THE Biblical story of the movement of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land is one that demonstrates passion and focus on a given cause. Though under divine directive and guidance, getting to their destination was not in any way easy for the people. With twists and turns in the journey that took over 40 years, the Israelites had on occasions encountered frustrating experiences that almost made them seek a detour. But with a focused leadership that clearly understood the essence of the exercise, they soldiered on and eventually made it. The Chinese have a proverb which states that a journey of 1000 kilometres starts with a step.
It is perhaps on account of these illustrations that developments in Abia State Election Petitions Tribunal can easily be appreciated. Since the declaration of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate as the winner of the April 2015 governorship election in Abia, the state has not known genuine peace. This is hardly surprising. In the build-up to the election, Dr. Alex Otti, the flag bearer of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), was apparently the people’s choice. He was, said to be coasting home to victory when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) pronounced Ikpeazu, the winner.
Otti has ever since, been at the Abia State Governorship Elections Petitions Tribunal, seeking justice. He is challenging the result of the election in five Local Government Areas of the state, including Umuahia North, Isialangwa North, Ugwunagbo, Osisioma and Obingwa where he alleged massive electoral fraud by PDP. He is urging the tribunal to nullify Ikpeazu’s declaration and declare him the rightful winner of the poll.
Going about the exercise, has not been an easy one for Dr. Otti. He has on occasions, encountered frustrating experiences that would have deterred the lily-livered. Events however began to take positive shape for the APGA candidate and entire Abia electorate, when the election of the PDP Senator representing Abia South Senatorial District, Enyinnaya Abaribe was nullified on Monday, October 12 by the National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Umuahia, the state capital.
APGA candidate for the election, Chris Nkwonta, had petitioned the Tribunal seeking nullification of Abaribe’s election on the basis of electoral irregularities.
In its judgment, the Tribunal ruled that the election of Abaribe was inconclusive due to irregularities in Ugwunagbo and Obingwa Local GovernmentA reas.
Nullification of the results from the two councils, speaks volumes in Otti’s allegation of electoral fraud against PDP. Both councils are among the five local governments the APGA candidate has accused PDP of engaging in massive electoral fraud. Ikpeazu and Abaribe, incidentally, hail from Obingwa Local Government Area. It was also in Obingwa Local government Area that the Independent National Electoral Commission office, was set ablaze by arsonists, few days after unknown gunmen had invaded Otti’s Abuja guest house, killing a policeman on duty.
What particularly raised curiosity on the Obingwa INEC office inferno was that it occurred few days after members of the Tribunal had ordered the Commission to produce before the court election materials used for the governorship poll in the Local Government under its custody to enable the APGA candidate and his team carry out forensic audit on the items. Thus, with established irregularities in Ugwunagbo and Obingwa Local Government Areas which constituted the bases for the nullification of Abaribe’s senatorial election, it has become clearer that Otti, is after all, not raising mere alarm.
There is, of course, no reason for the APGA candidate to cry wolf where none exists. For a man who commanded near cult-personality among the people during the campaigns on account of his outstanding pedigree, it was obvious that the declared results in the affected councils might be at variance with the real figures .
It is thus, heart-warming that Otti and his party have put up a good fight in the pursuit of their petition. They have for instance, tendered Unit by Unit Results (EC8A) and Ward Collation Results, (EC8Bs), despite objections from PDP in arguing their case. The APGA candidate has also called witnesses who were Polling Unit Agents and Ward Collation Agents to testify on his behalf.
In addition, the Electoral Manual has been tendered in evidence. This stipulates that Card Readers must be used for election. Otti has also tendered Card Reader Report. The Card Reader Data was tendered by INEC staff who swore to a witness statement. In her witness statement which was deemed as read in the open court, the INEC Staff from the INEC Headquarters stated that the data as produced before the Tribunal is correct and final
A cursory look at the Card Reader shows that Osisioma had less than 19,000 voters. Curiously, the result declared by INEC for PDP, gave it 42,000 votes in Osisioma. In Obingwa, the Card Reader showed a total vote in the region of 50,000. Incidentally, PDP got 82,000 votes from the council. Not even the staunchest supporters of Ikpeazu had been enthused at the trend of events. This, perhaps, explains why the governor and his party have been putting up different delay tactics in obvious attempt to buy time and wear out Otti.
One of their antics suffered huge set back on September 17, 2015, when the Court of Appeal sitting in Owerri, Imo State capital, dismissed two separate but related appeals they filed against Otti and APGA. The appeals originated from a decision of the State Election Petition Tribunal, to take all the preliminary objections filed by the litigants along with the judgment of the substantive petition.
But dissatisfied with the Tribunal’s decision, PDP went to the Court of Appeal, urging it to set aside the decision of the Tribunal and compel it to deliver ruling on the pending motions.
The Court of Appeal in a unanimous decision struck out three out of the four issues raised by PDP for lack of merit before dismissing the two appeals. The excitement occasioned by that judgment, remains a matter of discourse among the Abia electorate. Added to the Tribunal’s courageous nullification of Abaribe’s election on account of irregularities in Obingwa and Ugwunagbo councils, there are indications that the efforts of the APGA candidate in retrieving his mandate through the judiciary, may not be in vain, after all. To have declared the Abaribes’ election null and void after finding that one person signed more than one result sheet means that Dr. Alex Otti’s petition which established where one person signed multiple results in four local government councils for PDP in the same election may qualify for a return other than a rerun.
.Okpara, a Public Affairs commentator, writes from Umuahia