By Emeka Umeagbalasi
On August 25, 2010, the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal, Abuja, Mr. Aliyu Ibrahim, on behalf of Justice Isa Ayo Salami, President Court of Appeal, responded to a petition on the pending election matters at the Court of Appeal divisions nationwide.
Also September 13, 2010, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, SAN, response dated August 31, 2010, on the same matter, was received by International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, ISCLR.
It will be recalled that ISCLRL, based in Anambra State, had raised concern over the pendency of many election petitions before the Court of Appeal, few months to the general elections.
The President of the Court of Appeal vide the said letter, did promise the necessary action will be taken to address the situation. While ISCLRL petition of May 28, 2010 contained the findings which resulted from its investigations at the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division, where it was discovered that over 40 cases are still pending, another letter by the group, contained the continued pending of about 30 election cases and its estimation was that over 300 2007 election- related cases might be pending in various divisions of the Court of Appeal across the country.
The two letters also contained further observations and recommendations as well as our respectful call on Court of Appeal President, to disregard the vexatious call by some political parties to disband the Anambra State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, presently sitting in Awka, the State Capital City over an alleged bias.
I most humbly, wish to state that the defence put up by the Chief Registrar, on behalf the President of the Court of Appeal over the issues raised may not be convincing and acceptable. For instance, in the context of court proceedings, the presiding Judge is the “general overseer” or “officer-in-charge”. While it is agreed that some litigants and their lawyers devise several despicable methods to hold courts to ransom, delay and pervert justice, their success in this regard largely depends on the managerial and procedural competence of the presiding judge.
A focused, competent and incorruptible Judge will never allow litigants and their lawyers to take over his or her proceedings. As a result, the defence, with greatest respect, appeared to have failed to take into account of the fact that in matters of election petitions, likewise other judicial proceedings, the Court of Appeal is not a “trial court”, but a “review court”.
In other words, the Court of Appeal, just like other items in its jurisdiction (except presidential election litigation), does not exercise original jurisdiction over election matters.
Our observation that as at May 28, 2010, over 40 election cases were still undecided at the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division, was and still is undisputable. This is because between May 28 and August 6, 2010, over 10 cases had been decided. Some of them are cases involving Senator Julius Ucha (Ebonyi State), Chief Zeribe Ezeanuna (Anambra State), Mr. Ikenna Amaechi (Anambra State), Chief Chukwuma Umeoji (Anambra State), Chief Afam Obi (Anambra State) among others.
Our estimation that as at May 28, 2010, over 300 election cases might be pending at various Divisions of the Court of Appeal across the federation may not be far from truth considering the fact that many cases had also been determined within the said periods. Again, the defence, with greatest respect, did not offer any explanations or was silent on the circumstances that made the case of Barrister Mrs. Edith Ejezie v. Chief Raphael Okeke (CA/E/EPT/66A/2008 and CA/E/EPT/66B/2008) (appeal and cross-appeal) suffered over twelve adjournments.
It is recalled that it only took the Anambra State Election Petitions’ Tribunal one year (May 2007 to May 2008) to originally decide the matter; whereas its appeal and cross-appeal filed since June 2008 before the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division (a review court) have laid undecided for more than two years.
The said appeals were filed on June 4, 2008 and adjourned to September 23, 2008, from the adjourned date in September 2008; it was moved to a date in November 2008, and from that date, it was moved to January 15, 2009. From that date, it was adjourned to a date in March 2009, from that date to a date in July 2009, from the date in July 2009, it was moved to November 9, 2009, from that date to February 6, 2010, from the February date to May 14, 2010, and from then to May 13, 2010, from the May 13 date, it was moved to June 1, 2010, from then to June 23, 2010 and from that date, it was finally moved to September 23, 2010.
The foregoing record shows that the matter had suffered 12 unnecessary adjournments at the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division since June 2008.
The fact that out of about 1,525 2007 election-related petitions filed at various Election Petitions’ Tribunals in Nigeria, only 930 of them made it to various Divisions of the Court of Appeal, clearly shows that the Court of Appeal in Nigeria is “less busy” and “less congested” to determine appellate election matters before same expeditiously. The argument to the effect that “election matters are not the primary functions of the Court of Appeal” is inexcusably rejected.
The only original jurisdiction found in the records of Court of Appeal is adjudication associated with the Presidential election disputes, which normally are fewer in number. The fact that the amended Electoral Act and the amended Constitution to be used in resolving the forthcoming elections’ disputes have added governorship poll disputes in the Court of Appeal’s original jurisdiction with a time frame is noted.
Therefore, even if it is only one election matter that remains at the Court of Appeal at this point in time, it does not speak well of the Court of Appeal, Nigerian Judiciary and her Democracy, not to talk of the pending of about 27 2007 election-generated matters at the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division and over 90 of such cases as of date nationwide.
The defence also did not reflect the number of litigants or election petitioners who withdrew their cases from the Court of Appeal owing to frustrations therein especially those who had canvassed for the nullification of their opponents’ declarations and the conduct of fresh polls.
They must have reasoned that considering the nearness of the next general elections in January 2011, with their timetables already released, it would be “foolish of them” to continue the said matters. The mere fact that the outgoing legal instruments guiding the adjudication of election disputes in Nigeria did not provide a time frame for same does not mean that their proceedings will be equated with land matters which precede generations.
It remains our firm insistence that the determination of the outstanding cases must not be anchored on “yam-peeling” methods, a sort of “let the status quo be maintained” (let the incumbents be returned) so as not to attract public outcries in the event the reverse becomes the case. He that fetches the ant_infested fire woods automatically hires a lizard as a labourer.
It is our fervent prayers that the outstanding cases, including that of CA/E/EPT/66A/2008 and CA/E/EPT/66B/2008 (Barrister Edith Ejezie v. Chief Raphael Okeke), which we adopted as a case-study, must be decided on their own merits and kept away from technical judgment or justice. We also insist that no more unnecessary and unreasonable adjournments should further be entertained or granted by Their Lordships presiding and that the statutory but discretionary 90 days pre-judgment leisure accorded the presiding Judges should be surrendered as a sacrifice for the time lost.
We wish to restate our earlier call on the President of the Court of Appeal, to issue a firm directive to their Lordships handling all the 2007 election-related matters to conclude and deliver judgment on them before or on October 31, 2010. Our case-study (CA/E/EPT/66A/2008 and CA/E/EPT/66B/2008) (Barrister Ejezie v. Chief Raphael Okeke) which has been fixed for hearing and possibly adoption on September 22, 2010, must be credibly entertained.
The presiding Judge should be implored to come back from wherever he or she is and assume total control of the case and determine same expeditiously. Any adjournment, other than that fixed for judgment in the said matter, will be unacceptable to us and the aggrieved voters of the Anambra East/West Federal Constituency in Anambra State of Nigeria.
While we commend His Lordship for ignoring the vexatious call by some political parties, by a letter dated July 28, 2010 for the disbandment of the Anambra Governorship Election Petition Tribunal handling the February 2010 gubernatorial dispute over an allegation of bias, we also wish to use this medium to condemn the alleged threats to the lives of the tribunal members led by Justice Pius Damulak by some politicians, whose cases have been slated for adjudication. To threaten the lives of the judges doing their constitutional assignment amounts to judicial gangsterism.
The alleged description of the Tribunal members (whether the incoming or the incumbent) as “Sharia Court Judges, who do not know anything about election matters is totally condemned. This is a height of political rascality and ethno-religious zealotry.
The Tribunal has in a unanimous ruling, delivered on September 3, 2010, in a motion on notice, brought before it by the Action Congress of Nigeria and its governorship candidate, Dr. Chris Ngige, seeking for the Tribunal’s disqualification of itself from further hearing of the Party’s main suit, predicated its ruling (ratio decidendi) on the fact that the ACN and its candidate have lost confidence in the Tribunal. The Tribunal also made a grievous “passing statement” (obiter dictum) to the effect that their lives were being threatened by some politicians that do not want them to handle their matters.
The Tribunal also disqualified itself from handling another matter filed before it by the United Nigerian People’s Party, UNPP, and its candidate, Dr. Christian Okoli on the same premise. It is constitutionally mandatory for the Governor of Anambra State, the State Commissioner of Police and the Director of SSS to provide adequate security for the tribunal members 24hours a day. It is also the constitutional duty of the duo of Police and SSS to thoroughly and conclusively investigate the allegation of threats to lives raised by the Tribunal members and those found culpable punished judicially.
Except the ruling is challenged or it goes on appeal, if not, it is our fervent prayers that His Lordship, the President of the Court of Appeal, should constitute another Tribunal panelists made up of persons of proven integrity to handle the remaining cases.
While discharging their constitutional duties, their security must be ensured at all times until they are done with their assignment. And where such threats continued, Your Lordship should arrange for immediate relocate of the Tribunal to Abuja.
We also demand for fair- fearing for all the parties as well as fair determination of the matters so pending, and an end to judicial gangsterism seemingly employed by some litigants and their lawyers. It is commendable to hear that three appeals pending before the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division arose from the February 6, 2010 gubernatorial poll in Anambra State. We encourage parties to always exploit this option rather than resorting to militancy, ethno-religious zealotry and jungle-justice.