The Justice Wasiu Akanbi led National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state capital has been riddled with controversies.
This followed the dissenting judgment by a member of the panel, Justice Sheriff Hafizu,which voided the election of Chris Ekpenyong for the Akwa Ibom North West senatorial district.
Reecall that a lawyer and human rights activist, Barrister Leo Ekpenyong had before the judgment raised the alarm in a widely published article: “Judgement for sale” and alleged that two members of the National Assembly Elections Petition Tribunal in Akwa Ibom State had been compromised and predicted that there would be a split in judgement in the case.
Akwa Ibom State Attorney General, Barrister Uwemedimo Nwoko, denied that Governor Udom Emmanuel had bribed two of the tribunal Judges and threatened to sue Barrister Ekpenyong.
Barrister Ekpenyong had, however, fired back and threatened to report the Judges with evidence to the National Judicial Council (NJC) for necessary disciplinary action if confirmed to have been bribed.
However, legal analysts were surprised that true to the revelation of the human rights activist, the Judges were split in their judgement, Wednesday.
Hafizu, in the split judgment, said there were preponderance of evidence to prove that the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio won in the February 23, 2019, presidential, national assembly election but was robbed of the victory.
He held that it was his view that Senator Akpabio overwhelmingly won the election and ought to have been returned as the duly elected Senator for Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District.
Ekpenyong of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was declared winner of the Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Senator Akpabio had challenged Ekpenyong’s victory, citing unlawful cancellation of his collated votes by INEC to give his opponent an edge in the election.
Delivering judgement on the petition on Wednesday, Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Akanbi with the concurrence of Justice Oyakumo Douglas Etebu, dismissed the petition and upheld the declaration of Ekpenyong as the winner of the election.
However in his dissenting judgement, Justice Hafizu held that the contention of the respondents that Akpabio ought to have called unit polling agents to prove his case was wrong since Akpabio had not challenged the results of the units and therefore there was nothing to prove.
According to Justice Hafizu, the case of Senator Akpabio centred on cancellation of duly collated votes at INEC office which went beyond the units. He cited the case of Dr Olosunde Williams, who had admitted during trial thatAkpabio’s votes were altered in INEC office in Uyo on the instructions of the Resident Electoral Commissioner, Mike Igini and said such alterations were unlawful.
He said he found merit in the petitioner’s case that his collated votes which showed that he won the election was surreptitiously and unilaterally cancelled by an INEC official so as to hand over victory to Ekpenyong.
Justice Hafizu also held that from evidence adduced during the trial it was obvious that the Returning Officer had cancelled the votes of Obot Akara Local Government Area due to an established case of over voting and said it was wrong for the same cancelled result to be revalidated in INEC office in Uyo.
The minority judgment held that the wiitnesses paraded by the respondents were unreliable as they gave contradictory evidence during trial. He cited cases of witnesses who had alleged that they were abducted by APC thugs and forced to thumb print for the party only for card reader reports to put a lie to such claim, a contention that the majority judgement glossed over.
According to Justice Hafizu, INEC was wrong to have cancelled the 61,329 votes garnered by APC in Essien Udim Local Government Area against PDP score of 9,050 votes. He said the unlawful cancellation of the votes was a clear case of robbery since it did not follow the due process of INEC guidelines.
The majority judgement also glossed over evidences that were given in the course of hearing, including certified true copies of results released by INEC, which were tendered by the petitioners. It also remained mute on the police reports that the elections were free, fair and credible.
Accordingly Justice Hafizu voided the declaration of Ekpenyong as the winner of the election and declared his return invalid. He also declared Senator Akpabio as the winner of the election having garnered majority of the lawful votes cast and ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission to present a certificate of return to Senator Akpabio as the duly elected Senator of Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District.
Counsel to Senator Akpabio, Mr Adekunle Oyesanya, SAN praised Justice Hafizu for his courage in giving the dissenting judgei represented the position of the law.
A sign that all was not well among the Judges had surfaced earlier on Wednesday, when a registry staff announced to lawyers and supporters who had thronged the court room that the matter earlier slated for 9.00am had been shifted to 12.00 noon. By 12.00 noon, the same staff announced a further change of time to 3.30 pm. Again, by 3.30 pm the registry staff emerged to announce to the bewildered members of the Bar and supporters that the cases had been further shifted to 6.30 pm which attracted jeers from the members of the public.
It was gathered that the disagreement among the panel members as predicted by Leo Ekpenyong delayed the judgment.
According to a source privy to the disagreement, Justice Hafizu had threatened to resign from the panel as he pointedly told his colleagues that he would not be part of an arrangement that does not deliver justice so as to pervert the course of justice.
This was said to have created a deadlock as Justice Akanbi and Ebetu were said to have prevailed on their colleague not to do anything that would bring to disrepute the image of the judiciary.