The size of election petitions is worrying and unhealthy to the state, writes Austin Uganwa

Imo State is a patent study in vast and sustained election petitions. And this is incontrovertible. The six times general elections have been conducted in the country since the advent of the Fourth Republic political dispensation in 1999 Imo has evidently been festooned as a state with a high volume of election petitions.

This was further underpinned by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa while inaugurating elections petitions tribunals May 14th 2019 in Abuja. She stated that Imo State had the highest number of election petitions filed in the aftermath of the 2019 general elections. In specific terms, Bulkachuwa submitted that out of a total number of 786 petitions filed by the applicants in the 36 states including the Federal Capital Territory, 76 of them emanated from Imo State alone. On average, Imo petitions were three times over and above any other state.

She revealed that the heightened number of election petitions that stemmed from Imo informed the Appeal Court’s decision to treat the state differently. According to her, instead of deploying two to three panels as it was the case of most other states, six panels were raised for Imo so as to ensure that the cases were adequately handled. Imo situation is thus considered reprehensible especially when juxtaposed with other states such as Jigawa State that did not have any election petition.

Imo scored another infamous first at the Appeal Court. It was the only state with three petitions seeking the setting aside of the tribunal judgment that affirmed the election of the sitting Governor Emeka Ihedioha. The appeal court which is currently churning out judgments in quick successions on election petitions brought before it so as to meet the 60-day limit provided by the 2010 Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution as amended turned down their requests and endorsed the tribunal’s decision.

Obviously, the cyclical vast volume of elections petitions in Imo has intrinsically become an organic structure of the state. Instance abounds in the 2007 governorship election in the state when the elected governor at the time, Ikedi Ohakim had a whopping 19 petitions against him by his opponents. Key among his petitioners was: Senator Ifeanyi Araruma who was Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate and Chief Martin Agbaso, All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). The final judgment on the petitions by the Supreme Court dragged into the tail end of Ohakim’s four-year tenure.

Imo was typically at it again after this year’s general elections. No fewer than 11 petitions were at inception of the tribunal sitting in Owerri, brought against Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, who was declared winner of the governorship election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Indeed, the highest number of petitions against any elected governor in the country.

Curiously, all the three major opponents of Ihedioha in the March 9, 2019 governorship election raised petitions against him, alleging electoral malpractices and failure to secure one-quarter votes in two-thirds local councils in the state. They are: Uche Nwosu, Action Alliance, Senator Ifeanyi Arararume, All Progressives Grand Alliance and Senator Hope Uzodinma, All Progressives Congress. While Ararume is seeking that the election be cancelled and a fresh one conducted, Nwosu wants both rerun and to be declared winner. Uzodinma who was placed a distant fourth after the election also bizarrely wishes the court to adjudge him winner.

This piece was not designed to disparage genuinely aggrieved candidates who approach the court to seek redress over election issues as the judiciary still remains the bastion of those who are wronged by ensuring that justice is dispensed. This narrative is rather geared towards discouraging frivolous election petitions that result in wasting the precious resources of the tribunal and courts and also restrain the pace of development of the affected state. This is unfortunately where Imo has found itself in a wrong ring of history. Accordingly, the position of the law on the petitions brought against Ihedioha as established by the tribunal and the appeal court underscore this submission.

In their separate rulings both the tribunal and appeal court submitted that the petitions of Nwosu, Ararume and Uzodinma were based on hearsay and therefore lacked merit given their failure to back their claims with evidence. “Hearsay evidence is not admissible in court,” the appeal court emphasized. This explains the frivolous nature of the petitions and the reason why the state has become a laughing stock in the sphere of other states. This finds further authentication in the fact that Nigeria law system and court processes are anchored fundamentally on nothing but hard evidence.

Against the above background, it is only plausible to observe that having declared the result of an election, it is presumed that the result so declared by INEC is correct, valid and authentic and has satisfied the conditions stipulated in the constitution and electoral act. The onus therefore lies on the petitioner to prove otherwise based on evidence; else the appellant is merely pursuing shadow.

It is indeed unassailable that vast, constant and sustained election petitions are inherently unfavorable and unhealthy to any state. Former governor Ohakim who once wore the shoe and knew where it pinched has on a number of occasions driven this point home, advising Ihedioha opponents to sheath their sword for the interest of the state. “Continuing with the court cases would be inimical to the progress of the state. It would scare away development partners and other investors because investors do not invest where there are litigations. The numerous litigations I faced were the reason why the foreign partners for the refinery project located at Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area pulled out”, he revealed.

Dr. Uganwa wrote from Owerri