Wike: A judgment foretold
PERHAPS the greatest surprise that would have occurred in recent judicial decisions would have been for the Rivers State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, to have returned a verdict different from what it delivered on Saturday, Oct. 24. I have often heard it said, by veterans, that election litigation, whether as a petitioner or a respondent, is the toughest hurdle for anyone seeking elective office.
After all the preceding investment in time and resources in electioneering, success or failure at the point of litigation determines, ultimately, whether you are in or out. Thus, no petitioner or respondent goes to sleep until the matter is finally disposed of.
Only a few weeks ago, there were unabashed instances of witness tampering and intimidation in the Rivers Governorship Election Petition hearing. In July, INEC officials, including the Resident Electoral Commissioner, were summoned to Abuja, where they were arrested and detained, without the Tribunal issuing any warrant of arrest. The All Progressives Congress (APC) jumped to the defence of the Department of State Services (DSS), saying the latter were acting within their legal authority. But where was the police? Will DSS now play the role of court bailiffs?
There were also reports of security officers being compelled to alter their reports on the Rivers governorship election. Perhaps, the most bizarre incident was when armed DSS operatives invaded the premises where the Tribunal sat, in search of a recently retired security witness, who gave damning evidence contrary to the script of the powers that be. If we also remember the abrupt removal of the first chairman of the Tribunal, we would not be surprised by the outcome of the election petition. It was judgment foretold.
The Rivers Tribunal ignored a recent and subsisting Court of Appeal decision on the card reader in the Lagos governorship tussle between Agbaje and Ambode. On that score, the Tribunal annulled the Rivers election. On the allegations of insecurity and irregularities on voting day on April 11, the Tribunal believed the witnesses called by the petitioner, but disbelieved the respondents’ witnesses.
Why was Justice Mu’azu Pindiga removed as Chairman of the Rivers Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, and replaced by Justice Suleiman Ambursa? Any allegation of compromise, being held by some pundits, amounts to misconduct. Over the years, some judges have been sanctioned by the National Judicial Council over misconduct, including bribe-taking.
Since he was removed as Tribunal Chairman two months ago, there has not been a whisper that Justice Pindiga is facing disciplinary action. The most plausible position has been widely circulated online, that Justice Pindiga was axed because he allegedly declined to hold meetings with the security agencies and others who invited him to Kaduna.
Eyebrows were raised over the break-neck speed with which the Rivers Tribunal delivered its judgment on Saturday, October 24, barely 48 hours after counsel to litigants adopted their final addresses. The concern is whether the Tribunal members had enough time to deeply reflect on the tonnes of materials and testimonies, before giving their considered judgment.
An untenable view that has been canvassed is that the Rivers Tribunal rushed its judgment, in order to pre-empt a judgment that was due to be delivered three days later, by the Supreme Court. The latter decision was on Governor Nyesom Wike’s appeal over the relocation of the Tribunal from Port Harcourt to Abuja. The point to make is that, if the Supreme Court had ruled that the relocation was not in order, and therefore the Tribunal had no jurisdiction in sitting in Abuja, whatever judgment the Rivers Tribunal gave three days earlier would have been a nullity. That would also have totally extinguished the election petition, because the time factor in filing processes would have long since lapsed.
Why did the Supreme Court rule that the relocation of the Tribunal was in order? That judgment, in my view, was also foretold. This is notwithstanding the cynical retort by some commentators that the fact of Hon. Justice Mary Odili, wife of former Rivers Governor Peter Odili, a mentor to Governor Wike, voting along with six other Justices on the panel that heard the appeal, tended to indicate how bad Wike’s case was. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fundamental reasoning behind that judgment was public policy consideration, rather than legality. Six or so other tribunals were relocated from the states where elections took place. Most of the tribunals had concluded their work. To impugn the jurisdiction of the tribunals, which would have been the consequential effect of such a decision by the Supreme Court, would work greater hardship than anyone can imagine.
However, if you disagree with the public policy factor in the Supreme Court decision, let us examine the unanimous thinking of the seven Justices. They held that the President of the Court of Appeal was right in relocating the tribunal from Port Harcourt to Abuja over security concerns. Well, “security concerns” is a nebulous phrase that can be used to wreak injustice, or impose needless hardship on litigants who have to bear the additional cost of travel and accommodation for themselves and their witnesses in the new location of the tribunal.
What were the security concerns in Rivers at the time the Tribunal commenced sitting? Were the security concerns of a permanent nature, so that the Tribunal could not relocate to Port Harcourt upon improvement in the security situation? To me, this is the catch of it all: how many bomb explosions occurred in Port Harcourt during the entire period that the Rivers State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal sat in Abuja? Compare that with the number of bomb blasts in Abuja, while the Tribunal sat in Abuja that is supposed to be a safe haven. Scores were killed in the Kuje and Nyanya bomb blasts.
The Inspector General of Police paraded some suspects who were arrested while plotting another round of terrorist mayhem with improvised explosive devices in Abuja. We do not know how many plots were foiled by the security agencies before the terrorists succeeded last time around. Yet, there were no “security concerns” about Abuja, where the Rivers Tribunal was relocated. If one single bomb had been detonated in Port Harcourt, chances are that, not only would the Tribunal have been relocated, a state of emergency might have been imposed because of “security concerns.”
• Ebong lives in Uyo, Akwa Ibom.