By Ise-Oluwa Ige
A five member panel of the Supreme Court is scheduled to take legal arguments and give instant judgment, on October 21, in a four-year old pre-election dispute between Hon Bassey Etim and Hon Emmanuel Obot. The duo had locked horns since late 2006 over who between them was the valid candidate of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, for the April 2007 election into the Uyo Federal constituency seat at the National Assembly.
The dispute is not only one of the longest surviving pre_election cases in the country today, it is also one of the most controversial and most politicized cases in recent times that had given the judiciary a bad image. For instance, on every fundamental issue battled at different courts in the case, there were records of two conflicting judgments.The Supreme Court itself agreed on June 3, this year, that it is one case that had dragged for too long and embarrassed the justice system but that it was helpless to take any position on it during the last legal year.
Although, the apex court assured that the case would be heard and resolved on October 21, 2010, the litigant fighting from outside, Obot, would not take that. Reliable sources said that Obot cashed in on the frosty relationship between Hon Etim and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole to solicit for Dimeji’s assistance to push out Mr Etim from the House of Representatives.
Etim was said to have fallen out with Speaker Bankole for being sympathetic to those routing for his investigation over sundry allegations of corruption involving billions of naira. Indeed, Speaker Dimeji Bankole had sworn in Obot to replace Hon Bassey Etim, who contested and won the April 2007 election into the Uyo constituency seat of the National Assembly at a time when the legal issue of whether or not Obot was ever a candidate of the PDP in the election was a subject of litigation before the apex court. The decision of Speaker Bankole is still generating a lot of controversy in the polity. For instance, Transparency International, the global civil society organization, promoting transparency in elections, public administration, procurement and business had condemned the action of Bankole in the case.
Several interest groups also descended on the Speaker and called on the apex court not to take the matter lightly. Although Transparency International had asked Bankole to retrace his step on the account that the legal implications of what he did in the case amounted to deciding the case which was still pending before the Supreme Court, he did not heed the advice.
But what exactly is the case between the duo of Etim and Obot? About four years ago, the PDP conducted a primary election for its candidates jostling for its ticket for the Uyo constituency seat at the National Assembly. Obot’s name was first submitted to INEC as winner of the primary poll. But the ruling PDP later applied to substitute his name with Bassey Etim upon information that an indictment had been entered against him.
Obot protested but PDP said that it had done justice in the case, a development that resulted in the on-going lawsuit. Specifically, Obot, 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 high court, in its judgment, quashed Obot’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 Bassey and PDP informed the court that he was forum-shopping.
Obot later came before the same Justice Abimbola Ogie of the Abuja Federal high court who delivered the first judgment 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 who is 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. But while this matter was on appeal, Obot took the controversial Abuja Federal high court verdict before the Akwa Ibom Election Petition Tribunal and the Appeal Tribunal, asking them to declare him the winner of the election on the strength of the pronouncement therein that he was the rightful candidate.
Bassey Etim and PDP challenged the jurisdiction of the election petition tribunal to entertain the pre-election dispute touching on substitution of candidates. The panel of justices that sat as the Akwa Ibom Election Petition Tribunal in Uyo agreed with them and threw out the case for want of subject-matter jurisdiction. Obot went on appeal before the Calabar division of the Court of Appeal which 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 Obot’s favour.
Of course, when PDP and Etim went on appeal before the Court of Appeal, Calabar, the appellate court did not waste time to confirm the tribunal’s judgment as okay. Immediately he procured the favourable judgment, he wrote letters to both INEC and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole to issue him certificate of return and inaugurate him respectively.
But Obot deliberately concealed a fundamental fact in his letter to INEC and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to the effect that the case which he claimed to have won in all courts started as a pre-election matter and that it is the Supreme Court rather than the Court of Appeal that has the final say on the issues in contention.
He also refused to disclose that the controversial Abuja Federal high court judgment on which back he (Obot) rode to procure judgment at the Election Petition Tribunal, Uyo and the Calabar Court of Appeal is already a subject of litigation at the Supreme Court.
Besides, he also refused to draw the attention of INEC and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to the fact that litigation was still on-going in the case and that since both of them have the right of appeal, it would be prejudicial for the electoral umpire to take any action, for now, on the issue. Former Chairman of INEC, Prof Maurice Iwu specifically said that he was not confused.
He said the practice of the commission was to act on the judgments of the Supreme Court in cases of pre-election matters and the verdicts of the Court of Appeal in the case of post election matters.