The Governorship Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Abeokuta, Ogun State, on Monday struck out the vote-buying allegation leveled against Governor Dapo Abiodun and the All Progressives Congress (APC) by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its governorship candidate, Ladi Adebutu.
Adebutu had dragged Governor Abiodun and the APC to the tribunal, challenging their declaration as the winners of the March 2023 governorship election in the state.
But the governor’s lawyers, led by Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), in their defense of the petition, made weighty allegations backed up with police reports, establishing that Adebutu and the PDP engaged in vote buying during the elections.
On May 22, 2023, Adebutu and the PDP filed a reply to the defense by Governor Abiodun and the APC, also leveling a vote-buying allegation against the ruling party.
The Governor’s lawyers, represented by Prof. Taiwo Osipitan (SAN), however, filed an application asking the Tribunal to strike out the Reply in its entirety or, in the alternative, to strike out offending paragraphs from that Reply.
Osipitan argued that the reply filed by Adebutu and the PDP contravenes paragraph 16(1)(a) and (b) of the Electoral Act and the rules of court pleadings.
While ruling on the matter, the Chairman of the Tribunal, Justice H.N. Kunaza, agreed with the submissions by Prof. Osipitan
In the ruling, supported by the other two members, Hon. Justice J.B. Egele and Hon. Justice Sannusi Shehu, the Tribunal overruled Adebutu’s lawyers, led by Chief Goddy Uche (SAN), saying that the application filed by the Governor’s lawyers was not the kind of application that the Constitution requires to be determined at the end of proceedings in judgment.
Relying on relevant provisions of the Constitution, the Tribunal held that only applications that challenge the tribunal’s jurisdiction or the competence of a petition will be deferred till judgment, whereas the application filed by Governor Abiodun’s lawyers was not that kind of application.
The Tribunal also held that the reply by Adebutu and the PDP was incompetent for multiple reasons.
The Tribunal identified some paragraphs that contained unnecessary and repetitive allegations, others that contained arguments and legal conclusions (which are not allowed in replies), and some that were an improper expansion of the petition earlier filed.
The Tribunal noted that in their petition, Adebutu and the PDP alleged that Governor Abiodun and the APC committed corrupt practices during the gubernatorial elections. The Tribunal further noted that vote buying is a type of corruption and that if PDP and Adebutu truly believed that APC engaged in vote buying, the petitioner ought to have included those allegations in their petition from the start, which they did not do.
The Tribunal noted that if the reply filed by Adebutu and the PDP was permitted, there was a risk of prejudice, surprise, or even shutting out Governor Abiodun and the APC on the issues raised in that reply.
The tribunal denounced Adebutu and the PDP for coming up with the vote-buying allegation only after the APC and Governor Abiodun had done the same against them.
With this backdrop, the Tribunal unanimously concluded that Governor Abiodun and the APC would be prejudiced if the reply filed by Adebutu and the PDP is allowed.
The Tribunal held that when Governor Abiodun and APC filed their defense, they joined issues with Adebutu and PDP; that by joining issues, the parties fixed the dispute; and that it was improper to go outside those issues in the reply.
The Tribunal also found that it was unnecessary to file a reply in the circumstances, as held in several decisions of the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court.
The reply was accordingly struck out.
With this ruling, only the allegation of vote-buying made by Governor Abiodun and the APC against Adebutu and the PDP would be entertained by the tribunal.
Jelili Owonikoko (SAN) represented INEC, while the APC team was led by Chief Onyeazu Ikpeazu (SAN).
It would be recalled that Adebutu and PDP leaders in Ogun State have been charged with the offense of vote-buying by the Federal Government, a situation that has led to Adebutu being a fugitive from the law.