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Surprise, outrage as Tribunal nullifies Diri’s apex court victory

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Diri

• Don’t panic, we will get justice, Diri tells supporters
In what came as a bolt from the blues, the Bayelsa State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, yesterday in Abuja, nullified the election of Governor Douye Diri and ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct a fresh election within 90 days.

The surprising ruling, which came barely 36 hours after the same tribunal struck out the petition filed by Mr. Owei Wonimwei of the Alliance for Democracy for want of substance.

The tribunal, which also affirmed the election of Diri as governor of Bayelsa State, in its unanimous judgment delivered by Justice Owodunni, dismissed Wonimwei’s as incompetent.

But, the tribunal ruling yesterday, which nullified the Bayelsa State governorship election caused panic among Nigerians, came few days after the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Hon. Timipre Sylva vowed that the All Progressives Congress (APC) would reclaim its mandates stolen through the backdoor by Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Bayelsa and Edo States.

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The Advanced Nigeria Democratic Party (ANDP) had in its petition challenged Governor Diri’s victory in the November 19 governorship election, claiming that it (ANDP) was unlawfully excluded from the election.

In a split judgement of two to one justices, the three-man panel ruled that INEC lacked the power to disqualify any candidate from participating in any election.

INEC in its response contended that ANDP’s Deputy Governorship candidate was aged 34 years as at the time of nomination and therefore did not satisfy the constitutional stipulation to contest the election.

But, ANDP countered by telling Justice Yunusa Musa, who delivered the lead judgment that it duly substituted its initial Deputy Governorship Candidate, David Esinkuma, within the constitutionally stipulated time frame, following INEC’s notification of the breach in age qualification.

Delivering his ruling, Justice Musa held that INEC has no power to disqualify any candidate and consequently granted the prayers of the petitioners, ANDP.

Justice Musa maintained that only a court had the power to disqualify any candidate for any election and that the petition was filed within the 21 days, which was within the constitutionally stipulated time.

Yet, just as Justice Musa described the action of INEC to exclude the ANDP from the Bayelsa Governorship Election as illegal, chairman of the tribunal, Justice Muhammad Sirajo, delivered as dissenting judgment by dismissing the petition on technical grounds.

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Perhaps buoyed by the split judgment, Governor Diri quickly announced his intention to challenge the majority ruling at the appellate court, even as he expressed relief that the tribunal was not the court of final instance on the matter.

In a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Daniel Alabrah, the Bayelsa State chief executive disclosed that he has instructed his legal team to appeal the ruling and file the necessary papers.

While stating his implicit confidence in the judiciary, Diri said he would triumph in the end adding: “We trust in the judiciary and we are appealing the judgement. 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 of appeal even up to the Supreme Court.”

Lawyers’ reactions
Aganist the background of the apex court ruling that brought Diri to power, stakeholders were aghast as to whether the tribunal ruling does not amount to reversing the Supreme Court judgment through the backdoor.

But legal practitioners that spoke to The Guardian maintained that without prejudice to the outcome of Diri’s appeal, the order for a rerun election does not grant APC access to the fresh ballot.

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Chief Goddy Uwazurike in his response to The Guardian enquiry said it is elementary Law that an election that excludes a party or omits the logo of a party cannot stand.

While warning that Edo and Ondo governorship polls would go the same way if any party is excluded, Uwazuruike said with the recent Court of Appeal nullification of the de-registration of parties, the proper thing for INEC to do today is to list all registered parties for elections.

He noted: “A free and fair election means one in which the candidates are presented to the electorate for the voters to choose from. Any omission means that the correct results are not the one presented by INEC. It means that some parties have been unlawfully excluded.

“What is not right is not right. The only challenge is whether it is a pre election matter or post election. It’s irrelevant because the correct answer is that a party has been unlawfully excluded.

“An appeal court may have a contrary view on technical grounds. But, sad as it is, it is a correct judgment. The properly qualified candidates, excluding APC, will slug it out. Remember that APC has been declared as having no candidates.”

But describing the tribunal ruling as a simple matter of fairness, another lawyer, Okey Egbuchu declared: “It seems the Tribunal based their decision on the purported exclusion of ANDP candidate from contesting the elections.

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“Assuming that the said candidate was unlawfully excluded, the Tribunal may have acted on sound basis. It’s a simple matter of fairness. The ANDP candidate has the legal right to contest the elections. The election that excluded the party and its candidate was unlawful for excluding a qualified candidate and depriving the electorate of the choice. When I read the judgment, I will be able to give a well-considered opinion.”

However, Barrister Stephen Azubuike contended that the judgment in the Bayelsa governorship appears to be the climax of the political drama in the state, starring the big actors like PDP and APC, introducing Advanced Nigeria Democratic Party (ANDP) and directed by the Judiciary.

Nonetheless, the legal practitioner remarked that exclusion of a political party in an election is a serious issue, stressing that PDP and INEC have the option to challenge the Tribunal’s Judgment on appeal.

“If the unlawful exclusion is upheld on appeal up to the Supreme Court, INEC surely has a question to answer,” Azubuike stated.

Sylva’s bullet
The Bayelsa State governorship election threw up a lot of drama when barely 24 hours to inauguration of the winner of the December 2019 election, David Lyon of APC, the Supreme Court upturned his victory based on the conflicting identity of his running mate, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo.

Stung by that surprising turn of events, APC chieftains in the state continued to agonise over the sudden loss even as they plotted revenge. For instance, speaking shortly after a meeting of the Contact and Mobilisation Committee of the APC National Campaign Council, chairman of the committee and Minister of State, Petroleum, Chief Sylva, declared that the party would win the September 19 governorship election in Edo state.

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He accused PDP of stealing APC’s mandate in Bayelsa and Edo, saying that it was good a thing that displacement of APC in Edo happened just few months to the gubernatorial poll that offers a fresh opportunity to return the state to APC.

While describing the transferred incumbency of Governor Godwin Obaseki as a ruse, Sylva declared: “All of us in the South-South believe that this election must be won. Edo state is our only APC state in the South-South.

“A few months ago, as you are all aware, they took Bayelsa State from us through the back door after we won the election and now through the back door again, they have taken Edo state, but luckily we have the opportunity of reclaiming Edo state in a few weeks from now and every South-South APC member is of the consensus that we must reclaim Edo.

“It is our stronghold in the region and therefore we are all geared up, we will all go to Edo state. We want to assure you that you should not entertain any doubt that Edo state will be an APC state very soon come September 19.

“Election is not all about finance. First if you say the power of incumbency, it is an APC incumbency that has been stolen by the PDP. So, that kind of incumbency has a comma and that is why we believe that such incumbency will not work.”

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