By Wandoo Sombo, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
Pre-hearing at the Presidential Election Petition Court (PEPC), started on a light note on May 8.
INEC on March 1, declared Sen. Bola Tinubu of APC winner of the Feb. 25 Presidential Election with 8,794,726 votes. It said PDP’s Atiku polled 6,984,520 to finish second while Obi came third with 6,101,533 votes.
Piqued by the result Obi, alongside his party, headed for PEPC insisting that the results were manipulated and the process marred with irregularities.
Justice Haruna Tsammani, Chairman of the five-member panel welcomed lawyers and litigants as well as members of the press to the court saying he hoped that all would cooperate with the court.
Justice Tsammani who cautioned against sensationalising proceedings said that if there was enough cooperation, the hearing would be expeditious and all would be happy with the outcome.
He introduced his fellow justices including Justice Stephen Adah, Justice Misitura Bolaji-Yusuf, Justice Boloukuoromo Ugo and Justice Abbah Mohammed.
However, by Wednesday of the second week, there were fillers that trouble was brewing in the camp of one of the parties involved the sitting, the Labour Party.
In what appeared to be suspense in a movie, trouble started as early as 7:45AM or thereabout on that Wednesday.
Both factions of the party, comprising members loyal to factional National Chairman, Mr Lamidi Apapa and those loyal to the suspended Julius Abure-led faction arrived the court.
Right from the foyer of the court, one could feel the palpable tension in the air as each group seemed bent on trying subtly to intimidate the other.
The fireworks opened up as soon as the courtroom doors were thrown open for lawyers, litigants, the press and other members of the public to enter.
A war of words ensued between both factions as the voices of Apapa and Mr Jude Umeokeke, who later told the News Agency of Nigeria, (NAN) that he was the Youth Leader of the party in Abuja Municipal Area Council.
From the words one could pick from their exchange, it was clear that the fracas was over which faction had the legal right to be present in court.
In spite of calls from the Secretary of the court, Mrs Josephine Ekperobe, the war of words continued thereby causing all heads in the courtroom to turn in the direction the noise was coming from.
Members of the press and others present in court had a field day clicking away on their cameras and phone, jostling for the best positions to stand in order to get the best pictures and videos.
Eventually, the Apapa-led faction moved away from the corner reserved for petitioners and their supporters and sat in the main hall of the court room leaving the Abure-led faction at the corner.
When the situation appeared calm, the justices came into the court and all was now set to begin the business of the day.
When the petition of the Labour Party was called, Mr Peter Obi introduced himself as the petitioner and Mrs Dudu Malugu introduced herself as the Acting Women Leader and representative of the Labour Party.
But Apapa would not have that as he insisted that he was the National Chairman of the party and should be recognised as the person representing the party in court.
The presiding judge refused to recognise any of them saying that since there was a dispute, the court would not record any of them as representative of the Labour Party because there could not be two representatives for one petitioner.
Shortly after proceedings, as newsmen were set to conduct an interview with Apapa, what appeared to have been an uneasy calm erupted into serious flexing of muscles.
Supporters loyal to Abure mounted guard and blocked Apapa from approaching the cameras stationed at the foyer of the court for the purpose of media interviews.
In spite of pleas from the newsmen that both sides would be heard, and that they couldn’t dictate to the media who and who not to interview, the supporters maintained their ground.
They resisted any attempt to make Apapa speak to the media saying that he was not the Labour Party chairman and would not speak on its behalf.
The Abure loyalists shouted and dragged Apapa all over the place shouting “You must not talk, you are an impostor, thief, thief and one even reached out his hand and removed Apapa’s cap.
It took the intervention of security personnel to contain the situation as they battled to free Apapa from the irate youths.
The security personnel succeeded in rescuing Apapa from the youths and taking him back into the court room to avert further manhandling from the youths.
Apapa, however, found a way round the situation and was eventually able to speak to the press.
He insisted that he was the authentic chairman of the party saying that a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory had restrained Abure and three others from parading themselves national officers of the party.
He denied being bribed or sponsored to scuttle the party and Obi’s chances at the PEPC and maintained that he had no intention to withdraw the petition.
The factional chairman said the leadership crisis would have been put resolved if the presidential candidate had respected an order of the FCT High Court.
“Nobody is above the law. If you are trying to claim your mandate from the tribunal and you cannot obey simple court order then it is not worth it”, he said.
Tracing the genesis of the crisis, Apapa said that immediately the order of court was served on the parties, he was unanimously selected to lead the party in acting capacity.
He said that it was wrong for Obi to still accord respect to Abure as chairman in spite of the court order,
Consequently, Apapa was said to have directed all the lawyers representing Obi to report to him for briefing.
The two factions resumed their fireworks in court on Friday but this time around in a more subtle manner.
In spite of narrowly escaping being mobbed by irate supporters of the opposing faction, Apapa defiantly returned to court on Friday.
At the resumed hearing, Obi introduced himself as representing himself and the Labour Party which seemed to go down well with the judges as there were no questions asked.
Strangely though, just after the party’s counsel Prof. Awa Kalu, SAN, introduced himself and his team, Mr Oba Maduabuchi, SAN, got up and introduced himself as the counsel briefed by the party to represent it.
“I have been instructed to represent the petitioners,” Maduabuchi said without disclosing the name of who briefed him to represent the party and Obi.
“You didn’t file a petition. So, you cannot announce appearance for the petitioners,”Justice Tsammani retorted, drawing cheers from the audience and a thunderous “as the court pleases” in the process.
Another member of the panel, Justice Abba Mohammed said Maduabuchi would have advised his client “that you cannot have two counsel representing a client in one suit.”
Going ahead with the business of the day, the court heard Obi’s request seeking live broadcast of the court proceedings.
Thereafter, the court adjourned until May 22 to rule on the application for live broadcast of the court proceedings.
The court had earlier heard a similar application by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, and reserved its ruling.
The crisis of the Labour Party has had many insinuating that there were plots by Apapa to take over the party’s petition with a view to withdrawing it from court.
Political analysts are of the view that the party, which to the amazement of many pundits garnered massive support from a teeming population of youths who described themselves as “Obidients” appears to be on the verge of destroying itself.
They opine that the leadership crisis rocking the party, if not nipped in the bud, could have negative effects on not only its petition in court but its entire survival as a strong opposition party.
Many are calling on Obi to be open minded and neutral in order to end the crisis as a divided house can never stand.
For now, Obi continues to announce his presence in court for both himself and the Labour Party until the legal fireworks are concluded and the court makes a final pronouncement on who heads the party.