•Optimistic of victory at appellate court
•ANDP fielded underage running mate, INEC insists
Chuks Okocha in Abuja and Onungwe Obe in Yenagoa
Bayelsa State Governor, Senator Douye Diri, yesterday expressed optimism about upturning on appeal, the judgment of the State Election Petitions Tribunal, which earlier in the day nullified the election that brought him to office.
Diri, who was reacting to the tribunal’s nullification of the November 16, 2019 governorship election, said he had already instructed his lawyers to appeal the judgment at the Court of Appeal.
In a split decision, the tribunal ruled that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) erred when it disqualified the candidate of the Advanced National Democratic Party (ANDP) from contesting the election for allegedly having an underage candidate as his running mate.
But INEC yesterday insisted that the governorship candidate of the ANDP, Mr. Lucky King-George, was not properly nominated to run for the election.
King-George had asked the tribunal to cancel the election because he was excluded from it.
INEC had explained that it excluded ANDP from the elections because Mr. David Esinkuma, the party’s initial deputy governorship candidate, was 34 years old and did not meet the age requirement of 35 years as stipulated by the constitution to contest the election.
But following INEC’s observation on the ineligibility of Esinkuma on account of his age, ANDP had said he was duly substituted within the allowed time frame.
The party, therefore, prayed the tribunal to order for a fresh governorship poll in the state.
On Saturday, a three-man panel of the tribunal had dismissed three petitions challenging Diri’s election on the grounds of incompetence and lacking merit.
The tribunal in a unanimous decision dismissed the first petition that was filed by the Alliance for Democracy and its candidate, Mr. Owei Woniwei, for want of merit.
The tribunal held that the petitioners failed to lead credible evidence to prove that the Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, tendered forged certificate to the INEC.
In the lead judgment read by Justice S.M. Owoduni, the tribunal held that the petitioners failed to also establish the allegation that Ewhrudjakpo falsified his age.
Describing the case as “unnecessary waste of time of the court,” the tribunal upheld the preliminary objections that Diri, Ewhrudjakpo, and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) filed to challenge the competence of the petition.
The AD and its candidate had in their petition, alleged that Ewhrudjakpo altered the name on the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) certificate he presented to INEC for the governorship election.
But while delivering yesterday’s judgment on ANDP’s petition, the panel held that the election was unlawful due to the exclusion of ANDP and its candidate.
Justice Yunusa Musa who read the lead judgment ordered INEC to conduct a fresh election in Bayelsa within 90 days.
Diri, candidate of the PDP, was sworn in as governor after the Supreme Court sacked the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Mr. David Lyon, who was declared winner of the election, on the eve of his inauguration.
The apex court based its ruling on the premise that Senator Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo, who was Lyon’s running mate, presented forged certificates to INEC.
But in a swift reaction to the tribunal judgment, Diri said he had instructed his lawyers to appeal it.
Diri, who spoke shortly after the tribunal ruled that INEC wrongly excluded the ANDP governorship candidate from the November 16, 2019 election said he was confident that he would triumph in the end.
The governor, in a statement by his acting Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Daniel Alabrah, said: “We trust in the judiciary and we are appealing the judgment. With God on our side, we will get justice.
“This is a court of first instance and I have instructed our lawyers to file an appeal. We have a right to appeal even up to the Supreme Court.”
The governor urged PDP members and his supporters not to panic and to continue to remain calm and law-abiding.
Also, the Bayelsa State Chairman of the PDP, Chief Solomon Agwana, told THISDAY that the party was waiting for a copy of the dissenting judgment before reacting.
The situation in Yenagoa, the state capital, remained calm since the judgment was delivered.
Diri’s predecessor, Hon. Seriake Dickson, said in a statement by his media aide, Mr. Fidelis Soriwei, that Diri remains governor until a final decision on the issue is reached at the Supreme Court.
He described the ruling as “a temporary setback, which does not in law affect the status quo until appeal processes are exhausted.”
The former governor advised the people of Bayelsa not to be perturbed by the tribunal’s verdict, stressing that the PDP and the government would appeal the judgment.
Dickson urged them to go about their lawful duties without any disturbance.
He said: “I urge Bayelsans to remain calm. They shouldn’t misinterpret what took place at the tribunal today (Monday).
“The judgment is a temporary setback which does not have any effect on the status quo until all processes of appeal are exhausted.
“There is no vacancy in the Bayelsa Government House. Diri remains governor until the Supreme Court decides. Of course, what this means is that the PDP will appeal this decision.”
Candidate of ANDP Not Properly Nominated, INEC Insists
INEC, however, restated yesterday why it knocked out the ANDP and King-George from the ballot.
It said the party’s governorship candidate was not properly nominated for the election as his running mate was not eligible to run on an account of his age.
INEC’s National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Information, Mr. Festus Okoye, told THISDAY that “from our records, the party conducted party primaries and at the end of the exercise, it submitted the name of one Peter Esinkuma David as its deputy governorship candidate.
“From the affidavit evidencing age and the affidavit sworn to by the candidate, the age of the candidate at the time of the submission of their nomination was 34 years contrary to Section 177(b) of the Constitution that makes it mandatory that only those who are 35 and above can contest the election.
“In the candidates’ statutory declaration of age and affidavit attached to his form, the party stated that the candidate was born on the 10th day of February 1985.
“On the 13th day of September 2019, the commission wrote to the party drawing their attention to the constitutional age requirement of 35 years for governorship/deputy governorship candidates as stipulated in Section 177(b) of the Constitution.
“The commission also informed them of the invalidity of their nomination for the 16th November 2019 governorship election in Bayelsa State.”
Okoye, however, said ANDP on September 21, 2019 in a reply to the earlier letter from the commission, acknowledged the invalidity of the earlier nomination and forwarded the name of one Miss Inowei Janeth as its new deputy governorship candidate.
“On the 27th of September 2019, the commission informed the party that the deadline for the submission of nominations as provided for in the timetable and Schedule of Activities released by the commission on 16th May 2019 was 9th September 2019.
“The commission also informed the party that since they did not submit a valid nomination, they couldn’t validly substitute any candidate.
“Consequently, the name and logo of the party did not appear and was not reflected in the ballot paper,” he stated.
According to him, the commission is a law-abiding institution and will continue to obey and respect court orders.
“By Section143 (1) of the Electoral Act, if the tribunal determines that a candidate returned as elected was not validly elected, then if notice of appeal is led within 21 days from the date of the decision, the candidate returned as elected, all notwithstanding the contrary decision, remains pending the determination of the appeal,” he added.
He also explained that the commission is not obligated to give reaction to the judgment of the tribunal till the parties have exhausted their right to appeal as provided in the law, adding that INEC will study the judgment before taking a decision to appeal or not.
He added that there are germane constitutional issues raised by the judgment and the commission will take a position when it receives the certified true copy of the judgment.
He said: “This is because the issues raised in the petition revolve around the invalidity of the nomination of the deputy governorship candidate.
“The issue of nomination and substitution of candidates raised in the petition falls within the ambit of pre-election issues covered by the 4th alteration to the Constitution that must be led within 14 days of the occurrence of the event.
“From the records in the commission, Advanced Nigeria Democratic Party (ANDP) was one of the political parties that signified its intention to contest the Bayelsa governorship election that took place on the 16th day of November 2019.”