Hurdles, suspense at Imo election tribunal

As proceedings as the Imo State Governorship Election Tribunal enter the crucial stage, JOE NWACHUKWU examines the attendant suspense.

 

The politics of Imo State is more about personalities and their awesome influence. The trend did not start in the present political dispensation. It dates back to the era of the Second Republic governor of the state, the late Dr Sam Mbakwe. The number of such political titans has continued to increase since Nigeria returned to civil in May 1999. There are names like Senator Hope Uzodinnma and Senator IfeanyiAraraume, whose adventure into politics form the kernel of public discourse across the state. Events after the general election have raised the bar on such public debate.

For instance, the proceedings and legal fireworks over the March 9, 2019 governorship race at the Imo State Election Petition Tribunal, clearly indicated that the last was yet to be heard about the election. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had declared the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Honourable Emeka Ihedioha as the winner of the poll.

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So far, three major petitions against Governor Ihedioha, are generating ripples in the state. The petitions were filed by Senator Ifeanyi Araraume, the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the election; Senator Uzodinma of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Chief UcheNwosu of the Action Alliance (AA). The petitioners are seeking a judicial pronouncement upturning the election which they alleged was massively rigged in favour of Ihedioha, who is set to open his defence against the claims.

Senator Uzodinma is praying the court to declare him winner because, according to him, his scores in most parts of the 27 Local Government Areas in Imo were allegedly fraudulently excluded by the INEC. On his part, Senator Araraume is seeking the cancellation of  the election based on an allegation that Ihedioha did not satisfy the constitutional requirement that a candidate in a governorship election must score 25 per cent in two-thirds of the state before he can be declared winner. In the petition with No: IM/EPT/GOV/03/2019 and dated March 29, 2019, filed on his behalf by his Lead Counsel, Awa Kalu, (SAN), K. C. Nwufo (SAN), Ahmed Raji (SAN) and others, Araraume is praying the tribunal, headed by Justice M.U. Dogondaji to void the Certificate of Return issued to Governor Ihedioha and conduct a fresh governorship election in compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

While testifying, Senator Araraume had claimed: that facts available show that all the votes credited to Ihedioha in Aboh Mbaise, Ahiazu Mbaise, Ehima Mbano and in other 17 Local Government Areas of the state were void and unlawful. He also averred that the original, neutral and credible electoral officers who were sourced by the INEC from the University of Agriculture, Umudike in Abia State were “inexplicably” changed few hours to the election and replaced with a different set of untrained Electoral Officers and Adhoc staff most of who came from Mbaise where Ihedioha also comes from. The petitioner also claimed that the electoral officers, who were allegedly brought in over-night to conduct the election in favour of the PDP, never subscribed to the oath of neutrality.

Senator Araraume

According to the petitioner, there was alleged large-scale hijacking and diversion of ballot papers, as well as other electoral materials to places other than officially designated polling units where several booklets of ballot papers were allegedly “massively thumb-printed by PDP’s agents.” According to him, the alleged thumb-printed ballot papers were later stuffed into ballot boxes and recorded in favour of the PDP’s candidate.

Araraume further averred that Ihedioha’s agents, obtained many permanent voters cards (PVC) and wrongfully used them on the smart card readers. This, he alleged, led to false record of accreditation on the Smart Card Readers as shown by the serial and sustained finger – print verification failure at the polling units. The other allegations raised by the petitioner include that the consequences of the alleged corrupt practices culminated in the purported declaration of the PDP candidate as the winner of the election.

According to him, Ihedioha did not win 25 per cent of the total valid votes cast in two-thirds of the 27 Local Government Areas in the state as stipulated in Section 179 (2) and (3) of the 1999 Constitution. The petitioner alleged that after computation and analysis, he discovered that the PDP candidate did not secure 25 per cent or two-thirds of the 27 local government Areas in the state.

However, the INEC did not to produce its sole star witness to address the issues raised by the petitioner on the conduct and outcome of the election. The commission had been expected to invite Dr Fidelis Ugwu, who is its director of operations in the state and its sole witness to adopt his written deposition and probably attempt to fault Araraume’s claims. Even after the tribunal had given the commission a grace of 24 hours to produce the witness, following a plea by the INEC’s counsel, Aham Eke Ejelam, (SAN), the commission failed to bring its witness.

However, the governor’s lead counsel, Onyechi Ikpeazu, made a plea for more time to open his defence. But the tribunal as the chairman, Justice Dogondaji hinted that the court was running out of time. While testifying, Araraume had tendered evidence to support his claims, with the evidence accepted by the tribunal. Also accepted was the INEC’s certified “back end report,” which was tendered by Araraume’s lead Counsel, Awa Kalu (SAN). Part of the tasks of the tribunal is to determine the effects of the inability of INEC to produce its witness in the case, at least, to adopt his deposition and fault Araraume’s submissions, if necessary.

Meanwhile, the fact that the INEC never challenged Araraume has raised legal questions, hurdles and uncertainties which the PDP and Ihedioha have to deal with as the tribunal winds down.  Accordingly, Ihedioha is expected to open up his defence against the petitioners – Araraume, Nwosu and Uzodinma as the people look forward to the final judgment of the tribunal shortly.

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