The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its governorship candidate in the March 18 governorship election in Ebonyi, Chief Ifeanyi Chukwuma Odii, on Friday, said that at least 60 witnesses would be called to prove their case against Gov. Francis Nwifuru’s victory.
Counsel for the petitioners, Chief Gordy Uche, SAN, told the three-member panel of Ebonyi State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal headed by Justice A. L. Ogunmoye during the pre-hearing session in Abuja.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had declared Mr Nwifuru of the All Progressives Congress (APC) the winner of the governorship poll conducted in the state.
Nwifuru garnered a total of 199,131 votes cast across the 13 local governments in the state to defeat his closest challenger, Ifeanyi Odii who got a total of 80,191 votes to place second.
Odii and PDP, who are 1st and 2nd petitioners, had challenged the declaration of Nwifuru as winner of the election.
In the petition marked: EPT/EB/02/2023 dated April 6 and filed April 7 by their team of lawyers led by Chris Uche, SAN, they had sued INEC, Ogbonna Francis Nwifuru (the newly sworn-in governor) and the APC as 1st to 3rd defendants respectively.
The petitioners maintained that Nwifuru did not secure the majority of lawful votes that were cast during the election.
They further told the tribunal that Nwifuru’s election victory was characterised by corrupt practices, alleging that there was substantial non-compliance with provisions of the Electoral Act, 2022.
Aside from praying for the court to declare him as the valid winner of the gubernatorial election, Odii is seeking the withdrawal of the Certificate of Return that was issued to the governor by INEC.
The petitioners also argued that Nwifuru did not validly resign from the PDP before he was nominated as the governorship candidate of the APC.
They cited a subsisting judgement of a High Court in Ebonyi, delivered by Justice Henry Njoku, which they said held that Nwifuru and other lawmakers in the state who purportedly defected to the APC, were still members of the PDP.
But Governor Nwifuru and the APC disagreed with the petitioners, urging the tribunal to dismiss the petition in its entirety.
Upon resumed pre-hearing on Friday, Mr Gordy Uche who appeared for the petitioners, informed the panel that based on its directive, a schedule for trial had been prepared.
According to him, on the order of calling witnesses, for petitioners, we intend to call not more than 60 witnesses in proving our case.
The senior lawyer said that the petitioners would require not more than three weeks to prove their case against the APC and its candidate’s victory in the election.
He said they intended to call expert and subpoena witnesses.
Responding, the INEC’s lawyer, Mr Oladipo Tolani, informed the tribunal that the commission had only one witness to call.
Tolani, in reaction to the petitioners’ proposal to call 60 witnesses, prayed the panel to direct them to streamline the number of witnesses in order to guide against act of repetition.
Nwifuru’s lawyer, Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN, said if the petitioners would be calling 60 witnesses, they too would be inclined to call same number of witnesses.
“If they are calling 60 witnesses, if the need be, we are also calling 60 witnesses,” he said.
Ikpeazu said that they would require 10 days to call their witnesses.
“We will call experts and subpoena witnesses.
“We will not go beyond what they have done. We require not less than 10 days to call the 60 witnesses if the need be,” he added.
APC’s counsel, Abdul Ibrahim, SAN, adopted all the submission of Ikpeazu.
“Our position is the same with that of the 2nd respondent.
“That is if the need be sir.
“We also require 10 days to call our witnesses,” he said.
On the timing for presenting witnesses, while the petitioners proposed 30 minutes for examination-in- chief of star or expert witnesses, they proposed 30 minutes for cross-examination and five minutes for re-examination.
“For other witnesses, we propose 10 minutes for examination-in-chief, 10 minutes for cross-examination and five minutes for re-examination,” Uche said.
Tolani argued that all witnesses should be alloted 10 minutes each, including the star witnesses during examination-in-chief since all of them would also fill witness depositions.
He said the witnesses ought to adopt the witness depositions to fasttrack proceedings.
The lawyer also proposed that 15 minutes should be alloted for cross examination and five minutes for re-examination.
Ikpeazu, on his part, proposed 15 minutes for examination-in-chief of star witnesses or witness subpoena; 30 minutes for cross-examination of star witness and five minutes for re-examination.
“With respect to other witnesses, we propose five minutes for the evidence-in-chief since it relates with adoption of witness depositions.
“We propose 10 minutes for cross-examination and three minutes for re-examination,” he said.
Ibrahim adopted Ikpeazu’s position.
The parties, however, agreed on tendering of INEC’s certified true documents from the bar as proposed by the petitioners.
They further agreed that objection to any documents be taken at the point of tendering such document while the reason for objecting should be stated in the final address.
They also agreed that all parties should file their issues for determination within seven days and leave these for the panel’s decision.
The tribunal adjourned the matter until June 8 for continuation of pre-hearing.