Two paths to governorship seat

In this piece, KUNLE ODEREMI examines the power of the people to elect their leaders against the backdrop of the increasing influence and dominance of the Judiciary on such matter.

GOVERNOR Duoye Diri of Bayelsa State and his allies are bound to have their hearts in the mouth since Monday verdict of a court sacking him from office. Though he has a chance to appeal the verdict on the case on the election conducted on November 9, 2019, Diri and his supporters and party faithful have every reason to be apprehensive after he was able to survive an initial scare at the apex court in the land, the Supreme Court, over the last governorship election in the state. Coupled with that factor is the experience of a former deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, Honourable Emeka Ihedioha, in Imo State, who lost the exalted office of governor to Senator Hope Uzodimma, courtesy of the judgment of the Supreme Court judgment on a controverted governorship election. Till date, Uzodimma is pained that some of his rivals have pejoratively labeled him as a Supreme Court governor.

Suffice to say that the theory of the separation of powers is an incontrovertible corner piece as the building blocks in a democratic setting. It is a vital ingredient that oils the wheelof progress, harmony and growth through interdependence of the executive, legislature and the judiciary. However, in the last two decades of the nation’s return to civil rule, the judiciary has either been commended or vilified for playing the role of an arbiter in very controversial momentous circumstance, especially over the outcome of general elections.

Its verdicts at different times, circumstances and conditions have thrown up a number of issues stirring public debate, discourse and dissection by experts, professionals and activists. As major stakeholders with vested interest, politicians characteristically maintain variegated views and stance on judgment of the apex court on the governorship seat, which has culminated in quite a number of ‘aggrieved’ candidates reclaiming their mandates after a long-drawn legal battle up to the Supreme Court. From Rivers to Ondo, Osun, Anambra to Imo states, the battle appears to have taken the shape of the ballot box versus the anvil of the justice symbolised by the judiciary. The driving spirit in the ongoing contest for power in Bayelsa State is a trajectory of the tortuous and fortuitous path traversed in the past in other states. In Bayelsa, the Justice Mary Odili-led Supreme Court panel held that no person shall be qualified to contest an election if he presented false information for the purpose of the election.

In the matter of the Imo governorship contest, on March 3, 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed the application of the then Governor Ihedioha, seeking the reversal of the apex court’s January 14, 2020 judgment removing him from office and ordered the swearing in of Senator Uzodinma of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as governor. The request of Ihedioha and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) seeking to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision was not successful. A seven-man panel of Justices, led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, in a split six-to-one verdict dismissed the application. The apex court asserted: “No constitutional powers for Supreme Court to sit in appeal over its decision.

This court does not have the competence to review itself. The justices of this court are fallible, but their decisions are infallible.” However, Justice Chima Nweze, the only dissenting voice, in the Supreme Court panel, said that the Supreme Court in the January 14, 2020 judgment wrongly declared Uzodinma the winner of the March 2019 governorship election.

Popularly called Mama Taraba, Aisha Alhassan almost broke an enduring record in the nation’s political annals. She was at the verge of becoming the first female governor in the country when the dream was shattered in Taraba State where she ran for governorship in 2015 on the platform of the APC. She was declared the winner of gubernatorial election. But the judgment was later reversed by the Appeal Court, who stated that APC did not have jurisdiction over the primaries of PDP, whose candidate, Darius Ishaku, became the main beneficiary.

Other notable politicians, including, Mr Peter Obi succeeded in ‘restoring’ their mandate through the instrument of the law. On two occasions, the judiciary assisted Obi to secure his mandate in Anambra State beginning in 2003 when he contested on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). His legal battle against Dr Chris Ngige of the PDP, who was declared winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), ended in his favour after three years of litigation. Ironically, Obi, who assumed office on March 17, 2006, was removed on November 2, 2006 by the State House of Assembly with his deputy, Virginia Etiaba, mounting the saddle. Obi soon returned to the Court of Appeal to challenge his removal and triumphed again and reinstated as governor on February 9, 2007 by the Court of Appeal sitting in Enugu. Again, he was confronted with the task of reclaiming his mandate, this time, for a second term in office. The INEC had declared the candidate of the PDP in the 2007 election, Andy Uba, winner. However, the Supreme Court rescued Obi via its verdict on the disputed governorship election to rule Anambra for another four years.

“The Independent National Electoral Commission was wrong to have conducted elections to fill a non-existent governorship (vacancy) in Anambra state,” said Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, delivering a unanimous ruling by seven Supreme Court judges. The court also provided a seemingly ‘soft-landing’ for a former Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly, Honourable Rotimi Amaechi, a former speaker of Rivers State House of Assembly in the battle for the governorship seat in the state. A seven-man Supreme Court justices removed Celestine Omehia as the governor of the state through a unanimous judgment read by Justice Katsina-Alu. Amaechi’s name was reportedly replaced by the PDP with that of Omehia after the former had won the state party governorship primaries. Amaechi headed for the Supreme Court after the Federal High Court and Court of Appeal declined his action to claim his mandate.

A former governor of osun State, Mr Rauf Aregbesola equally vigorously pursued a legal case that culminated in his ‘tenancy’ at the Government House in Osogbo, the state capital for two consecutive terms of four years each. The Appeal Court sitting in Ibadan, Oyo State in November 2010, gave the candidate of the then Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) declared him the winner of the 2007 election. Professor Oserheimen Osunbor, who was the candidate of the PDP who won the governorship election in Edo State in April 2007, also lost the seat in March 2008, with Comrade Adams Oshiomhole as the major beneficiary on the ticket of the Action Congress (AC) as the duly elected governor of Edo State. In a judgment, the president of the Federal Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Farouk Abdullahi, affirmed that Oshiomhole scored highest vote, in the April 14, 2007 election. Thereafter came the electoral contest that involved Dr Olusegun Mimiko of the Labour Party (LP) in which the Court of Appeal sitting in Benin, Edo State, granted the prayer of Mimiko on February 23, 2009. It sacked the sitting Governor Segun Agagu to vacate the position. According to the court, having satisfied the requirements of Section 179 (2) (a) and (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and by virtue of section 147 (2) of the Electoral Act No. 2 of 2006, Mimiko was duly elected as the governor of the state.

The candidate of the PDP in the 2019 general election, Governor Bello Mohammed Matawalle, literally latched on the protracted crisis in the then APC in the state over the choice of candidate to make hay. The Supreme Court voided all the votes of APC during the elections, making the PDP the major beneficiary. Some stakeholders gave wide ranging reasons for the emerging trend of the court becoming the primary determining agent on who governs the people when they would have exercised their franchise. One of them is the process of screening of candidates by political parties. The belief is that desperate aspirants often compromise the process, with key party officers saddled with scrutinizing the documents of contestants overlooking grey areas. The other issue is the role of godfathers and kingmakers who usually throw their weight around during major decisions affecting political parties at the highest level of party organs. Their actions overtly tend to create an extra burden for other arms of government, especially the judiciary and the law enforcement agencies. The publicity secretary of the pan-Yoruba organization, Afenifere, Mr Yinka Odumakin, expatiated on such gross abuse of privileges by some members of the political class, which underscored the fact that the country remained a land of contradictions. Odumakin said: “Once politicians find some shortcuts to power,
they will overuse it. The court has become one of the tools of hijacking power and the politicians are using it to the hilt. Until we carry out major surgery in the country, we are not going to get out of it.”

Other prominent persons blame the increasing resort by politicians on the uncanny do-or-die mentality such that even when it is apparent that a particular candidate is the popular choice at the poll, the propensity for ‘the end justifies the means’ would not allow the natural course of justice and fairness to flow seamlessly. To this end, the immediate past spokesman of the Peoples Democratic Party (South-West), Mr Ayo Fadaka, also spoke on the root of the problem.

He said one of the causes is disdain for due process. In his view: “There is a lot of indiscipline in the way political parties are managed in our nation, and also a systemic rot that seeks to promote the undeserving and unqualified to occupy positions. Contention for positions is normal in every sphere of human life and political parties remain the centre of such activities. When political parties bend the rule in their administration and inadvertently injure the rights of some, certainly, court actions will be initiated.

“The management of elections is another cause of litigation in electoral matters. Agencies saddled with this responsibility must obey the Electoral Act and ensure that manipulation is eschewed in election management.”

But, how should the country significantly make the vote of the people count in line with the spirit of civil rule instead of overburdening the courts over the a crucial and fundamental rights of the citizens to determine who governs them?

 

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