The Edo State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Benin was early today forced to adjourn sitting till Friday this week as the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, failed to open its defense in the ongoing hearing of the petition filed by the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and its candidate in the September 28 governorship election, Osagie Ize-Iyamu, against the declaration of Godwin Obaseki and his All Progressive Party, APC, as the winner of the contentious election. Hearing had been adjourned last Friday till today at the behest of INEC, which was supposed to open its defense last Saturday. Counsel to the election umpire, Onyinyen Anumonye had, following the order of the Ahmed Badamasi-led tribunal that the report of the aborted recounting of ballot papers for four local governments be submitted to the tribunal on or before last Monday, asked for a copy of the report “so that we will reappraise our defense”. He also craved the indulgence of the tribunal to open his defense today, after he might have obtained the submitted report yesterday (Monday) “in order to adjust or readjust our position in respect of our approach to the defense of the petition”.
It was however a different story as Anumonyen rose to apply for another adjournment till Friday hinging it on two grounds, notably logistic problem in bringing his witnesses from outside the state. While the second and third respondents did not oppose the application more so when it was noted that he had conceded to forfeit the three days involved out of his statutory 10 days to prove his case, the petitioners kicked. Making his application, Anumonyen said in order to present a decent defense to the petition, INEC was ready to forfeit the three days without asking for any further adjournment. According to him, “to prove our case, we need to interact with the witnesses, first of all. And to assist the tribunal, while interacting with them to whittle down the number of witnesses we intend to call”, stressing that “we cannot effectively do that unless we have interacted with the witnesses; see whose evidence is crucial, and whose evidence we can dispense with”.
An apparently unimpressed tribunal chairman told Anumonyen that he knew very well that the petitioners would close their case on Friday. “You equally knew that immediately after the closure of their case, you would be asked to open your defense. Why didn’t you prepare all this while?” Put on the defensive by the chairman, Anumonye insisted that it had to do with “the class of witnesses we are calling”, noting that some of them are civil servants working in their various states “and we can’t just pull them out”; while others were members of the National Youth Service Corps who have passed out. He said for them to come would involve a lot of expenses on the part of the Commission “and we have to be sure when they are coming”. He said the difficulty INEC had was that it anticipated that while the counting of ballot papers was going on, there would be an application for extension of time by the petitioners “and we couldn’t anticipate what the ruling of the tribunal would be”.
Vehemently opposing the application, Adebayo Adelodun, SAN, counsel to the petitioners, was miffed that INEC knew more than three weeks ago that they would be starting their case, and so had all the opportunity. He said even more significantly was the fact that the petitioners closed their case on Friday.“By the procedure that has been put down, they are supposed to start on Saturday but he took Saturday and Monday off to prepare his witness… So, we are here now on Tuesday, and we are hearing this story. He has used the nebulous word ‘logistic’. This word logistic is a case of what goes round comes round”. Adelodun recalled that “my brother silk, Otaru, when he had little hitches, told your Lordships that because of logistic issues we had, we could not go on, INEC was one of the people that opposed that there is nothing like logistic problem. I am saying that there is no logistic problem that has been explained to your Lordships; none….INEC is chickening out. Our humble application is that INEC must be forced to continue; if not, they should close their case. We are eager to dispose of this matter and INEC should not hold us down”. Adelodun said if youth corpers have gone, what about electoral officers who are their employees and who are based in the state?”
Granting the application for adjournment till Friday this week, chairman of the tribunal, while noting that the number of days given the parties to prove their case is statutory, held that “the first respondent has 10 days from today to prove his case”, adding that “In as much as the first respondent’s day starts counting from today, we see no reason why his application could not be granted having regard to the challenges he claimed to encounter in the production of his witnesses”. Sources close to the petitioners hinted the magazine that it deliberately made INEC the first respondent so that the onus would be on it to prove that it substantially complied with its own rules and regulations in the election it conducted unlike in other situations whereby it would hide behind the other respondents in defending its case.