Amid claims of compromise, fresh six-man appeal panel arrives in Cross Rivers State
There was surprise and consternation when the Appeal Court panel arrived Calabar last Tuesday to replace the former one, following allegations of compromise from some political actors.
Already, tension is mounting at the Appeal Court as all appeal cases arising from the Election Petition Tribunals for Cross River and Akwa Ibom States have been moved to the Appeal Court, Calabar.
Heavily armed security agents were seen accompanying various documents and materials that arrived Calabar in six vans in respect of the case between Governor Udom Emmanuel of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and his challenger, Nsima Ekere of the All Progressives Congress (APC), as well as the High Court and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The Guardian gathered from high-ranking sources in the judiciary that there are lots of petitions against the old Appeal Court panel and the tribunals that concluded sittings in Calabar and Akwa Ibom State earlier in September, which prompted Abuja to send in a fresh special panel.
But, in a sudden twist of events, two out of the six new judges were withdrawn, even as their replacements are expected soon.
Said a source, “As we speak there are six new special Appeal Court judges that came in from Abuja on Monday to take over from the four old ones on the ground. Three of the new judges will handle all Akwa Ibom appeals, while three will handle that of Cross River State.”
It was however observed that the old and new Judges met on Tuesday to sort out issues as scheduled judgments were put on hold, just as the old Judges moved to Abuja same Tuesday to clarify some grey areas. Consequently, it was not clear if their stalled judgment will still hold or the new panel will start the cases all over again.
The arrival of the six new judges must have stalled the sittings and judgment slated for Tuesday as the old judges were set to give judgment on the matter involving Senator Bassey Albert of PDP for the Akwa Ibom North East Senatorial contest and his APC challenger, Mr. Bassey Etim. They were to also to deliver judgment on three other cases from Cross River.
But in a curious development, the jam-packed Appeal Court in Calabar was shocked when one of the court officials came out at about 10:04am to announce that the court would no longer sit again, indicating that all matters stood adjourned indefinitely.
Although no reason was given for the adjournment, The Guardian however gathered that the arrival of the six-man Special Panel and some political considerations, which may not be unconnected to petitions and allegations of compromise, must have necessitated the decision.
There were series of petitions in the state accusing the rested tribunal and the Appeal Court of compromise in the ongoing election petition matters.
Sources further disclosed that the 10 judges (the six new ones and the four old ones) went into a close-door meeting due to the adjournment and various unsettled issues. “It is most likely,” the source added, “that the old judges on ground may not sit on any of the election appeal matters as the old ones moved to Abuja immediately after the closed-door meeting to clarify some grey areas. It is also not clear if their stalled judgment will still hold or the new panel will start all over again.”
They also pointed out that the cases for Cross River would commence next week, while that of Akwa Ibom is still being sorted out in terms of documentation.
However, as the petitioners head to the Appeal Court, some groups are raising concerns over the issue of transparency of the tribunals and at the same time pleading with the Appeal Court expected to handle over 40 appeals from both Akwa Ibom and Cross River States to sustain the sanctity of the judiciary and restore hope to the electorate, who are the owners of democracy.
It is expected that the various appeals will pertain to State and National Assemblies’ Polls to Governorship, especially as there have been knocks and kudos on the quality of judgments delivered, integrity and transparency of the tribunals and the litigants.
Sources at the Appeal Court disclosed that so far, 11 appeals have been received from Cross River, while over 30 are expected from Akwa Ibom State. For instance, a concerned group, Cross River Youth Vanguard for Justice has condemned the judgments of the three Election Petition Tribunals in the state alleging that their rulings were bought with over N1billion.
In a statement signed by its Chairman, Mr. John Ekanem and Takon Ebonja, the group alleged: “It is an open secret that there was a strong romance between the state government and the tribunals and we are calling on the EFCC to probe the activities of the tribunals that have just rounded-off sittings in the state…
“We have observed with great dismay the activities of the tribunals and have come to the conclusion that definitely, huge sums of money must have exchanged hands.”
It would be recalled that recently the state government secured the approval of Cross River State House of Assembly for a N5billion loan, saying it needed the loan to pay pension, gratuity and sundry services, which one of the lawmakers insisted government should be specific on what it needed the money for, but there was none.
The group claimed that Cross River State citizens deserve to know the expenditure outline of such loan if it was collected eventually. But, the group further alleged that such money might have gone down the drain all in the name of sustaining power by all means.
“Same government is crying it does not have money to fix lots of infrastructural facilities, pay pensioners their gratuity and many others. This is not acceptable to us the people of Cross River state.”
The group also accused the tribunals of giving contradictory judgments on some issues thereby giving room for suspicion on the type of judgements that were delivered.
They stated: “For instance, tribunal one headed by Justice Vincent Agbata ruled that the cases Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, APC, and few others brought against Senator Sandy Onor, INEC, the PDP and others (involving the National Assembly Elections) were a pre-election matter.
“The tribunal No 3, headed by Justice Josiah Majebi on Owan-Enoh against Ayade also said it has no jurisdiction, but tribunal No 2, headed by Justice A.A. Babawale in the matter by Chief Wabilly Nyiam of the APC against Senator Rose Oko of the PDP and Hon Dominic Aqua Edem of APC against Pastor Essien Ayi of the PDP and others, ruled that it was a post election matter, saying that it has jurisdiction.”
The Cross River State chapter of APC has however reaffirmed it’s faith in the judiciary, even as it describes the verdicts of the elections petition tribunals in the state as a rape of democracy.
The State Chairman, Sir John Ochala, declared: “We wish to state that we still have confidence in the judiciary to deliver justice in the face of travesty. Let me also say without equivocation that the verdicts of the tribunals were a complete rape or travesty of justice.
“The Supreme Court has always pointed out in several instances and judgments that exclusion remains an election matter, but for the tribunal to throw away our petitions on grounds of locus further confirms the travesty we are talking about. The verdicts were all fraught with error except that of Hon. Iwara, who contested the House of Assembly seat for Abi State Constituency.
“The judgments were fraught with errors even as the tribunals approbated and reprobated. For us as a party, we find this as a grave danger to our fledgling democracy. Our party was robbed of victory both at the polls and at the tribunal unfortunately, by a combined effort of the electoral umpire, security operatives…
“It was even sickening that the only hope of Justice, the Judiciary, also joined the fray. We condemn the obnoxious verdicts in totality…We are appealing against the obnoxious judgments just as we are upbeat that justice will come our way.”
Also making his observations on the judgment of the tribunals, a social critic and former lecturer with the University of Calabar, Dr. Joseph Odok said, “It is funny that the tribunal said it had no jurisdiction to entertain issues of exclusion of candidates during election. And exclusion of candidate suddenly became a pre-election matter. This shifting of goal posts by the Cross River State Elections Petition Tribunals.
“At last Ayade’s aides are begging APC candidates not to carry out their constitutional right to appeal the matters in court. They must have known that compromised judgment may not take them far enough.”
As if he was expecting the plethora of such allegations, after delivering his judgment on the governorship petition by Senator Owan-Enoh against the governor, Senator Ayade on September 5, Justice Josiah Majebi had said: “We have finished our work at our level and we know that there is another level to go and test the work we have done here…I as the Judge is always the one on trial.
“We have done our work down here with a clear conscience, without fear or favour and that is final for us at this level, you are free to go and test our work at the upper level if you deem it necessary, but we have done our part with no fear nor favour.”
Nonetheless, last Wednesday, the APC governorship candidate in the state, Senator Owan-Enoh, rescinded his earlier intention to appeal the Judgment of the Election Petition Tribunal, which reaffirmed Governor Ayade as the duly elected.
His action, which shocked the entire APC team in the state, was seen as a betrayal in some quarters, thus swelling the long standing speculations in the state that the state governor is most likely to move over to the APC.
One APC chieftain in the state, who confided in The Guardian said, “We saw it coming; the recent visit to the presidency in the name of obtaining Federal Government’s approval for an Outline Business Case (OBC) for the Bakassi Deep Sea Port is just a smokescreen. The main issue was most likely the crossover to APC as the powers that be in the Presidency may have exerted some pressure on Owan-Enoh to drop his appeal.
“I see this as strategic and double victory for Ayade, because when he crosses over to APC, automatically a safe heaven is guaranteed in case of any future disturbance by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) when he leaves office in 2023.”
But, reacting to the issue of alleged bribe, the Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to Governor, Mr. Christian Ita, dismissed the allegations as “baseless and fictitious,” saying, “I cannot react to anything from a group that does not exist. Anybody can sit down and create anything.”
Also, a member of House of Representatives, representing Calabar Municipality, Odukpani Federal Constituency in the state, Ntufam Eta Mbora (PDP), hailed the judgment of the tribunals, but expressed dismay with politicians for their habitual resort to litigation in settling electoral matters without exhausting amicable options.
He is therefore canvassing for use of alternative dispute resolution mechanism in electoral disputes to strengthen intra-party relations and promote unity in the polity.
Mbora, spoke while reacting to the tribunal judgments which upheld his election, after the tribunal dismissed the petition filed by Bassey Akiba of APC on grounds of incompetence and lack of merit.
He described the court option for minor issues as contained in the petition against him as a mockery of the country’s electoral system based on greed of some politicians.
Mbora, who is also the Vice Chairman, House Committee on Housing and Habitat, said the interest of Cross River must supersede party sentiments, even as he sued for a by-partisan approach to drive the developmental initiatives of the state for optimum results and mutual benefits.