It was a macabre drama yesterday evening at the sitting of the Edo State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal as Wole Olanipekun, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, counsel to the state governor, Godwin Obaseki, and Kemi Pinheiro, also a SAN, lead counsel to the PDP, literally reached for each other’s jugular. The two senior lawyers engaged in a fierce war of words over Olanipekun’s perceived insulting language on a witness, Frank Osifo. Tempers flared when a fuming Olanipekun, angered by the response of the witness to his question during cross-examination, shouted on him to shut up. But Pinheiro, whose anger appeared to have been bottled up, immediately jumped on his feet to stoutly challenge him, stating that “my brother silk has no right to abuse and insult my witness”. He described Olanipekun’s conduct as “ungentlemanly”. According to Pinheiro, the witness was not his ‘houseboy’. Thereafter, it became a case of “to your tents, oh Israel”, as counsel on both sides pitched tent against each other. Fagbemi, counsel to the APC, also joining the fray, said philosophically that “you cannot solve a problem by running away from it”, describing it as an act of cowardice. He told Pinheiro pointedly that a counsel has a duty, no matter what the position is when you observe that your witness is going off the mark, it is your duty to the court, the cause of justice, and your duty to the profession to caution him. “You cannot continue to employ his antics and avoid his being put into his correct use”.
As chairman tried unsuccessfully to calm tempers, Emmanuel Okala, SAN, counsel to PDP, also took the floor, admitting that the witness may not have behaved well, “but I agree that when the court is calling us to order, we must come to order”. He was, however, quick to add that “but indeed, My Lord, we should resist the temptation of seeing a witness as a person of lesser importance”. Still seething with rage, Olanipekun was on his feet again, saying, “When the witness is telling me that the literary meaning of what is there, I expected them to call him to order. I do it to witnesses. What an insult! I asked you a very simple question; then he is lecturing me on literary meaning. This is not the way we know it. I don’t embarrass, I don’t harass witnesses. But I won’t stand here at the bar and allow any witness to insult me. He is insulting my intelligence”.
And when the proceeding resumed, another round of altercations between Olanipekun and Pinheiro started again. Olanipekun had reacted to a side talk by Pinheiro, to which the latter yelled “address the court chief; you don’t have to address me. I deserve respect too. We are both members of the inner bar no matter what entity you are. I deserve respect. You can’t tell a witness to shut up and you are justifying it. We borrowed this tradition from the British and the British will never tell a witness to shut up and you are justifying it”. As he went on venting his anger, the tribunal chairman tried to get his attention shouting senior counsel, senior counsel, but he would not stop, observing that “there are juniors here”. When calm eventually returned and Olanipekun wanted to continue his cross-examination of the witness, the tension-soaked session took another dimension with the tribunal chairman taking exception to a perceived insinuation by Pinheiro that he was biased. Pinheiro had objected to Olanipekun continuing with the cross-examination, noting that he had already exhausted the time allotted to him. But when Badamasi told him to continue, Pinheiro was furious, stating that “this is about 25 minutes; chief has been over-indulged. He is wasting my time. I cannot call my next witness”. And when the chairman asked him to sit down, he blurted out angrily again, “my Lord will always ask me to sit down; my Lord has never told them to sit down. When he asked my witness to shut up, I expect that my lord will caution him”. He said justice must be even – for the petitioner, the respondent, and the entire world, stressing that “and the world is watching, the world is watching”.
Reacting to the allegation of bias and perceived indictment of the tribunal, Pinheiro denied using such word, explaining that what he said was that the chairman was over-indulging Olanipekun. The proceedings ended abruptly when the tribunal turned down Olanipekun’s bid to continue cross-examination. The chairman also felt in his wisdom that it was better to adjourn given the tension in the court which Pinheiro opposed stating that time was not on his side. The tribunal was to go into another rowdy session as Fagbemi engaged in sermonisation on justice dispensation, which once again infuriated Pinheiro who saw it as part of the respondent’s antics to deliberately waste the time of the court and frustrate his calling more witnesses. The question at this point was whether or not the proceeding should continue as Pinheiro insisted on calling his last witness for the day. He even asked for 15 minutes of grace, which the respondents were not willing to grant. When the chairman called on Olugboyega Awomolo, SAN for his view, he pleaded for the judges’ patience and maturity. He said he was not particularly comfortable with the altercations from both sides, stating that there are many cases the duo could do together or do against each other, stressing that they needed to understand and accommodate each other. He said he was embarrassed with what was coming from both sides “and I don’t know what to say. So, I just want to plead with your lordships to be patient with us because the only solution to this problem is patience. I will appeal to my learned friend, Olanipekun; he’s an elder in the profession – a past chairman of the NBA, a live bencher, a senior advocate and all sorts. If Kemi is his younger brother, will he take a cane to whip him? For me, I plead with your lordships for patience. It’s just the emotion of the moment which is very unfortunate”. Responding, Pinheiro said he had no problem with Olanipekun “and he knows I have the greatest respect for him”.
Speaking to the magazine after the tribunal adjourned proceeding to today, Pinheiro said, “it’s what normally happens in court. The defence counsel could not break into a witness, they get upset and irritated. It’s a normal tango that you see and experience in court. At the end of the day, justice will be served”. Asked if he was satisfied with his outing, he said “oh, our witness? Unimpeachable”.
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