Hearing of the main petition filed by the All Progressives Congress and its governorship candidate in the April 11, 2015 election in Rivers State, Dakuku Peterside, challenging the election of Governor Nyesom Wike, of the Peoples Democratic Party, began on Thursday.
The APC and Peterside called their first set of witnesses to testify before the Rivers State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal in Abuja on Thursday after about four months of battling with series of interlocutory applications filed by the respondents seeking the dismissal of their petition at the preliminary stage.
The tribunal has a statutory limit of 180 days within which it must hear and determine the petition.
The hearing however began on Thursday under a new chairman of the three-man tribunal, Justice Mohammed Ambrosa, who was by a letter dated September 1, 2015, from the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, asked to replace the former chairman, Justce Mu’azu Pindiga.
Justice Ambrosa, who presided over the Thursday’s proceedings, earlier dismissed the protest by Wike’s lawyer, Mr. Emmanuel Ukala (SAN) and the counsel for the PDP, Chief Chris Uche (SAN), against the change of the chairman of the tribunal.
Counsel for the Independent National Electoral Commission, Mr. Onyechi Ikpeazu (SAN), did not protest against the change of the chairman of the tribunal. INEC, Wike and the PDP are the respondents to the petition.
Ukala, who had told the tribunal that he was appearing in protest, gave the tribunal the options of either adjourning the case to enable his team to consult on what step to take on the development or start the entire proceedings afresh.
“We are worried because yesterday a number of newspapers published a story that there were subterranean moves by some powerful forces to implement changes in the election tribunal and we got here this morning to find out that the story was not a mere hallucination but a reality that is starring at us in the face,” Ukala had said.
Uche, who also toed the same line of argument, said the sudden change of the chairman of the tribunal could threaten “a fundamental pillar of confidence in justice administration” which he said was “rooted in transparency”.
In his response, lead counsel for the petitioners, Chief Akin Olujinmi (SAN), said his team also became aware of the change of the tribunal chairman only when the panel members came into the courtroom.
He however said he had no reason to protest against the new head of the tribunal as the petitioners had lost so much time.
Olujinmi said, “We also came in this morning to find out that a new chairman has been posted to head this tribunal.
“We on our side cannot question your obedience of the order posting you to head this tribunal.”
In its ruling delivered by Justice Ambrosa, the tribunal dismissed the protests, saying it could not afford to waste more time.
He noted that by the 180 days limitation, the tribunal must round off its sitting on October 30.
This development, he said, would leave his panel with only about five days to prepare its judgment after all parties must have concluded their cases.
“The petitioners are therefore called upon to open their case,” the tribunal ordered.
Among the first set of the petitioners’ witnesses called by Oljinmi on Thursday were APC collation agents in some wards in the state, who testified that elections did not hold in their various domains because of the violence allegedly orchestrated by armed thugs loyal to the PDP.
The witnesses included Jack Olugu, John Koottee and Alabrabra Jappalli, who all testified that elections did not hold in their respective domains.
The hearing continues Friday.