By Ikechukwu Nnochiri – Abuja
Respite came the way of Governor Douye Diri of Bayelsa State on Friday, as the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja, upturned the tribunal judgment that nullified his election.
In a unanimous decision, a five-man panel of Justices of the appellate court voided the majority judgement the Bayelsa State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal delivered on August 17, which ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to conduct a fresh election in the state within 90 elections.
The tribunal said it was satisfied that INEC unlawfully excluded one of the registered political parties, Advanced Nigeria Democratic Party, ANDP, from the governorship election that held in the state on November 16, 2019.
While two members of the tribunal panel, Justices Sikiru Owodunni and Yunusa Musa, upheld ANDP’s petition, Chairman of the panel, Justice Ibrahim Sirajo gave a dissenting judgement that upheld Diri’s election.
Dismissing the petition for being statute-barred, Justice Sirajo said there was evidence that ANDP was disqualified from the election for fielding an ineligible candidate.
He noted that the party nominated an underaged deputy governorship candidate, who admitted that he was 34 years old, instead of the 35 years age bracket the Constitution stipulated.
Meanwhile, dissatisfied with the majority judgement of the tribunal, governor Diri, his party- the Peoples Democratic Party- and INEC, separately lodged appeals to set it aside.
Governor Diri contended that the judgement of the tribunal occasioned a grave miscarriage of justice against him, insisting that it was “manifestly against the weight of evidence”.
Delivering judgements in the appeals on Friday, the appellate court panel led by Justice Adzira Gana Mshella, held that the majority verdict of the tribunal that invalidated Diri’s election was “perverse” and “contemptuous of the law”.
Justice Obande Festus Ogbuinya who read the lead judgement of the appellate court held that the tribunal wrongfully evaluated the petition of the ANDP and thus reached an unjust conclusion in the Bayelsa governorship dispute.
The appellate court said there was enough evidence before the tribunal to prove that ANDP nominated underaged candidates for the election, in breach of sections 177, 182 and 187 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
Besides, it held that ANDP’s petition was not only statute-barred but equally a pre-election matter that was outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal.
It noted that whereas section 285(9) of the Constitution made it mandatory that the issue of disqualification of candidates, being a pre-election matter, must be filed within 14 days after the cause of action arose, ANDP, filed its petition at the tribunal, five months after its deputy governorship candidate was disqualified by INEC.
According to the appellate court, INEC had in two separate letters dated September 13 and September 27, notified the ANDP that it made invalid nominations.
It held that the cause of action begun to run from the date the party became aware that its nomination if candidates was invalidated by INEC.
The appellate court held that the case of ANDP had become “stale” and “soured” as at February 26 when it filed the petition at the tribunal.
More so, the Appeal Court ruled that the issue of disqualification of candidates, being a pre-election matter, could only be ventilated before a regular court and not a tribunal.
“Any pre-election matter filed outside the 14 days is statute-barred.
“The case of the 1st Respondent was marooned in the ocean of statute bar. The cause of action had expired with the effusion of time.
“The tribunal, therefore, lacked the requisite jurisdiction to entertain it. The subject matter of the petition was outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal”, Justice Ogbuinya held.
Consequently, the appellate court upheld the appeals by governor Diri, PDP and INEC, even as it set-aside the majority judgement of the tribunal.
Justice Ogbuinya held that the tribunal judgement was “trapped in the web of nullity”.
He upheld the minority verdict that upheld Diri’s election, saying “it will smack of judicial sacrilege to allow the majority decision of the tribunal to stand”.
The appellate court held that ANDP woefully failed to prove that it made valid nominations and could therefore not claim to have been unlawfully excluded from the election by INEC.
Other members of the appellate court panel that agreed with the lead judgement were Justices Peter Olabisi Ige, Jamilu Yamama Tukur and Folasade Ayodeji Ojo.
In four other separate judgements, the appellate court dismissed appeals that other governorship candidates in Bayelsa state filed to challenge the dismissal of their petitions by the tribunal.
The dismissed appeals were lodged by candidate of Alliance for Democracy, AD, Owei Woniwei, that of the Liberation Movement, LM, Vijah Opuama, and candidate of Accord Party, Ebezimo Diriyau.
The appeals were dismissed for being statute-barred and for containing pre-election matters that are beyond the scope of an election tribunal.
The appellants had among other things, sought governor Diri’s disqualification on the premise that his deputy, Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, submitted forged documents to INEC.
They alleged that the Bayelsa deputy governor gave false information in the Form CF001 he tendered to INEC for the purpose of the governorship election.
The appellants specifically challenged the authenticity of Ewhrudjakpo’s National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, Exemption Certificate allegedly issued in 1998.
In its judgement, the Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal of the petitions by the tribunal.
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