In the political landscape of Benue State, a fierce battle rages on as the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidate, Emmanuel Udende, seek to overturn the decision of the Benue State National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal. This pivotal case revolves around the Benue North East Senatorial seat, and its outcome could significantly impact the region’s political future.
The stage was set on February 25 when Benue State held its senatorial election for the North East district. In this hotly contested battle, Emmanuel Udende, representing the APC, went head to head with Gabriel Suswam of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). When the dust finally settled, Udende emerged as the winner, with a total of 135,573 votes, surpassing Suswam’s 112,231 votes. However, it was far from the end of the story.
Unsatisfied with the outcome, Suswam raised concerns about the election results. He approached the Benue State National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal, alleging over-voting, irregularities, alterations, and the falsification of results. The crux of his case lay in the assertion that Udende did not secure the majority of lawful votes cast. He claimed that there were multiple issues, including cancellations, mutilations, alterations, violence, and non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022.
The tribunal, led by Justice Ori Zik-Ikeoha, embarked on an exhaustive examination of the case. It upheld Suswam’s petition, contending that irregularities indeed marred the election in five out of the seven Local Government Areas (LGAs) within the Senatorial District. Consequently, the tribunal nullified 51,895 votes recorded for Senator Udende and an additional 21,229 votes attributed to Senator Suswam. After deducting the contested votes, Senator Suswam remained with 90,590 votes, while Senator Udende was left with 82,699 votes.
The tribunal’s decision was a turning point in the case. It not only invalidated Udende’s victory but also cast a cloud of uncertainty over the entire election process. As a result, the tribunal declared Gabriel Suswam as the rightful winner of the Benue North East Senatorial seat.
Appeal to the Court of Appeal
Faced with a decision that could alter the political landscape, the APC and Emmanuel Udende did not back down. They appealed the tribunal’s judgment, taking their case to the Court of Appeal in Abuja.
A three-member panel of the appellate court, led by Justice Abimbola Osarugue Obaseki Adejumo, recently heard the arguments from both sides. The appellate court proceedings have generated significant interest and anticipation.
Emmanuel Udende’s legal team, led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), presented a compelling case. They urged the court to set aside the tribunal’s judgment, emphasizing that Suswam’s petition was based on a single ground: the claim that Udende did not secure the majority of lawful votes. Udende’s team argued that Suswam’s case was primarily centered on allegations of irregularities in 474 polling units, including cancellations, mutilations, alterations, violence, and non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2022.
Awomolo, SAN, contended that the tribunal had overstepped its boundaries by engaging in extensive investigations and analyses of election data. He highlighted that Suswam had called only eight witnesses during the tribunal proceedings, none of whom were presiding officers from the polling units in question. Moreover, Udende’s legal team argued that the tribunal had embarked on a voyage of tabulating votes from the disputed polling units.
The APC emphasized that the tribunal had previously, in an interlocutory judgment on September 30, expunged evidence from 11 of Suswam and the PDP’s witnesses. Additionally, they pointed out that the petitioners, by their own admission, had lost the election by a margin of 23,342 votes.
The APC’s Defense
The APC maintained that the eight witnesses presented by the petitioners were insufficient to prove irregularities in 474 polling units. Importantly, none of these witnesses were polling unit agents. The party argued that the tribunal’s judgment lacked a solid foundation in credible evidence presented by the petitioners.
Gabriel Suswam’s legal team, led by Mr. Paul Erokoro, SAN, countered Udende’s appeal by highlighting that the votes attributed to Udende by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) were unlawful. Erokoro, SAN, emphasized that the absence of necessary witnesses should not be a point of contention, as it was practically impossible to expect the petitioner to call over 400 witnesses from all the polling units.
The PDP’s Stand
Similarly, counsel to the PDP, Mr. Paul Ogbole, SAN, argued that Section 137 of the Electoral Act 2022 allowed a petitioner to rely on documentary evidence to prove their case. They claimed that this provision aimed to streamline the process and reduce the burden on tribunals. In the case at hand, the tribunal had deemed the evidence credible and admissible, justifying its reliance on these documents.
The Court’s Decision
After a thorough examination of all arguments presented by both sides, the Court of Appeal panel reserved its judgment. The decision of the appellate court will undoubtedly shape the political landscape of Benue State, specifically the Benue North East Senatorial district.
The outcome of this case will have far-reaching implications for the APC, the PDP, and, most importantly, the constituents of the Benue North East Senatorial district. As the court prepares to render its verdict, the political arena remains charged with anticipation and suspense.