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How Supreme Court settled Rivers governorship stalemate

How Supreme Court settled

The latest judgement of the Supreme Court dismissing three appeals by the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Rivers State has put to an end, a protracted and complicated legal battle for the soul of the state. Daily Trust on Sunday reports.

The apex court’s verdict did more than resolve the legal logjam in Rivers State. It saved the state from potential bloodshed and material loss, which could have resulted from a fresh round of elections.

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This was after a prolonged argument in which the APC lawyer, Jibrin Okutepa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), sought to set aside the earlier decision of the court on February 12, 2019, in five appeals over the Rivers APC dispute and the submission by the counsel of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Emmanuel Ukala (SAN), that the Notice of Appeal was erroneously addressed to the Court of Appeal instead of the Supreme Court, and was, therefore, incompetent before the apex court.

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After the seven-member panel presided over by the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, resumed from the chambers, it gave a unanimous decision based on the defect in the Notice of Appeal by the appellants to strike out the three fresh appeals brought before the court.

“The appeal lacks merit and the objection is sustained. This is a pre-election matter and it shall be brought by Notice of Appeal, which shall set forth the grounds of appeal. Rules of court must be obeyed to the latter.

“No reliefs were sought before this court. In the light of this preliminary objection, appeal is hereby struck out for being incompetent,” Justice Muhammed said.

Other members of the panel agreed with the lead judgement of the acting CJN, thus fresh APC appeals were struck out without going into the merit of the matter.

 

Verdict saved Rivers more trouble

Analysts say the decision of the Supreme Court, which is the second intervention in two months, has saved Rivers State the high cost of election through logistics and materials, and possibly against loss of more lives.

Reacting to the judgement, counsel to the APC, Okutepa, in a media briefing, stated that though the matters were not heard on their merit but on the higher dictates of the laws of the land, the decision was final and could not be appealed.

“The merit of the matters of all the appeals has not been determined. But that is the law of the land. I may not agree, but that is the decision. Since the merit of the matter has not been decided, there is nothing any other person can say than to say that the parties must learn how to live in peace,” he said.

Throwing more light, Emmanuel Anele, a lawyer who has been following the matter in Rivers, explained that the APC wanted to use orders it would obtain from the Supreme Court to approach the election tribunal and argue based on exclusion under the Electoral Act, which would have forced a fresh election.

“It would have resulted in violence. Going by the history of Rivers State, there is no election without violence,” he said.

A lawyer from the state, Osime Ginah, agreed that the calculation to use the verdict of the apex court to seek exclusion would have led to more crises in the state.

But counsel to Senator Abe, Henry Bello, said there was no expectation that the application asking the apex court to set aside its decision as made by counsel to APC, Okutepa, would have succeeded.

“It was not the fault of the Supreme Court or Magnus Abe that the APC failed to conduct a peaceful primary in accordance with the law,” he said.

Rivers State, the nation’s largest oil-producing state, witnessed large scale violence in the just concluded general elections. During the presidential election on February 23, many people were reportedly shot dead in clashes between thugs and men suspected to be members of the armed forces.

Violence was again witnessed during the governorship and House of Assembly elections of March 9 in several local government areas such as Bonny, Asari Toru, Akuku Toru, Andoni and Degema. There were also pockets of violence in Okirika, Andoni, Eleme and Ikwerre.

On February 12, Governor Nyesom Wike of the PDP accused the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, who was also the director-general of the Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organisation, of plotting to cause violence in the state following his comments during the APC presidential campaign rally in Port Harcourt.

The level of violence, including the suspension of collation of results of the election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) till April, heightened tension in the state.

A Federal High Court in Abuja, presided by Justice Inyang Ekwo, declined jurisdiction in the suits seeking to stop the collation by the African Action Congress (AAC), Labour Party (LP) and the Advanced Peoples Democratic Alliance (APDA).

Trouble began in the state when two factions of the APC conducted separate indirect and direct primaries, beginning from May, 2018. The faction loyal to Rotimi Amaechi was chaired by Flag Ojukaye Amachree while the faction loyal to Magnus Abe produced Peter Odike as chairman. While the Amaechi faction produced Tonye Cole as APC governorship candidate for the March 9, governorship election, Abe emerged the candidate for the second faction.

The primaries were, on October 10, 2018, nullified by a Rivers State High Court in Port Harcourt presided by Justice Chinwendu Nworgu. He ruled that the primaries were illegal and not conducted in accordance with the party’s guidelines and constitution.

Interestingly, when the PDP filed an application, pursuant to Section 251 of the 1999 Constitution before Justice Kolawole Omotosho of a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, seeking to compel the INEC to enforce the order of the Rivers High Court, Abe also brought a similar application. The judge granted the relief sought by the PDP but refused to recognise those by Abe and Cole factions of the APC.

Omotosho held that the two primaries were held despite the fact that a suit by Ibrahim Umah and his group was pending and an injunction had earlier been issued on May 11, 2018 by Justice Nworgu, to maintain status quo until the hearing of the main issue before the court. He, therefore, disqualified the two factions for disrespecting a valid order of the court.

Armed with the concurrent judgement, the INEC affirmed that the APC would have no candidate in the governorship election of March 9 in Rivers State.

More confusion at Court of Appeal

In a twist to the dispute, the APC national headquarters made a directive to withdraw an appeal at the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt, in suit number CA/PH/198/2018, filed by the Tonye Cole faction through their lawyers, Lateef Fagemi (SAN) and Tuduru Ede.

The APC, in a letter dated September 13, 2018, through its legal adviser and lawyer, Chieme Chinweikpe and Felix Nwafor respectively, filed a Notice of Withdrawal of Appeal at the Court of Appeal.

Despite the withdrawal notice, which was based on an order of the High Court in May, 2018, with the consent of the parties, the appellate court, on October 31, 2018, set aside the orders of the two lower courts.

With the Court of Appeal order, Fagbemi and Ede approached the Supreme Court on February 12 to compel the INEC to recognise the primary election of the APC which produced Cole.

But the apex court, while ruling on five appeals on February 12, invoked Section 22 of the Supreme Court act, laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, to overrule the appellate court for admitting the appeal, which had been withdrawn by the APC when it ought to have dismissed same.

The five-member panel, presided by Justice Mohammed Dattijo, held that the withdrawal letter by the APC was valid based on Order 11, Rule 1 of the Court of Appeal, 2016.

“It is my considered opinion that this appeal must be given a decent burial. The appeal, having been withdrawn at the lower court by the respondent, is deemed dismissed. This is what the lower court failed or evaded for reasons stated above. Thus, I will allow the appeal and set aside the ruling of the lower court, dated October 31, 2018. I hereby dismiss appeal number CA/PH/198/2018, same having been validly withdrawn,” Justice Side Bage (retd) said.

In his reaction to the latest Supreme Court verdicts, Governor Nyesom Wike indicated his intention to work with the opposition to develop the state.

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