Onyebuchi Ezigbo looks at the implications of the latest ruling of the Court of Appeal on the PDP leadership crisis
When the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt Division, fixed February 17 for ruling on an appeal by the Senator Ali Modu Sheriff faction of the Peoples Democratic Party, members might have expected a verdict that would tone down the leadership crisis that has engulfed the party since last year. But the majority decision of the court’s three-man panel on Friday stoked a flare-up in the party’s internal squabbles, when it restated Sheriff as the PDP national chairman.
The judgement has left the party further divided. Rather closing the gap between the two feuding sections of the party, it has widened the gulf between the pro-Sheriff elements and those loyal to the head of the PDP national caretaker committee, Senator Ahmed Makarfi.
The appeal court judgement annulled the sack of Sheriff as the national chairman of PDP, which was the major outcome of the party’s controversial national convention in Port Harcourt on May 21 last year. Since that convention, the party has been embroiled in a bitter power struggle between the remnants of the National Working Committee led by Sheriff and another faction led Makarfi, leading to several litigations and verbal exchanges.
Before last Friday’s ruling by the appeal court sitting in Port Harcourt, both the Makarfi and Sheriff groups had initiated efforts to try reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Makarfi had made a surprise concession by leading a team of the caretaker committee members on a visit to Sheriff’s office at Maitama, in Abuja, where both groups agreed to work together in order restore peace and stability in the PDP. After the meeting, the two party leaders jointly issued a statement where they gave an undertaking to constitute a peace and reconciliation committee made up of equal number of members from the two parties.
But unfortunately, this peace effort was aborted, even before it got off the ground, by the same people that began it. First, it was the disagreement over the number of members to represent each group in the reconciliation committee. Later, the matter became an issue of supremacy tussle in which Makarfi and Sheriff were locked in a battle over who should be allowed to preside over the affairs of the PDP pending the outcome of the reconciliation talks. The same argument that led to the litany of litigations also cropped up, with Sheriff claiming that he remains the authentic chairman of the party, and Makarfi standing his ground that the convention that appointed his committee is sacrosanct and if there is anyone who should give way, it should be Sheriff and his team.
Not even the interventions by the PDP Governors Forum and the party’s Board of Trustees could resolve the dispute. At a point, Sheriff dismissed the BoT peace committee as biased in favour of Makarfi rather than brokering a peaceful resolution based on justice and respect for the existing rules. Besides, Sheriff and his NWC did not consider the governors’ forum as an impartial umpire that could resolve the crisis, reason being that two of its members, Rivers state Governor Nyesom Wike and Ekiti State Governor Ayo Fayose, were deeply involved in the conflict.
Sheriff openly stated his readiness to back down and end the struggle if Makarfi would also agree to do same. Worried by aspersions being cast on him by many stakeholders of the party, most of whom saw him as an obstacle to lasting peace, the former Borno State governor also offered to throw in the towel on the condition that he would be allowed to bow out honourably after organising a national convention to elect new national officers of the party.
Makarfi had also exhibited a level of dedication to the cause of rebuilding the party and getting it to move ahead irrespective of the obstacles being created by the leadership crisis.
It was at this stage that all the reconciliatory efforts broke down. Since then, the warring parties have returned to their trenches and continued the legal fireworks.
From reactions to the ruling of the appeal court last Friday, it is unlikely that the feuding parties will agree to sit down again on a roundtable to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The Makarfi-led national caretaker committee, which prides itself on having the backing of an overwhelming majority of PDP members nationwide, has rejected the Judgement. It has indicated that it would appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court.
The fight for the soul of the party has been taken beyond the normal jostle for office. What is happening now has a lot to do with the 2019 presidential race. It has a lot to do with the interests of political gladiators who see the PDP either as a potentially good platform to contest the election or as a threat to their interest to hang on to power at all costs. Many persons have been hurt in the process, promises have been broken and trusts betrayed. In fact, the man at the centre of the storm, Sheriff, is seen by many members of PDP as an agent of the ruling All Progressives Congress whose main goal is to destroy the PDP in an effort to give APC easy electoral victories.
In a statement issued in response to the unfavourable judgement, Makarfi was quoted as insinuating that the ruling APC was behind the turn of events in PDP as part of a plot to make Nigeria a one-party state. He vowed to go ahead and challenge the judgement at the apex court where he said justice will be obtained.
Another statement signed by spokesman of the Makarfi-led caretaker committee, Dayo Adeyeye, said, “The judgement is a big disappointment. It is a travesty of justice; a miscarriage of justice and an invidious attempt to destroy the PDP. The minority judgement is very sound in law, logic and fact. It gives us hope that we will have our day in the Supreme Court.”
According to Adeyeye, whereas the lead judgement by Justice B. G. Sanga and Justice A.A, Gumel left out the main issues and laboured unconvincingly to work to a preconceived answer, the minority judgement by Justice T.S. Orji-Abadua thrashed all the issues and upheld the judgement of the High Court, Port Harcourt, delivered by Justice Liman on July 4, 2016.
Adeyeye stated, “We will certainly appeal to the Supreme Court. No reconciliatory effort will stop it. We need the Supreme Court to make a pronouncement on the issue once and for all.
“We maintain that this is a continuation of the attempt to kill the PDP and thereby destroy all opposition in Nigeria. The rebels in the party, who were favoured by the two justices of the appeal court today, are snakes within the house working for the ruling party. The great conspiracy to silence the PDP is an assault on the Nigerian democracy. We are, however, determined to resist this onslaught to the very last. The struggle continues.
“Similarly, the chairman of the PDP’s Governors Forum and Ekiti Governor, Ayodele Fayose, has said that the party will challenge the appeal court ruling, which he described as nothing but a rape on our democracy.”
Adeyeye ended the statement on a note of despair, when he said, “As it is now, it is difficult to see how the party can get out of this mess it finds itself. For any peace effort to succeed, it has to be initiated through a credible process that can command the trust and confidence of the factions.
“But at present, there appears to be an absence of such organ or personality that can serve as a rallying point to broker fresh peace moves in the PDP. The only possible bet would have been the former president, Goodluck Jonathan, but he has not shown readiness to play such roles, at least for now.
In the same vein, two of the most respected organs of the party, the PDP Governors Forum and the party’s Board of Trustees, which would have served as a moderating instrument to intervene and resolve the raging leadership crisis, are themselves neck-deep in the conflict. For instance, there is no love lost between the current chairman of the PDP governor’s forum, Governor Ayodele Fayose, and Senator Sheriff. The same goes for the leadership of the BoT and majority of its members whom Sheriff had accused of taking sides in the conflict. Although, the leadership of the BoT has said that a meeting of key organs of the PDP will take place this week to chat a way forward, from all indications a veil of uncertainty has further enveloped the once vibrant largest party in Africa and is threatening to dismember it.”
However, the Sheriff faction described the Court of Appeal judgement in its favour as the confirmation of the people’s will. Deputy National Chairman to Sheriff, Mr. Cairo Ojougboh, was quoted as saying that despite the favourable verdict, the group was open to negotiation with Makarfi
Ojougboh said, “To us the judgement is no victory, no vanquish. Irrespective of the judgement, our door is open to our brothers who, unfortunately, are in the other group. We promised not to victimise anybody but work together to reunite the party.”
He said Sheriff was ready to organise a credible national convention of the party.
“The will of the masses is that the party should be handed over to the people and that is what Sheriff has come to do and he will never be distracted in achieving that,” Ojougboh stated, adding, “The PDP chairman, Sheriff, has directed me to assure our party members that the PDP National Working Committee would as soon as possible organise a national convention that would lead to the election of credible leaders of the party.”
Ojougboh also said that the Sheriff faction was prepared to meet Makarfi and his group at the Supreme Court if they chose to appeal. “All of us had earlier pledged to accept whatever is the outcome of the court judgement and I hope the Makarfi-led group will still respect that.
“Should they say they will proceed to the Supreme court to appeal the judgement, we are also ready to meet at the apex court, but I expect them to respect their promise,” Ojougboh said.
The Supreme Court, it does seem, would be the final decider on the way forward for the erstwhile ruling party. From all indications, the choice for the Makarfi group would be either to remain in the PDP or roll out the much-talked-about alternative action plan, which is the announcement of a new party into which the structures of the PDP would be collapsed ahead of the 2019 election.