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Supreme Court lambasts lawyer over Ondo poll

•Orders Poroye’s lawyer to pay N9m to 3 Appeal Court justices •Refuses to disband Appeal Court panel •Anxiety as politicians, voters await court rulings

THE Supreme Court, on Tuesday, slammed a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Beluolisa Nwofor, counsel for the Ali Modu Sheriff-led faction of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), with a punitive cost of N1 million to each of the justices on the appeal court panel on each of the three motions in which they were unlawfully joined as respondents.

THE court, also on Tuesday, gave the lower court the go-ahead to deliver the judgment in appeals arising from disputes over which of the two factions of the PDP should present candidate for the Ondo governorship election slated for Saturday.

The court held that judges enjoyed immunity in the conduct of their official duties and could not be sued individually or collectively, while he slammed a total cost of N9 million on Nwofor for “his misconduct.”

The Jimoh Ibrahim faction, an offshoot of the Ali Modu Sheriff faction and led by Poroye had, last Friday, filed a motion against the three Appeal Court justices handling the matter, accusing them of bias and betrayal of their oath of office in the way and manner they were handling their appeals.

Nwofor, representing Poroye, asked the Supreme Court to invoke its disciplinary power against the panel of justices of the Appeal Court for sitting on the Ondo PDP matter, with appeal already entered at the apex court.

He also asked the court to set aside the November 16 proceedings of the Court of Appeal for being a nullity and argued further that the apellate court ought to have stayed proceedings on the matter, having been notified of an appeal against its decision at the Supreme Court.

Nwofor also prayed the court to disqualify the appeal court panel for holding parallel proceedings with the Supreme Court.

In the ruling delivered by the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, the apex court refused to disqualify three justices of the Appeal Court from hearing the appeals relating to Ondo PDP governorship candidacy tussle.

Onnoghen said the prayers of the Jimoh Ibrahim faction brought before the Supreme Court was in bad taste, as it was aimed at scandalising, criminalising and intimidating the justices in the process of carrying out their official duties.

The acting CJN said it was unprofessional and un-ethical for the counsel for the applicants to have joined the three Appeal Court justices as defendants in the motion when the law forbade joining justices from being made parties in the matter they were handling.

“Judges enjoy immunity in the conduct of their official duties and cannot be sued individually or collectively,” he said.

He held that the type of practice of scandalising was irritating, as it could bring anarchy for the country’s democracy and, therefore, dismissed the appeal.

“I found no merit in the application, I consequently dismissed it with a cost of N500,000 to each of the respondents, except the three justices of the Appeal Court, Justices Ibrahim Salauwa, Ignatius Agube and George Mbaba,” he ruled.

The acting CJN ordered Poroye’s counsel, Nwofor, to personally pay a punitive cost of N1 million to each of the justices on the appeal court panel on each of the three motions in which they were unlawfully joined as respondents.

Justice Onnoghen, who was furious with the ways and manners the appeal court justices were turned to defendants in the matter before them, stated that the appellants or anyone had no right to box a court to a corner and turn around to scandalise same court.

While the hearing was ongoing, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff was seen storming out of court.

Earlier, the CJN had asked Nwofor of the record of proceedings of the Court of Appeal he wanted the apex court to set aside.

Nwofor said, “My Lord, forgive me I did not file them.”

Justice Onnoghen said: “Nwofor, there was only one judgment by Justice Okon Abang. There is a total of 14 appeals from a ruling of Justice Okon Abang. Nwofor, your intention is to cause confusion and rubbish the judiciary.”

A member of the panel, Justice Mohammed Tanko, said “Nwofor, you and your people have blackmailed all justices that had handled these matters at the Court of Appeal. Now if all other lawyers behave like you, what will become of the legal profession?”

The Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja had fixed last Friday for the judgment before its attention was called to the motion brought by a faction loyal to Alhaji Sheriff at the apex court, seeking to disqualify the lower court panel from going ahead with the matter.

The Senator Ahmed Makarfi-led caretaker committee is backing the candidature of former Ondo State Attorney-General, Eyitayo Jegede, while the Sheriff faction is supporting billionaire businessman, Jimoh Ibrahim.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had recognised Ibrahim, following a judgment of a Federal High Court, which became the central subject of dispute at the Court of Appeal.

Following the apex court ruling, clearing the path for the lower court to deliver its judgment, rumours were rife on Tuesday that the judgment would be delivered almost immediately after the go-ahead order by the highest court in the land.

Nigerian Tribune, however, learnt last night that the exercise was impossible because the enrolled order of the apex court must be officially communicated to the appeal court, before the latter could re-commence its suspended proceedings.

It was gathered that the enrolled order was delivered to the appeal panel on Tuesday.

Though there were unconfirmed reports that the judgment could be delivered today, the usual preparation before such delivery was yet to be perfected as of Tuesday night, as revealed by Nigerian Tribune findings.

As of Tuesday night, parties in the matter at the Court of Appeal were yet to be served hearing notice for the judgment.

A source within the system said it was not possible to serve the hearing notice today (Wednesday) “even in the morning and expect all counsel to be there. Though it is not a must for senior counsel to be present for judgment delivery, but you know this is a very different matter.”

A senior counsel representing one of the parties in the matter at the Court of Appeal (names withheld) told the Nigerian Tribune last night that their expectation was that the judgment would not be beyond tomorrow.

The senior counsel also confirmed that hearing notice had not been received from the Court of Appeal management.

On Tuesday, the apex court ordered the Court of Appeal to hear and determine all the appeals that emanated from the Ondo State governorship tussle between the two claimants and their factions.

A five-member panel of Justices of the apex court, headed by the CJN,  Justice Walter Onnoghen, which heard the matter, also struck out 10 motions for stay of proceedings filed against the Court of Appeal, following an application for withdrawal by Prince Biyi Poroye’s counsel, Nwofor, which was not opposed by other counsel in the matter.

Justice Onnoghen directed the three-member panel of Justices of the Appeal Court constituted by the president of the court, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, for the matter, to immediately hear and determine the appeals in view of its urgency.

Already, the Appeal Court panel, led by Justice Ibrahim Saulawa, was to deliver judgment last week in the appeals but had to put it off because of the motions pending at the apex court.

The Supreme Court, while delivering its verdict in the appeal, also awarded a cost of N250,000 against Biyi Poroye and others that brought the motion before the court.

Justice Onnoghen ordered the appellate court to resume hearing of the cases forthwith, “because they are pre-election matters and because of the urgency they deserve.”

The court slated tomorrow to hear the substantive appeal, challenging the Court of Appeal ruling granting leave to Eyitayo Jegede to appeal the decision of Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja as an interested party.

With just four days to Ondo State governorship election, residents of the state are anxiously waiting with bated breath, the outcome of the appeal filed by the PDP candidate, Eyitayo Jegede, to reclaim his candidature as the party’s standard-bearer in the election.

The Court of Appeal will likely decide the lawful candidate of the PDP for the election tomorrow, Nigerian Tribune learnt Tuesday night.

The ruling of the appellate court will definitely have its effect on parties vying for the election, including the PDP, All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Alliance for Democracy (AD), as it would determine voting pattern in the state.

Supporters of Jegede would hope to get judgment in favour of their candidate for the election and if it happens, APC, AD and other parties may have to return to the drawing boards on their strategies for the election.

A Jegede candidacy will definitely knock off the candidacy of the Ali Modu Sheriff-led faction of PDP, Mr Jimoh Ibrahim, in the election.

Meanwhile, there was jubilation in Akure, Ondo State, following the pronouncement of the Supreme Court, ordering the Appeal Court to continue on the hearing of the appeal of Jegede.

The campaign office of the Eyitayo Jegede at Ijapo came alive on Tuesday morning after hearing the ruling from the Supreme  Court from Abuja, with many of Jegede’s supporters trooping out to celebrate the ruling.

The women wing of the party who were heading towards the office of INEC to protest non-inclusion of Jegede’s name turned back to the campaign office upon hearing the news.

Some of the supporters, however, took to the streets, moving from the Jegede’s campaign office down to the popular Oba Adesida Road in Akure, reassuring the people of the state that Jegede would contest Saturday’s election.

Speaking at the campaign office, an aide to the party’s candidate, Olumide Ogunkua, commended the people of the state and members of the party for their loyalty and thanked God for the outcome of the ruling so far.

He charged the people to continue with their house to house campaign to win many more people to support Jegede’s ambition, assuring that Jegede’s project was a God’s own project that would be completed by God Himself.

It will be recalled that Jegede, who is of the Ahmed Makarfi-led faction, had filed an appeal before the appellate court, seeking to upturn a Federal High Court ruling which replaced him with Jimoh Ibrahim as the party’s candidate in the November 26 governorship election in Ondo State.

Eyitayo Jegede had challenged the decision of the Federal High Court to substitute him with Jimoh Ibrahim as the PDP governorship candidate while the Court of Appeal, on November 18, adjourned indefinitely following an application filed by the apex court for stay of proceedings.