Abang: A Judge and His Controversies


A month after he delivered the ruling sacking Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State, Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja, reignited the crises plaguing the Peoples Democratic Party with another controversial ruling, writes Davidson Iriekpen

Just when members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) thought that the crises rocking the party had been resolved, Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja, last week resurrected the crisis with a ruling largely seen as controversial, when he nullified the appointment of Senator Ahmed Makarfi as the caretaker committee chairman of the party and affirmed Senator Ali Modu Sheriff as the authentic National Chairman of the party.

The judge held that Sheriff remained the authentic national chairman of the PDP and had the authority to act and take decisions on behalf of the party, adding also that any decision outside his committee was illegal, unlawful and not binding on the party.

Aside ruling that the Makarfi-led committee was illegal and could not conduct any function on behalf of the party, Abang also barred the caretaker committee from conducting the national convention of the party slated for August 17 in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital.

Recall that as a way to permanently resolve legal crises plaguing the PDP, Justice Abdullahi Liman of the Federal High, Port Harcourt had on July 4, declared the May 21 national convention of the party valid, stating that its decisions did not violate any known law or the constitution of the party. He also affirmed that the appointment of the Makarfi-led national caretaker committee by the national convention of the PDP to oversee its affairs was legal and in line with the provisions of the party’s constitution. He therefore dismissed all grounds of defence put up by Sheriff.

Liman said Article 31 (1) of the PDP constitution vested the powers to convene a national convention on the national executive committee of the party and held that pursuant to the constitution of the party, Sheriff had no powers to unilaterally postpone the properly constituted national convention on a day all delegates had converged on Port Harcourt, the host city.

The judge described the action of Sheriff as “most unconscionable”, pointing out that the former acting national chairman participated in all the processes leading to the national convention, only to make a U-turn at the final minute after he was screened and disqualified. The court ruled that after Sheriff was disqualified following his screening, the only option that was left to him was to have gone to the venue of the national convention to seek the opinion of delegates whether they were prepared to go on with the convention or not.

According to him, the absence of Sheriff at the convention did not visibly affect the process as his powers were not usurped. He declared that under Article 35 (b) of the PDP constitution, in the absence of the chairman, the deputy chairman was empowered to preside over the national convention.

He further argued that in line with Article 33 (2) of the PDP constitution, the national convention of the party is supreme and can exercise the powers to dissolve the national working committee and the national executive committee of the party.

On the issue of the abuse of court process claimed by the former national acting chairman, the court held that the plaintiffs in the case in question were not the same in the cases mentioned by the defendants, noting that the plaintiff’s suit only centred on the national convention.

Justice Liman emphasised that there was no suit challenging the conduct of the national convention in Port Harcourt and that no injunction was sought to stop the convention. He noted that five days to the national convention, Sheriff had, through his counsel, Ahmed Raji (SAN), dissociated himself from one of the suits they filed via proxies.
But Justice Abang, who has concurrent powers with Justice Liman, but sat as superior court, last Thursday, condemned the Port Harcourt judgment and held that the purported convention held in Port Harcourt on May 20 was in violation of two court orders of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, which barred the PDP and INEC from holding the convention. He barred the Makarfi-led caretaker committee from exercising any authority or taking any decision on behalf of the PDP on account of being an illegal body.

Elevating his court to an Appeal Court, Abang took a swipe at the Makarfi-led group for going to Port Harcourt to obtain a favourable judgment from a division of the Federal High Court, which is a court of co-ordinate jurisdiction to that of Lagos.

He reprimanded his colleague in the Port Harcourt division for recognising the Makarfi-led caretaker committee, saying it was unlawful, illegal and has no foundation in law to stand. He further held that until the orders made by the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, which restrained the PDP from holding the convention at the time it did was set aside, anything done in contravention of the two subsisting orders stands. The Port Harcourt Division of the Federal High Court cannot make an order to neutralise the effectiveness and potency of orders of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, he said.

Rather allowing the parties to sort out their counsel as it’s usually the practice, Justice Abang completely descended into the arena when he further ruled, among others, that the lawyer hired by the Makarfi faction of the party could not represent the party and recognise the lawyer hired by the Sherriff’s faction.

He held that the letter by Senator Makarfi appointing Ferdinand Obi (SAN) for PDP was illegal, unlawful and was set aside by the court on the grounds that Makarfi has no law to his side to appoint a lawyer for PDP or carry out any act on behalf of the party. Justice Abang therefore upheld the appointment of Olagoke Fakunle (SAN), having been appointed to represent PDP by the Sheriff-led committee.

Last May, a considerable number of PDP members had gathered in Port Harcourt for a national convention aimed at electing national officers to oversee the affairs in the next few years before the 2019 elections. But half way into the event, sensing the plot and hidden agenda of Sheriff, the leaders of the party passed a vote-of-no confidence on the Sheriff executive committee. Consequently, the Makarfi-led national caretaker committee was appointed to oversee the affairs of the party until a substantive executive is put in place.

Before the Port Harcourt gathering, rumours had made the rounds that a Federal High Court in Lagos had stopped the botched national convention. Upon enquiries, Sheriff had vehemently denied authorising anyone to file a suit on his behalf.

A day to the convention, Sheriff’s counsel, Dr. Yemi Oke, had told Justice Ibrahim Buba that he had to rush to court in view of “a very desperate and sad situation imposed upon us by certain desperate elements.” Oke claimed that his clients were not aware of the circumstances culminating in the restraining order of the court, claiming that the order was procured by “fraud and gross mischief” and “desperate elements, whose antecedents are known at the Bar.”
He informed the judge that his clients had in the circumstances brought two applications, one of which was praying the court to set aside the proceedings leading to the May 11, 2016 restraining order and another asking the court to stay the execution of the May 11 order, pending the outcome of an appeal already filed by the PDP and Sheriff.
Oke claimed that the PDP and Sheriff did not authorise any lawyer to file any suit to stop the national convention of the PDP. He informed the court of a letter dated May 16, 2015, written by Sheriff and addressed to Mr. Ahmed Raji (SAN), asking him to “take necessary steps to dissociate myself and the party from the said suit with immediate effect.

“The 2nd and 3rd defendants were never served and never appointed any counsel to stand in for them. The 2nd and 3rd defendants never had notice of the pendency of the suit; to that extent, we have served a letter written by the National Chairman of the party, Sheriff and signed by him, to the effect that he never appointed any counsel.”
As soon as he was sacked in Port Harcourt by the leaders of the party, who later uncovered his tricks and decided to beat him to his game, Sheriff turned around to reactivate the same suit. He claimed here that his tenure had not expired was supposed to vacate office in 2018.

This raises the questions: was Sheriff elected or appointed? If he was appointed, why would he claim to be entitled to a four-year tenure, which is reserved for elected chairman? Was he not appointed pending a convention? Why is he afraid to hand over? In any case, is Abang’s court a Court of Appeal for him to delve into a matter that had been resolved by the same court?

To many observers, the latest ruling of Justice Abang has not only brought to the fore, the level of decadence in the country’s judiciary but as a confused institution. While in advanced democracies, people take their disputes to the courts for resolution and justice, this is not usually the case in Nigeria as cases get complicated in some instances, making many Nigerians wonder when the country would ever get things right.
The same Abang had recently in a controversial circumstance, sacked Governor Ikpeazu of Abia State for allegedly filing a false tax documents to the INEC, when he is not a tax officer to be able to determine the authenticity of the certificate. He consequently ordered that a certificate of return be issued to Mr. Uche Ogah, who came second in the PDP primaries but did not participate at any stage of the electoral process.

Perhaps, to show his bias in the case, the judge refused to stay execution on the case pending appeal until the Court of Appeal did last week. This made Ikpeazu to petition the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed and the NJC to investigate what he described as “irreparable injustice” meted on him by the judge. The governor said the judge’s acts of abuse of office and denial of justice did not only throw Abia State into turmoil, and political uncertainty, but was an embarrassment to the judiciary.

In the petition, which is still pending before the NJC, the governor called on the council to investigate and take necessary disciplinary action against the judge in order to bring sanity to the judiciary. He has also had his rough tackles with former National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Olisa Metuh, in the ongoing trial of the PDP stalwart.
Thus, following his ruling last week, some youths in the party have called for his removal. The youths, under the aegis of PDP National Youth Forum (PDPNYF), urged the National Judicial Council (NJC), to as a matter of “urgency” remove the judge and further “probe him for judicial rascality.”

National Coordinator of PDPNYF, Usman Austin, while reacting to the pronouncement of the judge in a statement, appealed to the immediate past president, Goodluck Jonathan, to mediate in the crisis currently bedeviling the opposition party. According to the statement, “The judiciary must not be a place, where anyone runs into and hide his misdeed. It is now clear that Justice Abang has turned his own arm of judiciary to a rubber stamp for anyone, who can afford the bid.

“We ask all concerned sundries to wade into this judicial rascality exhibited by Justice Abang before it eats deep into the marrows of our democracy. He is not only a threat to democracy but also a threat to human rights and stain to the bench. PDP is a family and each time it has internal misunderstanding, the said Justice Abang dives in to set fire on a fresh wood, it is alarming how much interest he picks on matter that concerns the PDP.”

To many observers, the latest ruling of Justice Abang has not only brought to the fore, the level decadence in the country’s judiciary but as a confused institution, which makes litigants and observers think that orders and judgments can be procured by the highest bidders. While in advanced democracies, people take their disputes to the courts for resolution and justice, this is not usually the case in Nigeria as cases get complicated in some instances