The Court of Appeal in Abuja on Thursday affirmed the election of Abdullahi Sule as Nasarawa State governor, after overturning the earlier decision of the election petition tribunal that removed him from office.
Delivering judgement on the appeal filed by Mr Sule, a three-member panel of the appeal court held that the Nasarawa State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal was wrong to have declared David Ombugadu, the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), as the winner of the 18 March election.
Mr Sule of the All Progressives Congress (APC) was initially declared the winner of the polls by Nigeria’s electoral commission, INEC.
But Mr Ombugadu challenged the election outcome at the tribunal, arguing that he won the majority of valid votes during the contest.
In a split decision of the tribunal on 2 October, two members, forming the majority, declared Mr Ombugadu the winner of the election, while the minority opinion of the only other member affirmed Mr Sule’s victory.
Mr Sule subsequently appealed against the majority decision of the tribunal.
‘Governor Sule won’
Deciding the governor’s appeal on Thursday, the Court of Appeal held that Mr Sule was validly elected as Nasarawa State governor.
The appellate court panel led by Uchechukwu Onyemenam said Mr Ombugadu failed to prove his allegation of over-voting levelled against Mr Sule.
Mr Onyemenam, who read the lead decision of the court, said the tribunal was wrong to have concluded that Mr Sule did not score a majority of the valid votes cast in the election.
Referencing Section 285(5) of the Nigerian constitution, and Section 132(7) of the Electoral Act 2022, and Paragraphs 4(5) (6) and 14(2) of the First Schedule to the Electoral Act, the appellate court held that a petition must be filed alongside every written statement on oath within 21 days from the date of an election.
“Where a trial court admitted and acted on illegally inadmissible evidence, it is the duty of the appellate court to ensure that such illegally inadmissible evidence is expunged.
“A court of law is only allowed to act on legally admissible evidence. If documents are unlawfully allowed by a trial court, the appellate court is duty-bound to exclude the documents and discountenance the evidence,” Mr Onyemenam said of witnesses’ statements oath that was tendered by Mr Ombugadu at the tribunal.”
Consequently, the justice struck out all the evidence and exhibits that were tendered before the tribunal by Mr Ombugadu’s eight witnesses.
Mr Onyemenam noted that the evidence of the remaining 12 witnesses who testified for the PDP governorship candidate was insufficient to prove Mr Ombugadu’s allegations of electoral fraud against the governor.
In addition, the justice faulted the tribunal’s deduction of 1,868 votes credited to Mr Sule. The tribunal had reduced the governor’s scores because over-voting occurred in four polling stations.
The appellate court ruled that the PDP candidate merely dumped on the court, reports of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) machines and other electoral documents without demonstrating them with evidence to substantiate the allegation of over-voting
He dismissed the lower court’s majority decision but upheld the dissenting judgement, which had affirmed Mr Sule’s victory at the polls.
“On the whole, I hold that this appeal has merit a nd succeeds; the majority judgment of the tribunal delivered on October 2 is hereby dismissed,” Mr Onyemenam said.
INEC had declared Mr Sule as the winner of the election with 347,209 votes to beat his closest challenger, Mr Ombugadu, who garnered 283,016 votes.
Dissatisfied with the results declared by INEC, Mr Ombugadu and his party, the PDP, filed a petition at the governorship election tribunal in the state to challenge the outcome of the polls.
On 2 October, the three-member election petition tribunal led by Ezekiel Ajayi, by a split decision of two-to-one, declared Mr Ombugadu the validly elected governor of Nasarawa State.
Evaluating the evidence before the panel, Mr Ajayi held that Mr Ombugadu tendered the results of the various polling stations and forms EC 8A and substantiated his claim that poll results were manipulated in favour of Mr Sule.
Another member of the tribunal, Chiemelie Onaga, concurred with the lead judgement read by Mr Ajayi.
But a dissenting decision of the other member of the tribunal, Ibrahim Mashi, dismissed Mr Ombugadu’s petition for lacking in merit.
Displeased with the judgement, Mr Sule filed his appeal to challenge the majority decision. The appeal succeeded on Thursday.
But the PDP and its candidate still have the right to challenge the Court of Appeal’s decision at the Supreme Court, which has the final say on governorship election disputes in Nigeria.
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