By John Ameh

The Bayelsa State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Abuja has slated for judgment a suit by the governorship candidate of the Liberation Movement (LM), Mr Vijah Opuama, challenging the eligibility of the state’s deputy governor, Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, in the last November election.

The deputy governor has told the tribunal that he cannot be sued claiming that the law does not allow him to institute a legal action in an electoral dispute. He is the 4th respondent in the petition by the candidate of LM in the November 16, 2019 governorship election in the State.

Mr Opuama, in challenging Ewhrudjakpo’s qualification to stand for election, alleged that there were discrepancies in the name of the deputy governor as indicated on his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) exemption certificate.

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The deputy governor, who earlier testified before the tribunal as a subpoenaed witness, explained that there was an error in his NYSC exemption certificate, which he claimed was the fault of NYSC, and that it was corrected when he applied to the authorities of the NYSC on noticing the error.

While adopting his final written address to the tribunal filed by his counsel, Chukwuma-Machukwu Ume (SAN), on Monday, the deputy governor contended that “Section 137 (1) (A) and (B) clearly specified that only a candidate in an election and a political party which participated in the election that can lodge a petition.” He added that sub-section (2) states that a “person whose election is complained of is, under this Act, referred to as the respondent.”

He, therefore, argued that the Electoral Act does not allow him to institute an election petition and as such he cannot be sued in that regard. The deputy governor likened his case to that of an underage person who can neither vote nor be voted for in an election.

Ume further drew the attention of the Justice Ibrahim Sirajo-led three-member tribunal to the grounds of the petitioners’ suit which border on the credentials of the deputy governor, arguing that it is a pre-election matter and therefore statute-barred going by the provisions of Section 31, paragraph (1), (5) and (6) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended).

Quoting copiously from the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), Ume said: “Any person who has reasonable grounds to believe that any information given by a candidate in the affidavit or any document submitted by that candidate is false may file a suit at the Federal High Court, High Court of State or FCT against such person seeking a declaration that the information contained in the affidavit is false.

“If the court determines that any of the information contained in the affidavit of any document submitted by that candidate is false, the court shall issue an order disqualifying him from contesting the election.”

In addition, Ume informed the tribunal that exhibits P9 and P12 which are copies of a recent Supreme Court judgment, which nullified the election of the APC governorship candidate in the November 2019 poll based on a pre-election suit lodged at the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, further exposed the irredeemable flaws in the petitioners’ suit.

He argued that the petitioners had shot themselves in the foot by citing the apex court’s verdict delivered on February 13, 2020, saying, it was a case instituted at the trial court in compliance with Section 285 (9) of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, which states that a pre-election matter must be filed within 14 days after the particulars of a candidate contained in Form CF001 is published by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and not after the conduct of the election by the electoral umpire (INEC).

Subsequently, Ume urged the tribunal to dismiss the petition for lacking in merit as it was statute-barred.

After listening to the arguments of counsel to parties in the petition, the tribunal adjourned the suit indefinitely for judgment. The tribunal Chairman, Justice Sirajo, said the date for judgment in the petition would be communicated to the lawyers in the matter.

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