New Telegraph

February 29, 2024

Olatunji: Financial autonomy for judiciary’ll curb conflicting judgements

Mr. Abiodun Olatunji is a member of the Inner Bar. In this interview, he speaks on the court’s judgement which sacked Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, Electoral Act 2022 and sundry issues. AKEEM NAFIU reports

 

Do you think politicians have learnt any lesson from the judgement of a Federal High Court in Abuja which ordered Gov. David Umahi and 16 lawmakers of Ebonyi State House of Assembly to immediately vacate their offices for defecting from PDP to APC?

 

The judgement of the Federal High Court delivered in the action instituted by the Peoples Democratic Party against Engineer David Nweze Umahi (Governor of Ebonyi State), his deputy, Dr. Eric Kelechi Igwe, the All Progressive Congress and the Independent National Electoral Commission is currently being tested at the Court of Appeal and whatever the decision of the Court of Appeal would be, a further appeal to the Supreme Court for a final determination of the issues raised in the action will certainly be made by any of the parties to the action.

The same goes for the judgement of the Federal High Court in a separate action filed by the Peoples Democratic Party against 16 members of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly who defected alongside the Governor and his Deputy from the PDP to the APC.

So, it is imperative that we wait to see how the pendulum will swing at the Appellate Courts. Suffice to say at this point that the decision of the Federal High Court was like a bolt from the blues. Nobody saw it coming. This is so because no governor has been removed from office by judicial order on the ground of defection since the return of democratic rule in 1999.

This was so notwithstanding the fact that there had been several defections by governors from the party that sponsored their election to the opposition party. The fact that no governor has been sanctioned by way of removal from office for defecting from the party on the platform of which he got to power to another party had emboldened many governors to defect or threaten defection at the slightest provocation or even where there was absolutely no reason to justify such defection or threat of defection.

You will recall that in the build up to the 2015 general election, about five of the then sitting PDP governors pulled out of the party, the party that sponsored their elections – to join the newly registered APC without suffering any legal consequence. Interestingly, one of the five governors then is the current Minister of Transportation. He was at the time, the Governor of Rivers State.

It was in the course of his judicial battle to regain his mandate from Celestine Omehia, the candidate that the PDP presented as its nominee for election to the office of Governor of Rivers State in 2007 and who was returned elected and sworn-in as Governor of Rivers State that the Supreme Court in  its decision stated clearly that it is the parties that contest and are voted for during elections and not the candidates.

It was on the basis of that decision that the Supreme Court ordered that Mr. Rotimi Amaechi who did not campaign as a candidate for election to the office of Governor of Rivers State in the 2007 general election be sworn-in as the duly elected Governor of Rivers State being the validly nominated candidate of the party [PDP] that won the election.

When Rotimi Amaechi and others then defected and nothing happened, it was a signal, albeit, dangerous one, to others that future defections will go unpunished. Similar defections happened during the 2019 general elections. It is therefore a political event that has come to be associated with every general election in Nigeria.

When the Governor of Ebonyi defected to the APC, what reason did he give? He said he was defecting to the ruling APC because the PDP which sponsored his election has not guaranteed that its presidential ticket for the 2023 elections will be given to a candidate from the South East.

That has nothing to do with good governance, it has nothing to do with the provision of dividends of democracy to the good people of Ebonyi State, it has nothing to do with the implementation of the manifesto of the PDP which the people of Ebony bought into and on the basis of which they voted massively for the PDP and its candidates.

It simply shows that the governor defected in pursuit of his personal ambition. He had since gone ahead to inform Mr. President of his desire to succeed him in 2023.

The 16 members of the State House of Assembly who defected with him to the APC did not do so because they were convinced that the APC manifesto is superior to that of the PDP or has more to offer the people of Ebonyi or because they believe that the APC will handover its presidential ticket for the 2023 general election to a candidate of an Igbo extraction, they defected with the governor because they knew from experience that if any of them should take a principle stand against the position of the Chief Executive of the State, the member or mem  bers is/are not only dead politically, but dead and buried financially. So, for them, it was a question of political and financial survival.

The control that governors have on members of States Houses of Assembly is unbelievable. In fact, virtually all the State Houses of Assembly owe their survival to total submission to the whims and caprices of governors.

 

They sit only to give legislative approvals to what the governors have decided. Talking about lessons for politicians, I should say that politicians are poor students of history. They are only concerned about the spoils of the office.

It matters not to them what negative effect or outcome a particular decision will have as long as such decision meets the political exigency of the time. What is paramount for the average politician is that his interest is protected. Once that assurance is secured, what comes next is in the womb of time.

How else do you describe the ongoing sudden romantic political relationship between the ruling APC and the former Deputy Governor of Osun State, Senator Iyiola Omisore. It is all about interest, sadly, it is not the interest of the people but the parochial and self-centered interest of the political class.

 

Should the Supreme Court, when eventually the matter is brought before it, goes ahead to confirm the decision of the Federal High Court, our path to constitutional democracy, strong political institutions and virile party system would have been cleared of all the mines that these defections constitute on it.

 

If on the other hand, the Law Lords decide otherwise, a constitutional amendment to make it illegal for an elected governor to abandon the party that sponsored his election will become imperative, if we are to continue on the path of constitutional democracy that we have chosen.

What is the implication of this judgement to other governors and lawmakers who have defected from the parties they were elected to another?

As it stands today and until the appellate courts decide otherwise, the implication of the judgement for other gov-  memernors and lawmakers who abandoned the party that sponsored their elections is that they are in the same position as Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State and the 16 lawmakers. That means they are no longer entitled to retain their offices as governors and legislators.

Having said that, it is imperative that we wait and see how the appellate courts settle all the legal issues that this judgement has brought up.

 

Prior to this judgement, a High Court in Abakaliki, has dismissed a similar suit challenging the defection of the governor and his deputy.

What is your take on the conflicting judgments coming out from two courts of coordinate jurisdiction?

It is rather sad. I blame both the political class and some pliable members of the bench.

The political class in their desperation to cling on to power at all cost will do anything to achieve their purpose including forum shopping for judicial determination of their political cases.

Unfortunately, there exists in the judiciary, especially on the bench, individuals who are open to compromise and who either in awe of the powers of the executive or in gratification of their financial or economic desires are ever prepared to do the biddings of the politicians.

You must not loose sight of the fact that the High Court of Ebonyi State which sat in Abakaliki and dismissed a similar suit could possibly not have reached a different decision given the prevailing circumstance and the crushing weight of political influence that governors exercise over the administration of justice in their respective states.

 

That is one of the reasons why financial autonomy in the real sense of it, for the judiciary is a sine-qua-non for the administration of justice that commands the respect and trust of people.

 

The 2022 Electoral Bill has been signed into law by the president. What is your take on this Bill?

 

By assenting to the Bill, the president has assured Nigerians that his administration is committed to his promise to bequeath an electoral system that guarantees that citizens’ votes will count, an electoral system that will produce a government that is truly representative of the people. The President and the National Assembly have done their part.

 

Section 50[2] of the Electoral Act 2022 is now the law of the land. The ball is now in INEC’s court to come out with a procedure of voting and transmission of results that guarantees transparency and integrity of the exercise. INEC has assured Nigerians that it has the capacity to transmit election results electronically.

 

It now has the statutory backing to do so. We all look forward to a transparent election come next year. There are several innovative provisions in the Act which are designed to deepen our democratic experiment. The provisions relating to electoral offences, nomination of candidates by parties, limitation on election expenses and others are very interesting.

 

One of the major challenges with our democratic experiment is internal democracy. As the parties geared for the 2023 contests, their compliance with the provisions of the Act relating to nomination of candidates will be keenly watched.

 

Any failure on the part of any of the parties to strictly comply with the provisions of the Act will only result in such party not having its candidate included in the election for the particular position.

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