The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, eventually opened its defence today in the election petition filed by the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and Osagie Andrew Ize-Iyamu, its candidate in the September 28, 2016, governorship election in Edo State, against the declaration of Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki as the winner of the election. The hearing before the Ahmed Badamasi-led state Governorship Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Benin had suffered two previous adjournments before today, both at the instance of the election umpire. With today’s adjournment to Monday next week, which made it the third, INEC has forfeited five out of the 10 days statutorily available to it to clear the doubt on the integrity of the election it conducted. Its lead counsel, OnyechiIkpeazu, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, was, however, confident that they would cover the ground even before then.
It became obvious that INEC had encountered problems assembling witnesses that would testify to it, the reason proceedings had been adjourned twice, when in his opening statement, Ikpeazu said “the first respondent will like to open its case today. We have copiously led evidence through cross-examination of the petitioners’ witnesses. We propose to tender a few documents where we feel we need to confront them and enhance the evidence already led, at the end of which if need be, we will call witnesses”. By the time he tendered the first set of documents which were Form EC 8B (Ward collated results) for Uhunmwode local government area, Kemi Pinheiro, SAN, senior counsel for the petitioners, objected to its admissibility on the ground that the same documents had been tendered by them and admitted as exhibits by the tribunal. He insisted on cross-checking the documents with the ones already before the tribunal to ensure they were the same, a request granted by the tribunal. The tribunal also granted the request of the respondents to join in the exercise. After verifying the documents, Pinheiro did not object, admitting that they were the same.
Given the time it would take for each counsel to verify the documents tendered, Ken Mozia, SAN, counsel to Obaseki, suggested that for expeditious proceeding, a schedule of the documents to be tendered by INEC be drawn and made available to all the parties. It was in the light of this that Ikpeazu asked for another adjournment till Monday. He said he also needed Saturday to interact with the five Electoral Officers (EOs) Defending his failure to call witnesses as earlier promised, Ikpeazu said “when your opponent’s witnesses are in the witness box and you cross-examine them, you are not abusing them; you are eliciting evidence that will support your own case. So, that is the manner in which INEC has already led evidence”. Contending that today’s adjournment wasn’t occasioned by INEC but by the petitioners who he said wanted time to look at its documents as well as see a schedule of all the documents it would be relying on, said enthusiastically that “we are ready to proceed”.
According to Ikpeazu, “we have vigorously cross-examined their witnesses. We now want to tender documents that will buttress the evidence we have already led. INEC has done so well in terms of cross-examining and damaging the evidence of the petitioners”. INEC said it might not require all the remaining days if it felt it had done enough, adding that witnesses are not called for the sake of it. “You call witnesses if you have to call witnesses. You look at the evidence they have led. You look at the pattern; most of their witnesses contradicted themselves. If their witnesses damaged their own case, it is not for us to call witnesses to repair their case. So, the witnesses we will call, if at all, will depend on, in the final analysis, what INEC has done in cross-examining their witnesses”. Ikpeazu said when a party tenders a result sheet from INEC from a polling unit, what that party has done is to tender the evidence of the presiding officer and all the ad hoc officers that worked for INEC in respect of that particular unit. “So, every result which any party or the petitioners tendered, they have supported our case that election took place and that results were produced by the duly accredited presiding officer. They are our witnesses, whichever way you look at it”.
But taunting INEC, Pinheiro said it was interesting that INEC who is the main respondent and whose conduct was being called to question in the petition “has failed on the fifth day today to call any evidence or lead any fact to rebut the avalanche of evidence that has been marshaled against them. They now sought today to tender some sets of documents which documents were the same set of documents the petitioners have tendered, verified by them, certified by them. So, we had to insist that today, being a wasted day, be counted as their number of days. So, the matter has been adjourned till Monday. We are ready. But answer they must answer to the query. Edo people want to know”.
Mozia, explained to journalists that the adjournment was to make for smoother and expeditious proceedings. In a seeming defense of INEC, Mozia said “INEC was ready to go on and didn’t come to ask for an adjournment. But we adopted a procedure that will make it smoother for all. It’s a convenient arrangement for everybody”.