In a landmark judgment delivered, the Ebonyi State Election Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal, sitting in Abuja, upheld the victory of Francis Nwifuru, representing the All Progressives Congress (APC), as the Governor of Ebonyi State.
This decisive ruling comes after a protracted legal battle initiated by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its governorship candidate, Ifeanyi Odii.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) initially declared Francis Nwifuru the winner of the gubernatorial election held on March 18, 2023, with a resounding 199,131 votes, while Ifeanyi Odii secured second place with 80,191 votes.
The PDP and Odii, dissatisfied with the election results, lodged a petition with the Election Tribunal, challenging Nwifuru’s victory on the grounds of alleged electoral irregularities and Nwifuru’s party affiliation.
The crux of the PDP’s argument revolved around their claim that Governor Nwifuru was ineligible to contest the election under the APC banner, asserting that he had not legitimately resigned from the PDP.
Nevertheless, the APC provided a compelling counterargument, presenting evidence that Nwifuru had formally resigned from the PDP while serving as Speaker of the State House of Assembly and subsequently joined the APC.
In a comprehensive judgment issued on September 27, 2023, the three-member panel of the Tribunal, chaired by Justice Lekan Ogunmoye, made several pivotal rulings.
Firstly, it held that issues related to nomination and sponsorship by a political party are pre-election matters and should have been addressed before the Federal High Court before the election. Consequently, the Tribunal declined jurisdiction to entertain the grounds of Nwifuru’s sponsorship by the APC, deeming it an internal party matter.
Justice Ogunmoye emphasized that the petitioners failed to prove non-compliance with the Electoral Act during the election. Furthermore, the Tribunal stated that the question of membership in a political party is not a justiciable issue, thereby undermining the PDP’s contention regarding Nwifuru’s party affiliation.
The Tribunal also emphasized that it could not overturn a previous judgment from the Federal High Court, which affirmed Nwifuru’s defection to the APC while he was still a lawmaker. The PDP was reprimanded for not appealing the trial court judgment earlier.
Regarding the PDP’s allegations of over-voting, mutilation, and inflation of results, the Tribunal noted that the petitioners called 20 witnesses who failed to prove that the contested polling unit result sheets were defective or improperly stamped, as required by law.
Additionally, the petitioners were unable to produce polling unit results given to their agents as evidence of alleged electoral malpractice.
Justice Ogunmoye cited a Supreme Court precedent that stated that over-voting can only be established with the use of the Voters Register, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System report, and Form EC8As. In light of this, the panel concluded that the petitioners failed to substantiate their claims.
Consequently, the Election Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal dismissed the PDP’s petition, confirming Francis Nwifuru as the duly elected Governor of Ebonyi State. This ruling brings an end to the legal battle that ensued after the March 18 gubernatorial election, providing a clear mandate for Governor Nwifuru to lead the state.