Chuks Okocha, Alex Enumah in Abuja and Ibrahim Oyewale in Lokoja
Mixed reactions greeted yesterday’s Supreme Court judgment affirming the victory of Kogi State Governor, Mr. Yahaya Bello, in the last governorship election in the state.
While Bello and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), hailed the judgment, describing it as an affirmation of the landmark victory entrusted to the governor by the people of the state, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) expressed shock by the judgment, saying that it did not satisfy the quest by Nigerians to end electoral violence.
The main opposition party, however, said it would leave the final judgment in the hands of God.
The apex court upheld Bello’s election after dismissing two separate appeals challenging his return as governor for lacking in merit.
The appeals are that of the PDP and its governorship candidate, Mr. Musa Wada, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its candidate, Ms. Natasha Akpoti.
The apex court had last week dismissed that of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), following its withdrawal by the appellants.
In a unanimous judgment read by Justice Uwani Abba-Aji, the Supreme Court held that the cases of the appellants were devoid of merit as they failed to prove allegations made in their separate petitions.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had declared Bello winner of the November 16, 2019 governorship election, having scored the majority of votes cast in the election.
Bello polled a total of 406,222 votes to defeat Wada who came second with 189,704.
However, citing substantial non-compliance with the constitution and other extant laws as well as rigging and violence, four contestants had approached the Kogi State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal to nullify the victory of Bello.
But the tribunal, in separate judgments, delivered in May 2020, dismissed the petitions of the Action People’s Party (APP), DPP and SDP while that of the PDP was dismissed by a majority of two-to-one.
Similarly, the Court of Appeal in judgments delivered on July 4, unanimously dismissed the four petitions for lacking in merit, thereby forcing the DPP, SDP and PDP to approach the apex court to set aside the concurrent judgments that returned Bello as governor.
Delivering ruling in the PDP’s appeal, the apex court in the lead judgment prepared by Justice Inyang Okoro but read by Justice Uwani Abba-Aji, held that PDP and Wada failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt allegations made in their appeal against the respondents: INEC, Bello and the APC.
Justice Abba-Aji said having gone through the five issues raised for determination by the appellants, the apex court came to the conclusion that the appellate court was in order to have dismissed the appeal.
She held that the issues of non-compliance and corruption raised were not proved because the appellants failed to call witnesses to support their case.
The court held that failure of the appellants to call polling units agents was fatal to their case, adding that the appellants called only 24 out of the 729 polling agents in the seven local government areas (LGAs) whose election results were in dispute.
The court agreed with the respondents that the appellants dumped documents on the court having failed to call relevant witnesses to speak to the documents.
“Let me make it abundantly clear that the election jurisprudence in Nigeria has not changed. He who asserts has abiding duty to prove beyond reasonable doubt.
“In a situation like this petition, polling agents who witnessed the alleged rigging and other malpractices are the appropriate people as witnesses.
“The failure of the appellants to call the polling agents as witnesses in this matter is fatal to their case,” she said.
Another factor the court held was also fatal to the case of PDP and its candidate was their failure to join security agencies whom they accused of harassment, intimidation and threat as parties in the case.
The court faulted the evidence of the forensic expert on grounds that he failed to prove that he was an expert in the work he was engaged to do.
“Having found no merit in the case of the appellants, the same appeal is hereby dismissed at no cost to any of the parties,” the apex court held.
In their own appeal, SDP and its governorship candidate, in addition to claims of electoral irregularities that allegedly marred the election, sought for the disqualification of Bello and his party, on grounds of alleged forgery and falsehood by the Deputy Governor, Mr. Edward Onoja.
Onoja was accused of giving false information of a fundamental nature as well as forging documents attached to his form CF 001 submitted to INEC in aid of his qualification for the position of deputy governor.
Delivering judgment in the appeal, however, the apex court held that “there was no reason to interfere with the judgments of the Court of Appeal and tribunal.”
According to the court, the appellants did not provide particulars of forgery to support the claim of forgery against the deputy governor.
The apex court held that there was no evidence of rigging or evidence that the respondents connived among themselves to rig the election.
On the issue of exclusion, Justice Abba-Aji noted that the appellants blew hot and cold at the same time when they in one breath said that the name of the SDP was not on the result sheet while in another said it was written in longhand.
In dismissing the SDP appeal, the apex court held that the appellants failed to establish unlawful exclusion from the November 16 poll because it did not tender a single ballot paper used in the election.
Like the case of the PDP, the apex court also held that the SDP failed to call witnesses to prove allegations of non-compliance and electoral fraud, adding that their case was based on hearsay that cannot be accorded any probative value.
The apex court accordingly dismissed the appeal for lacking in merit.
Reacting to the judgment, the APC described it as a victory for democracy and the people of Kogi State.
It called on opposition parties to join hands with the APC government to develop the state.
The Chairman of the APC in the state, Mr. Abdulahi Bello, described the Supreme Court’s verdict as a well-deserved victory.
“Our doors are open and we are ready to involve everyone in moving the state forward to the next level of development and prosperity,” he told THISDAY.
The governor also described the judgment as an affirmation of the landmark victory entrusted to him by the people.
In a statement issued yesterday by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Onogwu Muhammed, the governor said the apex court’s decision was an affirmation of the identical positions on the matters taken by the tribunal and the Court of Appeal.
The governor praised the panel and appreciated the court for its uprightness and erudition.
He called on the other parties and their candidates to eschew bitterness and division and join hands with him to take Kogi State to the next level.
Similarly, the Director-General of Bello/Onoja Campaign Organisation, Senator Smart Adeyemi, described the ruling as well-deserved and a victory to democracy.
Adeyemi, who is representing Kogi West in the Senate, said it was a thing of joy that the highest court in the land had upheld the victory of Bello as the opposition could not prove allegations of violence in both the senatorial and governorship elections.
Adeyemi who spoke with journalists on phone after the court session urged the opposition to call the governor to congratulate him on the victory as well as join hands with him in the task of developing the state.
Also, the Speaker of the Kogi State House of Assembly, Hon. Matthew Kolawole, described the victory of Bello as historic.
He said the dismissal of all the cases were long envisaged as many of the points canvassed by the petitioners were based on hearsay.
But the PDP expressed shock over the judgment, saying that it did not inspire the quest by Nigerians to end electoral violence.
The National Publicity Secretary of PDP, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said in a statement yesterday that though the party has accepted the verdict of the Supreme Court, the judgment fell short of the expectation of people of Kogi State and Nigerians in general, who were expecting the court to remedy the injustices, manipulations, violence and killings that marred the election.
He said: “Indeed, the judgment has not inspired hope in our national quest to ensure that our elections are violent-free as well as deter unpatriotic individuals who resort to violence and killing to gain access to power, as heavily witnessed in the Kogi election.”
However, the PDP said as a law-abiding party, “We call on the people of Kogi State and Nigerians at large, to remain calm, yet undeterred in their quest for the entrenchment of credible electoral process in our country.
“Our party deeply mourns all those who were gruesomely murdered as well as commiserates with all victims of the violence that was unleashed by the APC in the November 2019 Kogi governorship election.”
Also, while accepting the judgment in good faith, the Kogi State PDP in a statement signed by its Publicity Secretary, Mr. Bode Ogunmola, said it would leave the final judgment to God.
Ogunmola appreciated the resilience of members and supporters of the party.
He paid a glowing tribute to Wada and his running mate, Samuel Bamidele Aro, for their doggedness in the contest.
The PDP also appreciated the legal team of the party and also paid tribute to all those who either died, got maimed or injured during the election.
“We thank God for the grace and the courage to go this far. We believe that He has the ultimate say,” the PDP added.