By Dayo Johnson, Ikechukwu Nnochiri & Dapo Akinrefon
ABUJA–THE Supreme Court, yesterday, gave the Justice Ibrahim Saulawa-led panel of the Court of Appeal the nod to deliver its judgment on the tussle between Mr Jimoh Ibrahim and Mr. Eyitayo Jegede, SAN, for the Ondo State governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, recently dropped Jegede and published the name of Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim as the PDP candidate, forcing Jegede to head to the Court of Appeal to retrieve his ticket.
The apex court, in a unanimous ruling by a five-man panel of Justices led by the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, declined to disband the three-man Special Panel constituted by President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, to resolve the dispute.
Aside dismissing motions to stay proceedings of the appellate court, filed by six chieftains of the PDP in the South-West, led by Chairman of the party in Ondo State, Prince Biyi Poroye, the Supreme Court, awarded a cost of N1million each to the three Justices of the appellate court.
Poroye and his group had joined the three appellate court Justices, Saulawa, Igwe, Aguba and George Mbaba, as 5th to 7th respondents in the appeal before the apex court.
Justice Onnoghen, who delivered the lead ruling, ordered that counsel to the appellants, Chief Beluolisa Nwufor, SAN, should personally pay the cost from his pocket.
The apex court further ordered the appellants to pay N500, 000 cost to the four other respondents in the matter including Mr. Jegede.
Dragging appeal court justices into the matter wrong
Justice Onnoghen held that it was wrong for Poroye and his group to drag the appellate court Justices into the matter, knowing that they were only carrying out a judicial duty that was duly assigned to them.
“The 6th to 7th Respondents, who are Justices of the Court of Appeal, were constituted by appropriate authority to hear and determine the case and were not parties before the lower court and whatever they did was in their official capacity as judicial officers,” Justice Onnoghen noted.
He stressed that joining them as respondents in the matter “was not only an attempt to intimidate and scandalise the judiciary, but to put it in a mild way, an action in bad faith.”
Justice Onnoghen also noted that the appellants (Poroye and his group), had also petitioned a previous panel of Justices of the appellate court that handled the case.
“If the applicants are allowed to continue with this prank, there will be no end in sight and it will not augur well. In the circumstance, there is no merit in this appeal and it is hereby dismissed.”
The apex court’s ruling elicited wild jubilation in Ondo as expectant PDP members and supporters trooped to the streets dancing and celebrating immediately the news of the verdict filtered in.
Former Deputy National Chairman of the PDP, Chief Olabode George, hailed the ruling, saying that it has re-established the rule of law.
However, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, yesterday, told the hordes of people and groups including 20 political parties and aggrieved youths in Ondo that the election will hold as scheduled because there was no reason to postpone the poll.
Appellants’ action capable of causing anarchy
While concurring with the lead ruling, another member of the apex court panel, Justice Kumai Akaahs, held that the action of the appellants was “capable of bringing anarchy.”
However, the apex court panel fixed Thursday to hear the substantive appeal challenging leave that was granted to Jegede to appeal the June 29 judgement of Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, which recognised Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim as standard bearer of the PDP for the November 26 poll.
The Appellants had lodged 14 different appeals before the Supreme Court.
Their counsel, Chief Nwufor, SAN, earlier withdrew 10 motions that forced the appeal court panel to suspend further proceedings on the Ondo PDP crisis.
Nwufor said his decision to withdraw the applications was to enable the apex court hear the substantive suit challenging the competence of the entire appeals before the Justice Saulawa-led Special Panel.
The six PDP chieftains had, among other things, urged the apex court to determine whether the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Bulkachuwa, was right when she constituted a special panel to hear cases filed against Justice Abang’s judgement, by Jegede, Senators Ahmed Markarfi and Ben Obi.
Poroye and his group contended that the panel had in a ruling it delivered on November 16, okayed Jegede’s appeal, despite being aware that the Supreme Court was already seized of the facts in dispute.
The Justice Saulawa-led panel had on November 18, adjourned sine-die (indefinitely) further hearing on the matter.
The panel handed-off the dispute, barely 48 hours after it reserved judgment on Jegede’s appeal.
Justice Saulawa said the panel took the decision after it was served with a motion from the Supreme Court for the proceeding at the appellate court to be suspended.
Why we took the decision— Justice Saulawa
“We were served a motion in suit No CA/A/551b/2016, which was filed in the Supreme Court on November 17,” he stated.
He said the motion had among other things, prayed the apex court to invoke its disciplinary powers against the appellate court panel.
The Poroye-led group, who are respondents in Jegede’s appeal, further prayed the apex court to not only set aside proceedings of the appellate court, but to also restrain the special panel from further adjudicating on the dispute.
Besides, they equally applied for an order disqualifying all members of the special panel on the ground that they betrayed there Oath of Office by their refusal to be bound by laid down judicial principle of staris-decisis.
Determined to stop the appellate court from delivering its verdict, the group which is loyal to the Senator Ali Modu-Sheriff faction of the PDP, asked the Supreme Court to halt further proceeding at the lower court.
The Supreme Court judgment
Meanwhile, the apex court struck out their motion for stay, after it was withdrawn, yesterday.
“The motions having been withdrawn by the appellants without objection from the respondents, the lower court is ordered to continue its proceedings forthwith,” Justice Onnoghen held.
Nwufor, SAN, had insisted that allowing the appellate court panel to hear either Jegede or Markafi’s appeals would amount to an act of “judicial rascality” since the matter was already before the apex court.
He argued that in line with the legal principle of lis-pendis, the appellate court ought to hands-off the case to avoid a situation where it would conduct a parallel proceeding with the Supreme Court on the same subject matter.
Poroye and his group queried the decision of Justice Bulkachuwa to set-up a special panel for a pre-election matter which they said required no urgency.
They insisted that Jegede’s suit should be returned to the Appeal Court Registry and allowed to take its rightful turn in the docket.
The appellate court panel had initially refused Nwufor’s submissions, even as it allowed Jegede’s lead counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, to adopt his processes in the appeal to enable it deliver judgment on the matter.
Olanipekun argued that the appellate court had a constitutional responsibility to do justice in the case, saying the court would be abdicating its duties should it allow itself to be stampeded into handing-off the matter.
The panel had on September 8, suspended hearing on two other cases relating to the Ondo governorship crisis, following appeals also pending before the Supreme Court.
The two cases were filed by members of the PDP, Benson Akingboye and Ehiozuwa Agbonayiwa.
The duo, in their motion, sought for a stay of “all further proceedings and further hearing in CA/ABJ/402A/2016 filed on behalf of the PDP by a lawyer engaged by the Ahmed Makarfi-led faction of the party’s leadership.”
They argued that it was wrong to allow the Court of Appeal to proceed with any of the suits, when they have valid appeals before the Supreme Court challenging the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal.
Their appeal at the Supreme Court, filed on October 31, is also challenging decision of the appellate court to accelerate hearing on the Ondo matter.
The appellants raised four grounds in their notice of appeal before the apex court, the first being that Justices of the Court of Appeal erred in law by their failure to first determine vital issue of jurisdiction raised in the respondents preliminary objection.
The appellants faulted the former panel of the Court of Appeal for fixing the substantive Appeal for hearing when the issue of which counsel to represent the PDP (in whose name the appeal was filed) had not been resolved.
They also faulted the appellate court for granting a relief in the motion for accelerated hearing of the case in the court below, which the motion was defective and devoid of address for service.
Jegede had approached the appellate court to challenge the judgment of June 29 judgment of Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, which directed the INEC to only relate with the Ali Modu-Sheriff faction of the PDP.
Justice Abang, on October 14, also re-affirmed the verdict, even as he warned the electoral body against accepting the candidate nominated by the Senator Ahmed Markafi-led National Caretaker Committee of the PDP.
Acting on the strength of the high court order, INEC, promptly removed Jegede’s name from the list of candidates for the Ondo governorship poll, and replaced it with Mr. Ibrahim.
It will be recalled that whereas Jegede emerged from primary election that was sanctioned by the Markarfi-led NWC of the PDP, Ibrahim on the other hand, secured his ticket from the Modu-Sheriff faction of the party.
Akure erupts in jubilation
On hearing the ruling of the Supreme Court, yesterday, expectant PDP members across the state trooped to the streets in massive celebration.
The venue of a stakeholders’ meeting on the governorship election in Akure was charged as the news of the Supreme Court verdict reached politicians.
While those that belong to the Makarfi faction rejoiced, those of the Sheriff’s faction expressed concern and wore long faces. The party’s governorship candidate, Jimoh Ibrahim, who was at the meeting hurriedly left the venue when the news got to him.
Ibrahim had consistently said that his mission of contesting was to stop the back-to-back power arrangement of the incumbent governor, Olusegun Mimiko.
He denied that he was being used as a spoiler to frustrate Jegede, noting that Jegede and Mimiko met him in the PDP.
Hundreds of women who had marched to the Akure office of INEC to show their displeasure over the exclusion of Jegede had to make a U- turn and began dancing and rejoicing over the court verdict.
The women who left the party’s secretariat located at Alagbaka for the INEC office carried placards denouncing the part played by INEC in the dispute over the party’s candidate.
But as they milled in front of the INEC office singing and chanting war songs, information reached them that the Supreme Court verdict had vindicated them.
They turned their war songs into praises unto God for showing up at the 11th hour.
They immediately made a U-turn and trooped to the streets causing traffic gridlock on the major streets.
It will be recalled youths in their hundreds had protested on the same issue on Monday and called for the postponement of the election by, at least, two weeks
The protest by the youths took place across the 18 council areas of the state.
Many stakeholders across the state have organized protests since the dispute over the party governorship candidate and called for the postponement of the election because of the legal issues in the political parties.
The Oodua Renaissance Movement, ORM, also called for poll shift. Speaking with journalists in Lagos after an emergency meeting of its members, ORM Convener, Gboyega Adeoye, hinged the group’s stance on the sensitivity of the election and the setting of precedence in Edo State, where election was postponed for two weeks to avert break down of law and order.
The Resident Electoral Commissioner REC in the state Olusegun Agbaje had informed the protesters that the commissioner was an unbiased umpire adding that it would replace the name of the PDP candidate if there was a superior court order.
Ruling has re-established rule of law—Bode George
In a statement, yesterday, Chief George said with the ruling, “the deliberate attempt to distort and sabotage the democratic norm has now been nullified and disowned.
“The justices of the Supreme Court have firmly re-established the hope of the common man in the impartial thoroughness of the judiciary.”
No reason to postpone poll – INEC
Hope of majority of the political parties participating in the poll that the election would be postponed was, yesterday, dashed as INEC insisted that there was no reason to postpone the exercise.
INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu said at a stakeholders meeting on the election in Akure that “there is no reason to postpone the election.”
Yakubu declared that the electoral body “is fully prepared for the election. INEC has no plan to postpone the governorship election this weekend.”
He said that the electoral body was ready to obey the order until set aside by a higher court, adding that the commission remained committed to the rule of law.
“I wish to assure you of INECs preparedness and neutrality. We are not unaware of the partisan insinuation of bias in the nomination of candidates by one of the political parties. We are equally aware that party primaries for the selection of flagbearer by some of our political parties tend to be rancorous.
“For this reason, while each activity under our election time table is tied to a specific day, the conduct of the party primaries, including the resolution of disputes arising from the nomination of candidates was allocated a whole month.
“However, where an intra-party dispute becomes the subject of litigation resulting in specific orders of court, INEC shall obey such orders until they are set aside by a superior court. We remain guided by this principle.
“ Our responsibility is to ensure that as a legal process, elections are conducted strictly in conformity with the provision of the law.
“We have taken every step within the powers of the commission to ensure that the election this weekend is held as scheduled and that it is free, fair and credible. We have also been assured by the security agencies that they are equally prepared to ensure that there is a conducive atmosphere to support the elaborate plans we have put in place for the success of the election.
“I wish to reiterate that INEC has no plan to postpone the election this weekend. We are fully prepared. We see no reason to activate the provision of Section 26 or Section 36 of the Electoral Act and there is no other ground in Law to postpone an election.’’
Elaborate security arrangement in place – IGP
Speaking at the meeting the Inspector General of Police IGP, Ibrahim Idris said that elaborate security programmes have been put in place to ensure a hitch free election.
Idris said that movement within and outside the state would be restricted from Friday, November 25, adding that all Police orderlies attached to political office holders would also be withdrawn.
According to him, 26,000 conventional Police officers would be deployed for the election, adding that 20 gunboats would be deployed to the riverine areas of the state to ensure free and fair poll.
Idris added that three helicopters would be deployed to the three senatorial. Areas of the state for surveillance operation while 300 vehicles would be on patrol across the 18. Council areas of the state.
The police Chief added that additional 12 Armored Personnel Carriers, APCs, would be on standby while three Commissioners of police would be in charge of security in the three senatorial areas of the state.
Idris warned politicians who have the intention to foment trouble to “perish the thought as security agents are determined to ensure a free, fair and transparent election in the state.