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When judiciary goes on trial ~ by Olusegun Adeniyi

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Following the 5th December 2020 Imo North Senatorial by-election to replace the late Benjamin Uwajumogu, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared victory in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC) without proclaiming a winner.

This was due to a multiplicity of cases by APC members claiming to be the party’s candidate and the various reliefs they were able to procure from different courts.

But in a recent petition signed by the party’s acting National Chairman and governor of Yobe, Mai Mala Buni, APC accused Supreme Court Justices Mohammed Dattijo, Abdu Aboki and Helen Ogunwumiju of conspiring with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to deliver the senate seat.

This grave allegation has already elicited a response from the apex court with dire implications for the people of Imo North and democracy in Nigeria.

Announcing the suspension of proceedings in the appeal by Chukwuemeka Ibezim regarding his dispute with Ifeanyi Ararume, Justice Mohammed Dattijo—who led a five-member panel of the apex court—said APC has called to question his integrity and that of two colleagues.

“Let me confirm to all counsel in this matter that the Interim National Chairman of APC had written a petition against me and two other Justices of this court, namely Helen Ogunwumiju and Abdu Aboki” said Dattijo.

“They alleged that my humble self had led my two brothers to attend a meeting with members of the PDP to strategize on how to subvert the outcome of this case.

“I must say that this is most unfortunate and my heart bleeds for this country. This is a reckless and irresponsible statement.

“If they have honour, let them substantiate their allegations and I will not stay a day longer in this court. So, this matter is adjourned sine die,” meaning indefinitely.

The problem began on 5th September last year when factions emerged from the seven-man committee established by the APC to conduct primaries for Imo North senatorial election.

Chaired by Senator Ajibola Bashiru with Samuel Ogbuku as Secretary, other committee members included Jibrin Gada, Bello Kumo, Umar Gana, Mohammed Saba and Godfrey Ejim.

At the end of the exercise, two APC senatorial candidates emerged.

While Bashiru led the secretary and two other members to declare Ibezim winner, the remaining three committee members gave victory to Ifeanyi Ararume.

The party headquarters threw its weight behind Ibezim and submitted his name to INEC.

But several politicians, including those from parties that ordinarily had no dog in the fight, went to court with all manner of cases. That was how the judiciary became a pawn in the political chess game.

In the Nigerian legal system, there is only ONE Federal High Court. There is also only ONE Court of Appeal.

That has not stopped our politicians from instituting cases involving same parties at different locations of the same court.

On 6th November 2020, the Federal High Court sitting in Owerri disqualified Ibezim and declared Ararume the APC candidate in a case filed by Lady Uchenna Ubah.

This case proceeded to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court and both overturned the verdict which then left the coast clear for Ibezim.

But in a case filed by Tony Elebeke on 4th December 2020, another Federal High Court sitting in Abuja disqualified Ibezim, thus technically giving the ticket to Ararume 24 hours to the election.

This judgement was affirmed by the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja.

However, we must remember that the Owerri panel of the Court of Appeal (in the case filed against APC by Lady Ubah) had earlier upheld the election of the same Ibezim.

Were different facts presented before the two panels?

Similarly, the Supreme Court that had earlier validated the election of Ibezim in the Ubah case against APC disqualified him on this latter case thus effectively giving the ticket to Ararume.

Were different facts presented before the Supreme Court too?

That of course was not the end of the court drama.

On 8th March 2021, an interim order was sought at the FCT High Court to compel INEC to recognize Chief Emmanuel Okewulonu, the PDP candidate, winner of the election.

This is forum shopping by another politician who had actually filed a similar case at the Election Petition Tribunal that is still pending.

However, the Judge was also clever. Apparently in a bid to buy time for the matter to be decided either by the Supreme Court or the Election Tribunal, he adjourned the case.

On 18th March, 2021, without waiting for the appeal pending at the Supreme Court, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja declared Ararume winner of the election.

On the same day, an Interim Injunction was obtained from the High Court of Imo State, restraining INEC from recognizing Ararume as the candidate for the election.

Curiously, the case was filed by a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). What is APGA’s interest in APC internal issues? Obviously a case of hand of Esau, voice of Jacob!

Interestingly, before the Imo North Senatorial contest became enmeshed in litigation, the APC screening committee had disqualified Ibezim and the decision was upheld by the party’s appeal panel.

Somehow, somehow as we say in Nigeria, it was the name of this same disqualified aspirant that the party sent to INEC as APC candidate.

With that, the commission is helpless because by design, our politicians have protected themselves, regardless of how they circumvent their own internal processes.

Section 31 of the Electoral Act says that once a party submits the list of candidates, INEC has no power to reject or disqualify “for any reason whatsoever”.

As sordid as the foregoing may appear, nobody should imagine this is only an APC problem.

Internal democracy is alien to all our political parties as can be glimpsed from a similar problem in Cross River State involving the PDP.

In a split decision of four to three, the supreme court on 17th February dismissed the appeal filed by Stephen Odey challenging the judgement of the Court of Appeal which declared Agom Jarigbe the validly-nominated candidate for Cross River Senatorial District.

But the role played by the judiciary was, to put it mildly, very suspicious.

Why, for instance, was Jarigbe’s case filed before the Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, rather than in Calabar, the capital of Cross River State where the contentious PDP primary was held and the venue of the by-election?

Then there is a glaring abuse of court processes by the use of interim ex parte orders.

As its name implies, an ‘interim’ order is a temporary order but has long become a potent tool in the hands of Nigerian politicians to checkmate being denied justice or compel compliance with a ruse.

As absurd as it may sound, however, we should not blame Jarigbe.

He evidently won the primaries but the PDP panel gave victory to his opponent, apparently to appease a powerful man in the state.

Jarigbe may therefore have reasoned that those behind his travail were in control of the judicial arm in Calabar, including the Federal High Court.

So, at the end, what saved the day for him was the curious judgement he got from Port Harcourt.

In a dramatic development on 17th December last year, just 24 hours after the Clerk of the National Assembly had sworn-in Odey as a Senator, the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja declared Jarigbe the duly nominated PDP candidate for the election.

And that has been affirmed by the apex court. How do you run a country like that?

The challenge at hand is the absence of internal party democracy. In fact, the most lucrative enterprise for party members is to be saddled with the assignment of primaries in the states.

This explains why most election cases are those that challenge the conduct/management of the nomination of candidates.

Party primaries are replete with manipulation of membership registers, total disregard for their own constitutions and guidelines as well as blatant corruption and imposition of candidates, especially by governors.

That Nigerian politicians refuse to see the danger of subverting democracy is very clear. Where they don’t resort to litigation, they disrupt well organized elections by INEC, using thugs as it happened in Ekiti State two weeks ago.

What is sad about Ekiti is not just that lives were lost but also that the constituency (Ekiti East 1 State Constituency) is one of the smallest in Nigeria.

It covers half of just one local government with only five Wards, 39 polling units and 23,670 registered voters.

If this trend continues unchecked, one can only imagine what will happen during the governorship election next year or in the 2023 general election involving the entire country.

Meanwhile, INEC has been statutorily restrained by the provision of Section 31(1) of the Electoral Act from exercising any discretion on the candidates being sponsored by a party.

This is to ensure that INEC is apolitical. Fine. But the spurious court verdicts don’t help the commission either.

Sadly, the Supreme Court which ordinarily has the duty to hammer against judicial rascality in lower courts has been dragged into the mess by its own internal contradictions.

We now have a situation where people who come fourth in elections are able to become governors by the benevolence of judicial officers.

Or as it is the case with Imo North Senatorial District, thousands of people will turn out to vote, yet, four months after, they would have no representation at the National Assembly.

It is getting to a point in which Nigerians will begin to ask themselves, why bother to vote?

In the course of interrogating this same vexatious issue last year, I made allusion to why democracy, according to Ross Feingold, is considered the most legitimate form of government, essentially because the power of choice rests with the people.

“But when this power dynamic is altered and citizens lose their influence, the legitimacy of the system is threatened,” Feingold stated.

In a situation where politicians no longer campaign but rely on the court to get to power, that is no longer democracy.

Both the National Judicial Commission (NJC) and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as well as other critical stakeholders should work together to save our judiciary from this shameful conduct.

To file frivolous cases, lawyers after filthy lucre will breach civil procedural demands and get such cases assigned to and heard by their accomplices on the bench.

While we must put an end to such unholy alliances, there is also an urgent need to bring post-party primaries litigations under the electoral law.

This will eliminate forum shopping and also deal with the issue of proliferation of orders and judgments emanating from different courts of coordinate jurisdiction.

While political parties must wean themselves of bad behaviour in the conduct of their primaries to nominate candidates for elections, both the Constitution and the Electoral Act require amendment.

We cannot continue with a situation in which Judges veto the choices of the electorate on the basis of technicalities such as how names are written on certificates.

If this democracy is to survive, it is imperative that the judiciary as an institution and judges as individuals are not only impartial to those who appear before them but also that the wider public have the confidence that cases affecting their well-being will be decided fairly and in accordance with the law.

As a cornerstone of democracy, any judiciary that doesn’t serve constitutional goals is a problem for the society.

It’s worse when Judges are perceived as not acting fairly, reasonably, and in preservation of public trust in the rule of law.

That sadly is the state we are in Nigeria today and it calls for a lot of soul searching by judicial officers.

Proliferation of court cases with similar cause of action at different locations of courts of coordinate jurisdiction indicates forum shopping and may point to the fact that justice is now cash and carry.

This can only encourage jungle justice. However, the greater responsibility lies with the political class.

Which is why the APC, as the ruling party, should be restrained in making claims it cannot substantiate against judicial officers at the apex court.

In their own enlightened interest, they must begin to accord the judiciary the respect and dignity necessary for judges to do their work without being dragged into partisan politics or having their reputation sullied.

You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com.

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