDP candidate, Wada, who polled 189, 704 votes, a margin never witnessed in the annals of political victories in the state.
The unity he built he built for four years spoke on the day of his election as the Governor won in LGAs across the three Senatorial Districts, including the Senatorial District of his main challenger, Engr Musa Atayi Wada , who is currently embroiled in the legality and validity of the ticket he used to enter into the governorship contest ring. Dissatisfied with the outcome of the election, the PDP and its candidate explored a legal option by challenging the victory of Governor Bello at the governorship election petitions tribunal which sat in Abuja.
On May 23, 2020, the tribunal affirmed the declaration and return of Bello by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as the validly elected Governor of Kogi state in the November 16 2019 governorship election. The judgement did not come as a surprise to the people of the state who knew they voted for their governor. Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Kashim Kaigama, who delivered the sound majority judgement with another member of the three-member panel, Justice Baraka Wali, threw out the petitions filed by Wada and the PDP on December 7, 2019 on the ground that the petitioners failed woefully to prove the grounds of their petition. They awarded a cost of N500,000 against the petitioners in favour of the respondents.
But in his dissenting judgment, Justice Ohimai Ovbiagele upheld the petitioners’ case by nullifying the results in seven out of the 21 local government areas in the state. He ordered INEC to withdraw the certificate of return issued to Governor Bello, just as he asked the commission to conduct a fresh election in seven LGAs within three months.
In the petitions before the tribunal, they alleged that Governor Bello was not duly elected by majority of the lawful votes cast at the said governorship election in Kogi state. “That the election was invalid by reason of non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 (As Amended); that the election was invalid by reasons of corrupt practices with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 (As Amended)’’. The petitions contain several allegations of corrupt practices. In support of their allegations, the petitioners lodged several truckloads of documentary evidence. They however called 32 witnesses, including two INEC staff subpoenaed to produce documents and to testify, witnesses that alleged over voting in various polling units, 17 witnesses that alleged cancellation of results and two expert witnesses.
Curiously, virtually all the witness statements on oath adopted before the tribunal in proof of the above allegations of corrupt practices were drafted in a repetitive chorus, thereby seeming to mimic themselves. Truth will always shine better when challenged. However, Governor Yahaya Bello had through his lawyer, J.B. Daudu (SAN), filed a reply on January 7, 2020 denying all allegations of electoral malpractices made in the petition. The governor also stated that contrary to the petitioners’ allegations, the said election was conducted in substantial compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) and that he was in consequence, duly elected by a majority of lawful votes cast thereat. Consequently, he urged the tribunal to dismiss the petition with substantial costs.
In his final written address, Governor Bello’s lawyer noted that Wada’s petition is replete with complaints of over voting. The former Nigeria Bar Association president drew the attention of the tribunal to the irrefutable position of the law which states that the burden or onus is on the petitioners to prove their petition. He contended that the petitioners merely dumped the bulk of their documentary evidence on the Tribunal without relating them to the averments in their petition. However, both the majority decision and dissenting judgement of the tribunal delivered on May 23, 2020 were premised on the “Expert Witnesses” evidence of PDW19 contained in a report marked Exhibit18. In all intent and purposes, courts and tribunals don’t adjudicate on matters based on hearsay and emotion. The learned men of the bench are thoroughly steeped in the knitty gritty of law to be swayed by sheer emotions and lies. Justices of the highest court in the land, Supreme Court, have held severally that a court of law is not a Father Christmas that should be giving frivolous reliefs sought for.
PDP and Wada have since proceeded on appeal. However, experts are of the view that his appeal will still fall like a pack of cards because the grounds of the petition are defective in the first instance and do not stand thorough scrutiny, even of a deu Ken judge. First, the election of which he is contesting the result in court was adjudged free, fair and credible by both domestic and international observers. Is Wada claiming that the opinions of thousands of observers who gave the election pass mark are wrong and only him is right? But in law, no matter how defective a petition is, it must be given its due attention. Great respect for the learned panel member who gave the dissenting judgement nullifying Bello’s victory and ordering INEC to withdraw his certificate of return, but going by the submission of his learned colleagues in the panel who affirmed the election, he seemed to have stood justice on its head by innocently buying into the gimmicks of the petitioners and their witnesses.
As their lordships at the appellate court get set to decide the matter, it is believed that they would heed the clarion call of the apex court justices who have not minced words in insisting that at all times the court should rise and do justice in a way that substantial justice is not sacrificed on the altar of technicalities.
Abiodun writes in from Abuja