The Edo Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Benin on Tuesday decried the failure of Onyinye Anunonye, counsel to the Independent National electoral commission(INEC) to call witnesses in its defence in a petition before it.
The Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) and Osagie Ize-Iyamu, its candidate in the Sept. 28 governorship election, in their petition, are challenging the declaration by INEC of Godwin Obaseki as winner of the election.
The petitioners had named the INEC, Obaseki and the APC as first, second and third respondents respectively in the petition.
INEC had declared Obaseki winner of the Edo governorship election after he polled 319,483 votes to defeat Ize-Iyamu, his closest rival, who scored 250,000 votes.
The petitioners are alleging that the said election was fraught with electoral fraud in some units and wards in the 18 local government areas of the state. They are asking the tribunal to declare Ize-Iyamu as winner from the valid votes cast. The petitioners closed their case on Friday after calling 91 witnesses and tendered used ballot papers, results and voter register before the Justice Ahmed Badamasi-led three member election petition tribunal.
At the resumed hearing on Tuesday, Anunonye informed the tribunal that he could not open his defence, saying he had no witnesses to call in the case.
Shortly after announcing his appearance, Anunonye said “ I know the tribunal adjourned till today for us to open our defence. Unfortunately, we have challenges.
“The first is the scheduling of time of the senior counsel in the case for the first respondent which makes it impossible for any of them to be here today.
“And the second and the most important, is the challenge of logistics which has made it impossible for any of our witnesses to be in court.’’
He explained that many of the witnesses were former NYSC members who had passed out and who resided outside Benin, adding “we have sent them test massages.
“But we have not been able to meet with them to interact and streamline our witnesses to be called in other to present a defence for the respondent.
“While we are conceding three days to enable us whittle down our witnesses, I apply that the tribunal adjourn to Friday when we will open our defence.
“It should consider the days as part of our 10-day statutorily allotted time for the respondent,’’ he said.
Anunonye’s application, however, drew the ire of the tribunal chairman, Justice Badamasi, who asked him “why didn’t you prepare before today, knowing that the petitioners closed their case on Friday?
But Ken Mozia and Rikky Tarfa, both Senior Advocates of Nigeria(SAN), and counsel to Obaseki and APC, respectively, did not oppose Anunonye’s request for adjournment. They argued that since he was utilising the statutory allotted time, submitted that he should be allowed time to deal with the identified challenges in the defence of his case.
But Adebanjo Adelodun, SAN, the petitioners’ counsel, opposed the application for adjournment, saying that although adjournment was at the discretion of the tribunal, it depended on the credible and factual evidence presented before it.
“In this instance, the respondent has not presented any cogent and credible reason for the tribunal to grant an adjournment, aside the nebulous word ` logistics’.
“My Lords, the respondents is aware that we closed our case on Friday and was sufficiently informed by the tribunal that it would open its defence today.
“We are here today and prepared and INEC is chickening out. We apply that the tribunal forces INEC to open its defence today as we are eager to get done with this petition,’’ he said.
Adelodun argued that “INEC has several of its members of staff in Benin and who also functioned as electoral officers, it can invite them as witnesses.’’
Ruling, Badamasi, however, said that taking into consideration that the first respondent had a 10-day period to present its defence and “since the days being sought for adjournment, are within the allotted time, the application is granted.
Badamasi thereafter adjourned sitting till Friday, Feb.14 for INEC to open its defence.