After months of legal arguments and media war, the Abia State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal last Tuesday upheld the election of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu as governor of Abia. However, the main opposition APGA has expressed its readiness to go on appeal. PETER OKORE in Umuahia reports

ikpeazu-standAbia state governorship election Petition Tribunal, last Tuesday affirmed Governor Okezie Ikpeazu as duly elected in the governorship election held on April, 2015. The 3-man panel of Judges unanimously dismissed the petition filed against Ikpeazu by Dr.  Alex Otti, the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).

Otti had in his petition to the Tribunal challenged the declaration of Ikpeazu as winner of the election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the subsequent supplementary poll of April 25, 2015.

But in its two hours and 45 minutes judgment, the tribunal upheld the election of Ikpeazu, who had contested the governorship election on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Usman Bwala, who read the ruling noted that the petitioner (Otti) and his party (APGA) failed to prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubt, adding that the 20 witnesses who testified for them, presented bundles of contradictions.

He faulted the apparent over-reliance of the petitioner on card-reader to prove his allegation of over voting, saying that the card-reader was a creation of a subsidiary legislation and not a substantive law.

According to Bwala, the petitioner only considered the card-reader without making any reference to the voters’ register; hence the reliefs he sought were not grantable.

He said “using of the card-reader is not the only means of accreditation (of voters). There was no way the card-reader would replace the voters’ register, which is the statutory document that contains the names of people eligible to vote in the election”.

According to the consolidated petition, Otti had sought five reliefs, including the cancellation of the election results and for the tribunal to declare him as the rightful winner of the governorship poll. However the tribunal held that the petitioner contradicted himself by asking to be declared winner in an election he wanted to be cancelled.

Furthermore, the petitioner had asked for cancellation of election results from Obingwa, Osisioma and Isiala Ngwa-North local governments; citing irregularities. But the tribunal said that the allegations were not proved beyond reasonable doubt as the eye- witnesses brought by the petitioners were a bundle of contradictions.

On the issue of preliminary allegations of violence, intimidation, bribery, among other malpractices, the tribunal chairman held that the petitioner could not convincingly prove the allegations.

For instance, the tribunal noted that the petitioners’ witness who alleged that he was offered N1 million bribe did not report the incident to the police, EFCC or any other law enforcement agency.

While the petitioners laboured to prove their allegations, they also made efforts to shift the burden of proof to the respondents to dispose, which the tribunal said was contrary to the provision of the Evidence Act that “he who asserts must prove”.

As expected, the tribunal’s ruling has elicited mixed reactions from the parties concerned.

In his own reaction, Governor Ikpeazu said that the tribunal only affirmed our (Abians) victory, adding that “there is no victor, no vanquished. He stated that his triumph at the tribunal “is victory for service to our people; victory for development”.

He called on the opposition to join hands with him to move Abia forward as the state could not thrive under an atmosphere of opposing forces, adding that APGA members should be patriotic to Abia.

Abia state chairman of PDP, Sen. Emma Nwaka, in his remarks said that the verdict was not surprising because the people of Abia overwhelmingly voted for PDP as the ruling party “worked” for its victory.

Incidentally, the dismissal of Otti’s petition hit APGA supporter like a thunderbolt so much so that they were ready to embark on violent protests. But the presence of the national chairman of the party, Chief Victor Ike Oye saved the day as he calmed the nerves of hundreds of his party supporters who had gathered at the party secretariat, along the Ikot Ekpene road which is a strategic location from the court premises in Umuahia, expecting favourable judgment from the Tribuna, but were surprised by the ruling.

Speaking from the balcony of the one storey building, the APGA Chairman told his party people to remain calm and not take the law into their hands. He said that the party’s leadership would take the fight to a higher level which is appeal court.

He told the downcast party faithful that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari “does not tolerate this type of thing”, adding that they would petition Mr. President over what he described as the “travesty of justice”.

To prevent outbreak of violence, given the threats made by the opposition after the unfavourable verdicts from the National and State Assembly Election Petitions Tribunals the noose of security was tightened around the state capital while the judgment was being read.

Both the police and the army and Department of State Security (DSS) personnel were mobilized in full force with complements of arms and armoured personnel carriers stationed at strategic positions. There was heavy security presence along Ikot Ekpene road where both the state high court, venue of the tribunal and APGA secretariat are situated.

While Ikot Ekpene road was sealed off and traffic diverted, all the adjoining streets witnessed heavy presence of security personnel.

Meanwhile the South East Progressives Assembly (SEPA) has urged the APGA and Dr. Otti to shun the idea of appealing against the ruling of Justice Bwala-led Abia State Governorship Tribunal which dismissed his petition for failure to substantiate his allegations against the election of Governor Ikpeazu.

In a statement titled “Why Otti should not appeal against Abia Tribunal Judgment” signed by the president of SEPA, Ebere Uzoukwa and made available to newsmen, the group urged Otti “to dramatize his campaign mantra which says ‘Abia First’ at this very crucial moment by joining hands with his brother to rediscover the state in terms development”.

The statement reads: “The South East Progressives Assembly (SEPA) wishes to rejoice with the good people of Abia State and their Governor, Okezie Victor Ikpeazu Ph.D on their well deserved victory at the Election Petition Tribunal which upheld the election of the governor on Wednesday November 3, 2015.

The judicial ratification and endorsement of Dr. Ikpeazu’s election as Governor of Abia State under the platform of the PDP has become yet another clear testimony that the election of the Obingwa-born scholar is mostly divine and apt at this very crucial moment in the history of our nation.

Having showcased uncommon commitment and utmost desire to propel speedy socio-economic development of Abia state within a very short period of time by carefully marshaling out people-oriented policies and programmes, SEPA as a social organization and a political watch-dog in the south east remains convinced that Dr. Ikpeazu has substantially the needed qualities and capacity to rediscover Abia in terms of development.

We therefore enjoin the governorship candidate of the APGA, Dr. Otti, to dramatize his campaign mantra which says ‘Abia First’ by not appealing against the judgment. SEPA at this critical moment expects the APGA governorship candidate to think ‘Abia first’ by joining hands with his brother Dr. Ikpeazu and Abia people to move the state to higher heights. Prolonging the legal battle such as appealing against the ruling of the Abia Governorship Election Petition Tribunal , which has the potency of further distracting the governor and his team, will neither portray Dr. Otti as a true son of Abia nor someone that truly thinks ‘Abia first’.

In the spirit of no victor no vanquish, SEPA also admonishes the governor to extend hands of fellowship to his closest rival Dr. Otti and other members of the opposition to prove his magnanimity in victory”.