Ondo, PDP and Judicial Shame

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One and a half years after he left office as Gov¬ernor of Enugu State, Mr. Sullivan Chime is still in court over the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) ticket with which he won the 2011 gubernatorial election. The case is currently before the Supreme Court where his opponent, Chief Alexander Chukwuemeka Obiechina is challenging the validity of the 12th January 2011 PDP primaries which produced Chime as the governorship candidate. Should he win his case, Obiechina will get a meaningless judgement, essentially because lawyers and judges have conspired to foist on our nation a system that no longer serves the end of justice.

It is for that reason that we must commend the Supreme Court led by the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Samuel Nkanu Walter Onnoghen for the manner it has dealt with the PDP leadership crisis that had for several weeks cast a long shadow over the coming gubernatorial election in Ondo State. Now that the Court of Appeal has settled the contention between Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim and Mr. Eyitayo Jegede, SAN, in favour of the latter, it is comforting that voters can exercise their franchise without any ambiguity.

While I have no dog in the fight since I am not from Ondo State, I consider it shameful that at every election cycle, Nigerians have been foisted a situation in which they would not know who exactly they were voting for, especially at the gubernatorial level. It is even more depressing that some senior members of the bar would behave like touts in open courts in the bid to upend the electoral process as one did last week at the Court of Appeal. Yet, in a milieu where political parties are not based on any ideology, it stands to reason that Nigerian voters would express their preferences for individuals, a right that is cynically taken away from them by our lawyers and judges, most often for dubious gains.

Therefore, if voting is to make any meaning in Nigeria, we must enthrone a system in which pre-election matters are settled before the polling day. Similarly, it is important that post-election matters be settled before the swearing in given the well-documented case of Alhaji Alhassan Abubakar Badakoshi who won the 1983 gubernatorial election in Niger State but was only so pronounced by the Supreme Court 20 years later and 19 days after his death on 16th March 2003. Why should a court case drag on for two decades?

I was in the United States earlier this month and I recall that the Republican candidate, Mr. Donald Trump, who turned out to be the eventual winner, had filed a court request on the morning of the poll to direct a county registrar of voters in Nevada State to preserve and segregate ballots from voting machines in four early voting areas where there were suspicions of fraud. Trump’s lawyers asked for an order that the ballots cast after the designated polling hours be not “co-mingled or interspersed” with other ballots. But it took only a few hours for the presiding Judge to rule from the bench, knowing the implication of dragging the matter.

According to William Burger, the 15th Chief Justice of the United States, one of the things that could destroy confidence in the courts and do incalculable damage to any society is when “people come to believe that inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value”. That explains why in most countries, the legal and judicial processes are being continually reviewed and reformed to ensure that the courts dispense justice that conform to the law and public expectations.

On the contrary, we have cases in Nigeria that last several decades though it is interesting that the PDP is today paying the price for its notoriety. While in power, the party had perfected the art of multiplicity of candidates not only because of the corruption that ensured party tickets were sold to the highest bidders but also as a rigging device. In some situations, especially in Anambra State, as many as four PDP candidates could contest the same seat with all of them campaigning and expending huge resources so the battle could shift to the courts after the election for the determination of the actual winner. When you have such a situation, it is difficult for other parties to compete fairly.

It is therefore ridiculous that the PDP would blame INEC for recognising Ibrahim on grounds that the Ondo State primaries that produced him held in Ibadan. In case the PDP leaders have forgotten, before the last election, the party’s gubernatorial primaries for some Northern states were held in Abuja, essentially for the purpose of manipulation. In one particular instance, I learnt that buses were taken to a football field in Nyanyan, a suburb of the FCT, where those on the field of play and others within the vicinity were assembled, tutored on their assignment, given money and driven to the venue of the so-called PDP gubernatorial primaries (whose outcome had been predetermined) to act as delegates!

While the PDP is reaping the whirlwinds sowed, the main challenge today is that we imperil our democracy when the judiciary is open to the manipulation of politicians whose lawyers can conjure that pre-election matters remain perpetually unresolved. That explains why within a period of three months, between 12th May and 17th August, INEC received 11 different rulings and judgments, all from two courts of coordinate jurisdictions in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt: The Federal High Court and the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Of course there have been several other injunctions, exparte orders etc. also procured from our ever thriving judicial black markets across the country on the PDP crisis.

In a ruling on 12th May in a case filed by Ali Modu Sheriff against INEC and others, the Federal High Court in Lagos restrained PDP from conducting election into the offices of National Chairman, National Secretary and National Auditor. INEC was also restrained from monitoring and recognizing the conduct of any such exercise. But in another judgment on 29th June in a case filed by Chief Joseph Jero against the PDP, the FCT High Court held that the amendment of Article 47 (6) of the PDP Constitution of 2012, at a Special National Convention held in December 2014 was unconstitutional, null, void and of no effect and that all persons parading themselves as PDP National Officers as a result of the exercise had been restrained from so doing any further.

The implication of that judgment is that a High Court sat in appeal over the judgment from a court of equal jurisdiction! But barely 24 hours later, in a case brought by Benson Akingboye against INEC and PDP, the Federal High Court, Abuja made several orders among them that only the primaries conducted by the Sheriff faction should be recognized with special emphasis on the nomination of gubernatorial candidates for Edo and Ondo States.

However, that was only the beginning of the sordid drama. A week later, in a judgment delivered on 4th July at the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt in the case filed by PDP against Sheriff and 4 others, INEC was ordered to recognize the Ahmed Makarfi-led National Caretaker Committee appointed by the National Convention held in Port Harcourt on the 21 May, 2016, especially for the purposes of the submission of candidates for any elections to be conducted by the commission. But in a bench ruling on 28th July in the case filed by Sheriff against INEC and others, the Federal High Court Abuja, held among others that the Port Harcourt convention was unlawfully held and that Makarfi’s team that emerged from the process cannot lawfully take decisions on behalf of the PDP.

In another ruling on 15th August obtained by Sheriff against INEC, the Federal High Court, Abuja ordered that the PDP National Convention scheduled for 17th August, at Port Harcourt be suspended. To counter that was a ruling from the Federal High Court, this time in Port Harcourt but on the same day, in the case brought by Senator Ben Obi, where INEC was ordered to monitor the PDP National Convention scheduled for the Rivers State capital. A day later, in yet another ruling in the case by Sheriff against INEC and others, the Federal High Court in Abuja restrained the Markafi group from sponsoring any person for election or holding any National Convention for the purpose of electing National Officers. Twenty four hours later, Ben Obi was again at the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt where he obtained a judgment restraining INEC from refusing to monitor the said Port Harcourt convention of the PDP.

On 16th August, just a day after the Port Harcourt judgment, the FCT High Court in Abuja delivered another judgment in the case filed by Danladi Ayuba. The court ordered that Sheriff cannot legally continue to parade himself as PDP National Chairman. He was also restrained from convening any meeting, conducting any congress/primary for the purpose of nominating party candidates for election in the name of the party.

From Abuja to Akure to Benin to Port Harcourt and Lagos, the list of cases, rulings and judgments over the PDP crisis is almost endless but one disturbing fact is that Justice Okon Abang’s name features prominently in the matter and it was indeed very telling that the acting CJN, Justice Onnoghen, would on Tuesday say to Mr. Beluolisa Nwofor (SAN) in open court: “Nwofor, there was only one judgment by your Justice Okon Abang”. Putting YOUR before the name of the Judge is a strong statement indeed.

In July this year, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State rushed to the Abia High Court, sitting in Osisioma Ngwa where he obtained an exparte injunction against another Justice Abang judgment that was targeted at his seat, before sending the whole state on holiday. And on October 26, in response to another Abang judgment, two curious Ex Parte Orders were issued by different Judges from the Ondo State High Court restraining INEC from replacing the name of Jegede with that of Ibrahim. One was obtained by the chairman of the Governor Mimiko faction of PDP and another by an aspirant in the Ibrahim camp who had actually stepped down for him during the primaries held in Ibadan.

While I leave readers to their speculations as to how and why Ibrahim’s man suddenly “saw the light”, the speed with which the Ex Parte Orders were granted raises a big question mark about the integrity of the judiciary in Nigeria. But then, what do you say of some seemingly untouchable Federal High Court Judges that most politicians openly mention the names of their colleagues who “own” them?

I am not a lawyer but I understand that by practice, cases in the Federal High Court are assigned only by the Chief Judge, in this case, Justice Ibrahim Auta. If that be the case, does it mean Auta has been assigning the same PDP case to different Judges in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt? Or is it that the Judges are now on their own in which case, they no longer take instruction from their Chief Judge? The notoriety of the Federal High Court, Abuja in the PDP imbroglio was such that in one particular instance lawyers from one firm were allowed to represent both the appellants and the respondents!

Whatever is the situation, Justice Auta has serious questions to answer on the disgraceful conduct of the Judges under him in this matter. And I wonder why the National Judicial Council (NJC) has failed to call him to order. It is all the more sad when one notes that Auta is also a member of the NJC that was once vibrant under the no-nonsense former CJN, Aloma Mariam Mukhtar who most lawyers and Judges speak glowingly about as being above reproach. But the malaise is widespread and nationwide aside the fact that politicians have carried their intra-party disputes to the courts.

While pre-election disputes arising from Abia and Cross River governorship primaries of 2014 are still pending in the apex court, it was the absence of Justice Nnamdi Dimgba that yesterday stalled hearing in a suit challenging the candidature of Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN, as the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate for the same election. Dr Olusegun Abraham, a defeated APC aspirant had filed the suit at the Federal High Court Abuja, on the ground that the process that produced Akeredolu was illegal. With the announcement by court officials that the Judge was ill and unable to attend the day’s sitting, lawyers representing both parties picked December 6 as the next adjourned date for hearing the case even though by then the election would have been concluded!

In their book, “The People’s Law Dictionary: Taking the Mystery out of Legal Language”, Gerald Hill and Kathleen Hill argued that “the imbalance between court privileges obtained by attorneys for the wealthy and the person of modest means, the use of delay and ‘blizzards’ of unnecessary paper by large law firms, and judges who fail to cut through the underbrush ort procedure, all erode justice.”

To the extent that such antics have become the standard practice by which lawyers and judges help to pervert the course of justice in Nigeria, it is my hope that President Muhammadu Buhari will send to the Senate for confirmation the name of Justice Onnoghen so he can begin the process of restoring sanity to the bar and bench in Nigeria. If this administration is serious about fighting corruption, that is where to start.