* Orders accelerated hearing in substantive matter
By Alex Enumah
Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Federal High Court, Abuja on Monday, dismissed the preliminary objections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and four other respondents to the hearing of the suit filed by Chief Supo Shonibare’s group over the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Chief Shonibare and 11 others had approached the court for recognition of the Olu Falae-led National Executive Committee (NEC) as the authentic leadership of the SDP as against the Prof. Tunde Adeniran’s faction.
Prof. Adeniran, Shehu Gaban, Emeka Atuma, Prof. Rufai Alkali, Marian Tolopari, Dr Junaid Mohammed, Senator Ebenezer Ikeyina, Senator Erin Henshaw, David Umah, Stanley Nnanka, Joseph Achile, and INEC, are first to 12th defendants respectively in the suit.
But INEC and the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 11th defendants in a Notice of Preliminary Objection had prayed the court not to hear the matter, claiming that it would amount to a waste of time and an abuse of court’s process on the grounds that issues brought before the court had been resolved by the Supreme Court last year, in a judgment which declared former Cross River State Governor, Donald Duke, as the candidate of the SDP in the 2019 presidential election.
According to their lawyer, Mr. Peter Nwatu, hearing the suit will amount to sitting on appeal on the judgments of both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
Also arguing, INEC’s lawyer, Mr. Dimas Emmanuel, argued that the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the suit because it has become statute-barred.
He also submitted that the court lacks the jurisdiction to entertain intra-party matters.
Responding to the two objections, the counsel to the plaintiffs, Mr. Tani Molajo (SAN), told the court that the objections by the defendants were misconceived because the issues brought before the court was quite different from what the apex court had resolved.
According to Molajo, the issue resolved by both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court has nothing to do with the party’s leadership but the rotation of the presidential ticket among zones in the country.
The plaintiffs’ counsel further argued that certain paragraphs in the affidavit in support of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 11th defendants were in breach of the Evidence Act, making the preliminary objection incompetent and urged the court to dismiss the objections and proceed to hear the substantive suit.
In her ruling, Justice Ojukwu disagreed with the defendants that Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act is applicable to the case and held that the suit, as filed by Chief Sonibare and 11 others is not statute-barred.
She held that the questions and issues raised in Prof. Jerry Gana vs SDP at the Supreme Court are entirely different from the plaintiffs’ suit, adding that the case of the plaintiffs cannot be dismissed on the issues raised at the apex court as there are many more issues to be determined, which the Supreme Court judgment did not cover.
While noting that the court cannot interfere in the internal matters of a party, she held that the court is supposed to look at the claims of the plaintiffs and “having examined the claims of the plaintiffs, there are those which the court has jurisdiction and those which it has not”.
“The court interferes when a party violates its own rule. It is only when the case is heard that justice can be done.
“I hold that the preliminary objections of the defendants have failed to terminate the case of the plaintiffs,” she said and consequently dismissed the preliminary objections and adjourned till June 2, 2021 for hearing of the substantive matter.
The judge told parties to put their houses in order as she ordered accelerated hearing in the matter.
According to the plaintiffs in the suit numbered FHA/A/ABJ/CS/1358/2019, they were elected at the party’s national convention on March 9, 2016, for a period of four years but were displaced sometime in 2018 by the Adeniran faction on claims that they were appointed at the party’s 2018 national convention.
Shonibare, who claimed to be the Acting National Chairman of the party, following the resignation of the National Chairman, Chief Olu Falae, in 2019, insisted that there was no election of party officials in 2018.
This development led to the legal action to resolve the leadership issue.