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Election Petition Tribunals: The Victories, The Contentions



T he various election petition tribunals sitting in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capi tal, have so far delivered judgments in most of the cases brought before them, with PDP having carried the day once again in all. However, issues persist from the rulings especially that of the suit between senators Godswill Akpabio and Chris Ekpenyong. Our political editor, Kenneth Jude, takes a look at the contending issues.
While the Akwa Ibom State chapter of the PDP is in upbeat mood following the party’s good showing at the tribunals wherein their candidates emerged victorious, there is however disquiet in the political sphere of the State as regards the judgement that handed Senator Ekpenyong victory over his kinsman, Senator Akpabio in the Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District contest.
Ekpenyong may have triumphed at the tribunal following a majority judgment by the Chairman of the tribunal, Justices W. O. Akanbi and Ebetu. But in a split judgment, a member of the three-man panel, Justice Tahir Sheriff Hafizu, had declared Akpabio winner much to the chagrin of many who smelt foul play.
Political pundits remain divided over what transpired at the tribunal between Akpabio and Ekpenyong with some opining the conflicting judgments were influenced .
Prior to the D-day, it was already rumoured that a split judgement was on the way. A lawyer and human rights activist based in Lagos, Barr Leo Ekpenyong, had raised alarm in a widely publicised article to the effect that two members of the National Assembly elections petition tribunal in Akwa Ibom State had been compromised hence predicted that there would be a split in the judgment in the Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District matter.
Not a few persons took the write-up with a pinch of salt given the closeness of Leo Ekpenyong to Senator Akpabio. Both men, though, were not best of friends in the recent past following Barr Ekpenyong’s series of petitions to EFCC against Akpabio where he wanted the then governor probed for alleged mismanagement of public funds. But they are now in the good books of each other with many insinuating about the newfound romance.
It was on the strength of this that observers did not take the allegation by Barr Ekpenyong seriously given that he, along with members of the APC, may have sensed that judgement may not go Akpabio’s way due to what keen observers was the inability of the man in the eye of the storm, Justice Hafizu to get the Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Akanbi and his counterpart, Justice Ebetu, to do his bidding.
But with information filtering into public space that Chairman of the panel, Justice Akanbi and Ebetu were not willing to trade their integrity for filthy lucre, the APC is said to have started ringing the alarm bells to the effect that their candidate in the February 23 Senatorial election, Senator Godswill Akpabio, will be shortchanged by the tribunal judges.
This alarm, analysts say, was designed to distract the judges and portray them as biased already; hence won’t deliver a judgment devoid of vested interest. But those who know, maintained that the APC had already seen the writing on the wall hence resorted to making what some political commentators described as “wild claims and unverifiable accusations”.
Unconfirmed report also has it that following the inability of Justice Hafizu to sway judgment Akpabio’s way, he purpotedly disappeared into thin for fear of what may befall him. Those who say Justice Hafizu may have gone underground based their position on the grounds that he absented himself from the tribunal in subsequent days, prominent among which was his absence when the duo of Justices Akanbi and Ebetu delivered judgment in the case between Rt. Hon. Nsikak Ekong of the PDP and his opponent, Hon. Emmanuel Akpan of the APC, wherein the PDP man was declared the duly elected lawmaker representing Ikot Ekpene Federal Constituency.
The absence of Justice Hafizu during the said judgment raised eyebrows and suspicion with insinuations flying around that he went into hiding having failed to procure judgment in favour of Senator Godswill Akpabio. A source who pleaded not to be named told Crystal Express that the reason Hafizu absented himself from the panel was because he was afraid that supporters of the former Senate Minority Leader may turn their rage on him given that he failed to deliver on his promise of securing victory for Akpabio.
With accusations and counter accusations flying all over the place, the questions on the lips of political watchers is: Why was Tahir Sheriff Hafizu absent in court a day after he delivered a minority judgment that was inconsequential in the case between Akpabio and Chris Ekpenyong? Was his action legal when viewed within the confines of the law?
Why Akpabio wanted Ekpenyong’s election nullified.
Having lost the February 23, 2019 Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial election to a former deputy governor in the state, Engr. Ekpenyong, Senator Akpabio approached the tribunal with the following prayers:
a) That Senator Christopher Ekpenyong was not duly elected by majority of lawful votes cast at the February 23, 2019 elections for the Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District.
b) That the election that produced Senator Ekpeyong as winner was invalid owing to non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act in the conduct of the elections.
But the court dismissed the petition of Senator Akpabio wherein he had claimed a declaration, inter alia:
1) That the return of the 1st Respondent was not duly returned or elected by majority of lawful votes cast at the February elections at the February 23, 2019 elections;
2) That the result of the election held on the February 23, 2019 elections be nullified same being held, not in compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act and a re-run ordered thereto;
3) An order of court declaring the 1st Petitioner, Senator Godswill Akpabio as the winner of the elections having polled the highest number of valid, lawful votes at the elections.
The court dismissed all the preliminary objections filed by all the Respondents in the petition and resolved to settle the case on the merits, to wit:
a) Did the Petitioner prove by admissible evidence that the election was invalid?
b) Did the 1st Petitioner establish that he, Senator Godswill Akpabio won the elections by polling the highest number of votes cast at the elections against Senator Christopher Ekpenyong who was declared winner by the INEC?
The court ruling on the burden of proof held that burden of proof for proving substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act to ground a nullification of the election is on the petitioner and relying on the case of ANDREW v. INEC. The court thereupon held that the Petitioner’s evidence was too weak in all ramifications to prove non-compliance, not to mention substantial non-compliance, which is the only ground for nullification of the elections.
The court further stated that the petition failed to bring any witness from the polling units and thus could not prove substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act.
The court in the end, by a majority Judgment of two justices, dismissed the petition and upheld as valid the declaration of Senator Christopher Ekpenyong as the winner of the February 23, 2019 elections.
The question in the public space is: will Akpabio appeal his loss at the tribunal in the light of what many consider as his juicy portfolio as Minister of Niger Delta Affairs? The answer is in the belly of time.
In other judgments, the election of Senator Bassey Albert, Akwa Ibom North East (Uyo) Senatorial District, Hon. Unyime Idem, Ukanafun/Oruk Anam Federal Constituency and Nse Ekpenyong of Oron/Udung Uko/Urueffong Oruko/Mbo/Okobo federal constituency were upheld by the tribunal on the grounds that the petitioners failed to prove their allegations of non-compliance and criminality.
In the same vein, Hon. Michael Enyong of the PDP was confirmed winner by the tribunal against his challenger, Ekerete Ekpenyong of the APC to retain his seat as member for Uyo, Uruan, Nsit Atai and Ibesikpo Asutan Federal Constituency. Also victorious was Rt. Hon. Nsikak Ekong who floored his challenger, Hon. Emmanuel Akpan of the APC to retain his seat as the validly elected lawmaker representing Ikot Ekpene/Obot Akara/Essien Udim Federal Constituency.
In celebrating his victory, Ekong called on his challenger, Emmanuel Akpan, to join hands with him to better the lots of the people of Ikot Ekpene Federal Constituency.
“Without any doubt, this victory will spur me on to work more assiduously and tirelessly for the people of Ikot Ekpene/Obot Akara/Essien Udim Federal Constituency who massively voted for me, even as I call on my challenger and brother, Hon. Emmanuel Akpan, to join hands with me to better the lots of our people,” he said.
In view of the victory of all PDP candidates at the tribunal, keen watchers of politics have questioned the ability of the APC to upstage PDP in the state, with many arguing that if their recent showing is anything to go by, they have a long way to go in their bid to unhorse PDP from power in the state.
The thinking in some circles is that the inability of the APC to make any headway both at the general elections and the tribunal is indicative of the manifest weakness of the party in the state, with others pointing out that members of the party must put their acts together if they must make any meaningful statement ahead of the 2023 polls.
But it appears it is not yet hurrah for the PDP as indications have emerged that the APC is back to the drawing board and are preparing to come back strong and better fortified to give them a run for their money.
Interesting times are ahead.

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