When High Court Dared the Supreme Court

3
Tanko Muhammad

Davidson Iriekpen questions the decision of the Ekiti State High Court, which ordered the reopening of a 19-year-old legal dispute over the relocation of the headquarters of a local government already decided by the Supreme Court

In what could be described as judicial rascality, a 19-year-old legal dispute that was resolved a few months ago by the Supreme Court, has again found its way back to the Ekiti State High Court sitting in Ado Ekiti to start afresh.

The apex court had on December 14, 2018, ordered the Ekiti State Government to relocate the headquarters of Ilejemeje Local Government Area. The five-man bench of the court unanimously ordered the state government to immediately restore the headquarters of the local government to Eda-Oniyo, from where it was relocated to Iye-Ekiti shortly after the state was created on October 1, 1996.

On October 1, 1996, the Federal Military Government created among others, Ekiti State with Ilejemeje Local Government Area as one of its 16 local government areas. The headquarters of the LG was located in Eda-Oniyo with the backing of the States Creation (Transitional Provisions) Decree No. 36 of 1996.

But three months later, by a radio announcement, the Ekiti State Government led by then military governor, Col. Inua Mohammed Bawa, notified the public of the relocation of the local government from Eda-Oniyo to Iye-Ekiti.

The Eleda of Eda-Oniyo, Oba Julius Awolola was said to have on behalf of the people of Eda-Oniyo protested to the office of the Head of State, which informed him that it did not authorise the movement of the local government to Iye-Ekiti and continued to recognise Eda-Oniyo as the headquarters of Ilejemeje local government.

When the protests failed, the traditional ruler, representing the people of Eda-Oniyo, filed an action in the High Court of Ekiti State in 1999 against the governor of the state, Attorney General and the Chairman of the LG. He sought, among others, declaratory orders that by virtue of the State Creation (Transitional Provisions) Decree No. 72 Vol. 83 of 1996, and the Local Government (Basic Constitutional Provisions) Decree of 1997 and 1998, the headquarters of Ilejemeje LG was Eda-Oniyo.

He also sought a declaration that the relocation of the headquarters for Eda-Oniyo to Iye-Ekiti as illegal, null and void. The mornach also sought an order restraining the defendants from recognising Iye-Ekiti as the headquarters of the LG and a perpetual injunction restraining them from carrying out the administration of the LG from any other town apart from Eda-Oniyo.

The High Court ruled in 2001 in favour of Oba Awolola, but the Ekiti State Government had appealed against the judgment and won at the Court of Appeal. To challenge the decision of the Court of Appeal, Oba Awolola, through his lawyer, Mr. Oluwadamilare Awokoya, filed the appeal marked SC.194/2008 before the Supreme Court.

In its judgement on December 14, 2018, the apex court ordered the Ekiti State Government to relocate the headquarters of Ilejemeje Local Government Area. The five-man bench of the court unanimously ordered the state government to immediately restore the headquarters of the local government to Eda-Oniyo from where it was relocated to Iye-Ekiti shortly after the state was created on October 1, 1996.

Justice Paul Galinje, who read the lead judgment, held that the establishment of the headquarters of the local government in Eda-Oniyo was backed by statute and could not be relocated elsewhere without the promulgation of a new law. He said the act of relocating the LG headquarters from Eda-Oniyo to Iye-Ekiti by the Ekiti State Government “has no legal basis”.

“The location of the headquarters of Ilejemeje LG in Eda-Oniyo is a product of statute and no law has been promulgated to relocate it to any other place,” he ruled.

The court consequently set aside the Court of Appeal’s judgment and affirmed that of the High Court. Agreeing with Oba Awolola’s lawyer, the apex court ruled that non-filing of the suit at the High Court within three months, when the dispute arose in 1996 as stipulated in the Public Officers Protection Law of Ekiti State did not render the suit incompetent.
Incompliance with the apex court’s judgment, Ekiti State Government on October 21, issued a proclaimation for the relocation of the council headquarters from Iye Ekiti to Eda Oniyo Ekiti.

Addressing a press conference in Ado-Ekiti, the state Deputy Governor, Chief Bisi Egbeyemi, said the state took the step following the advice of the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Wale Fapohunda and the report of a fact-finding committee, which advised that by virtue of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement, that it would be “illegal, irregular, unconstitutional, null and void” to recognise Iye-Ekiti as the headquarters of the council.

He consequently directed the Chairman of the council, Hon Sunday Awolola, and the Commissioner for Local Government Affairs, Prof. Adio Folayan, to prepare a schedule for the relocation of the council to the new town.

“The decision of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land is sacrosanct and inviolable and is binding on the government,” adding that by virtue of the pronouncement, all government departments, institutions, organisations, public functionaries, corporate bodies and others are expected to cooperate with government to facilitate smooth relocation.

“That by virtue of the judgment, Eda-Oniyo is the only legally recognised headquarters of Ilejemeje Local Government Area of the state. That the headquarters of Ilejemeje Local Government and its machinery are hereby relocated by Ekiti State Government from Iye-Ekiti to Eda Oniyo Ekiti,” he said.

Just when the process was on, a fresh suit, penultimate week appeared again before an Ekiti State High Court sitting in Ado Ekiti, where the case started in 1999, challenging the Supreme Court’s judgment.

Rather than summarily shutting down the fresh suit as an affront and abuse of court process, the judge of the court, Justice Abiodun Adesodun, urged parties in the suit to maintain status quo pending its judgment on November 19.

The judge described the action of the state government “executive rascality and self help,” since according to him, the matter is already pending before his court. Adesodun, while ruling on an application by Iye-Ekiti community, said the state government and the state Attorney General ought to have waited for determination of the suit before his court before making such proclamation.

Some of the documents sighted by THISDAY revealed that dissatisfied by the Supreme Court verdict, the people of Iye-Ekiti, through their lawyer, Taiwo Kupolati, approached the high court seeking among others, an order restraining the state government from moving the council headquarters from Iye Ekiti to Eda Oniyo Ekiti.

He contended that Iye-Ekiti community was not joined in the suit leading to the Supreme Court judgment, noting that there was no statute backing the proclamation of the government on the relocation.

But observers have described his suit as frivolous and a gross abuse of court process. They wondered why the lawyer would claim that Iye-Ekiti community was not joined in the suit leading to the Supreme Court judgment, when the state government in order to retain the LG headquarters in Iye-Ekiti, appealed against the judgment of the High Court which had ordered that the council headquarters be relocated to Eda Oniyo Ekiti.

They equally stated that assuming that the claimant (Iye Ekiti) has genuine grievances against the Supreme Court judgment, the appropriate thing is to go back to the apex court for review, not the High Court.

Analysts are wondering where the principle of superiority of courts has gone for the High Court to dare the Supreme Court to hear afresh a matter it had already determined. One elementary rule of Nigeria’s judiciary is that the decisions of the apex court are sancrosanct and binding on all persons and authorities including all courts with subordinate jurisdiction.
This is why they are worried over the disturbing trend in the justice sector, where some courts subvert the principle of stare decisis, one of the most sacred pillars in the administration of justice.

The principle is a legal doctrine that obligates courts to follow historical cases, when making a ruling on a similar case. It ensures that cases with similar scenarios and facts are binding on courts with subordinate jurisdictions.

“One of the dangers in the country’s democratic experiment is seeing the impunity we have on other arms of government creeping into the judiciary, which was seen as revered. While the Supreme Court has often ruled that there must be an end to litigation, courts below do not always respect that decision or admonition. And this is very dangerous,” says a public affairs analyst, who did not want her name in print.

“The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. It is the final place where people seek redress. The tradition is that when the court resolves or decides a dispute – that is where it ends. The best any aggrieved parties can do, especially when they do not properly comprehend or disagree with decision of the court is to go back and seek interpretation. Certainly not to go back to the High Court either to seek interpretation or commence the matter afresh,” says Ferdinard Obieze.