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Tension mounts at Cross River State election petition tribunal

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Cross River State governor, Senator Ben Ayade

Tension and temper are beginning to rise at the three-man Cross River State Elections Petition Tribunal (panel 1), headed by Justice Vincent Agbata, as All Progressive Congress (APC) battles to nullify the February 23 and March 9, 2019 elections in the state. When the tribunal started some weeks ago, it was all jokes and fun among the lawyers, either for or against, but as critical issues begin to unfold, counsels on both sides are desperate to undo one another in the courtroom using all sorts of strategies in favour of their clients.

Contending petitions are former Senate Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba of All Progressive Congress (APC) against Senator Sandy Onor of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the PDP and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Ndoma-Egba is challenging the declaration of Onor as the winner of Cross River Central Senatorial seat by INEC. Another is that of Senator John Owan-Enoh, the governorship candidate of APC challenging the election of Senator Ben Ayade as the governor of the state. Others are of Mr. Victor Abang of APC challenging the election of Mr. Chris Agigbe of PDP for Ikom/Boki Federal Constituency while Mr. Egbe Abeng Egbe also of APC is challenging the election of Mr. Mike Etaba for Obubra/Eung Federal Constituency.

All the petitioners are asking the tribunal to nullify the February 23 and March 9 elections for a re-run on grounds that INEC had deliberately excluded them from the race despite being duly nominated by their party, the APC, thereby giving their opponents undue advantage. INEC had relied on a Federal High Court order. The Resident Electoral Commission in Cross River State, Dr. Frankland Briyai, had on the eve of the February 23 election in a press briefing in INEC’s office, Calabar, announced the removal of all APC candidates’ names from the list of candidates for the general elections in pursuant to an order of court order with suit number FHC/HA/CS/731/2018 between Godwin Etim John versus the APC and others.

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He said, “The commission, pursuant to the order of court in the above matter, has directed that the names of candidates submitted by APC for Governorship, Senatorial, House of Representatives and State House of Assembly for Cross River State be removed from the list of candidates for the election in compliance with the said order.”

But on March 8 after the National Assembly elections and a day to the governorship elections, the National Headquarters of INEC, in a letter dated March 8 and signed by the Secretary to the Commission, Mrs. Rose Oriaran-Anthony, to the State Resident Electoral Commissioner reads, “the Commission, pursuant to the order of court (Appeal Court) in the above matter, has directed that the list of candidates submitted by APC in respect of Governorship, Senatorial, House of Representatives and House of Assembly elections for Cross River State which were earlier removed from the list of candidates pursuant to the judgment of the Federal High Court in suit No: FHC/CA/CS/73/2018-Hon Etim John and Anor versus APC and Onor, be reverted onto the list of candidates for the elections”.

This has been the crux of the matter in the past two weeks the tribunal has sat, particularly between counsel to the defendant (Onor), Mr. Patrick Akan who stood in for Mr. Paul Erokoro against counsel to the petitioner (Ndoma-Egba), Chief Emeka Offodile. In one of the instances, Akan audaciously ordered Offodile to sit down as he was talking, but the later, apparently not pleased, declined insisting that he was standing on point of objection and Justice Agbata intervened and upheld that Akan should sit down instead for Offodile to speak. In another instance, Offodile, who was visibly angry, asked Akan to apologise to the court for using wrong language, but quickly, Justice Agbata cut in and addressed the matter in a friendly manner to doused the tension.

Senator Sandy Onor

Similar instances continued between the counsels and, apparently not happy with the unpleasant build up and utterances by the counsels, Justice Agbata occasionally intervened to douse the situation. In one instance, he said, “We do not belong to any political party. When you generate tension and push to us, we make effort to douse it”.

What led to the tension was the issue whether or not some witnesses subpoenaed by the tribunal at the instance of the petitioner in the case of Ndoma-Egba versus Onor and others should be allowed to enter the witness box and testify and submit items so subpoenaed. Offodile, counsel to the petitioner, had moved a motion seeking leave of court for the persons so subpoenaed to be additional witnesses to further prove the petitioner’s case but Akan, counsel to Senator Onor, counsel to PDP, Mr. Mohammed Shuaibu, who stood in for Mr. Joe Agi and Professor Jacob Dada counsel to INEC, strongly opposed an application by Chief Offodile to call in the witnesses subpoenaed to enter the witness box and testify because it was not asked for.

Akan said, “My lord, this honourable tribunal cannot grant a petitioner what is not sought for because the tribunal is not a Father Christmas” and Dada, on his part, also aligned with Akan, saying the application “is incompetent… and the judge should not allow it”.

Offodile, however, opposed the defendants, noting, “the law does not allow us to serve them (defendants). We have no legal obligation to serve them”.

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Justice Agbata, in his ruling after rising for about 20 minutes, said prayers by Offodile was not backed by the affidavit and the affidavit as sworn to by another person was not reliable and the effect is that there was no extreme circumstance and “granting of the application is refused… but the only option is for the applicant to file appropriate witness for that purpose” and the witnesses so subpoenaed should produce the materials the tribunal asked for.

In view of this, all the materials like video CDs, flash drives and documents that contain the February 22, 2019 press briefing by the Cross River Resident Electoral Commissioner which excluded Senator Ndoma-Egba, Senator John Owan-Enoh and others from senatorial, governorship and other elections of February 23 and March 9, 2019 were admitted by the tribunal as exhibit produced as they did not enter the witness box.

At this point, APC closed its case with the submission of exhibits or production of documents and video clips required by the tribunal in a subpoena issued to the correspondent of Channels TV, Odey Blessing Imani, and a media practitioner and blogger, Mr. Sunday Udeh. Accordingly, Justice Agbata adjourned the matter to July 2, 2019 for Onor, PDP and INEC to open their defence.

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