By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, yesterday, held that the National Assembly lacked the power to re-order the proposed sequence for the 2019 general elections.
The court, in a judgment delivered by Justice Ahmed Mohammed, gave reasons the election timetable earlier released by Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, could not be altered by the legislature.
It maintained that INEC was the only body constitutionally empowered to organise, undertake and supervise elections in the country, adding that such responsibility included fixing dates for polls.
The judgement followed a suit lodged before the court by Accord Party.
Justice Mohammed noted that NASS commenced moves to amend the Electoral Act after INEC had already released its timetable for the impending general elections.
He said the action of the NASS was in clear breach of paragraph 15a of the 3rd Schedule to the 1999 constitution, as amended.
Relying on Supreme Court decisions, Justice Mohammed held that the responsibility of organising elections in the country was constitutionally vested in INEC, stressing that such statutory right could not be removed by NASS through its belated process to amend the Electoral Act.
He said: “I am persuaded by argument of the plaintiff that it is the sole responsibility of the 3rd defendant (INEC) to conduct elections and further in doing so, the 3rd defendant has the power to fix dates for elections.
“If the 1st defendant wants this court to believe that the 3rd defendant was fixing the date in accordance with the bill that was yet to be passed, why then the discrepancy in the sequence of the election?
“I am left without doubt that in passing the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2018, the 3rd defendant was in clear breach of paragraph 15a to the 3rd Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
“In this regard, I find merit in the plaintiff’s application. INEC, the 3rd defendant in this case, has the constitutional responsibility of organising and conducting elections and to that effect to issue timetable, and it will also decide when elections will hold.”
He held that only INEC had the power to change date that had already been released.
Consequently, the court granted all the reliefs sought by the plaintiff, even as it nullified section 25 of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018, which sought to alter sequence for the forthcoming general elections.
It, however, declined to compel President Muhammadu Buhari to reject the 2018 Amended Electoral Act on the basis that the President had already withheld his assent to it.
The court held that contrary to contention by the NASS, there was no need for the plaintiff to join President Buhari as a party to the suit since the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, was cited as a defendant in the matter.
It, therefore, dismissed all objections the NASS raised against the suit for want of merit.
Meanwhile, shortly after the judgment was delivered, NASS, through its lawyer, Mr. Sebastian Hon, SAN, vowed to take the case before the Court of Appeal.
It will be recalled that Accord Party had in its suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/232/2018, posed nine questions for the court to determine, among which included whether, “having regard to the combined provisions of section 79, 116, 118, 132, 153, 160(1) and 178 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, read together with paragraph 15(a) of the Third Schedule to the same Constitution, whether the 3rd defendant is not only institution or body constitutionally vested with the powers and vires to organise, undertake and supervise elections to the offices of the President and Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Governor and Deputy Governor of a State, membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each State of the federation, including fixing the sequence and dates of the elections to the said offices?’’
Cited as defendants in the suit were the NASS, the AGF and INEC.
However, only the NASS filed preliminary objection to challenge the suit.
It contended that the court had no jurisdiction to grant reliefs sought by the plaintiff it said lacked the locus standi to institute the action.
NASS argued that the suit was premature and inchoate since it had yet to pass the Electoral Bill into law.
Nevertheless, the AGF who argued in support of the suit, accused the NASS of attempting to usurp the powers of INEC.
On its part, INEC, through its lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, told the court that the plaintiff was duly registered as a political party.
INEC said it was in support of all the reliefs being sought by the plaintiff.
Earlier, counsel to the plaintiff, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, told the court that former President Goodluck Jonathan had a few days before he vacated office, also refused to sign the Constitution Alteration Bill into law.
Among reliefs the plaintiff sought before the court which were granted, include “A declaration that the 3rd defendant is the only body and or institution constitutionally vested with the powers, vires and duties to organise, undertake and supervise elections to the offices of the President and Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Governor and Deputy Governor of a State, membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each State of the Federation, including fixing or assigning dates of the said elections and sequence of same.’’