For Governor Nyesom Wike and the Rivers State chapter of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP the impending Christmas celebrations may not be a cheerful one.
The Court of Appeal has put what seemed a final dampener on the joy that would have accompanied the yuletide celebrations of the governor and members of his party with the nullification of the election of Wike on Wednesday, in continuation of the reverses the party had suffered in its 100 per cent victory in the governorship and National Assembly polls of the 2015 general elections.
Justice M.B Dongban- Mensem who led a three man panel of the appellate court had in a 110-page unanimous ruling affirmed the October 24 decision of Justice Suleiman Ambrossa led Rivers State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal to nullify the election of Wike.
The tribunal had in its judgment upheld allegations by Dakuku Peterside, the All Progressives Congress, APC gubernatorial candidate and the petitioner that the governorship election was marred with malpractices, violence and irregularities as it was not conducted in accordance to Electoral Act.
The Tribunal especially noted that officials of Independent National Electoral Commission failed to comply with their guidelines which stipulated that accreditation of voters must be by Card Readers, and that, where the machine malfunctioned, election in that area or polling unit should be postponed.
The Tribunal further noted that based on written statements admitted in court and oral evidences given by witnesses called by the petitioner, it was convinced that, rather than postpone election in areas where the Card Readers failed, election officials resorted to manual accreditation of voters.
Dakuku Peterside still having the last laugh
The Tribunal said after considering statements of witnesses and potency of evidence tendered by the petitioner, it was convinced that the election was not credible and conducted without adherence with INEC guidelines, as “there were widespread irregularities, allocation of figures, violence, ballot snatching, intimidation of voters, corrupt practices, etc.”
The Tribunal had consequently ordered Wike to vacate his seat while INEC should conduct a fresh election for the state within 90 days. But the Rivers State governor had challenged the decision of the Tribunal, insisting that he was duly elected governor of the state. He asked the appellate court to set aside the judgment of the tribunal, arguing that the lower court failed to consider the evidence – that a proper election took place in Rivers state on April 11 – tendered before it.
But in dismissing the appeal, the Justice M.B Dongban- Mensem panel held that the Tribunal was right in nullifying Wike’s election. Just like the tribunal, the appellate court held that the APC gubernatorial candidate successfully proved that the Rivers State governorship election was marred by malpractices and was conducted with total disregard to both the Electoral Act, 2010, and Electoral Guidelines issued by INEC.
While affirming that guidelines issued by INEC made the use of the Card Reader Machines for authentication of voters for the election mandatory during the election, the Justices said evidence presented before it suggested that some officials of the Commission in Rivers state “blatantly and brazenly” refused to employ the Card Reader Machines, an innovation the court said was meant to bring sanity and sanctity to the electoral process. “It portends great danger for our democracy and electoral process for INEC officials to have the effrontery and temerity to thwart laid down directives and go ahead to conduct elections according to their own whims and caprices, notwithstanding the approved guidelines,” the Justices said.
According to the Justices, it would be tantamount to laying a bad precedent for INEC officials to be allowed to overlook directives and guidelines aimed at ensuring that elections are free, fair and credibly conducted.
The court particularly noted that two top officials had in their testimony before the lower tribunal admitted that the April 11 governorship election was not conducted in compliance to the Electoral Act and set guidelines.
This, the Justices said amounted to self indictment by INEC. The panel resolved all the seven grounds of appeal against Wike.
“Having determined that the 2nd respondent was not validly elected, I hereby affirm and uphold the decision of the lower tribunal that nullified his return as the winner of the April 11 governorship election in Rivers State. I hereby affirm the order for INEC to conduct a fresh election. I make no order as to cost”, Justice M. B. Dongban-Mensem said in the lead judgment that sent members of APC present at the court into ecstasy.
In his reaction contained in a statement issued few hours after the judgment, the APC gubernatorial candidate hailed the verdict of the Appeal Court while adding that the Nigerian judiciary is sending the right signal, particularly to those who perpetrate violence and fraud during elections.
“Never again will a peoples’ mandate be subverted so viciously by a violent and self-seeking few, all in the name of political contest. Members of our party and supporters were murdered in cold blood in their homes and campaign grounds for their political beliefs. We are happy that this injustice is currently being addressed by a credible institution like the judiciary.
“We pray never to experience the level of persecution, violence and deaths that characterised both the March and April elections in our state. Democracy is about freedom, equality and justice; so everybody must join hands to defend it at all times,” said Peterside.
Despite the two consecutive losses, Wike said the battle to retain his seat is not over, as he has instructed his lawyers to appeal the judgment at the Supreme Court. In a statement issued, by Simeon Nwakaudu, his Special Assistant on Electronic Media,Wike stated that he disagrees with the judgment, hence his decision to exhaust his constitutional right by challenging the Appeal Court judgment at the Supreme Court.
He also vowed to use all constitutional processes to protect the mandate which he claimed the people of the state freely bestowed on him, hence his decision to approach the Supreme Court for further adjudication.
But for PDP, it is already looking like a lost battle- the Appeal Court had last week sacked all the three senators as well as 12 out of the 13 representatives of the State in the House of Representatives.
The nullifications of the electoral victories had long been predicted by observers who argued that there was no proper election in Rivers State during the 2015 general elections. PDP, Nigeria’s then ruling party had deployed operatives of different security agencies not only to rig the polls, but to give cover to thugs and militants who unleash a reign of terror on identified supporters of opposition, especially, the APC during the election.