Abaribe on Shaky Ground

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The senator representing for Abia South senatorial district, Enyinnaya Abaribe, may be maintaining a straight face in the Senate, but back home, he is troubled that his victory in the February 29 general election is threatened, Davidson Iriekpen writes

On the floor of the Senate, he is one of the most vocal and eloquent, but back home in Abia State, Enyinnaya Abaribe, who represents Abia South senatorial district is troubled that his seat is being threatened. The senator who was declared winner of the senatorial election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is frantically in search of solution to fend off the legal salvo being thrown at him by his closest rival in the election, Mr. Chris Nkwonta of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) at the National and House of Assembly Election Tribunal sitting in Umuahia.

The commission had declared Abaribe winner of the election, saying that he scored 53,086 votes to defeat Nkwonta with 27,998.

And not leaving anything to chance, Nkwonta is doing everything legally possible to upturn the election at the tribunal. In the petition which has INEC, the senator and PDP as 1st to 3rd respondents respectively, the petitioner stated that the electoral umpire declared the senator elected in spite of the fact that the scores contained in the results declared did not represent a correct account of the actual votes polled by the candidates as shown by the polling units results for the election.

He added that there were discrepancies evident in the face of the result in the polling units and wards which showed widespread irregularities in favour of Abaribe and his party and manifest non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) and the manual for election officials, as well as the Regulations and Guidelines issued by INEC for the conduct of the elections.

The petitioner contended that the election and return of 2nd respondent was invalid by reason of substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), adding that his election and return were invalid by reason of corrupt practices. He also submitted that the 2nd respondent was not duly elected by majority of lawful votes cast at the election.

But Abaribe has faulted his opponent’s claim. And to sounter him, the petitioner frontloaded credible oral and documentary evidence.

Pursuant to the First Schedule of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended), pre-hearing commenced in the case where the respondents filed preliminary objection. The petitioners used the opportunity to tender all their certified documents from INEC to confirm prima facie that the election was rigged in favour of the 1st respondent and that the 1st petitioner was the rightful winner of the election. These documents were tendered and admitted in evidence without objection from any of the respondents who have been unable to present any document to dispute or challenge the petitioners’ evidence.

At the close of the pre-hearing, the petitioner opened his case and has called several witnesses to prove his case. The 1st petitioner himself testified on July 25, 2019 and in the course of the hearing, he re-adopted all the documents tendered and admitted on his behalf, and same were deemed read by the court.

In the course of his testimony, the 1st petitioner gave evidence to expose the various malpractices done by the PDP and Senator Abaribe to subvert the will of the Abia South people from electing him as their preferred representative in the Senate.

As the hearing in the petition progressed, Abaribe’s counsel apparently sensing the direction the petition is heading, filed a preliminary objection on May 16, 2019 against the petition.

The tribunal in its wisdom was of the view that the preliminary objection has no legal competence but merely brought to distract the tribunal from hearing the petition, and they accordingly struck out the objection

Dissatisfied with the decision of the tribunal, Senator Abaribe (1st respondent), appealed at the Owerri Division of the Court of Appeal, complaining that the tribunal was wrong to have refused to hear their objection. On July 25, 2019, the petitioner equally appealed the 1st respondent’s appeal but his dismissed. But the petitioners’ lawyer swiftly swung into action and applied to the Court of Appeal to reconsider their position and pointed out that they acted in error when they dismissed the petition. The court after a careful review of its judgment together with the petitioner’s lawyer’s motion, admitted that they were wrong to have dismissed the petition, thus, they varied their order and restored it back.

In addition, the appellate court ordered that the 1st respondent’s preliminary objection should be heard on the merit together with the main petition. With these new developments, the parties have now returned back to the tribunal to complete hearing in the petition and determination of the 1st respondent’s preliminary objection.

THISDAY gathered that because of his constant attacks on the executive arm of government, Abaribe is seriously jittery for external influence not to creep into the petition and trying and doing everything possible to ensure that he wins the case.

Also, investigation gathered that because evidence from the voters’ register does not justify victory by the PDP, the party has since commenced surreptitious moves to woo potential witnesses which is being turned down.

Investigation revealed that further even the camp of Senator Abaribe is also wooing Governor Okezie Ikpeazu whose election is equally being challenged for support to avert collateral damage due to allegations that elections were massively rigged in Obingwa Local Government Area.

It was further gathered that INEC having realised the circumstances it declared the senator winner of the election, the commission has called a meeting of the six electoral officers in Abia South for them to handover the voters’ register with the instruction for them to tidy it up as information on the register does not support his victory. Till date, the electoral umpire has refused to tender the voters’ register or any document to support the declaration of the senator winner of the election.

Nkwonta had equally averred in his petition that in the approved guidelines and regulations for the conduct of 2019 elections issued by INEC, it was stated that the accreditation process shall comprise of the Smart Card Reader (SCR) reading the Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and thereafter authenticating the voters’ fingerprints.

He stated further that where fingerprints are not authenticated by the SCR, the voter shall thumb print the register and provide his or her telephone in the appropriate box in the register.

He said despite INEC’s directive, accreditation and voting at the election were done in most polling units without the use of the card readers in total violation of the manual and guidelines.

Nkwonta argued that the return of the PDP candidate as senator for Abia South pursuant to the election of February 23 and March 9, 2019 was void due to the substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) and which non-compliance substantially affected the result of the election.

He concluded that the 1st respondent was not duly elected by majority of lawful votes cast and did not satisfy the mandatory constitutional threshold and spread across the local government areas of the state.

He also added that the election and return of the 2nd respondent as senator of Abia South senatorial district was invalid by reason of corrupt practices and should be nullified.

The petitioner said he won majority of the lawful votes cast during the election and supplementary election, and should be duly declared elected as senator.

For now many observers are sitting on the fence waiting anxiously to see the outcome of the case.