By Ise-Oluwa Ige
Transparency International, the global civil society organisation, promoting transparency in elections, public administration, procurement and business, is not happy with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Dimeji Bankole.
The reason, according to the body, is the removal from office of Mr Bassey Etim, representing Uyo Federal Constituency at the lower Chambers of the National Assembly. The organization is contending that Bankoleâ€™s action, smacked of snobbery for the judiciary considering a subsisting court order restraining him and the National Assembly bureaucracy from either sacking him or swearing in his opponent, Mr Emmanuel Obot, pending determination of a motion on notice.
It said nothing could be farther from the conclusion in view of the fact that Mr Obot, the man Bankole swore in as replacement for Bassey Etim neither contested the April 2007 poll nor secured any verdict from the Supreme Court which has the final say on the issue of who is the rightful candidate for the poll in Uyo constituency.
The organization said Bankoleâ€™s action remained indefensible taking into account the promise by the Supreme Court on June 3, this year, that it would hear and pronounce, with a finality, on who between the two disputants is the de jure PDP candidate and winner of the 2007 poll and who between the two should henceforth be the de facto representative of the Uyo constituency till the end of the on-going legislative session.
Raising a poser over whose interest Speaker Bankole was protecting, the organization declared that his conduct caught its attention following the rumour gaining currency that Bankole moved against Bassey Etim because he was sympathetic to those routing for his investigation over sundry allegations of corruption involving billions of naira.
The Transparency International which is demanding an immediate rescission of Etimâ€™s sack pending determination of the Supreme Court pronouncement on the case said no other thing could be acceptable as Bankoleâ€™s action was not only an affront to the December 2, 2009 legal opinion of the National Assemblyâ€™s legal department which advised maintenance of status quo but also a disdain for section 233 (1) of the 1999 constitution and an outright contempt for the age-long principle of separation of powers in a democracy.
The position of the Transparency International, no doubt, is a loud re-echo of an earlier view expressed by an Abuja-based legal practitioner, Mr B. Okangbe. Okangbe, had, in a three page statement, moments after Etim was removed, last week, described Bankoleâ€™s action as illegal and a rabid rape of the nationâ€™s principle of rule of law and respect for procedure.
Another group under the name and style of Human Rights First the Child Foundation was also not comfortable with Bankoleâ€™s decision. In a letter written to President Jonathan Goodluck, the organization demanded immediate reinstatement of Etim, his sack being not in conformity with the rule of law.
But Speaker Bankole himself is not keeping quiet. He is contending that he did not corruptly sack Etim, as being alleged, from the House to deplete the number of the lawmakers seeking his probe but that he swore in Mr Emmanuel Obot having been issued certificate of return by INEC and the legal department of National Assembly having issued a fresh legal opinion to go ahead with his swearing in.
He had argued forcefully that his position was never a desecration of his sacred office and public trust. But the Abuja-based legal practitioner, Mr Okangbe who dismissed as laughable the excuse given by Speaker Bankole for his action said he was being economical with the truth. He said the history of the case easily put a lie to what he called his basis to sack Mr Etim. He said that in the first place, no legal opinion could impeach or override a positive order of the court stopping him or the National Assembly bureaucracy from sacking Etim or swearing in Obot.
He also said that in all election related cases, (pre and post) prosecuted in the country, he said no incumbent was removed from office until the final court of the land on the subject-matter of litigation had pronounced on the legal issues of dispute. He said the instant case is a pre-election matter which the Supreme Court by virtue of section 233 (1) has the powers of final pronouncement on issues for determination.
He said even though the Supreme Court was already seized of the facts of the case and had even adjourned till October 21 for definite hearing and summary judgment, he said Bankole deliberately and out of arrogance and sheer disrespect for the apex court of the land took the steam out of the case by swearing in a man who neither sought the votes of the Uyo constituents in 2007 nor known to them as a candidate for the National Assembly election.
He said assuming that the pronouncement of the Supreme Court in Amaechi Vs Ararume could be handy in this case if he were to be declared a de jure candidate of PDP by the Supreme Court, he however queried that could such an assumption be stretched to envisage what the Supreme Court would decide in the two cases pending before it slated for hearing in two or three monthsâ€™ time?
He added that Obot was expelled from the folds of the ruling PDP as far back as 2006 before he approached the court for the quashing of his indictment which fact in itself raised another issue: on what platform did Bankole swear in Obot? Was he sworn in as AC or ANPP member ? or is he foisting him on the ruling PDP, his expulsion having not been vacated?
Okangbe simply declared that Bankole had neither legal nor moral justification to do what he did other than that he sacked Hon Etim because of his alliance with the forces in the National Assembly seeking his probe. He said his action should not only be roundly condemned being not in the public interest but that every well meaning Nigerian must demand for the reversal of the warped decision. He also said that the history of the case which started before an Abuja Federal high court was a classical example of the desecration of the sacred roles assigned to the judiciary by the grundnorm.
Indeed, the facts of the case was that shortly after the PDP ratified Mr Bassey Etim as its candidate for the 2007 National Assembly poll, Obot who was denied the platform because he was indicted of fraud during the ruling PDPâ€™s primary for the National Assembly election by allegedly forging the primary result in his favour, headed for court.Â Â Specifically, Obot, had, in his suit, asked the Abuja Federal high court to issue him an order quashing his indictment and a separate order restraining PDP and INEC from substituting him as candidate for the Uyo constituency election.
The judge, in her judgment, quashed Obotâ€™s indictment but refused to restrain both the PDP and INEC from substituting him on the ground that the act sought to be restrained was a completed act. Instead of going on appeal, Obot went before an Uyo Federal high court to ask for the relief he could not get in Abuja but had to withdraw the case when Hon Bassey and PDP informed the court that he was forum-shopping. Obot later came before the same Justice Ogie of the Abuja Federal high court with a fresh application on the issue of substitution which the court earlier refused to grant. Strangely, Justice Ogie who had already given a final order on the issue reversed herself as if she was sitting in an appellate capacity over her earlier verdict.
Both PDP that was contending that Obot had been expelled from its fold and Etim Bassey who claimed that the judge had no jurisdiction to sit in an appellate capacity over her first judgment went on appeal. The said two appeals (now consolidated) are now before the Supreme Court for hearing October 21. But while this matter was on appeal, Obot took the Abuja Federal high court verdict before the Akwa Ibom Election Petition Tribunal and the Appeal Tribunal. Bassey Etim and PDP challenged the jurisdiction of the election petition tribunal to entertain a pre-election dispute touching on substitution of candidates.
The panel of justices that sat as the Akwa Ibom Election Petition Tribunal in Uyo threw out the case for want of subject-matter jurisdiction but the Court of Appeal, Calabar ordered the tribunal to re_hear the case on its merit. In the final analysis, the tribunal which earlier said it had no jurisdiction also reversed itself and gave judgment in Obotâ€™s favour which he could not enforce because of the pending appeal before the Supreme Court on who between him and Mr Etim is the rightful candidate of PDP for the election. In view of the importance of the Supreme Court pronouncement on the resolution of the issue, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), the lead counsel to Obot pressured the Supreme Court to hear the case on June 3, this year, saying the res of the case was perishable, lawmakerâ€™s tenure being four years certain. But the apex court begged for understanding. The apex court said it had heard so many appeals on which judgment must be delivered before they proceeded on vacation in July this year.
Justice Dahiru Musdapher who was the presiding justice of the panel said if they heard the case on June 3, he said there was no way judgment would be ready in July and that it was impossible for them to deliver judgment in the case during vacation. He also explained that even assuming they heard the case and fixed October for judgment, he said such verdict would be a nullity because the rules of the court provided that judgment must be delivered on heard cases within three months after conclusion of hearing. But he assured Obotâ€™s lawyer that the case would be one of the first to be heard and decided during the next legal year.
He said that there were other pre-election cases still pending before the apex court and that Obotâ€™s was not an exception but that all would be cleared in October. But few days after Supreme Court promised to pronounce, soon, on the issue in dispute with a finality, INEC which was a party in the two appeals, dared the apex court and issued certificate of return to Obot for the Uyo constituency seat. The conduct of the Acting Chairman of INEC, Mr Soyebi, was no doubt confrontational to the authority of the Supreme Court and capable of foisting a fait accompli on the apex court, on the issues distilled from grounds of appeal for determination.
But Soyebi said he had a reason for doing what he did. He said he was acting on a petition written by Obot on the issue wherein he alleged that some powers that be were preventing his swearing in even several months after the final court on legislative election matters had cleared him for swearing-in. Sources close to him said he wanted to depart from what Iwu did in his time to earn great respect and praises from Nigerians. But it was authoritatively gathered that Soyebi was being economical with facts.
For instance, it was gathered that there was a relationship between Soyebi and Obot which dated back to 2003 when the latter was Special Assistant to Governor Victor Attah of Akwa Ibom state while the former was the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of Akwa Ibom State.
Sources said they were very close and that it was indeed Soyebi who advised Obot to do a petition to him so that he would have a platform to act.
In the said petition, Obot detailed the same story of how he procured judgments at the tribunal and the Court of Appeal Calabar without stating that he rode to the tribunal on the back of the Abuja Federal high court verdict which is on appeal at the Supreme Court. Beyond this, an impeccable source also said that the incumbent Attorney General of the Federation, Mr Mohammed Adoke (SAN) also backed the INEC boss to issue the certificate of return notwithstanding that the matter was pending before the Supreme Court.
The source added that Adoke decided to involve himself in the case because there was also a relationship between him and Obot. In fact, Vanguard Law and Human Rights gathered that Mr Adoke (SAN), the learned Attorney-General of the Federation was the lead counsel to Obot in the case at the tribunal stage. Indeed, Adokeâ€™s name appeared conspicuously on the compiled record of proceedings at pages 259, 263, 271 and 274 as the chief counsel representing Obot and leading other junior wigs like Azekomeh Esq, Uwemedino Nwoko among others.
But the source close to Adoke (SAN) said he was very smart by allegedly working in favour of his old client by speaking with the relevant authourities to release the certificate of return and swear him in notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court was already seized of the facts of the case and had promised to deal with it in October with a finality.
On moral ground, one may be sympathetic with Obot, the tenure of office he wanted to occupy if the Supreme Court judgment is in his favour, would expire May 29, 2011. But a close look at the facts of the case will not evoke any stroke of sympathy for him in view of the fact that both the Election Petition Tribunal which sat at Uyo and the Court of Appeal, Calabar had no jurisdiction to entertain pre-election case, the perimeter under which the case he took there fell.
In fact, the Uyo Tribunal specifically threw out his case for want of subject-matter jurisdiction but the Court of Appeal ordered it to re-hear the case on its merit.
Of concern however was the case of Philips Nonye maintained against the incumbent Delta State Speaker, Martins Okonta at the Delta State House of Assembly Election Petition Tribunal which was on all fours with Obotâ€™s.
The two tribunals including the Court of Appeal, Benin which sat as a final court on the legislative election matter involving Okonta and Nonye dismissed the case for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The implication now is that there are two conflicting judgments of the Court of Appeal of Nigeria on the issue of whether or not an election petition tribunal can hear a pre-election matter which, to a large extent, rubbished the age-long principle of stare decisis. Besides, assuming without conceding that the judgments Obot procured at the tribunals were valid in law, what becomes of them if the Supreme Court rules in October or thereabout that the second judgment of Justice Abimbola Ogie on substitution is a nullity?
Without doubt, such a pronouncement from the Supreme Court would naturally nullify the two judgments Obot procured at the tribunals which he is brandishing everywhere. Which is why all relevant authourities ought to await the decision of the Supreme Court on who is the rightful candidate between the two before taking steps.