By Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire
On August 16, 2023, the panel of judges in the electoral tribunal heard the closing argument of counsel in the petition of Honourable Chijioke Edeoga against Governor Peter Mbah. That was the culmination of a momentous trial of the decade to decide the fate of democracy in Enugu State. On that day, lawyers on each side of the bar presented their succinct distillation of the law, the facts and the evidence of the case. The hearing of the day ended with the judges retiring to consider the argument of counsel and the evidence, in preparation of their judgment. All eyes of the people of Enugu, and the world, are on these judges and the stake could not be higher.
As the case goes in for deliberation, observers are able to reflect on what the trial has been all about and what it reveals about the governorship election in Enugu State and about the main personas in the center of the controversy. And finally, attention is focused on the judges; what caliber of jurists they will become out of this case and what will their place in history be? Make no mistake about it, the judgment these judges are about to render is so profound and will most likely become for each judge the defining moment in his career and legacy. Decades from today, when the names of these judges are mentioned, people will remember them by their judgment in this case. Rarely do judges have such an opportunity to decide the fate of milluons in just a single case. So, for the judges, as much as for the people of Enugu State, this is the mother of all judicial decisions in Enugu State. Accordingly, one must assume that for these judges, nothing would mean more to them than to seek the honor and dignity which their record of uprightness in this case will permanently attach to their names. No man lives forever, but a good name will live much longer than any material possession.
Though the campaign period prior to the elections revealed a lot about the personalities that offered themselves to become the Governor of Enugu State, much more about these men was revealed in the course of this trial. The true character of the men was seen in full display as the trial wound through its tortuous course with numerous moments of climax and anti-climax. The people saw in Edeoga a leader who was humble and focused and totally open in his quest for justice. He showed himself to be relentless and willing to go the full length in that quest. He showed silent courage and an unusual indefatigability of the spirit. On the contrary, the people saw in Peter Mbah a leader who was desperate to suppress and derail the search for justice and truth. Mbah used every means possible to try to gag the NYSC and prevent it from providing evidence to the tribunal. Mbah was everywhere giving press interviews to try to prop up his discredited NYSC discharge certificate. Yet, he ignored subpoenas to defend the same certificate in an open court. And he failed to testify in his own trial. Many were shocked by such cowardly and inconsistent behavior on the part of Peter Mbah. In other words, the true character of Peter Mbah was revealed more during the trial than during the campaign.
Apart from the parties involved in the petition, this trial also revealed the golden moment in the history of the NYSC. Contrary to what one is accustomed to hearing about Nigerian institutions and the influence of money, NYSC’s current leadership displayed an exemplary honesty and courage by defying every act of intimidation and blackmail to come to testify in truth before the tribunal. The behavior of the NYSC is in sharp contrast to the serial betrayal of the people by the INEC in the last elections. Without this trial, many Nigerians would not have known that we still have in this country an honorable institution like the NYSC. The value of the NYSC’s example in this case goes beyond the courageous testimony of its official. It went further to set the pace for the tribunal itself. It showed that good name is better than silver and gold. It shined the light on the path of integrity and uprightness and the judges, we believe, saw that light and should uphold that standard.
In the end, the outcome of this petition will turn on the evidence presented by the parties and the performance of the lawyers. Evidence plays a crucial role in the administration of justice as it serves as a tool to establish the truth or falsehood of allegations, accusations, or claims made by parties involved in legal proceedings. The significance of evidence in the administration of justice can be seen in the following aspects in this case:
1. Establishing Facts:
Evidence helps to establish the facts of a case by providing information or proof that supports or refutes a claim. This helps the judges to make informed decisions based on the available evidence. The forged National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Discharge Certificate No. A808297 is too vivid and too compelling for the judges to ignore. It sticks out like a dagger thrust through heart of anything Peter Mbah could say in his defense. The nearly unchallenged testimony of Mr. Abdul Ibrahim Muhammad, the Director Corps Certification of the NYSC, given on the 7th of July, 2023, was also compelling and overwhelming. The totality of the evidence adduced by Edeoga leads to one inescapable conclusion – that Edeoga should have been declared the winner of the election and consequentially sworn in as the Governor of Enugu State.
2. Fairness and Impartiality:
The introduction of evidence ensures a fair and impartial trial by allowing each party to present their case and challenge the evidence presented by the opposing side. This promotes transparency and equality in the administration of justice. Peter Mbah’s astonishing failure to counter the evidence of Chijioke Edeoga was mindboggling. He had opportunity upon opportunity to controvert the testimony of the NYSC Director by taking the stand to defend himself, to explain how he came about the NYSC certificate he had, and show how and where he did his national service and how he could have earned a discharge certificate. But he turned his back to every such opportunity. His failure to take up any of those opportunities leaves the evidence of Edeoga intact and largely unchallenged.
3. Judicial Decision-Making:
Judges rely on evidence to make informed decisions and reach verdicts. They assess the credibility, relevance, and weight of the evidence to determine its admissibility and impact in the case. Evidence helps judges to deliver fair and just judgments based on the facts presented. The judges must be aware that Peter Mbah failed to respond to summons issued by the tribunal. He refused to testify in his own case. And his lawyers failed to cross-examine critical witnesses to controvert their testimonies. That leaves the judges no option.
Overall, evidence in the administration of justice ensures due process, a fair trial, and accurate determinations of the justice of any case. It is through evidence that justice is served, as it enables the legal system to separate truth from falsehood and make informed decisions in accordance with the law. Every piece of evidence taken into consideration, this case seems to straightforward and the judges have a roadmap so well illuminated by evidence.
There is no doubt that whatever the judgment of this tribunal says, this petition will end up at the Supreme Court of Nigeria. If Edeoga loses, he will go on appeal for the simple reason that such judgment will be unjust and will not reflect the balance of the weight of evidence. And if Peter Mbah loses, he will head to the Supreme Court, if not for any other reason, it will be because it allows him to remain in office as Governor for the three months it would take the Supreme Court to hear the appeal and render its judgment. Remaining the Governor for three more month will mean a lot to a man who had shown so amply a readiness to compromise election and scuttle democracy in Enugu State.
Since the case will end up at the Supreme Court regardless of the judgment of this tribunal, one may wonder the relevance of what the tribunal says in its judgment. The tribunal is the court of first instance for this petition. It tried the facts and heard the testimonies of witnesses. Its findings of facts are critical for the Supreme Court review. Its assessment of witnesses’ demeanor and credibility is critical, as the Supreme Court will have to rely on the assessment made by the tribunal. The judgment of the tribunal is, therefore, important, though not final. If the tribunal renders a judgment that is consistent with the weight and flow of evidence, it makes the appellate work of the Supreme Court relatively easy and straightforward.
Looking at the Supreme Court, the most logical and informed prediction is that Edeoga will get a favorable judgment and be sworn in eventually as the Governor of Enugu State. The possibility of a verdict of a re-run would have been higher if not for the first ground of the petition. That ground provides the basis for the disqualification of Peter Mbah. That ground basically says that even if Mbah had run unopposed, he could not validly be declared the winner of the unopposed election. And the reason would be that he was unqualified to run as Governor in the last election. The option of disqualification makes a re-run too remote a possibility. Disqualification of Peter Mbah and declaration of Edeoga as the winner seem to be the best and most logical outcome, from whichever angle one looks at it.