Bizarre Judgments of Appeal Court in Plateau

The conflicting judgments of the Court of Appeal in the disputes arising from the National Assembly elections in Plateau State may further erode the confidence of the people in the judiciary, Seriki Adinoyi writes

For many, the courts are expected to be sacred, but where the judges who preside over them are perceived to be bias, the sound of their gavels becomes a mere noise.

Recent developments in the judiciary in Nigeria, especially at the Court of Appeal, to many analysts, are becoming increasingly worrisome and source of serious concern.

Their lordships in the temple of justice are rather confusing ‘unlearned Nigerians’ who are now getting more and more disenchanted by the judgments.

Many Nigerians are bothered that judges are dispensing ‘justice’ in a manner that suggests that there are different versions of the Electoral Act, which make them to deliver incongruous judgments on same matters.

The existence of different versions of the electoral laws is the only tenable excuse to explain why Appeal Court judges give conflicting judgments and diverse interpretations to the same Electoral Act in cases that are similar and under same circumstance.

Both the election petition tribunals and Court of Appeal have nullified the election of many candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the based on pre-election matters on the primary election of the party despite plethora of authorities by the Supreme Court to the effect that tribunals and Court of Appeal do not have jurisdiction over pre-election matters.

For instance, the PDP had in an appeal marked SC/CV/501/2023, sought President Bola Tinubu’s disqualification by the Supreme Court on grounds of the alleged double nomination of his deputy, Kashim Shettima in the 2023 general election.

The party claimed that Shettima was nominated as the Borno Central Senatorial candidate and as Tinubu’s running mate at the same time.

But the apex court, in a unanimous decision of a five-man panel, held that the appeal by the PDP challenging the validity of the Tinubu/Shettima ticket lacked merit.

Delivering the lead judgement on the suit, Justice Adamu Jauro upheld the concurrent decisions of the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court in Abuja, which earlier dismissed the case.

The court ruled that the plaintiff lacked the legal right to meddle in the affairs of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which nominated the duo as its candidates in the election.

Describing the appeal as an activity of “a nosy busy-body and a meddlesome interloper”, the Supreme Court stressed that the law does not permit a political party to dabble in the domestic affairs of another party.

The court agreed with the respondents that Section 285 (14) (c) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Section 149 of the Electoral Act, 2022, do not confer to them the legal right to question the candidature of Shettima on the ground of double nomination.

In another judgment delivered on October 20, 2023, the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja declined to sack the member of the House of Representatives for Askira-Uba/Hawul Federal Constituency of Borno State, Dr. Midala Balami.

The appellate court, in a unanimous decision by a three-member panel of justices, dismissed an appeal that was brought before it by the APC and its candidate, Tarfaya Asarya.

The court held that it found no reason to set aside the judgment of the Borno State National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal which affirmed the PDP candidate as the valid winner of the House of Representatives election.

The petitioners had contended that the primary election the PDP conducted, which produced Balami as its candidate, was done in breach of an order of the Supreme Court.

However, the three-member panel of election tribunal, in a unanimous decision on August 25, 2023, dismissed the petition. The tribunal held that it lacked the requisite jurisdiction to entertain an issue bordering on the nomination of a candidate by a political party.

It held that the case of the petitioners contained pre-election issues that were not within the purview of an election petition tribunal.

Meanwhile, while upholding the verdict, the appellate court panel led by Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme, held that under Section 285(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the tribunal had a special jurisdiction to only determine whether anyone was validly elected.

It held that the scope of the jurisdiction conferred on the tribunal by the Constitution could not be expanded to include the determination of the validity of the conduct of primary election or nomination of candidates by political parties.

But in a bizarre judgment delivered in Plateau State, the Appeal Court became interested in pre-election matters when it held that the nomination of candidates can be contested as both pre-election and post-election matters.

The election petition tribunal in Jos had upheld the election of the Minority Leader of the Senate, Simon Mwadkwon, and dismissed the petitions by Mr. Chris Giwa of the APC and Mr. Gyang Zi of the Labour Party (LP). But the two went on appeal.

Delivering judgment on the matter in an Appeal Court sitting in Abuja, the lead judge, Justice E O Williams-Dawodu said that Section 84(14) was the basis to be determined; the issue is based on ground one which is the structure of the PDP.

The judge said: “In my solemn view, a pertinent question that springs forth and to be clearly dealt with, flowing from the foregoing, is whether there has been substantial compliance to the order of Plateau State High Court in Suit No PLD/J304/2020.

“This court made a positive finding and found that there was no complete and total compliance with the order of the court by the PDP. Until an order is complied with, it remains in force and is binding on all the parties to it.”

She said it is her view that the court order for PDP to conduct a fresh congress was not fully complied with by the party as 12 LGAs didn’t participate in the repeated congress. He agreed with the appellants that the party had no valid structure and could not have claimed to have validly nominated the candidate for the election.

She said in her considered view, and giving the findings of the court, the appeal succeeds. He therefore nullified the election and ordered that all parties go back for a rerun within 90 days.

Unlike in the previous judgments of the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court in similar cases, the judge said, “Nomination of candidates can be a pre-election as well as post-election if it’s contested by another candidate of a different party.” This to many observers, is where the tribunal missed the point.

“It is on Section 134(1) that the appellants had the locus standi to file their appeal. Though the third respondent has the right to nominate candidates, it cannot do that within its whims and caprices.”

These conflicting judgments have upset the indigenes of Plateau State who are now worried that the Court of Appeal is trying to force leaders on them against their choice at the polls.

Speaking on the matter, a former Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Istifanus Mwansat, rejected the judgements of the Appeal Court in the state, describing them as a miscarriage of justice. He added that the Appeal Court rulings seemed designed to pit the people of the state against one another.

Mwansat also observed other inconsistencies, noting that where the Labour Party (LP) came second in the nullified elections, the court ordered a rerun, but where the APC came second, the court outrightly awarded victory to the party without an order for a rerun.

Citing examples such as the Plateau North Senatorial District, where the Appeal Court ordered a rerun because the LP candidate came second and the APC came third, Mwansat said that similar judgement was delivered in the case of Bassa/Jos North Federal Constituency, where the PDP won decisively and the PRP came second, the Appeal Court called for a rerun involving all political parties.

But in the case of Shendam/Quanpan/Mikang Federal Constituency, Mwansat noted that the Appeal Court sacked the PDP candidate and awarded the victory to the APC candidate who came second without ordering for a rerun like it did in other cases.

He alleged that the Court of Appeal is doing the bidding of the APC. He criticised the judgements, describing them as conflicting.

According to him, the judgments were a deliberate attempt to deny the PDP candidates of their overwhelming victories in the state.

Mwansat urged the Court of Appeal to review these judgements thoroughly and ensure justice prevails in view of their implications to the peace and security of the state.

Meanwhile, a new twist has emerged on the matter as the former governor of the state and current Minister of Labour and Employment, Simon Lalong has been fingered on the travail befalling the PDP.

Lalong is from Shendam Local Government Area (LGA) of Plateau State just as the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem. They are both from the same ethnic group, Gomai.

Lalong contested for the Senate and was outrightly defeated by the PDP at the polls.

However, the tribunal nullified PDP’s victory on the same ground that the party lacked the structure to nominate candidates.

The Appeal Court sitting in Abuja also last Tuesday upheld the judgment of the tribunal which declared Lalong winner of the Plateau South Senatorial election.

There are speculations that the former governor used his contacts in the Appeal Court to impose himself on the people as senator representing Plateau South.

Apparently banking on Lalong’s alleged contacts in the Appeal Court, the member representing Pankshin/Kanke/Kanam Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Mr. Yusuf Gagdi, and member representing Wase Federal Constituency, Mr. Ahmed Idris Wase were alleged to have boasted that the PDP Governor in Plateau State, Caleb Mutfwang would definitely be removed to pave the way for the APC candidate, Dr. Nentawe Yilwatda to take over.

Though these allegations are not substantiated and may be politically-motivated, the judiciary needs to avoid soiling its hands.

Appeal Court justices are perceived to be men of integrity, and should review these controversial judgments and do everything possible to earn and retain public trust.

Smuggling those who were rejected by the people at the polls back to power by the judiciary will breed public unrest and lawlessness.

The judiciary is believed to have caused enough harm to Nigeria’s democracy and should desist from causing further harm.

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