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OPINION: Imo North: Of legal jigsaws and wild goose chasers

Amah Franklyn

At last, Nigerians are set to be relieved of the intriguing political drama playing out in Imo North Senatorial District, otherwise known as Okigwe Zone. The battle for the senatorial seat vacated by the late Distinguished Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu has been protracted, intense and acrimonious.

Strangely, the major gladiators are within the fold of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, where Senator Ifeanyi Araraume, has refused to face reality that the senatorial ship has since left the harbour, leaving him stranded.

Araraume, a respectable tested political warhorse, no doubt, has failed to come to terms that time changes and we must change accordingly due mainly to bad influences, ripping him off. His fixation with the past is responsible for not accepting that Ibezim, who, in his eyes, is a neophyte and a new comer, could dislodge him just like that. Unfortunately for him, that is life and the reality; Sir Frank Ibezim, is firmly in control of the helm.

Despite several legal mines strewn on Ibezim’s path, he weathered every storm. The most vicious of them was a certificate forgery concoction. He was accused of submitting fake certificates to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, because of which he was disqualified from the senatorial race.

Delivering judgment on a suit filed by one Asomugha Tony Elebeke, on December 4, 2020, Justice Inyang Ekwo held that Ibezim’s West African School Certificate, WASC, bore different and irreconcilable names and scores.

The judge ruled that Ibezim had not successfully proved that the different names belonged to one and the same person, refusing to believe that Frank is a variant of Frances, as Sunny is to Sunday. He also faulted the affidavit and newspaper publications Ibezim tendered in support of his claim that the names were all his.

The learned judge held that Ibezim could not use affidavit to correct errors in his name, saying only the issuing authorities, which in this instance, were Uboma Secondary School, Ikperejere, Etiti, Imo State and West African Examination Council, WAEC, could duly do so. Curiously, in wanting Ibezim to prove his innocence instead of his accusers to prove his guilt, he did not see the anomaly in the petitioners not subpoenaing the institutions to come and testify, to deny or affirm the certificates as theirs. Also, Ibezim’s averments that his passport was enough to prove that the certificates were his could not cut ice with the judge.

Also, Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja, on March 18 ignored a subsisting appeal at the Supreme Court and concurred with Ibezim’s disqualification, ordering INEC to declare Araraume winner and issue him the Certificate of Return of the election within 72 hours. Interestingly, that highly suspicious but celebrated order was ignored.

However, the Supreme Court in its supreme wisdom has nullified the concurrent judgments. In a unanimous judgment, the Supreme Court nullified the February 6, 2021 judgment of the Court of Appeal, Abuja, which affirmed the December 4, 2020 judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja, disqualifying Ibezim for submitting false information to INEC.

The apex court held that the court cases that led to Ibezim’s disqualification for allegedly giving false information to secure nomination was statute-barred and contravened Section 285 of the 1999, which stipulates that being a pre-election case, the suit ought to have been filed within mandatory 14 days and therefore, amounts to a nullity.

It faulted Justice Ekwo’s findings and ruled the plaintiff failed to discharge the burden of proof of the alleged false information.

It is baffling, however, that despite the ruling of the Supreme Court, affirming Ibezim as the authentic candidate of the APC, Senator Araraume still seeks to prolong the imbroglio by demanding that INEC should issue him Form EC8E and Certificate of Return, insisting that the ruling of a Federal High Court ratified his candidacy.

That ruling confirmed Ibezim as the authentic candidate of the APC in the December 5, 2020, Imo North Senatorial by-election hence the winner. The zone would have been spared the long drama if INEC had declared Ibezim winner, as it was evident he was the party’s candidate.

Anyway, the INEC delay has turned out a blessing in disguise though because Peoples Democratic Party, PDP’s hasty rush to the Election Petition Tribunal without waiting for the candidate’s declaration and confirmation with Certificate of Return, as required by law, killed its petition.

The PDP, alongside its candidate, Chief Emmanuel Okewulonu, are seeking to be declared winner of the by-election since in their misshapen opinion, APC had no candidate. However, instead of waiting for INEC to sort itself out and declare a candidate, it rushed to the tribunal with a fatally defective petition and got burnt. They have gone on appeal though, as if they are also ignorant of the Supreme Court judgment.

Ironically, it is not only the PDP and Okewulonu that are asking for the impossible – that the Election Tribunal and Appeal Court should overrule the Supreme Court judgment and declare them winner. Haba!

Ibezim has since April taken his seat in the hallowed Red Chamber, as the Distinguished Senator, representing Imo North in the National Assembly anyway, a development that has messed with the psyche of his opponents to begin to act irrationally.

In fact, Araraume did the unthinkable when, irrespective of the clear Supreme Court ruling; he had audaciously sought in a letter to INEC to set a wrong precedent and invalidate the apex court order in preference to a Federal High Court ruling in his favour.

Even though not entirely surprising, no one actually expected Araraume to contest the apex court ruling. Unfortunately, he has still taken his laughable maneuvering to the Appeal Court sitting over the ruling of the Election Tribunal that threw out the petition of the PDP and its candidate, Chief Emmanuel Okewulonu.

It is this overly ambitious political gerrymandering that gave rise to the notion that Araraume had filed a cross appeal, which has no basis in the first place.

Actually, it is not a cross appeal because Araraume never even went to election tribunal. He was only a respondent in the petition filed by the PDP and Okewulonu, just like APC and Ibezim. For him to turn round to be asking the tribunal to declare him the winner despite not being the petitioner is baffling and the height of desperation.

As a matter of fact, he rightly aligned with the APC and Ibezim and asked the tribunal to dismiss PDP’s petition because it had a lot of defects and did not satisfy provisions of the law before any such action could be instituted at the tribunal. It was on the basis of this argument that made the tribunal to throw out the PDP petition.

In the first place, Araraume did not appeal against that judgment; Okewulonu did. Asking to be declared winner despite this and in utter disregard to the judgment of the Supreme Court is disingenuous because he did not appeal against the judgment of the lower court. That judgment of the lower court remains binding. That petition was struck out because it contravened the provision of the Electoral Act that required them to wait until a person, not a party, was declared and issued Certificate of Return. You cannot now go on appeal without first asking the Appeal Court to nullify the decision of the lower court.

Araraume just wants to be declared winner based on the controversial judgment of Justice Taiwo Taiwo. He was never at the tribunal to ask for any relief. The court is not Father Christmas and cannot give you what you did not ask for. There is no provision for counter claim at the tribunal. Appeal is continuation of the trial. You cannot come to appeal and change the nature of your case and say you now want to be declared winner.

Is there any claim you were asking at the tribunal? You cannot come and ask to be declared winner simply because you participated in the election. In the first place, there was no time APC nominated Araraume or submitted his name to INEC, as their candidate. It was the Federal High Court that gave such ruling, but even that has since been nullified by the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court.

It is also unfortunate that the ugly side of Nigeria came on display too. That was why an INEC lawyer came up with an address, asking that Araraume be declared winner without any ground. Thankfully, INEC as a body would not want to be caught in such muck and withdrew the controversial document because as an umpire, it has no business in the matter. It is curious that a lawyer could come and write such an address without any basis or witness.

Another thing is the argument that Ibezim did not participate in all the processes, leading to the election. This was not even pleaded at the tribunal. Nevertheless, it is not for the respondent, Ibezim, to prove whether he participated in the processes or not; this is what the petitioners should be proving, which they are not doing.

Nevertheless, it is relieving that despite devious efforts to frustrate the Ibezim camp, they were been able to get the Supreme Court judgment and tendered it and good enough the court has taken judicial notice of that.

There are talks about dubious schemes going on but all that is balderdash and mere rumour until proven otherwise. Everything now is in the court of God and public opinion. The integrity of the eminent justices cannot be brought to question because of mere beer parlour talks, and, in fact, no judge worth his honour would allow himself to be swayed or rubbished under whatever guise.

The case is simple and straightforward anyway. Did the Supreme Court rulie thatt APC actually had a candidate in the election, Frank Ibezim? Was the Election Tribunal right in throwing out the PDP petition because it was defective and failed to satisfy the requirements of the law? As for Araraume, on what ground is he asking to be declared the winner, since the Supreme Court had torn Justice Taiwo Taiwo’s ruling in his favour and also failing to file any petition at the election tribunal?

Certainly, the political landscape needs cleansing. If politics is for service, which we believe it should be, and then something needs to be done about how it is played. It scares noble people away and worst still; trying to taint others and trying to lure them to do your evil bidding is awful and wicked.

As our revered judges untangle the legal jigsaws, Imo North wishes those chasing wild geese realised soon enough that the geese had since escaped; tomorrow is yet another day for hunting. But all said and done, let truth, justice prevail. Shalom!!!

Amah Franklyn lives in Lagos