From Martins Ezeigwe
The Anambra State Gubernatorial Election Tribunal was set up two weeks before the gubernatorial elections of 16th November, 2013, eventually held on three days of -16th, 17th and 30th November 2014.
On December 19, 2013, nearly three weeks after the election was brought to a close via what the ‘Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) called ‘supplementary polls’ the tribunal received the first petition which was filed by Dr Chike Obidigbo, a factional candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) whose challenge of the candidature of Chief Willie Obiano predating the election has spilled over into an election petition.
Obidigbo, insisting that he is the only legally and constitutionally nominated candidate of APGA is praying the Tribunal to declare him the winner of the Anambra state gubernatorial elections on the basis that he was merely illegally and unfairly excluded from the returns. Obidigbo’s co-petitioner is APGA. The respondents in the matter are Chief Willie Obiano and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Twenty-four hours after Obidigbo’s petition was filed, that of Senator Chris Ngige and his political party, All Progressive Congress, APC featured in the registry of the Tribunal with a different prayer. Ngige and APC ,suing INEC, the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of INEC in Anambra State, Prof Onukaogu,and three others-Chief Willie Obiano,APGA and Advanced Congress of Democrats (ACD), asked the Tribunal to cancel the November 16, 2013 elections on the grounds-that the election was conducted without substantial compliance with the 2010 Electoral Act; that here were corrupt practices which influenced the outcome of the elections; that the INEC declared winner did not score the majority of lawful votes cast in the election; and that Chief Willie Obiano was not qualified by virtue of submission of false information and forged certificate and that INEC had no powers to defer elections.
Next to come, incidentally on the next and final day of filing, December 21, 2013, were two cases filed simultaneously, but separately by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Comrade Tony Nwoye, PDP candidate in the elections. The prayer of PDP is that the elections should be cancelled and that of Tony Nwoye is that the election should equally be cancelled, or in the alternative, the petitioner should be declared the winner of the election.
This brought the total number of petitions before the Tribunal to four.
The Tribunal was then headed by Hon Justice J K Kaigama. On January 04, 2014 granted an order sought by Senator Chris Ngige and APC seeking the leave of the Tribunal to inspect materials used for elections at INEC offices in Awka.
In quick succession, a similar order was sought by Chief Willie Obiano, candidate of APGA in the disputed elections whose candidature is also being challenged before the Tribunal and other courts by Dr Chike Obidigbo of the same party. It was also granted.
By January 21, 2014, the first full sitting of the Tribunal, coming 33 days after the first petition was filed and 31 days after the last petition was filed, a new chairman resumed with the panel; Hon Justice Ishaq Bello, who replaced Justice Kaigama. The other two members of the panel are Hon Justice Akintola Akinniyi and Hon Justice John Vikoo.
The panel sat briefly in a fully attended session that brought to the fore the interest attached to the matter from many interests. Virtually every space in and out of the small court room, in the Anambra State High Court premises was taken up with some lawyers having to stand. The panel sat briefly capturing in words what the atmosphere had captured in action. New Chairman of the panel enjoined all stakeholders to live up to expectations given that ‘every eye is on Anambra State and on the Tribunal’.
He urged lawyers to comport themselves and journalists to avoid what he called ‘sensational reports’. He urged everyone involved in the justice delivery to play his own part to see justice done in the matter, saying; ‘the Tribunal was interested in getting to the justice of the matter before it’ and therefore would ‘not dwell so much on technicalities’.
Surprisingly, the panel adjourned for two weeks in a matter with constitutionally defined gestation of 180 days. Not a few mumbled by the side, but so it was until February 04, 2014 when the Tribunal witnessed yet another upsurge, in terms of attendance. Crowd control became difficult. The senior members of the bar had to step in to resolve so many conflicts.
There were conflicts between the members of the public and the lawyers who were so many, they had to spill over to seal meant for members of the public. There were equally direct conflict between the lawyers and the media, whose seat was clearly take over by the former leaving the men of the pen to stand in the witness box, refusing to give way, until a compromise sitting arrangement was made in the corner meant for security operative sin the court.
The climax of the conflict was that between members of the public who insisted on entering the courtroom, long after the operatives of the Directorate of State Security (DSS) tried to stop entrance because the room was too full. At this time, about 90 were seated inside and roughly 50, including lawyers were standing. The resistance led to the man-handling of some members of the public. Elsewhere in the interior of the room, power supply was not steady and the microphones were out of duty. These contributed to a poor ambience for the proceeding, prompting the Senior Advotes of Nigeria (SANs) ,numbering 16,attending the Tribunal to seek audience with the Chief Justice of Anambra State in a bid to change the venue of the Tribunal sitting. Apparently that bid has failed because the venue of the sitting has not changed.
On the same date the cause list displayed the motions to be taken. But some lawyers kicked insisting that their motions filed earlier in time was being placed behind those filed later. The matter was addressed by rearranging to place the contending motions at the same time. The preliminaries had begun.
An omnibus motion severally filed by APC & Senator Chris Ngige, PDP and Tony Nwoye were consolidated for hearing in the adjourned date of February 11, 2014,next to that of Umeh faction of APGA through its lawyer, Patrick Ikwueto ,SAN seeking to drop APGA as a party in the suit filed by Dr Chike Obidigbo. Other motions came in quick succession, but some were caught in the web of others. For instance, the consolidated motion by three petitioners APC &Ngige, PDP and Nwoye pursuant to Paragraph 12, Sub-paragraph 5 of the first Schedule of the 2010 Electoral Act meant that all other motions would fall over, to the extent that they would be taken in the trial. But there this was opposed by the Respondnet/Applicants, INEC, Obiano, APGA etc particularly with respect to matters relating to striking out some paragraphs of the petition which they claimed bordered on jurisdiction. Final arguments on this were eventually taken on Tuesday, February 11, 2014.
In between, the panel sat on Wednesday February 12, 2014 and Friday February 14, 2014.
Eventually, the Tribunal fixed Monday February 17, 2014 for ruling. This did not hold, as an announcement from the Secretary deferred it to Wednesday February 19, 2014 to the annoyance of the audience in court, apparently, because the Secretary said: ‘I have pleasure to announce that due to some inconvenience, the Tribunal will not sit today’. The Secretary going ahead announced that all should come back two days after on for the ruling. In fact it attracted some unsavoury remarks about the Judiciary.
But it was like taking on a scapegoat as the secretary did not originate the decision. In fact there was nothing to show that the Tribunal members were in town. The Chairman of the Tribunal, Hon Justice Ishaq Bello for instance still has to attend to some administrative duties in his station, being the second highest Judge in the FCT High Court system. Others equally had their mother stations.
Eventually, the Tribunal gave its ruling on February 19, 2014. The three-man panel held that all preliminary applications seeking to strike out the respective petitions will be taken with the trial, while those seeking to strike out some paragraphs of the petition will be taken before the trial. This is now the subject of appeal by the petitioners. On another motion filed by APC & Ngige seeking to submit the report of its physical inspection, which was given by the Tribunal under the chairmanship of Justice Kaigama, the Ishaq Bello-led Tribunal refused. On a new application by Dr Obidigbo seeking to be joined in the respective petitions of APC & Ngige, PDP and Tony Nwoye, the Tribunal equally refused. But the main petition by Dr Chike Obidigbo against Chief Obiano survived.
So on Monday February 24, 2014, the motion filed by INEC, Obiano and APGA seeking to strike out some paragraphs of the petitions by the three petitioners, save Obidigbo was argued in consolidation. The grounds which the applicants relied on were that some of the affected paragraphs bordered on pre-election matters, some were according to them ‘vague and nebulous’, while in others some parties on who allegations were levelled were not joined. One such example was where APGA thugs were mentioned in the petition. The petitioners argued that having joined APGA, there was no need to join the ‘thugs’. The applicants insisted they had to be joined. Ruling was fixed for Friday 28th February 2014.The application to strike out the said paragraphs were granted with very few exceptions.
By the original programme set by the Tribunal, all preliminary matters were to end with this ruling, but moments after the ruling, Justice Bellow said : ’I had sad that the preliminaries will end today, but it looks as if that may not be’. In the same breadth, counsel for Obiano told the Tribunal that they still had an application to strike out some paragraphs of Obidigbo’s petition. A loud mumble ensued in the Tribunal. It was easy to interpret, since the petitions were heard a a consolidated matter, why leave another one on the same matter for when ruling had been given on some? Well the same questions seemed to hand over the issue of striking out paragraphs because some paragraph of Tony Nwoye’s petition was equally struck out on Monday January 24, 2014, four days before similar actions were take in other petitions.
But the bigger issue came when the Tribunal records did not contain some of the processes, with lawyers in attendance updating the Tribunal that the matter had been argued. The tribunal first rose for about 30 minutes and then later resumed and adjourned till Wednesday 5th March, 2014 to enable it tidy up matters. Predictably, the Tribunal on resumption on 5th March, 2010 struck off the requested paragraphs in the Obidigbo petition, in line with previous rulings on three other petitions.
So when Thursday next week – March 13, 2014 comes and the Tribunal goes into the trial stage as proposed, it would be doing so on the 88th day out of 180 days cast in iron by the 1999 Constitution.. Up till Thursday 6th March when the Tribunal gave one week to allow counsels prepare witnesses and sub-poenas, the Tribunal had used 81 days to arrive at the end of the pre-trials. Out of these 81 days the preliminaries and ’ pre-preliminaries’ the Tribunal sat in open court for a total of 14 days on the aggregate, representing 17 percent of the time, excluding any administrative duties in chambers..
When the trial begins next week Thursday, of course running side by side with appeals in Court of Appeal Enugu on about ten rulings arising from the pre-trial session, among three petitioners, each witness in the trial at the Tribunal has been allowed up to three days to be led through his/her evidence by his/her counsel. By rough estimate, there are close to 1000 witnesses to deal with, with APGA alone lining up half that number. Each witness will be examined, cross-examined and re-examined.Thousands of documents will of course be tendered marked and denotated as exhibits.
Is the Tribunal proceeding well, managing its time well and doing its bets best in the circumstance of leading to the justice of the matter? The answer lies on those who have the courage to judge the judges and in the womb of time.
For now, it is tril time , and the story of one of the most disputed gubernatorial elections in the history of elections in Nigeria is about to be told in evidence.