At the end of last week, Nigeria’s Supreme Court gave a judgment that many newspapers and online groups interpreted rather decisively and excitedly. Headlines declared that the court had dismissed all PDP members of the National Assembly, among them Senators Andy Uba and Stella Oduah (last December, a panel of the Court of Appeal had rusticated the state’s third senator, Uche Ekwunife, after finding that she had been nominated through an illicit process).
The disputants in the case were, on the on hand, appellants Ejike Oguebego and Chuks Okoye, chairman and legal adviser, respectively, of the Anambra chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and, on the other, the PDP, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and Chukwudi Okasia. The immediate issue before the court was a narrow one, namely, whether a caretaker committee the (PDP) had set up to run the party’s affairs in Anambra State had any legal status and effect.
In its unanimous verdict, read by Justice John Inyang Okoro, a five-person panel of the country’s apex court basically decided that the so-called caretaker committee was a nullity, a fundamentally defective contraption. The ruling was a rebuke of a panel of the Court of Appeal that had, on February 6, 2015, laid waste to a December 15, 2014 ruling by Justice E.S. Chukwu of the Federal High Court.
If the ruling of the Supreme Court was technically narrow – upholding the claims of the Oguebego-led executive to being the party’s sole valid and effectual organ in Anambra State – its implications are, potentially, decisive and momentous. It transpired that the PDP’s so-called caretaker committee, now declared null and void, had sidelined Oguebego’s executive and hijacked the business of determining the entire slate of PDP candidates in the 2015 general elections.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgment, lawyers representing some of the embattled Anambra legislative team at the National Assembly harped on the technical argument that the finding in favour of Mr. Oguebego did not translate into nullification of their clients’ election.
At the very least, a juxtaposition of the Supreme Court’s verdict and the robust spin expressed by the lawyers to the embattled legislators has created a veritable political and legal limbo. That unsettled situation is deeply unsettling, and calls for resolution.
As I write, INEC had offered no indication how it intends to act in light of last week’s judicial verdict. My hope is that the electoral commission should take the bold step of invalidating the certificates it had handed to all PDP legislators at the state and national levels. The commission should then conduct fresh elections in Anambra State, with the legitimate PDP candidates on the ballots. For even when the Supreme Court had determined that the onus of submitting the list of electoral candidates lies with the PDP’s national executive, I doubt that the court would welcome a situation where that list were generated through a process that, in spirit and fact, flouted a court order as unambiguous as the one issued by Justice E.S. Chukwu.
One thing is clear. Whether INEC chooses to do nothing or goes ahead to withdraw the certificates it issued to the current PDP legislators at the state and national levels, I foresee – indeed predict – more looming legal battles. That would be a good development, an extension of what I’d describe as Anambra’s continuing gift to Nigeria’s gradual, even all-too slow, development of a democratic culture.
More than most of Nigeria’s 36 states, Anambra has borne the scars of the country’s still nascent, often nasty and frustrating, democratic evolution. Chinwoke Mbadinuju, who in 1999 became the state’s first governor in the current phase of Nigeria’s elective politics, was a disaster. Hounded by his political “god father” and haunted by his lack of preparation, he was at one point unable to pay months of workers’ salaries and pensions. Under his watch, all schools were shut for a full academic year as he feuded with unpaid teachers. Nobody was surprised when the PDP denied Mr. Mbadinuju, a lawyer and journalist, the ticket to run for a second term.
Instead, the party’s then enfant terrible and new godfather, Chris Uba – who was hitched to then President Olusegun Obasanjo – handpicked Chris Ngige, a medical doctor, as the PDP’s governorship candidate. Exploiting his chumminess with the mischievous, shameless and imperial Obasanjo, Chris Uba ensured that Mr. Ngige was rigged into Government House, dispossessing Peter Obi of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), the voters’ clear choice.
In a move that stunned both godfather and President Obasanjo, Mr. Ngige renounced his evil-minded sponsors, cleared the backlog of salaries, and commenced construction of state roads and even rehabilitation of highways abandoned by the Federal Government. His act of renunciation and work endeared him to many in Anambra. A rising chorus entreated Mr. Obi to abandon his lawsuit challenging the fraudulent declaration of Mr. Ngige as the winner of the 2003 governorship election. But a few of us – on grounds of principle – were not impressed. We argued that Peter Obi had a moral duty to the voters of Anambra to use all legal means to reclaim the mandate they freely gave him.
As it turned out, the Obasanjo-led government lent a hand in the fight against the man they had helped impose. Mr. Uba and his sponsor at Aso Rock were determined to teach Mr. Ngige and his ilk a bloody lesson. In November 2004, Anambra State witnessed an invasion by hired thugs.
When that ploy failed to rattle their disobedient governor, Mr. Uba and his cohorts commandeered hundreds of police officers in a mission to abduct Mr. Ngige and force him to submit his resignation. When outraged Nigerians demanded that Mr. Uba and the senior police officer who led the operation be tried, Mr. Obasanjo and the PDP irresponsibly insisted that it was all their party’s internal affair, finis!
In the end, Mr. Obi’s perseverance paid off when, in August 2006, the courts removed Mr. Ngige. A year later, the same Obi beat back an attempt by Andy Uba and the PDP to usurp the governorship, persuading the Supreme Court to rule that his tenure would last for four years from the date of his inauguration.
The point is that Anambra has paid a tremendous price, in fact undergone several baptisms of fire, since Nigerians began their latest, shaky democratic journey. I’d suggest that the battles in the state, waged in the courts and on the streets, have advanced the broader interests of Nigeria’s democratic aspirations.
Last week’s verdict by the Supreme Court provides an opportunity to establish that every party’s primaries must be conducted in a sane and transparent manner, not hijacked by the well-oiled with a lot of cash and access to those who hold the lever of political power in Abuja.
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