Anambra Sentral Senate seat: Court ruling stirs further controversy

Obiora Okonkwo

It was a senatorial contest that consumed hundreds of millions of naira. It was also an election in which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) shared responsibilities with the Judiciary as umpires. And somehow along the line, while INEC conducted the election, the judiciary compounded the outcome. Either way money was involved.

But, in the recent judgment of the Federal High Court, which ordered INEC to issue certificate of return to Dr. Obiora Okonkwo and to be sworn in by the President of Senate, the judiciary healed its mess and did justice to the lingering legal tangles around Anambra Central Senatorial seat. Prior to the latest court judgment, the Court of Appeal had mandated INEC to prosecute the rerun poll ordered by Enugu Division in December 2015.

Situation and politically intriguing circumstances defrayed the court order for a rerun poll to be held within 90 after the election of Senator Uche Lilly Ekwunife was inexplicably upturned by the Appeal Court based on the petition filed by her defeated rival in the election, Chief Victor Umeh of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) challenging the validity of her election against a flawed primary by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Senator Ekwunife condemned the judgment saying that it deviated from the law and Supreme Court position that no candidate should interrogate a primary election of a rival from another political party. Yet, the Enugu Division of the Court of Appeal covered their eyes to that legal maxim as they delivered what many commentators described as judicial murder.

Perhaps, buoyed by the fact that the same national executive committee of PDP organised the primary election that threw her up and those of other two senators, Ekwunife approached the Supreme Court as it sat on petitions by candidates from Oguebego faction of the party against the election of Senators Andy Uba and Princess Adaeze Stella Oduah.

But noting that the Court of Appeal was the court of final instance in National Assembly election disputations, the apex court refused to pronounce on Ekwunife’s matter, even as it okayed the election of Uba and Oduah, which judgment elicited quest for interpretation.

Crisis Of Litigations, Conflicting Judgments
Arising from the failure of Ekwunife to obtain judicial amnesty at the apex court, parties to the senatorial seat imbroglio tried to substitute their candidates that featured in the original poll.

And based on Appeal Court decision against the participation of PDP in the rerun poll, Ekwunife moved over to the All Progressives Congress (APC), desiring to substitute the party’s original senatorial candidate, Senator Chris Ngige, who had by then been appointed Minister for Labour and Employment in the federal cabinet.

While Ekwunife sought the flag of APC, PDP tried to field a substitute in the belief that it was Ekwunife rather than the party that was barred from the rerun poll. The cross litigations in various courts and the suffusion of interlocutory injunctions forced INEC to postpone indefinitely the rerun initially scheduled for March 5, 2016.

Attempt by Justice Anwuli Chikere to right the judicial wrong done to PDP by indorsing its right to field a candidate triggered multiple appeals, even as other political parties, including APGA and United Progressives Party (UPP) filed applications for joinder.

The jumble of litigations took a back seat immediately INEC released notice for the Anambra State governorship poll. The popular reason was that the Senatorial rerun should wait after the gubernatorial poll. That reason was also advanced by gladiators in the governorship race as they schemed for the governorship and insisted that the senatorial seat should not be used to deliver adventitious advantages on any.

Umeh

Importunity, Intervention Versus Surprise Verdict
No sooner than the governorship election was won and lost than the Abuja Division of the Appeal Court ruled on the suite filed by APGA and its candidate for the Senatorial poll, Umeh, challenging the very judgment by Justice Chikere on February 29, 2017, sanctioning the participation of PDP and Ekwunife in the rerun.

Most people, particularly the constituents of Anambra Central had begun to grumble over the non-representation of their district in the Senate amid another federal budget presentation.

As such, although the Appeal Court judgment ordered INEC to conduct the rerun within 90 days, it was gathered that APGA and Umeh, riding on the wings of Governor Willie Obiano’s victory in the governorship poll activated the ruling in the belief that the power of incumbency and renewed mandate would pan victory to their side.

However, while the same court was dispensing with APGA and Umeh’s appeal, it had reserved judgment also in a protracted pre-election matter instituted by Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, which the plaintiff is praying the court to declare that he, and not Ekwunife, was the rightful winner of the senatorial primary conducted by PDP.

Okonkwo averred that in line with the Enugu Court of Appeal ruling that Ekwunife was not properly nominated by PDP at the primary election, it was he and not Ekwunife that ought to be sworn in as Senator representing Anambra Central Senatorial district in the Senate.

Okonkwo had also argued that in view of his pending appeal a rerun should not be held until his case was determined, stressing that being a pre-election matter it ought to dispensed with in order to render it an academic exercise.

Despite the pronouncement and consequential order made by the Appeal Court, those conversant with the intriguing senatorial seat knew that a lot more huddles and impediments lay ahead against the conduct of the rerun.

For instance, shortly after the Court of Appeal made the fresh order, INEC was reminded through a letter by counsel to one of the litigants of the many pending cases barring it from contemplating carrying out the order.

Mrs. Onyinyechi Okeke, listed the pending cases to include, ​​​Dr. Obiora Okonkwo v. PDP & Ors, ​Suit No:​​​FHC/ABJ/1092/2014; ​​​Comrade Anayo Nweke v INEC, ​Suit No:​​​FHC/AWK/CS/69/2016; ​​​PDP & Anor v. Chief (Sir) Victor Umeh, OFR & 11 Ors, Appeal No:​​​SC/204/2016; ​​​Chief (Sir) Victor Umeh v PDP, ​Appeal No:​​​CA/A/160/2016; ​​​INEC v PDP, ​Appeal No:​​​CA/A/165/2016 and All Progressive Congress &ANOR Vs INEC, Appeal No: CA/A/314/2017.

“As is clearly evident from the above listed cases, INEC is a named party in all the matters and would be directly bound by the decisions of the respective Courts,” the counsel noted.

But on December 13, 2017, an Abuja Federal High Court, presided over by Justice Tsoho ruled in favour of Obiora Okonkwo, after parties withdrew their arguments against the plaintiff.

The court made consequential orders on INEC and the President of Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, to hand him a certificate of return and swear him in as Senator representing Anambra Central Senatorial District.

Fresh Controversies
Arising from the Federal High Court ruling, interested parties and constituents have been commenting on the feasibility of INEC’s decision to hold the rerun on January 13, 2018.

While Umeh and APGA hold that the judgment as inferior to the Enugu Court of Appeal judgment that invalidated Ekwunife’s election, they fail to recognize the import of the court’s decision that the ousted Senator was a product of invalid primary.

Placed side by side with Dr. Okonkwo’s petition, which had been lingering as a pre-election matter, does the superiority of the appellate court supersede the potency of the Federal High Court as court of first instance in such cases?

Governorship candidate of Action Democratic Party (ADP) in the November 18 governorship poll and native of Nnobi in Idemmili local council of Anambra South, Mr. Ifeanyichukwu Okonkwo, described Justice Tsoho’s ruling as “a solid judgment.”

The ADP chieftain noted, “Nobody can sit in his house and declare that a judgment is null and void, if a judgment under section 50 of our Constitution is not right to you, you approach the court and ask to be heard.”

He added: “The very judgment that Umeh got from the Court of Appeal is one that anybody can say does not meet the requirements of law. But it is a judgment, so you cannot now say that somebody else’s judgment has no meaning. Let him go to court and set it aside.

However, Anambra State APGA legal adviser, Mr. Sylvester Ezeokenwa Jnr., says Dr. Okonkwo cannot be sworn in, contending, “the Anambra Central Senatorial election stands nullified and until a rerun election is conducted and a winner declared, INEC cannot issue any person with a certificate of return.”

Ezeokenwa maintained that the subject matter of the suit filed by Chief Okonkwo was destroyed/annihilated on December 7, 2015, when the Court of Appeal, Enugu Division, nullified the election, while voiding the primaries conducted by PDP for the said election.

The APGA State Legal Adviser remarked that having “nullified the said election and ordered INEC to conduct a rerun election, the suit by Chief Okonkwo was rendered hypothetical and mere academic exercise. The suit had been rendered empty, bare and hollow.”

He therefore expressed the view that the “victory, if any, recorded by Chief Okonkwo was merely pyrrhic,” saying that the senatorial seat for which the court purportedly delivered judgment is no longer in existence, having been nullified by the Court of Appeal.”

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