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Oni and penchant for seeking judicial validation of elections

By Ayodele Afolabi, Ado Ekiti
17 July 2022   |   2:40 am
Former Governor of Ekiti State and candidate of Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the June 18 governorship election of Ekiti, Engineer Segun Oni, is on the march again into familiar terrain.

Biodun Oyebanji

Former Governor of Ekiti State and candidate of Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the June 18 governorship election of Ekiti, Engineer Segun Oni, is on the march again into familiar terrain.

The former Deputy Chairman (South) of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is challenging the outcome of the election, as he recently filed a petition to question the victory of Biodun Oyebanji, who was declared the winner of the poll.
 
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Oyebanji the winner of the election after polling 187,057 votes against Oni’s 82,209 votes.

Oni recently submitted to the Election Tribunal in Ado Ekiti, 159-page petition documents for Volume 1 and about 2000 exhibits for Volume 2, to challenge the legitimacy of the winner.

The SDP candidate’s legal team included Obafemi Adewale (SAN), Mr Owoseni Ajayi and Morakinyo Ogle.

Oni, while fielding questions from reporters shortly after filing the suit at the High Court premises in Ado-Ekiti, had said:” I’m here to submit my petition in accordance with the law and we are doing this to defend the sanctity of the system. I am challenging the election result because I believe that I won.”

Speaking on behalf of the legal counsels, Adewale (SAN) had said: “As you heard from the candidate, if he had believed the governorship election had been free, fair and credible, he would not have challenged the outcome.

“If he didn’t think he won fairly and squarely, he won’t be here to challenge the poll. But the conclusion depends on the tribunal. The most important thing is that the candidate is here asking for justice to be done in accordance with the law.

“He believes he won the majority of the lawful votes at the election, but he was not declared the lawful winner of the election.”

Adewale said his client also believed that the person so declared by INEC did not win with lawful votes and may not even be competent to participate in the election.

Oni’s penchant for seeking judicial redress on disputed outcomes of electoral contests dates back to the 2007 governorship election in the state. Arising from the outcome of the election, in which the INEC declared him as the winner, Dr Kayode Fayemi who was then the candidate of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, had approached the Election Tribunal seeking to upturn Oni’s victory.

Oni was the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) while Dr Fayemi was the candidate of the Action Congress (AC). The two were the main contenders for the governorship seat. Oni was declared the winner with 170, 000 votes against Fayemi’s 108,000 votes. Oni allegedly won in 11 local councils while Fayemi won in four local councils. Results from Efon Alaye local council were cancelled due to alleged irregularity.

Fayemi approached the election tribunal, which commenced sitting in June 2007 in Ado Ekiti. Justice Usman Bwala headed the five-man panel of justices. Fayemi challenged the results from 10 council areas on the ground of non-compliance with the 2006 Electoral Act. But after about one year of sitting, the tribunal gave a unanimous judgment in favour of Oni.

Dissatisfied with the ruling of the tribunal, Fayemi headed to Appeal Court in Ilorin, Kwara State, praying that the Appellate court, headed by Justice Mohammed Dantijo, set aside the judgment of the lower court because it erred by not ruling on the non-compliance issue raised at the tribunal. He insisted that the elections in those 10 local councils were marred with irregularity.

After perusing the submissions of the counsels of both parties, the Appeal Court nullified Oni’s election and ordered rerun in parts of the 10 council areas.

The supplementary election, which was held on April 25, 2009, supervised by the then Resident Electoral Commission (REC), Mrs Ayoka Adebayo was characterised by violence such that observers and journalists were beaten and held hostage. What was more, the INEC office at Ido Osi local council was set ablaze?.A new twist was then added to the unfolding drama when the REC suddenly disappeared to an unknown destination without declaring the winner of the supplementary poll. She later emerged from her hiding seven days after the election to declare the result of the election. Oni was again declared the winner of the election.

Following the declaration of Oni as the winner, Fayemi once again headed to the tribunal led by Justice James Barka. This time, the candidate of the AC contested the results from Ifaki ward A&B, Orin Ora’s five wards, and Ipoti ward A&B all in Ido Osi local council.

It was at this tribunal sitting that the two contending parties introduced a very novel idea in legal disputes arising from the conduct of an election. Whereas Fayemi’s legal team brought Adrian Forty, a forensic expert from the United Kingdom (UK) for analysis of the votes, the Oni group brought John Lazaretto, a criminology expert from the United States of America (USA) to counter the team of Fayemi.

However, when the two foreign experts completed their assignment, the verdicts did not favour any of the combatants. The reason was probably that the experts were not used to manipulations in their own countries. The two experts reported that 72 per cent of the ballot papers used for the election lacked probable value. In other words, those ballot papers were invalid from their findings.
 
Despite this, the tribunal gave split judgments. The Justice Hama Bakar-led majority judgment declared Oni as the duly elected governor and subsequently dismissed the petition of the Action Congress gubernatorial candidate as lacking in merit. The majority judgment declared that the petitioner failed to prove and establish the allegations of malpractices, corruption and non-compliance with Electoral Act pleaded in his petition.

Barka, in his judgment, therefore, nullified the elections in Ipoti Wards A and B and a Ward in Orin/Ora for non-compliance substantially with the 2006 Electoral Act. After the deduction by the judge, in the overall scores in all the 16 council areas of the state, Oni scored 109,391 votes against Fayemi’s 106,816.

But, the minority judgment read by Justice A. Adebara nullified Oni’s election on the grounds of irregularities and declared Fayemi as the winner of the election. The minority judgment said it found merit in Fayemi’s petition.

Once again, not pleased by the judgment, Fayemi headed to the appellate court presided over this time by the President of the Appeal Court, Justice Ayo Salami. After listening to the submission of the counsels, the panel led by Justice Salami delivered judgment on the 15th of October 2010 in favour of Fayemi by aligning with the minority judgment of the tribunal. The appeal court held that Ifaki ward A&B votes were invalid. Fayemi was then sworn in as Governor of the state on 16th October 2010 after Oni had spent three and half years in office.

It was their protracted legal battle over the governorship seat that led the state to become one of the states participating in off-season governorship elections to date. For a period of seven years (2007- 2014), the two political gladiators occupied Ekiti’s political space via court pronouncements without giving room for any governorship poll to be held.

Also, dissatisfied with the outcome of the governorship primary of the APC in 2018, where he emerged second behind Fayemi, Oni headed to the court. At the end of voting on May 12, 2018, Fayemi had won with a total of 941 votes beating Oni, who scored 481 votes to the second place.

Oni felt that the primary, which was supervised by the then Nasarawa state governor, Tanko Almakura, was allegedly manipulated to favour Fayemi who was then a serving minister in Abuja. However, he did not immediately challenge the outcome because the reconciliation efforts of both Fayemi and the party were able to calm any frayed nerves. Oni, against expectations, even openly campaigned for Fayemi and was at the stadium when President Muhammadu Buhari came to Ekiti to campaign for him.

However, after the governorship election held on July 14, 2018, in which the candidate of the APC, Fayemi defeated the Deputy Governor and candidate of the PDP, Professor Olusola Kolapo, Oni proceeded to the court to challenge Fayemi’s victory. Initially, many had dismissed it as the mere rumour that Oni had approached the court to challenge Fayemi’s victory at the election.

Initially, many supporters of APC had doubted if Oni could be a party to a suit challenging Fayemi’s candidacy. But it turned out to be true. In the suit, Oni urged the court to nullify Fayemi’s candidacy on the grounds that he did not resign from his position as a Minister of Mines and Steel Development 30 days before the APC primary. Oni also stated that Fayemi was not qualified to contest in the primary on the grounds that he was indicted and barred from holding a public office by the Ekiti State Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up by Governor Ayodele Fayose.

However, Oni’s suit challenging Fayemi’s eligibility was dismissed by the High Court, Appeal Court and the apex court. At the Federal High Court sitting in Ado Ekiti, presided over by Justice Uche Agomoh, the court held that the case is “completely lacking in merit.”

The court held that Fayemi was validly nominated by APC and that he was not a public officer envisaged by the Electoral Act, 1999 constitution and party guidelines, to have resigned before contesting.

Also, the Appeal Court sitting in Ado Ekiti similarly dismissed the case filed by Oni against Fayemi contesting his eligibility. The three-man appeal panel presided over by Justice Adamu Jauro, in a unanimous verdict, said Fayemi not resigning as the then Minister of Steel and Mines Development to contest the May 12, 2018 governorship primary, was not enough to disqualify him.

The Appeal court held that Fayemi’s indictment by Justice Silas Oyewole-led judicial panel of inquiry set up by former Governor Ayodele Fayose to try the governor for alleged embezzlement could not bar the governor from office. It said only a conviction by a competent court of law can bar any aspirant from participating in a primary or general election and not a mere indictment by a panel.

The Supreme Court also upheld the judgment of both the trial and appellate courts by dismissing the suit filed by Oni.

It is in the light of the above that the latest legal action by Oni did not take many by surprise. To some political watchers in the state, it is within the democratic and constitutional right of the former governor to seek redress, if he has sufficient reasons to doubt the validity of the election.