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The governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the March 18 governorship election in Ebonyi State, Ifeanyi Chukwuma Odii has revealed that at least 60 witnesses would be called to prove their case against the Governor of the state, Francis Nwifuru’s victory.
Counsel for the petitioners, Gordy Uche, informed the three-member panel of the 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) declared 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 across the 13 local governments in the state to defeat his closest challenger, Ifeanyi Odii, who got a total of 80,191 votes.
Odii and PDP, first and second petitioners, respectively, had challenged the declaration of Nwifuru as the winner of the election.
In the petition (EPT/EB/02/2023) dated April 6 and filed April 7 by their team of lawyers, led by Chris Uche, they had sued INEC, Nwifuru, and APC, maintaining that Nwifuru did not secure the majority of lawful votes 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 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 resuming pre-hearing on Friday, 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, they intend to call no fewer than 60 witnesses to prove 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 experts and witnesses.
Responding, INEC’s lawyer, 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 to the panel to direct them to streamline the number of witnesses in order to guard against acts of repetition.
Nwifuru’s lawyer, Onyechi Ikpeazu, said if the petitioners were calling 60 witnesses, they too would be inclined to call the same number of witnesses.
“If they are calling 60 witnesses, if need be, we are also calling 60 witnesses,” he said.
“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 submissions of Ikpeazu.
“Our position is the same as that of the second 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 the examination-in-chief of star or expert witnesses, they also proposed 30 minutes for cross-examination and five minutes for re-examination.
Tolani argued that all witnesses should be allotted 10 minutes each, including the star witnesses, during the examination-in-chief since all of them would also fill witness depositions.
He said the witnesses ought to adopt the witness depositions to fast-track proceedings.
The lawyer also proposed that 15 minutes be allotted for cross-examination and five minutes for re-examination.
Ikpeazu, on his part, proposed 15 minutes for the examination-in-chief of star witnesses or witness subpoena; 30 minutes for cross-examination of star witnesses; and five minutes for re-examination.
Ibrahim adopted Ikpeazu’s position.
The parties agreed on the tendering of INEC’s certified true documents from the bar as proposed by the petitioners.
They further agreed that objections to any documents should be taken at the point of tendering such documents, 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 the continuation of the pre-hearing.