A former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, Dave Ajetomobi, speaks to DARE ADEKANMBI on the sack of Ebonyi State governor, David Umahi, his deputy and 15 lawmakers by court recently, offering suggestions on how to curtail political prostitution, among other things.
Various interpretations have been offered in the aftermath of the sack of Ebonyi State governor, David Umahi and his deputy as well as 15 state House of Assembly members by a Federal High Court in Abuja. Some say ascribing votes at election to political parties should not be the sole criterion to decide the matter?
Lawyers can’t agree because if we agree always, we won’t have jobs to do and the court will not be there. We are trained to view things from different angles and even from innovative angle that is not even in the law. Personally, I believe it is within the powers of the court to issue the decision it issued in Umahi’s case. However, if one will reflect back, one will look at Amaechi’s case [Amaechi vs INEC]. He was substituted by his party then, the PDP, and the election was contested by another person, [Celestine] Omehia. The Supreme Court was of the view that Amaechi was unlawfully substituted and ought to have been the candidate and they removed Omehia and put Amaechi. If you look at the logic applied by the court from that angle, it appeared as if the votes were actually for the candidate and not the party because the party had taken a decision on the candidate they wanted. Then, there was a decision on I think Adewunmi’s case in Ondo State who was removed as a member of the legislature. The decision was contested to the highest level. The argument was that a legislator was voted for to represent the people on the platform of a party and so can’t defect.
But so far, from the overall analysis of the decisions on gubernatorial issues, it has been on the side that parties are not juristic persons, that is, persons that can sue and be sued, which is not really the truth. As long as a party is recognised by law, it has become a juristic person. But I think the learned Justices of the Supreme Court were looking at it in terms of a personality with human character. We all know that parties can’t contest elections without human beings. If this decision [sacking of Umahi] were to be under the current Electoral Act 2022, instead of defecting, Umahi would have become an independent candidate and you can’t say he joined another party. Like Bernie Sanders in the United State who contested the presidential primary on the platform of the Democratic Party, but in the House he is an independent person. But that is an advanced polity.
So, on the preponderance of authority, the modality for removal of governors is well spelt out in the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act. From the decisions of the Appellate Courts so far, the court can’t remove a governor. But the law is very dynamic and the panel of courts can change and the Appellate Court has the right and power to overrule itself. That is why the late Honourable Justice [Chukwudifu Akunne] Oputa said we are not final because we are infallible, we are infallible only because we are final. The different panels will be made up of different human beings with different reasoning methods and who see things from different angles. So, I think it would be overhaste to conclude that Umahi was rightly or wrongly sacked because the panels that decided those cases I earlier mentioned, most of them are retired now and the new panels that will be set up may belong to another school of jurisprudence. The only thing is that the Court of Appeal may not be able to reverse the decision of the Apex Court. But if the highest court in the case was the Court of Appeal, then the Court of Appeal can reverse itself, though it is bound to follow its previous decisions.
So, it will be speculative to now say we have heard the final decision on this matter. This matter is going to the Apex Court. Currently, it is on appeal and whatever the Court of Appeal says is also not final until it gets to the Supreme Court. That is why I have not really joined the fray to say whether the judgment is right or wrong. But if you look at the decided cases, it is likely that Umahi may survive. But based on Adewunmi’s case, the same can’t be said of the 15 lawmakers that defected with him.
Another thing is the fact that Nigeria’s wheels of justice grind very slowly. The matter may not be concluded until Umahi has left office and at the end of the day, the case will now be mere academic. I was not really worried because I know they are both going to put in their best legal works for the Appellate Court to decide in one way or the other. But basically, the state of the law is in flux as we speak. As we develop, a lot of the decided cases will be altered by the new Electoral Act. By the time we have the next elections now, you will discover that we can’t rely on the cases decided on the basis on the old Electoral Act.
Some have even said the decided Amaechi vs INEC judgment of the Supreme Court which you referenced earlier is no longer the law; that things have changed…
Immediately after Amaechi’s matter, the National Assembly amended the Electoral Act and then immediately after Audu’s case in Kogi, they amended the Electoral Act too. So, if anybody relies on Amaechi’s or Audu’s case, the person is living in the past.
Do you see this decision of the court on Umahi as one that will curb political harlotry or prostitution in Nigeria’s political environment?
I believe we need something like this, though unfortunately in the country we like to look at as author and finisher of our democracy [United States], during the [Donald] Trump era, a Democrat crossed over to the Republican Party to contest, not before his mandate elapses, in order to win an election because he supported Trump against his own party and the only way he could win in that stronghold of Trump was to crossover to Trump’s party. So, there is no hard and fast rule in respect of this thing. But in Nigeria, it is becoming an epidemic, when politicians use one ladder to climb to the roof and change when they get there. It is an insult to the average Nigerian voter because they had a particular party in mind before voting for a person.
This is particularly so in South-East Nigeria where the people are pro-PDP and for the person they voted for to now carry their mandate to another party that they are not in love with. That means politicians don’t really think much about the electorate, but only think about what will profit them. But by the time you ask them, they will tell you they want the voices of their people to be heard. Since he crossed over to APC, how much of his people’s voice has been heard? He has declared that he wants to be president of the country, is that the voice of his people? I think the National Assembly is conscious of this fact and is not ready to make a hard law on that issue because they know they may be victims of their own law some day. The law is in a state of fluidity. There is no clear-cut law. It is subject to some interpretations here and there. I believe it is deliberate because you may be in this party today and need to move from there tomorrow. So, the lawmakers are always putting their own interest first. I believe we need a law, which the judiciary is doing for us now, we need a hard law to back it up so that a politician can’t switch to another party if you contest on the platform of a particular party. But we don’t have such law as of now. They always hide under crisis to justify their defection. But we all know they can generate a crisis where there is none. Crisis is a matter of definition in court. Trust lawyers, they will come up with different definitions of crisis, that so and quarreled with his wife and that led to her having an accident. That is a crisis. How do you apply that to parties? Everybody is just protecting his or her own interest in the political circle. That is one problem we have in Nigeria. But we need a law that will hold politicians accountable. This harlotry is not helping anybody. That is the thing.
You said parties can’t contest elections without human beings. If we take cognizance of Section 221 of the 1999 Constitution, no person is allowed to canvass for votes except political parties…
Yes, it is still the same thing. The section you mentioned does not empower parties to canvass for votes without human beings. So, it is still the same thing. The parties are platforms. This is why they are amending the law to give room for Independent candidature. Some people are popular with the voters. In Mushin, there used to be one [Dauda] Kako Are who made his mark as a council chairman. He joined the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and made his mark and moved to the House of Representatives. When they decided he can’t go again, he joined Accord Party and still won. He defeated APC candidate. Can you say the people voted for Accord? No, they voted for him. There are some people who have larger than life image with the electorate because of their personal relationship. So, you can’t really say it is the party. It will be too simplistic. The Kako Are case is a typical example. He won the hearts of the people right from when he was council chairman. He introduced the school bus system when he was chairman. So, there is way an individual can influence voters to vote for a particular party. We should look at it in both ways. We need to look at the jurisprudence of that. We should not just say it is the party that owns the votes.
Another angle that is contrary to that is the case of Ojukwu who wanted to contest for Senate election in 1983 election, One lecturer in UNILAG said NPN won the presidency [for Shehu Shagari] due to Ikemba factor. But the same factor could not win Ojukwu, the Ikemba, a senatorial seat in Anambra State. Ojukwu lost to Dr Edwin Onwudiwe. Is that not an irony? You see the contrast now? So, parties and individuals are interwoven. They are hard to tear apart. So, we need to develop the political system with the interest of the larger Nigerians at heart. That is why I support this new Electoral Act. It will become difficult to rig elections. Politicians will take more time to address the welfare of their constituents. But when they know that they can just do anything and get away with it, they don’t care. We are evolving.