Ekiti State High Court will no longer host the Ekiti State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal – no thanks to a security scare. The tribunal shifted its sitting to an undisclosed venue.
The police fired shots into the air at about 2.20 pm to disperse party supporters after the tribunal had ruled that it was moving its operations from Ado-Ekiti, the state capital.
The drama happened on the first day of the hearing of the petition filed by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate, Prof. Kolapo Olusola, against the election of Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who ran on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Fayemi won the July 14 governorship election, polling 197,459 to defeat Olusola, who got 178,122 votes.
The tribunal ordered a change of venue following the oral application by counsel to the petitioners, which was supported by counsel to all respondents in the matter.
The panel, which is chaired by Justice Sulaiman Belgore, found merit in the application and ordered a shift of venue. The tribunal chair said the new venue will be communicated to parties within 48 hours.
The dramatic change of venue stalled the pre-trial hearing which was supposed to be the first assignment of the panel.
The 1st Petitioner, PDP and Olusola, the 2nd Petitioner were represented by Mr. Adebayo Adelodun (SAN).
The 1st Respondent, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was represented by Mr. Charles Edosomwan, 2nd Respondent, APC, by Chief Akinlolu Olujinmi (SAN) and the 3rd Respondent, Dr. Fayemi, was represented by Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN).
Members of the APC and the PDP had massed outside the court complex for a “show of force” as early as 7.30am. The sitting was supposed to begin at 9.00am.
Many of the party members carried canes, sticks and cudgels. They attempted to enter the court premises but were restricted.
Lawyers to all parties raised concerns on their safety and that of witnesses expected to give evidence at the tribunal. They called for the shift of the hearing to Abuja, the nation’s capital.
The request was made after the three-man panel led by Justice Belgore had emerged from the chambers at 11.30am after the inaugural sitting, which started at 10.12am and ended at 10.32am.
Other members of the panel are Justice Ebiyerin Umukoro and Justice Aliyu Baba Usman.
On resumption of proceedings at 11.30a.m., Adelodun moves the application for the shifting of the tribunal venue on grounds that the atmosphere was too charged for the panel and the lawyers to conduct their business.
There were allegations by some PDP members that they were attacked by APC supporters outside the court complex.
Two House of Assembly members, Dayo Akinleye and Samuel Omotoso, alleged that they were assaulted by people they described as “APC thugs” who massed under the flyover directly opposite the court premises.
Adelodun, who described the atmosphere outside the court as “scary and alarming”, told the panel that the petitioners’ lawyers were held up for several minutes on their way to the court.
He said they were allowed entry following the intervention of a senior police officer. The presence of crowd will not allow them to do their jobs as freely as possible, Adelodun said.
He called for the shift of the proceedings to Abuja in view of the alleged security threat posed to them.
INEC counsel Edosomwan said he also observed the rowdiness outside the courtroom, adding that petitioners’ observation should be noted for the lawyers’ safety.
He supported the call that the tribunal’s sittings be taken to Abuja.
APC counsel Olujinmi said he supported the call for the movement to a neutral venue. He suggested Abuja as an alternative.
Fayemi’s Counsel Fagbemi, stressed that “security is not a matter to be trivialised” and argued that “a change of venue had become inevitable for all of us.”
He said the sight of party supporters wielding canes and cudgels was very scary.
Fagbemi said no matter how prepared counsel and witnesses were, a security scare would not allow them have peace, hence the need to grant the request.
He added: “It has been very, very scary and in order to prevent this atmosphere of lawlessness that may hamper the work of this tribunal, I want to join my colleagues to call for a change of venue of this tribunal.”
Justice Belgore said the three-man jury found merit in the application moved by the lawyers on the insecurity around the court complex and the unruly behaviour of the crowd outside.
He held: “Lawyers to the respondents expressed similar inclinations that the venue should be relocated to another city, citing cases of insecurity to lives.
“We are critically mindful of the consequences of the applications made by the counsel to the petitioner, which was not opposed by the counsel to the respondents.
“We have rubbed minds together and came to the conclusion that this fear is real and apparent that the situation is becoming insecure and tense and we can’t trivialise such.
“We hereby grant the application because of the consequences the insecurity could have on this Tribunal and the new venue shall be communicated through our Secretary to all parties within 48 hours.”
The Ekiti State Police command deployed an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) and several vans strategically positioned to ensure there was no breakdown of law and order.
Those entering the premises, including journalists and judicial officers, were frisked before being allowed in.
Earlier in the day, Justice Belgore, in his inaugural speech, promised that the tribunal members would act truly as an unbiased umpire and would not betray the confidence reposed in them by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa.
Belgore added that the Tribunal shall comply strictly with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), the Federal High Court Civil Procedure Rule and the Practice Directive as issued by the President of the Court of Appeal.
He said the panel would not tolerate any act that could be inimical to the smooth running of the Tribunal regarding the hearing and dispensation of judgment within the 180 days stipulated by the Appeal Court.
“It would be recalled that on the 14th July, 2018, election was held into the office of the Governor of Ekiti State. Following the declaration and return of Dr Fayemi of the APC as the winner, his co-contestant, Prof Olusola of the PDP, are challenging the outcome and declaration before this Tribunal.
“We cannot lose sight of the importance of our oath of office, the sacred duties we owe our conscience and the judiciary.
“We therefore, wish to assure all parties counsel and indeed all and sundry that the field will not only be leveled but officiating shall be impartial , fair and strictly in accordance with the relevant provisions of our laws.
“Let me warn that the Tribunal will not condone acts inimical to smooth proceedings. We hereby appeal to the members of the bar to show courtesy, diligence and due sense of professionalism in their appearances before us.
“We must all bear in mind at all times that Section 285 of the Constitution and Section 134 (2) of the Electoral Act are clear that all petitions must be heard and judgments delivered within 180 days.
“So, we don’t have the luxury of time. We intend to be pedantic in our work while at the same time no red herring technicalities shall be entertained.
“To the security agencies, especially Department of State Security and police, we implore you to be fully alert and conscious of your operations.
“You cannot afford to exhibit laxity or laziness or indeed any slight indifference to security challenges in the course of performing our duties.”