Endless Tussle for Imo North Senate Seat

0

Can the Federal High Court ignore the Supreme Court ruling on a dispute or give an order on a matter still pending before the court? These are questions Davidson Iriekpen is seeking answers to in the tussle between Ifeanyi Ararume and Frank Ibezim for the Imo North senatorial district contest

The judiciary was virtually thrown into palpable confusion last Thursday, following two orders of the High Courts over the tussle for Imo North senatorial district contest between Senator Ifeanyi Ararume and Sir Frank Ibezim. While Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja declared Ararume as winner of the December 5, 2020 senatorial district by-election in which the All Progressives Congress (APC) was declared winner and ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue him a Certificate of Return within 72 hours from the delivery of the judgment, an Imo State High Court in Owerri issued another order of interim injunction restraining the commission from recognising him as the winner of the election.

Although INEC had declared the APC winner of the by-election, it did not return a candidate from the party. It hinged its decision on what it described as “several court orders” for and against the two major contenders.

Judicial analysts, however, view the order as running contrary to an earlier judgment by the Supreme Court on February 5, 2021, affirming the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which had declared Ibezim as the authentic candidate of the APC for the by-election.

To the surprise of the people of the state, Justice Taiwo of the Federal High Court, in his judgment delivered last Thursday, overruled the apex court, stating that by a recent judgment in a case marked CA/A/1085/2020 by the Court of Appeal in Abuja, the 3rd defendant, Ibezim, remained disqualified.

But same day, the Imo State High Court in Owerri quickly countered Justice Taiwo by an order of interim injunction restraining INEC from recognising Ararume as the winner of the election and candidate of the APC. The injunction also restrained INEC from issuing him a certificate of return or any other instrument in his favour and respect of the said election pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice in the suit.

According to Justice E.O Agaba, the order followed an application by motion exparte brought before him by a member of the Imo State working committee, Mr. Kelechi Soribe and five others against Ararume, INEC and the APC.

In the case before Justice Taiwo, without citing the Supreme Court judgment delivered on February 5, 2021, Ararume had, through his counsel asked the judge to invoke the judgments of a Federal High Court marked FHC/ABJ/CS/1229/2020 and that of an Appeal Court marked CA/A/1085/2020 to disqualify Ibezim and declare him as the rightful candidate for APC.

Prior to the by-election held on December 5, 2020, Ibezim and Ararume had fielded themselves as APC candidates.

Tunde Falola, who is the counsel to Ararume told journalists after the court ruling that the judgments of the High Court and later the Court of Appeal have conclusively disqualified Ibezim and therefore he cannot claim to be an aspirant or candidate in the Imo North senatorial election.

In opposing the suit, APC had told the court that it never fielded him for the December 5, 2020, senatorial by-election for the senatorial district. The party had, insisted that Senator Ararume lacked the locus standi to lay claim to the candidacy and urged the court to dismiss his suit.

Ararume then dragged INEC, APC, and Ibezim before the Federal High Court praying for an order to compel INEC to recognise him as an APC senatorial candidate in the election won by the party. He claimed that Ibezim, having been disqualified by a Federal High Court on account of supplying false information to INEC to secure clearance and same disqualification having been upheld by the Court of Appeal in Abuja had knocked him (Ibezim) off from laying any claim to the outcome of the by-election.

But, the APC, through its counsel, Osho Daudu asked the court to discountenance Ararume’s claims insisting that his name was never forwarded to INEC but that of Ibezim.

The counsel submitted that a Federal High Court judgment delivered in Owerri, Imo State which erroneously conferred locus on Ararume had been voided by Supreme Court and cannot confer any advantage on the plaintiff.

Emma Osayomi, representing Ibezim, in his own submissions, said that his client had approached the Supreme Court to challenge his disqualification on account of variation in his name. The counsel argued that as at the election day, the name of his client was on the INEC list and not that of Ararume and urged the court to dismiss Ararume’s claims and hold that Ibezim remains the APC candidate.

In all of these, many observers are wondering what happened to the judgments of the Supreme Court that dismissed two appeals by Ararume on the same tussle? In the two appeals, he had sought among others, to be made the candidate of APC in the by-election. A five-man panel of the court, headed by Justice Amina Augie, in two judgments, affirmed the judgments of the Court of Appeal, Owerri division, which voided the proceedings and decisions in the suit filed by Lady Uchenna Onyeiwu Ubah before the Federal High Court in Owerri.

To properly understand this, Ubah had sued shortly after the APC’s primary election, preparatory to the December 5, 2020 by-election, praying the court to, among others, compel the APC to submit the name of Ibezim to INEC as its candidate for the election.

In a judgment, the Federal High Court rejected her prayers on the grounds that Ubah lacked the locus standi to have filed the suit. The court proceeded to disqualify Ibezim as the party’s candidate and ordered INEC to accept Ararume as APC’s candidate for the by-election.

Both Ubah and Ibezim appealed the judgment at the Court of Appeal, Owerri. While Ubah faulted the trial court for holding that she lacked the requisite locus standi, Ibezim argued that his right to fair hearing was breached by the Federal High Court, which ordered his disqualification in a suit in which he was not a party.

In its judgments in both appeals, the Court of Appeal, Owerri agreed that Ubah lacked the locus standi and also held that Ibezim’s right to fair hearing was breached. It proceeded to set aside all the orders disqualifying Ibezim and directing INEC to accept Ararume as the candidate of the APC.

Dissatisfied, Ararume appealed at the Supreme Court, praying the court to among others, set aside the decisions by the Court of Appeal and restore the earlier judgment by the Federal High Court.

The Supreme Court dismissed both appeals marked: SC/971/2020 and SC/972/2020 in two unanimous judgments delivered on February 5.

The court said the judgments should be applied to the cross-appeal, marked: SC/1060/2020 filed Dr. Edith Chidinma Uwajimogu, in which she sought to have Ararume declared as the candidate of the APC.

Justice Tijani Abubakar, who prepared the lead judgments, said after reviewing all the arguments by parties and the records, the court found that the appeals were without merit.

Other members of the panel, Justices Augie, Uwani Abba-Aji, Samuel Oseji and Emmanuel Agim, all agreed with the lead judgment.

A day after the Supreme Court judgments, the Court of Appeal in Abuja in another case marked CA/A/1085/2020 and filed by Ibezim against the judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja on the senatorial tussle, upheld his disqualification as the candidate of APC in the by-election.

A three-man panel of the Court of Appeal, in a unanimous judgment upheld the December 4, 2020 judgment by Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, to the effect that Ibezim submitted false information about his age and academic qualification to INEC, and was therefore not qualified to contest the by-election held on December 5, 2020.

Justice Stephen Adah who read the panel’s unanimous judgment, resolved the two issues identified for determination against the appellant, saying that the finding of the trial Federal High Court was unassailable to warrant any interference by the Court of Appeal.

The court found that the appellant (Ibezim) violated Section 66(1)(i) of the Constitution by presenting forged certificate to INEC. The court held that Ibezim was not qualified to contest the election. It proceeded to dismiss the appeal by Ibezim, affirmed the judgment of the trial court and declined to award cost. Other members of the panel of the Court of Appeal that decided the appeal were Justices Abubakar Yahaya (who led) and Uchechukwu Onyemenam.

The case went to the Court of Appeal when Justice Ekwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja had, in the December 4, 2020 judgment in the suit, marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/1229/2020 filed by Asomugha Tony Elebeke, found that the WASC certificate Ibezim submitted to his party, which the APC in turn handed to INEC, contained different and irreconcilable names – Ibezim Chukwuma Frank and Ibezim Francis Chukwuma.

The judge found that Ibezim failed to prove that the various names in his credentials are one and the same. He faulted his claim that it was his elder brother – Emmanuel Ibezim – who signed the declaration of age he submitted, noting that the signatures in the age declaration document and other documents he (Ibezim) admitted signing look the same. Justice Ekwo also faulted the affidavit and newspaper publications Ibezim submitted in support of his claim that the names were all his.

Judicial watchers have been left wondering the legal impact of a Federal High Court discountenancing the Supreme Court ruling on the issue of the APC candidate for the election. They are even more confused given that the issue of Ibezim’s disqualification on the grounds of certificate forgery is still pending before the apex court and is billed to give a final determination on or before April 16, 2021.

More surprising is the fact that Ararume who filed a cross appeal on the issue at the apex court hurriedly withdrew the matter when Ibezim’s lawyers queried his suit at the Federal High Court, Abuja as an abuse of court processes.
Most confounding perhaps, is that Justice Taiwo took judicial notice of the withdrawal of the cross appeal by Ararume’s lawyers in dismissing a motion by Ibezim’s lawyers seeking to arrest Thursday’s judgment, and knew that Ibezim had already filed a notice of appeal and an order of stay of execution against the judgment.

QUOTE

Counsel to Ararume told journalists after the court ruling that the judgments of the High Court and later the Court of Appeal have conclusively disqualified Ibezim and therefore he cannot claim to be an aspirant or candidate in the Imo North senatorial election. In opposing the suit, APC had told the court that it never fielded him for the December 5, 2020, senatorial by-election for the senatorial district. The party had, insisted that Senator Ararume lacked the locus standi to lay claim to the candidacy and urged the court to dismiss his suit.

Ararume then dragged INEC, APC, and Ibezim before the Federal High Court praying for an order to compel INEC to recognise him as an APC senatorial candidate in the election won by the party. He claimed that Ibezim, having been disqualified by a Federal High Court on account of supplying false information to INEC to secure clearance and same disqualification having been upheld by the Court of Appeal in Abuja had knocked him (Ibezim) off from laying any claim to the outcome of the by-election. But, the APC, through its counsel, Osho Daudu asked the court to discountenance Ararume’s claims insisting that his name was never forwarded to INEC but that of Ibezim