By Alex Enumah in Abuja
In a dramatic twist, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on Monday declined to call any witness in defence of the conduct of the February 23 presidential poll that returned President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term in office.
INEC had on February 28 announced Buhari as the winner of the poll having scored majority of the votes cast in the election.
However, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, and his party alleging widespread rigging, violence and substantial non-compliance with the electoral guidelines have dragged the electoral umpire, President Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) before the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, seeking the nullification of the February 23 poll on the grounds of alleged abnormalities that marred the poll.
Atiku and PDP had on July 19 closed their case after they called in 62 witnesses and tendered over 50,000 documentary and video evidence to substantiate their claims that the election was rigged in favour of President Buhari and the APC.
The tribunal had also on that same July 19 adjourned to July 29 for INEC to open its defence on the allegations made by Atiku and PDP against the conduct of the February 23 presidential election.
But when the matter was called on Monday, INEC through its lead counsel, Yunus Usman (SAN), stunned the five-member panel of justices, headed by Justice Mohammed Garba when it announced that it would not be calling on any witness to defend the February 23 poll that produced President Buhari as winner.
Inspite of the enormity of exhibits and 62 witnesses who testified for the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, INEC said that it would rather use the tribunal’s proceedings for its defence.
Although INEC lead lawyer, Usman, did not categorically inform the tribunal that the electoral body has no defence to the allegations of series of malpractices that allegedly characterized the elections, the counsel merely said that part of the evidence adduced by Atiku and PDP as the two leading petitioners will be used to make its case.
According to Usman, the electoral body is satisfied with the testimony of the petitioners’ witnesses under cross-examination to the extent that the election was validly conducted.
The lawyer said calling on witnesses would amount to helping the petitioners do their case.
“We cannot help them to do their case. All their witnesses confirmed our position about the conduct of the election,” Usman said.
Meanwhile, the tribunal had adjourned to Tuesday, July 30 for President Buhari to open his defence.
Following INEC’s decision not to call witnesses, Buhari’s lead lawyer, Wole Olaipekun (SAN), informed the tribunal that they are prepared to go on with their own case if given the go-ahead.
In another development, the tribunal has altered the schedule of proceedings in the hearing of the petition filed against the emergence of President Buhari as winner of the February 23 poll.
“In view of the time constraint, the court finds it necessary to modify the terms for the filing of the final addresses, respondents shall file within three days after the conclusion of evidence while petitioners will file within three days after receiving that of the respondents,” Justice Garba said.
He added that the respondents shall file their response if there is any within two days of receiving the address of the respondents.