It is trite that the court is the temple of justice and the last hope of all aggrieved people. Although the wheel of justice grinds slowly and steadily, it is expedient in election and human rights matters to expedite hearing of cases as justice delayed is justice denied. In the words of Lord Bryce, “If the lamp of justice goes out in darkness, how great is that darkness”.
It is manifest that the judiciary is a bastion, bulwark, pillar and cornerstone of the nation’s democratic process and has played a major role in stabilizing it through landmark judgments particularly in election related matters. Despite the challenges in the judiciary, it has done pretty well in the administration of justice in Nigeria. More is expected in our collective quest at building a strong, peaceful, united and egalitarian democratic nation.
However, for effective administration of justice, Judicial Officers should be wary of political buccaneers masquerading as democrats who institute frivolous, spurious and flippant suits to frustrate their opponents as part of their infamous political brinkmanship, gyration and gymnastics.
Ever since the Independent National Electoral Commission released time-table for over 80 rerun polls across the country earlier in the year as ordered by various election petition tribunals and appeal tribunals, some disgruntled politicians have scuttled the rerun elections through endless litigation as in Anambra Central Senatorial seat and threat of violence in Rivers State legislative rerun polls that forced INEC to suspend them indefinitely to the delight and pleasure of these political hirelings and their sponsors.
This political quagmire should be addressed immediately to strengthen and deepen our frail democracy. It is time to halt the alarming rate of rigging and inconclusive elections that have undermined the nation’s representative governance.
Electoral contest is the beauty of democracy which reaffirms that sovereignty belongs to the people. The will and mandate of the people must be respected. To use the judiciary through a bottomless pit of litigation to thwart and sabotage the wish of the populace amounts to a coup d’état and treason of the worst order which the judiciary should not be used to achieve.
Because time is of the essence in electoral matters, the wheel of justice should be accelerated to ensure good governance and sanctity of the ballot box. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
The Anambra Central Senatorial seat conundrum was adjourned indefinitely at the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division pending the Supreme Court’s determination of the Peoples Democratic Party’s interlocutory appeal challenging the appellate court’s decision to grant Chief Victor Umeh, the All Progressives Grand Alliance candidate leave to appeal the Federal High Court Abuja judgment delivered by Justice Anwuli Chikere. Umeh has since appealed the contentious judgment. In desperate attempt to further stop the Anambra Cerntral Senatorial rerun, the PDP rushed to the Supreme Court in appeal number SC/204/2016 between PDP and another and Chief Victor Umeh OFR and another, to seek a review of the Anambra State National Assembly Election Appeal Tribunal judgment that nullified Mrs. Uche Ekwunife’s senatorial election and barred PDP, the platform on which she contested from participating in the rerun poll.
At the hearing of the matter on 27th September 2016, the apex court said whatever happened at the appeal tribunal was final and ended there, declaring that, “the Court of Appeal has decided it, nothing can arise from it”. Moreover, the court said the application was incompetent as the record before it was incomplete; stressing that it was a must that the proceedings of the lower court must accompany the brief. “The court is entitled to have them to take a look from trial court to lower court. We adjourn the matter till when the record is complete”, the seven-man panel declared.
The Court of Appeal could not hear the Mega Progressive Peoples Party and United Progressive Party applications for leave to join the Anambra Central Senatorial rerun appeal same day following the pendency of the PDP interlocutory appeal at Supreme Court. Although the MPPP and UPP candidates were cleared to participate in the March 5th 2016, scheduled rerun before Justice Chikere Anwuli, of the Federal High Court Abuja stopped the election on the ground that PDP should be allowed to participate in the rerun despite the appeal tribunal’s judgment that disqualified the party from contesting.
It is obvious that Chief Victor Umeh is the front-runner in the Anambra Central Senatorial race and was cruising to victory before the conspiracy to stop him at all cost through multiple frivolous suits in courts aware of its slow motion proceedings.
Umeh fingered Mr. Peter Obi, former APGA Governor of Anambra State as the arrow-head of the plot to stop his senatorial bid while pretending to seek the PDP ticket for the rerun poll, both of them are from the same senatorial zone. Obi said he wants to join the race, awaiting the court’s decision on the matter before it.
A democrat who strongly believe in the rule of law, Umeh opposed the participation of any person in a rerun poll in which he did not contest the previous March 28, 2015 National Assembly election as declared by the Supreme Court in its judgments on related matters. More importantly, the appeal tribunal had barred PDP from participating in the rerun poll. The appeal tribunal is the final court of appeal on National Assembly elections as clearly restated by the Supreme Court seven-man panel that heard the PDP/Uche Ekwunife’s matter on September 27, 2016.
Peter Joseph, a social commentator, in his article published in Nigerian Pilot newspaper of January 19, 2016 titled, “Rerun Polls: Why Candidates Cannot Be Changed”, captured the crux of the matter and the Supreme Court position which applies to the Anambra Central Senatorial rerun:
After the Court of Appeal upheld the nullification of the April 14, 2007 Adamawa State Governorship election and ordered a rerun the Labour Party had approached the Federal High Court for the purpose of interpretation and application of the law as it relates to the right of political parties to field a candidate of their choice in any election. The party’s action was informed by the refusal of INEC to allow it present a fresh candidate for Adamawa guber rerun as ordered by the Appeal Court.
Three questions were raised which were referred to the appellate court by the Federal High Court. The LP had asked the Court of Appeal to determine whether:
1. By the combined effect of section 221 of the 1999 Constitution and section 32(7) and paragraph 27(3) of the first schedule to the Electoral Act 2006, the plaintiff is not entitled to submit to the defendant (INEC) and defendant mandated to receive from the plaintiff list of candidates for any election or by-election.
2. By virtue of the Supreme Court decision in Ugwu vs Araraume 2007 NWLR, 1048 at 367 and Amaechi vs INEC & others 2007, NWLR, 1065, it is not the prerogative of the plaintiff to nominate and sponsor candidates of his choice for any election in Nigeria.
3. In the light of the decision of the Court of Appeal in INEC vs Action Congress (AC), February 2008 upholding the nullification of the Adamawa election and ordering a fresh election, the plaintiff is not entitled to submit a fresh list of candidates for election as required by Section 32 of the 2006 Electoral Act.
In the judgment read by Justice Joseph Okoro on April 10, 2008, the appeal court held that Adamawa governorship rerun was not a bye election, and only candidates who participated in the first election were qualified to contest the rerun election. Justice Okoro noted that the re-run election ordered did not refer to a by- election because it merely returned the candidates to the status quo ante.
According to him, Section 32(7) of the 2006 Electoral Act did not apply in the matter and that for a nullified general election, only the persons who were candidates in the said election could take part in the rerun as the date for the nomination of candidates had lapsed. He held that there was no room for substitution as the candidates for the rerun were not contesting for a vacant office.
Not satisfied with the pronouncement of the appellate court the LP filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. But the Apex Court affirmed the verdict of the Court of Appeal.
In its ruling, delivered on the 13th day of February, 2009 by Justice Ikechi Francis Ogbuagu, the Supreme Court in the case between Labour Party (the appellant) and INEC (the respondent) agreed with the court of appeal that, “Where a general election has been held and there is a false start, for example, a candidate who ought to have been part of the election was unlawfully excluded or there was no level playing ground for all the candidates and that election is subsequently either cancelled by the regulating authority like INEC or nullified by an order of a court or tribunal, and a rerun or re-start is ordered, it is my humble view that the re-run or re-start refers to that general election cancelled or nullified, and not a bye election”.
Justice Ogbuagu explained that, “The consequence of this is that all the candidates including the one unlawfully excluded would now get back to the starting line for a fair and free contest. It does not admit of any other candidate since as it were the period for nomination and screening of candidates would have elapsed. See Honorable (sic) Mohammed Salisu A. Alva’u & anor. vs. Abbas Yakubu & 2 ors, CA/K/EP/SHA/30/2003 (unreported) delivered on 6th November, 2003…. In the final analysis or conclusion, this appeal, I hold in my respectful but firm view, is unmeritorious. It fails and it is accordingly dismissed”.
By the said Supreme Court verdict which now ought to be a reference point in the conduct of rerun elections in the country any fresh primaries held by political parties to choose new candidates for the forthcoming reruns would amount to a complete nullity and an exercise in futility.
So, let it be known that parties cannot present new candidates at this point. Political Parties whose candidates had their elections quashed on the ground of disqualification cannot participate in rerun polls because there is no room for fresh candidates.
Peter Joseph’s opinion is in tandem with the position of Victor Umeh on the matter as clearly declared by the Supreme Court. Umeh is not desperate to be in the Senate and will definitely not allow the rule of law to be jettisoned and trampled upon by self-seeking politicians who have no regards for democratic ethos, ethics, tenets and institutions.
As the legal fireworks continue at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, the good people of Anambra Central Senatorial zone wonder if the rerun poll will ever hold. Will they ever have a representative in the senate? Time will tell!
Onyekachi, a political analyst writes from Abuja.