By G9ija

The Akwa Ibom National Assembly Election Petitions Tribunal on Wednesday night dismissed the petition filed by Senator Godswill Akpabio of the All Progressives Congress (APC) challenging the election of Senator Chris Ekpenyong of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to represent Akwa Ibom Northwest.

Ekpenyong’s victory as winner of the February 23 election elicited some drama and confusion among supporters of Akpabio, now Minister of Niger Delta Affairs.

One of the judges on the three-man panel,Justice Sheriff Hafizu, had upheld Akpabio’s petition and announced the nullification of the victory of Dr Chris Ekpenyong as the senator representing Akwa Ibom Northwest (Ikot Ekpene).

Contrary to the judgment of the other two judges, Justice S. H. Tahir, whose ruling was delivered at 11.45 p.m, said the petitioners – Senator Akpabio and the APC – had no need to present polling unit agents to prove their victory since they were not challenging what transpired at the units.

Justice Tahir also said the power to cancel illegal votes was not in the hands of the Returning Officer but in the hands of polling unit officers.

He urged the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to retrieve the Certificate of Return from Ekpenyong and surrender it to Akpabio as the elected senator of the district.

But in the majority ruling, read by its Chairman, Justice W. O. Akanbi, the tribunal held that the petitioners failed to bring any witness from the polling units and thus could not prove substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act.

“Every reasonable person should support free, fair and credible election. The Returning Officer cannot be blamed for reporting what he saw to INEC,” he said.

Relying on a case, ANDREW v. INEC, the tribunal ruled that the burden of proof for proving substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act to ground a nullification of the election is on the petitioner and held that the petitioner’s evidence was too weak in all ramifications to prove non-compliance, not to mention substantial non-compliance, the only ground for nullification of the elections.

In the majority verdict, the two justices dismissed the petition and upheld the declaration of Senator Ekpenyong as the winner of the February 23 poll.

“The petition is hereby dismissed because they have not been able to prove noncompliance at all,” the tribunal declared.

Reacting to the verdict through his counsel Samuel Ikpo, Senator Ekpeyong said: “The judgment has buried the petition that was long dead and dead for eternity.”

But Akpabio’s lawyer Adekunle Oyesanya said he was disappointed that the majority decision did not favour him.

The lawyer maintained that after studying the judgment with his clients, he will appeal the decision.

Also, a member of the tribunal, Justice Sheriff Hafizu, has said Akpabio was robbed of his deserved victory.

According to him, there was a preponderance of evidence to prove that the senator, now Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, defeated his opponent, Chris Ekpenyong, in the election for Akwa Ibom Northwest.

Justice Hafizu, in a split judgment on September 11, held that it was his view that Akpabio overwhelmingly won the election and ought to have been returned as the duly elected senator for the district.

Akpabio had cited unlawful cancellation of his collated votes by INEC to give his opponent an edge in the election.

In his dissenting judgment, 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 the APC candidate had not challenged the results of the units.

He said there was nothing to prove in the matter.

According to him, Akpabio’s case centred on cancellation of duly collated votes at INEC office, which he said was beyond the units.

He cited the case of Dr William, who had admitted during trial that Akpabio’s votes were altered in INEC office in Uyo on the instructions of the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Mr Mike Igini, adding that 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, were surreptitiously and unilaterally cancelled by an INEC official to hand victory to Ekpenyong.

Justice Hafizu said INEC was wrong to have cancelled the 61,329 votes garnered by APC in Essien Udim Local Government Area against PDP’s 9,050 votes.

He said the “unlawful” cancellation of the votes was a clear case of robbery since it did not follow due process of INEC’s guidelines.