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Twist and turns in judgments over Cross River North senatorial by-election

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Stephen Odey


Following the demise of Senator Rose Oko last year, the Cross River North Senatorial seat became vacant, necessitating a by-election to produce a new upper chamber representative for the district.

But for over a year, the entire process has been enmeshed in controversy. First, there were disagreements over the list of delegates arising from the Ward and Chapter congresses of March 7 and 21 meant for usage in the September 5, 2020 Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) primary elections.

The PDP National Working Committee (NWC) confirmed the list, which was endorsed by the National Organising Secretary of the PDP, Col. Austin Akobundu (rtd) on April 26, 2020. Some members of the NWC of the PDP were divided on this and made efforts to smuggle in another list, dated April 27, 2020. But the efforts failed.

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The Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, Rivers state presided over by Justice I. M. Sani went ahead to affirm the list of April 26, 2020 and barred the NWC of the PDP from altering the March 7 and 21, 2020 Ward and Chapter executives’ congresses that produced the April 26 list for the PDP Cross River North Senatorial primary elections scheduled for September 5, 2020.
 
However, one of the candidates for the primary election, Mr. Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, was disqualified from contesting by a divided PDP committee set up to screen aspirants, thus leaving Dr. Stephen Odey and two others in the race.
 
Counsel to Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, Chief Ifedayo A. Adedipe (SAN) had gone to court challenging the disqualification, asking that it be set aside. He also prayed the court to determine the authentic delegates’ list and venue for the primary.
 
Counsel to the PDP and its National Legal Adviser, Mr. Emmanuel Enoidem battled to stop Adedipe’s move but Justice Sani ruled in favour of Jarigbe and held that “the 1st defendant (PDP) and 2nd defendant, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) have no right to alter or modify the list of elected officials that was a product of the process that took place on the 7th and 21st of March, 2020, and that list should be used for the September 5 senatorial primary election.
 
When the primary election eventually took place, both Jarigbe and Dr. Odey held parallel primaries. And in the December 5 main election, it was said that the PDP went into the election with two candidates as the Federal High Courts in Calabar and Abuja declared Odey and Jarigbe as the candidates of the party.
 
PDP won the election and Odey was declared winner by INEC and later sworn in by the Senate despite the legal tussles. Few days later, however, Jarigbe got a judgment in his favour from the Appeal Court. The INEC Chairman, Professor Yakubu Mahmoud, subsequently issued him a certificate of return.

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Now, Jarigbe has also secured a Supreme Court judgment on February 25, 2021, which struck out the appeals by Odey and others, and sustained the Appeal Court judgment. While Jarigbe awaits swearing-in by the Senate, there have been arguments and counter arguments on the outcome of the February 25 Supreme Court judgment.
 
Jarigbe defeated Odey at the High, Appeal and Supreme Courts but Odey and his supporters have insisted that he remains the Senator even with INEC having withdrawn his certificate of return and given same to Jarigbe.
 
It is also alleged that the Senate has refused to swear in Jarigbe on the grounds that the Supreme Court judgment was not declarative.
 
The alleged argument is that, “Jarigbe and his legal team cannot enforce the High Court and Appeal Court judgments because you cannot enforce a court judgment against a person who is not a party to the case. He has to enforce his judgment against Chief Alaja.”
 
A group, Centre for Credible Leadership & Citizens Awareness, in a recent report, commended the leadership of the Senate for standing for justice by not swearing in Jarigbe.
 
The Director General of the Centre, Dr. Nwambu Gabriel said, “as an organisation whose core values centre on good governance, our observation on the February 25, 2021 judgment of the Supreme Court on the case between Senator Dr. Odey, a serving Senator representing Cross River North Senatorial District and Hon. Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe, is that the apex Court did not rule on the substantive appeal of the matter. Instead, it ruled on preliminary objection about improper service by substituted means, whereas, the same Supreme Court granted an order that the parties be served via substituted means and all the parties were in court. The Supreme Court did not nullify the certificate of return of the serving Senator, Dr. Odey, neither was the seat declared vacant.”

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The Centre argued that the Supreme Court did not sack Dr. Odey, adding that such powers do not reside with the court but the election tribunal. “As a coalition, we have pondered on the matter and wondered if the judiciary is really the hope of the common man based on some observations in the Supreme Court’s February 25, 2021 judgment. Section 285 (13) of the 1999 constitution, as amended, clearly states that no tribunal or court shall declare any person winner of an election when he has not participated in all the stages of that election.”
 
He said, “For us in the Civil Society, this kind of incidence where a man who did not contest election comes to contest the seat of a Senator, who has been sworn-in, is completely absurd. It is worse than Boko Haram, banditry and kidnapping put together. We wonder the interest of the governor of a state in the politics of another state. Why the gang-up? His offence – he contested and won an election. This trend is not healthy for our democracy.
 
“We wish to commend the Principal Officers of the 9th Senate for demonstrating unrelenting support for our democracy and for standing firm in the defence of justice in spite of pressure by some clandestine groups to indulge in injustice.”
 
On the other hand, a senior lawyer in the state and immediate past Speaker, Cross River State House of Assembly (CRSHA), Mr. John Gaul Lebo, speaking in defence of the Supreme Court judgment, said, “there was no need for the Supreme Court to make any consequential order because the notice of appeal was struck out. Therefore, the subsisting judgment of appeal court remains valid.”
 
Speaking on the matter, Jarigbe said, “while we wait to get a Certified True Copy of the Supreme Court judgment, which resolved the issue of ‘The Authentic Candidate for the PDP in the last Cross River North Senatorial by- election, I wish to shed some light, for the benefit of those who were not in court and seek to know the truth. I will publish the lead and majority judgment when it is made available to us.
 
“Justice Nweze, who read the lead judgment, is yet to hand it in. The important thing here is that, the appeal was struck out at the Supreme Court because of an incompetent Notice of Appeal. That means there was no appeal before the Supreme Court. The decision of the Court of Appeal was upheld.”
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Jarigbe disclosed that, “the Appeal Court had upheld the decisions of the trial court, which granted consequential orders in my favour. One of the issues sought in my counter affidavit was that I should be accorded all the privileges, as required by law, due to me as candidate of PDP. This was granted by the trial court and affirmed by the appellate court. The Supreme Court received an appeal against the judgment from Stephen Odey but struck it out for being incompetent. I have long been issued my Certificate of Return, which automatically invalidated the former, issued to Stephen Odey.
 
“As a law maker and being in parliament for six years, I should understand our procedures. We will formally transmit the judgment of the Supreme Court and follow laid down bureaucratic procedures for taking the oath of office as Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
 
Jarigbe prayed for the soul of Charles Onwe, who died during the turbulent PDP primary, saying vengeance is of the Lord. He stressed that the lesson to learnt from the entire exercise from the beginning to date is that, “we cannot supervise the shooting and killing of our people for a mere senate seat and expect that God will go to sleep. The blood of those murdered before and during the PDP senate primary election will haunt the perpetrators, now and in the future.”
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