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Ondo 2016:Of INEC ballet and judicial interlocutor

By Leo Sobechi
30 October 2016   |   4:15 am
Give it to judicial abracadabra. It all started from the fractionalization of the party platform. It reared its ugly head during the governorship primary. Recall how it deepened the internal cracks on the platform.
Ahmed Makarfi

Ahmed Makarfi

Give it to judicial abracadabra. It all started from the fractionalization of the party platform. It reared its ugly head during the governorship primary. Recall how it deepened the internal cracks on the platform. And on each occasion, the spectre of judicial interlocutor left a cloud of amazement and confusion on the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), its members and supporters, as well as, lovers of democracy.
As such, just when the party seems to have woken from its bad dream to pursue genuine reconciliation and begin the painful journey of rejuvenation, the ghost of judicial madness returned to haunt the former ruling party. Not many commentators imagined that the apparition of the political pugilism between embattled former national chairman, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, and the caretaker chairman, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, would hover in Ondo State.
It was the general expectation of most analysts that the incumbency of the PDP Governors’ Forum chairman, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, would put paid to any pretensions as to which is the authentic faction of the party. But as the date for the governorship primary election drew near, the Sheriff’s camp began some intriguing manouevres. Smarting from its loss of traction in the Edo governorship, the faction met a brick wall as a court of competent jurisdiction outlawed its plans to hold a parallel primary election in Akure or any part of the Sunshine State.

Having been so declared an interloper, the disgruntled faction relocated to nearby Oyo State, where it held a dubious primary that threw up Jimoh Ibrahim as the controversial governorship candidate. The last that was heard about the Ibadan controversial primary was the promise by Sheriff to look into the complaints other aspirants observed against the process, particularly the authenticity of delegates at the election.   

Then A-Bang!
MOST Nigerians, especially watchers of the PDP debacle, still wonder why the shock therapy unleashed on some justices was not extended to the a certain Judge that seems to have descended on the arena in the PDP leadership crisis.
Ever since PDP commenced the process of trying to pick pieces of its crumbled structure after the loss of the 2015 presidential election, Nigerians have noted the exceptional intrusion of judicial pronouncements and rulings.
But in the recent instances of adjudication on governorship selection squabbles, it has been a mixture of judicial ambush, excess and mischief. Contradictory court ruling, just like inconclusive polls have become a new feature of Nigeria’s electoral system. 
On October 14, exactly one month and two weeks to the governorship election in Ondo State, Justice Okon Abang, ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to (blindly)  “accept and process for the purpose of its functions and activities in the organisation and conduct of the Ondo State governorship election only the nomination of Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim Folorunso…”
The Federal High Court Judge did not stop there. He also directed INEC to “reject and jettison any other nomination form(s) submitted to it by any other person(s) apart from the 1st and 2nd plaintiffs/applicants, indicating that no other person, apart from Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim Folorunso, is the candidate of the 2nd defendant for the Ondo State governorship election.” Haba!
For those who may not be conversant with the matter, Justice Abang’s orders came while ruling on a suit filed by Prince Biyi Poroye and Ademola Genty, chairman and secretary of PDP in Ondo State and their counterparts in Osun and Oyo‎ States. How the matter concerned the governorship flagbearer in Ondo depends on the undercurrents and politics of power and influence between PDP and its rival, the All Progressives Congress (APC) that took over the commanding heights of national politics in May 2015.
For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that Poroye and others had approached the court in search of enforcement of a previous ruling of the court in which they were affirmed as winners of the zonal congress of the party for Lagos, Ekiti, Ogun, Oyo, Ondo and Osun.
It was known why the court ordered INEC to accept only the names of candidates from Poroye and Genty leadership as the authentic candidates of PDP for the Ondo governorship election. But the Nigeria Apex Court’s position on which organ of the party should send names of its candidates for an election is well known and celebrated.
And so, did Justice Abang choose to interpret the laws according to his whims, knowing that an appeal could straighten out the ambiguities or merely to ambush the candidate of the other faction?  
Whatever the judge intended to achieve, the extant ruling as it affects the forthcoming governorship election in Ondo State has gone further to underscore the interesting state of affairs of Nigeria judiciary.

Politics By Judicial Means
JUXTPOSING Justice Abang’s orders with the continuing power tussle between APC and its defeated and diminished rival, PDP; it would be clear that the game has been raised to an ominous level, where court rulings are used to deflect or distract competitors.
Examined in that light, it becomes probable that those who articulated the mischief interpretation wanted to set the stage for the eventual poll victory of whoever should emerge the runner up in the November 26 governorship election in Ondo State. This is so because, even pupil lawyers know that in the event that PDP carries the day as it appears set to do, in the election; whoever may come second between APC’s Rotimi Akeredolu and Alliance for Democracy’s (AD’s) Olusola Oke; would easily go to court to challenge the election, knowing that the court, by virtue of the Electoral Act, lacks the power to impose a candidate on a political party.
Similarly, knowing that the process that threw up Ibrahim as governorship candidate, albeit in a faction of PDP, could not pass the credibility test of a genuine primary election; the imposition of Jimoh Ibrahim on the PDP may end up as a smoke in the wind.If the perfidy is sustained, it would go ahead to establish the high wire politics that politicians conscript judges to play, even if by proxy.

Road To Infamy
THE road to the present infamous ruling by Justice Abang could be said to have actually begun two months ago, when Senator Ali Modu Sheriff visited former President Olusegun Obasanjo in Abeokuta. Although both leaders held a closed door discussion, what the public got from them was the public exchange in which Obasanjo called Sheriff a factional chairman, pointing out that when he was earlier invited to join PDP he did not come, only to come and take over a baby in the intensive care unit.
The former president also noted that Nigeria’s democracy needed strong political parties, particularly in opposition, to make the system better. However, sources hinted that what Baba told Sheriff in the closet was sharply in contrast to his public admonition.
The PDP reconciliation process took a turn for the better with both Sheriff and Makarfi camps addressing a joint press conference, where they announced their new found sanity. But those who saw the handwriting on the wall held the development in suspicion.
With the recent crevice created by Justice Abang for Ibrahim, who is standing on the platform of his faction, Sheriff is waxing defiant, seeking to appropriate maximum stake in the PDP unification efforts. One of the conclusion reached by some observers after the Sheriff-Obasanjo meeting was that the undertakers are about to commence the final diminution of PDP.
After he was invited to play the role of navigator for the APC, Obasanjo, who made a public show of the destruction of his PDP membership card, announced his withdrawal from partisan politics. It was said that the former president lost out during the appointment of ministers last year.
Could it be that the Ondo governorship provides him another opportunity to have a say in the politics of Southwest, nay Nigeria? Does the ongoing effort to ensure that Mimiko does not leave a protégé, presage a large turf battle in the APC, regarding who gets relevant in the zone towards 2019?
It is a well-known fact that Ibrahim, who acquired the sprawling National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria (NICON) business concerns, during Obasanjo’s administration, remains a trusted ally of the former president. That was as far as business and enterprise are concerned. But now, it seems the controversial businessman has become a mascot for Obasanjo to dethrone Mimiko from political prominence as he attempted against Bola Tinubu and Gbenga Daniel.

Judicial Foolhardiness Vs INEC’s Instability
THE present quagmire brought about by the judiciary in the Ondo governorship election, regarding the appropriate enrolling of the right PDP candidate, is not a novelty. It happened before in the intra-party dispute between Governor Okezie Ikpeazu and Dr. Sampson Ogah, both of Abia State chapter of PDP.
In the same matter, which is now subject to appeal at the Supreme Court, the same Justice Abang, threw his knock-out banger of a ruling, sacking Ikpeazu and ordering INEC to handover certificate of return to Ogah. With similar gusto and haste, INEC had overzealously executed Abang’s order to the chagrin of most Nigerians.
Then, in the case of Anambra Central Senatorial seat, in unbecoming zealousness, INEC decided to appeal the ruling of Justice Anwuli Chikere, which restored the right of PDP to field a candidate and participate in the rerun senatorial poll. A lot of people expressed dismay at what could be the interest of INEC to warrant the appeal.
Consequently in the matter of listing prospective candidates for the November 26, Ondo governorship election, INEC departed from the path of vigilance to respond to Justice Abang’s order, not minding that the candidate in question did not emerge through a foolproof process.
But all blames should not go to Justice Abang because, he ruled as he was expected, on the matter before him. The onus then lies on the party, which feels otherwise about the ruling to approach a higher court to re-examine the evidence based on the law and facts presented.
INEC might have been misled to think that the Federal High Court, from which Abang’s ruling preceded, was superior in jurisdiction over the State High Court, from which the Makarfi faction obtained a restraining order. That may be why the commission, through its spokesman, Rotimi Oyekanmi, disclosed that it took the decision to replace Jegede due to a superior court order, adding that that necessitated the prefix ‘Court order’ before Ibrahim’s name.
Justice Williams Olamide of the Akure High Court had restrained INEC from substituting Eyitayo Jegede as the PDP candidate in whatsoever way. The Judge had noted that “it would be out of order for INEC to replace Jegede’s name, pending the determination of the motion on notice as it would contravene the principles of equity, justice and fairness.
But curiously Justice Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja; had refused an application by Jegede in which he sought the court’s leave to appeal its ruling of October 14, 2016. Abang contended that section 31 of the Electoral Act only allows the party and not the candidate to contest the judgement, stressing further that having not taken part in the primary election conducted by the Sheriff group, Jegede lacked the locus for legal protest.
That is the aspect of the whole set up that inspires commentators with the idea that Abang was exceeding the barriers of impartiality. And that judicial position therefore careened INEC towards an unpopular direction.
Perhaps, suspecting that the present INEC under Prof. Mahmud Yakub, seems to lack the institutional backbone to rebuff untenable legal propositions and assert its independence, a pro-democracy group known as Coalition in Defence of Nigeria Democracy and Constitution (CDNDC), advised the commission to toe the path of established principles of law, particularly the decisions of Nigeria’s apex court.  

In a statement signed the conveners: Ariyo-Dare Atoye, Ilemona Onaja, Ojugo Onyeluka, CDNDC pointed out that such Supreme Court rulings as in Emeka vs Okadigbo and Ors (2012) 18 NWLR (pt1331) 55; Emenike vs PDP (2012) 18 NWLR (pt 1315) 556; Oguebego vs PDP, laid a clear foundation on which organ of the party should field candidates for an election.
The group declared that the apex court was emphatic “that the appropriate organ of a party empowered to conduct primaries and submit names of its candidates for the purposes of general election is the National Executive Committee.”
Based on the seeming instability of INEC, accentuated by its sudden decision to supplant Jegede with Ibrahim, most Nigerians found themselves wondering how Prof. Attahiru Jega would have handled what presented as a clever admixture of political intrigue and legal calisthenics.
When he is not found vacillating before taking crucial decisions as in the case of Kogi State governorship and Edo, INEC’s Prof. Yakub is found taking hasty decisions that end up pouring hot water on his tenure. That was what the Abia PDP legal contestation and the present Ondo debacle have left on INEC’s public image.  

Mimiko’s Shock Vs Omoboriowo’s Magic
LOOKING at recent developments in Ondo from a wide-angle lens, it is obvious that forces at play form concentric circles of intrigues. There is the eaglet political actors in APC who want to use the Ondo governorship to prove that they know their onions as far as politics in the Southwest is concerned.
These new players who are being enabled and energized by powers outside the geopolitical zone seem to be angered by the recent rapprochement being brokered by former Lagos State governor, Tinubu and other Southwest leaders, especially Mimiko. They tend to believe that Mimiko had a hand in the uproar and confusion that tried to emasculate the emergence of the APC governorship candidate, Akeredolu. Stoking similar quarrel in PDP, they felt, was therefore a veritable way to give it back to Iroko.
In the midst of widening gulf of suspicions and speculations, Obasanjo’s loyalists are looking ahead to ensure a foothold for 2019, in readiness to ensure that if come comes to become in APC, they could present an alternative bloc in the Southwest for negotiations with other counter interests.   
As things stand in Ondo, unless Jegede is restored, nobody could hazard a guess on where the momentum for the November 26 poll lies. Yet, even as a perceived level playing ground has been unwittingly created with either of the four eligible platforms in one challenge or the other, the possibility of federal might supervening to make the difference becomes very high.
But how far the scenario would re-enact a repeat of Akin Omoboriowo landslide in 1983 is left to be seen. Governor Mimiko may have that ugly electoral experience at the back of his mind when he visited President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa.
Expressing shock at INEC’s decision, the governor stated that what the commission did “had no basis in law or politics.” He noted, “This action potentially can cause a breach of peace. It can cause conflagration in the state and that is why as the Chief Security Officer of the state, I have come to alert Mr. President of the potential danger of this injustice so that we can nip it in the bud.”
Are we about to witness another round of Wild, Wild West in a repeat of history that could crash Nigeria’s democracy? There is no doubt that the forces at play are blinded by ego and mad chase for political ascendancy.

INEC has a crucial role to play in averting the dark clouds in Ondo. The commission should have walked the narrow path of leaving PDP out of the loop, pending the final word from the Court on the position of its rightful candidate. Or, taking the practical and objective lane, INEC could have pointed out the fact that since it did not monitor the governorship primary purportedly held outside Ondo State, it would not list such a defective candidate for an election it was the final umpire.
This way, INEC would have shown that it has legs to stand on and eyes to see, but above all, that the conduct of its affairs has limits to outside interference. In the long run, the commission must have by now articulating areas of need for legislations to strengthen its mandate.
If what a high ranking APC chieftain said recently, that contending with two opposition governors in Southwest is too much for the party to bear is anything to go by, the ruling party wants to win Ondo by all means and at all cost. That is where the recollections of Omoboriowo and 1983 governorship chase would serve a useful end.