Davidson Iriekpen writes that at the heart of the crisis rocking the Rivers State chapter of All Progressives Congress is the famous legal precedence that when a case is pending before a court, parties are to stay action until the issues are resolved
The crisis in the Rivers State chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC) worsened recently when a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt restrained the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from recognising all its candidates for the general elections. The court also ordered the commission to remove the names of all the party candidates from the ballot and other electoral materials. It declared illegal, null and void the direct and indirect primaries conducted by factions of the APC in the state
The court took the decisions in its judgments in two separate matters brought before it. In the suit brought before the court by Senator Magnus Abe and 48 others against Rivers APC, the presiding judge, Justice Kolawole Omotosho, declared that both the indirect and direct primaries conducted by factions of the APC were illegal as both took place during the pendency of the matter before the state high court. He said the APC must bear the consequences of its disobedience of the law.
According to the court, the APC conducted the indirect primaries in gross disrespect of the pending suit before Justice Chinwendu Nwogu of the Rivers State High Court. It noted that the judgment of Justice Nwogu nullifying the primaries of the APC in Rivers State was yet to be set aside by an appellate court, hence it remains valid.
The court, therefore, held that the names sent by the faction of the APC controlled by the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi and the National Working Committee (NWC) of the APC to INEC for the general elections were illegal and should be disregarded. It also said the direct primaries conducted by the Senator Magnus Abe faction were illegal because the NWC of APC did not monitor or participate in the processes.
Justice Omotosho added that Justice Nwogu was clear when he nullified all primaries and congresses held during the pendency of the suit, which included the direct primaries conducted by the Abe faction. He said both the Abe and the Amaechi factions have no leg to stand in view of the judgment, hence both factions were disqualified from participating in the elections. The court held that the APC in Rivers State had no power to nominate and sponsor any candidates for the general elections.
In another suit filed by the state chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) asking the court to compel INEC to obey the judgment of the Rivers State High Court nullifying all Rivers State APC primaries and congresses, the court granted an injunction stopping all candidates of the APC in Rivers State from parading themselves as candidates for the general elections. He said the Rivers APC would not participate in the governorship, Senate, House of Representatives and House of Assembly elections holding later this year.
The judge re-affirmed his directive in the suit between Abe and others versus Rivers APC that INEC cannot recognise any candidate presented by the APC for the general elections.
While the two factions of the APC which the judgments were against promised to appeal the verdicts, the state Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which benefited immensely from the verdict has been jubilating. Its Campaign Council said the ruling was a victory for the rule of law and the people of the state. In a statement by its Director of Information and Communications, Emma Okah, the PDP noted that the verdict would douse tension and promote peace in the state as the APC’s past involvement in elections had been characterised by recurring violence, rigging and breakdown of law and order.
Okah noted that the local government council elections were peaceful because the APC did not participate. He posited that the judgment has diffused fears in the minds of the voters as the PDP in Rivers State has been under fresh threat of the combined weight of the INEC and security agencies in collaboration with the APC which may be unleashed in the 2019 general elections.
Trouble started for the APC when it could not solve the power tussle between Rotimi Amaechi and Abe for the soul of the APC. The senator wanted to run for the governorship of the state on the platform of the party but Amaechi, a former governor of the state and current Minister of Transportation, who controls the recognised party structure in the state refused. As a result, Abe and his faction were excluded during congresses held across the state.
Consequent upon this, one Ibrahim Umah and 22 others on behalf of the senator, approached the Rivers State High Court in Port Harcourt with an application urging it to restrain the party from conducting the state congress which produced the current state chairman of the party, Ojukaye Flag-Amachree, who is Amaechi’s ally. The order was granted by the presiding judge of the court, Justice Chinwendu Nwogu. But before the judge could deliver judgment on the case, the Flag-Amachree-led executive apart from appealing the decision at the Court of Appeal, defied the court’s order and proceeded with the primary elections which produced Mt. Tonye Cole as the APC governorship candidate, among others.
While the case was pending, the Flag-Amachree faction filed a case before an Abuja High Court, a court of coordinate jurisdiction.
Following the APC’s decision to proceed with the primaries in the state, Justice Chiwendu Nwogu, on October 10, 2018 declared null and void, the nomination of Cole as the governorship candidate of the party. He also voided the party’s nominations for Senate, House of Representatives, and House of Assembly for the 2019 elections in the state. He held that Cole’s nomination was a function of illegality and unconstitutional acts.
Justice Nwogu noted that the ward congresses of Rivers APC were illegal because they were not conducted in line with the APC guidelines and constitution, saying that all those who purchased nomination forms for the ward congresses were entitled to contest the ward congresses of May 19, 2018, but were unjustly excluded by the party.
He said: “The rule by might must be checked by the rule of law. We must restore the hope of the common man in the justice system.”
In questionable circumstances, the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt unturned the restraining order of Justice Nwogu by ordering a stay of execution. This angered Umar and 22 others. They filed an appeal at the Supreme Court, contending that the appellate court engaged in judicial rascality by refusing to abide by Supreme Court decisions on the issue of stay of execution of valid court orders.
The appellants told the apex court that the appellate court violated the principle of stare-decisis (judicial precedents) and accorded favourable ruling to the APC, even when it was “in grave disobedience to two orders of the lower court.”
But in a ruling that was delivered by Justice Centus Nweze, the Supreme Court faulted the appellate court for halting the execution of a Rivers State High Court order that barred APC from going ahead with its planned congress, pending the determination of a suit that was entered by Umar and the 22 others. It noted that the high court had on the basis of the said suit, issued injunctive reliefs that expressly forbade the APC from conducting congress in the state.
According to the Supreme Court, Justice Nwogu gave the interim order of injunction on May 11, the same day that some hoodlums loyal to a faction of the party, besieged the high court premises in Port Harcourt. It observed that despite the attack and the restraining order from the high court, which was further reaffirmed on May 13, the APC which was a respondent in the matter, went ahead and conducted its ward, local government and state congresses on May 19, 20 and 21.
The apex court said it was baffled that the APC, “In the most impudent manner,” ran to the Court of Appeal to apply for stay of proceeding and execution of the high court order with respect to the suit marked PHC/78/2018. It further observed that though the appellate court declined to stay proceedings of the high court, it however stayed the execution of the May 11 order by Justice Nwogu.
Because of the manhandling of the case by Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt, after the reprimand by the Supreme Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, set up a special three-man panel led by Justice Abubakar Yahaya to hear the appeal.
Simultaneously on December 12, 2018, both the special of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court delivered their rulings.
In their judgment the three-man panel of the Court of Appeal compounded the woes of the party when it dismissed three appeals by the Amaechi faction to
challenge the judgment of the state High Court. The appeal court also struck out two joinder applications filed by Flag-Amachree, the governorship candidate of APC, Cole, and other elected candidates of same faction. Justice Yahaya said the appeal against the Justice Chinwendu Nwogu High Court judgment lacked merit, adding that the application for joinder failed to observe the 14 days rules of appeal.
While delivering judgment on the substantive appeal that bordered on Justice Nwogu’s judgment, the panel ruled that the Flag-Amachree’s faction failed to seek leave of court before appealing against the judgment. It also ruled that the judgment delivered at the lower court was a consent judgment, adding that Flag-Amachree’s faction should have done the needful legally before approaching the court.
Two of the appeals are currently pending before the Supreme Court which has fixed March 8 to determine them.
But despite the fact that the cases are still pending at the Supreme Court, the National Chairman of party, Adams Oshiomhole, in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, on December 30, defied the judgments and presented Cole with the party’s flag, thereby recognising him as the governorship candidate of the party in Rivers State. This again triggered another round of litigations, especially by the PDP.
From the judgments so far in the dispute, it is clear that the APC played into the hands of the judiciary.
The party based its reactions on the famous case of Ojukwu vs Lagos State Government where the court made it clear that when a case is pending before any court, parties are to stay action until the issues are resolved or settles out of court. They referred to the verdict of the late renowned jurist, Justice Kayode Eso who held that, “The essence of rule of law is that it should never operate under the rule of force or fear. To use force, seek the court’s equity, is an attempt to infuse timidity into court and operate a sabotage of cherished rule of law. It must never be!”
Also referred to was the late Justice Andrews Obaseki verdict where he held that, “In the area where rule of law operates, the rule of self-help by force is abandoned. Nigeria, being one of the countries in the world, even in the third world, which profess loudly to follow the rule of law, gives no room for the rule of self-help by force to operate. Once a dispute has arisen between a person and the government or authority, and the dispute has been brought before the court, thereby invoking the judicial powers of the state, it is the duty of the government to allow the law to take its course.”
The APC conducted the indirect primaries in gross disrespect of the pending suit before Justice Chinwendu Nwogu of the Rivers State High Court. It noted that the judgment of Justice Nwogu nullifying the primaries of the APC in Rivers State was yet to be set aside by an appellate court, hence it remains valid.