“On whatever condition, Ortom qualified to contest. The petitioner has failed to provide evidence to the petition, including PDP membership register which could have shown that Ortom is still in PDP. …The petition is hereby struck out and dismissed.”
These were the exact words of Justice Elizabeth Karatu, the chairman of the three-man panel on the Benue State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal which delivered judgment last week Monday on the case between Governor Samuel Ortom of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Prince Terhemen Tarzoor.
In the judgment, which lasted at least three hours amidst tight security and heightened tension, the tribunal upheld Ortom’s victory at the April 11 general election, putting paid to the wrangling between supporters of both parties as to who should carry the day.
Tarzoor was at the election tribunal to challenge the emergence of Ortom as the duly elected governor of Benue State, alleging that he was not qualified for the contest following his improper resignation from the PDP.
Tarzoor, in his petition, had asked the tribunal to knock out Ortom on the grounds that he was not duly nominated and qualified to contest the poll on the platform of APC.
Tarzoor added instead, he should be declared the rightful winner of the election.
Few days to the ruling, the opposition PDP and ruling APC in the state engaged in fierce war of words.
Stakeholders of the PDP had during a meeting held at its secretariat in Makurdi accused the state governor of running a corrupt administration.
The state chairman of PDP, Dr. Emmanuel Agbo, said the pitiable situation of the state would soon be reversed as the “stolen mandate” would be retrieved from Ortom, who he referred to as a temporary governor for Tarzoor to take on the mantle of leadership.
But in a swift reaction, the APC chairman in the state, Comrade Abba Yaro, urged the PDP to provide issue-based credible opposition rather than resorting to falsehood.
Yaro had maintained that the earlier the PDP realised that gone were the days when it subjected the people to its whims and caprices, the better for the party.
He posited that Ortom, who was duly elected by the overwhelming majority of the people of the state would complete his renewable mandate to the latter, and that all attempts by the opposition to subvert his genuine mandate would fail, just like all the strategies employed to stop his election.
However, delivering judgment on the matter at the filled-to-capacity High Court 7, the Justice Karatu-led tribunal held that the petitioner failed to provide evidence to the petition, including PDP membership register which could have shown that Ortom is still in PDP.
She therefore ruled that: “On whatever condition, Ortom is qualified to contest.”
The chairman of the tribunal, relying on relevant portions of the law, averred that Ortom’s qualification cannot be disputed in line with Section 138 (1a) of the 1999 Constitution, as the petitioner must prove his argument on the strength of his case and not on the strength of the respondent’s.
Consequently, Karatu added, “the petition is hereby struck out and dismissed.”
She also ordered that Ortom’s certificate of return be restored.
According to her, “The petitioner was not able to prove substantially that the first respondent (Ortom) was its member. The letter of resignation of the first respondent was not dislodged …the petitioner must prove his case on the strength of his case and not on that of the respondent’s.”
The tribunal nonetheless held that Tarzoor had competence to challenge Ortom’s membership of APC, but should have done so with credible evidence before the court.
Reacting to the ruling, a counsel to the petitioner, Donald Kertyo, said that there is room to continue the struggle at the Appeal Court and up to the Supreme Court because some of the issues canvassed by his client were neglected in the judgment.
But counsel to Ortom, Moses Atai, praised the tribunal for the judgment and promised that his client would extend a hand of fellowship to the petitioner.
In the same vein, Ortom described his victory as the handiwork of God, while he promised to embrace the opposition and to work with them for the good of the state.
As expected, Tarzoor has rejected the outcome of the tribunal and vowed to seek redress at the appellate court.
The director of media and publicity in his campaign organization, Cornelius Hwande, in a statement in Makurdi, shortly after the judgment, assured their supporters that the petition of Tarzoor was sound and premised on credible grounds, which if viewed dispassionately, would give victory to the PDP candidate.
Hwande further stressed that the Court of Appeal, Makurdi Division, which will likely be the next destination of Tarzoor in his quest for justice, has a rich history of dispensing justice without fear or favour.
He pointed out that the appellate court has already given judgments that laid a precedent for the PDP candidate’s victory when he approaches the court.
The Tarzoor campaign spokesperson further urged PDP faithful across the state to keep faith with the aspirations of the party’s governorship candidate, and his vision for a greater Benue State, which according to him have been “concisely articulated.”
He maintained that the road to justice, no matter how long, will ultimately lead to the desired destination of victory for Tarzoor.
The Ortom’s victory, which was hinged in accordance with Section 138 (1a) and Section 177 (c) of the 1999 Constitution, seem to be generating another round of discourse among political watchers, who think that it would be difficult to unseat the governor.
They recalled that former Governor Gabriel Suswam knew what it meant to draw a legal battle line with an incumbent when he advised his party and the governorship candidate soon after the election to sheath their sword.
Suswam, a lawyer by profession, had said he was conversant with how court cases could distract a governor from accomplishing lofty goals for the development of the state, and therefore appealed to Tarzoor to shun litigation by embracing his opponent to further the advancement of the state.
To lead by example, the former governor, who also lost his senatorial election, had withdrawn his petition filed against his major challenger and winner of the Benue North East senatorial seat, Senator Barnabas Gemade.
However, some optimistic have posited that Tarzoor would laugh last, given the argument already perched by his counsel, while responding to the tribunal’s ruling soon after the judgment was delivered.
Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Information and Orientation in the state, Chief Odeh Ageh, has called on state elders and stakeholders to come together and find alternative dispute resolution instead of dragging one another to various courts.
He told newsmen in Makurdi that there is no gain instituting litigation against one another, and wasting resources that would have been used to further develop the state.
Ageh said: “I advise our people in the area of litigation, particularly as it concerns tribunal, and I am appealing to our elders and stakeholders of Benue, to come together and find alternative dispute resolution, instead of dragging ourselves before one court of law and another on issues that are very obvious.”
According to the commissioner, “the state government is not afraid of appeal but the magnitude of money spent on lawyers and time wasted could be channeled to developing the state.”
He stressed that leadership comes from above and that Ortom’s victory at the tribunal is a victory for democracy, a victory for change and a victory for Benue people.
Also, the state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Benue, Arch Bishop Yimam Orkwar, has appealed to the PDP governorship candidate not to waste his time to go to Appeal or Supreme Court against the incumbent governor.
“We in CAN are not politicians but all we do is support whoever God gives the opportunity to rule us. We supported the PDP-led government in the state in the last dispensation and we are also supporting the APC-led government in this present dispensation.
“Tarzoor should not waste his time going to Appeal or Supreme Court. God and the people have given Ortom the mandate to govern us and all hands must be on deck to ensure that he succeeds,” Orkwar posited.