By Williams Orji
The Supreme Court is set to deliver a final judgment on issues bordering on Cross River State Governor’s birth date case instituted by Professor Benedict Bengioshuye Ayade Mr Joe Agi.
Both Mr Ayade and Mr Agi are of the same political party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This was why many have been left wondering why issue of birth was allowed to pitch members of the same political party against each other and not illegalities arising from the conduct of the party’s primaries.
However, Prof. Ayade has so far secured favourable judgment from the lower Court to the Court of Appeal.The final say on the issues in contention in the long drawn legal tussle would now be decided by a five-man panel headed by the reputable Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour.
Mr Agi had lost out to the incumbent Governor in the People’s Democratic Party’s primary alongside former NNPC General Manager, Crude Oil Marketing, Mr Goddy Jedy Agba, Rev. Father Francis Eworo, Dr Peter Oti, as well as the pioneer National Publicity Secretary of PDP, Emmanuel Ebeshi.
Then Senator, Prof. Ayade polled 752 out of 782 votes cast while Mr Agi polled 11 votes; Jedy Agba and Rev Father Eworo each got five votes. The duo of Peter Oti and Emmanuel got no vote.
The result was announced by the then Chairman of the electoral panel and Returning Officer, Chief Olusola Akanmode which was accepted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Mr Agi was dissatisfied with the outcome of the party’s primary, and subsequently instituted a case against the governor at the Federal High Court Abuja. He was praying the court to remove the Governor from office on the ground that he gave conflicting information about his age, saying it was in contravention of Section 177 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution and PDP’s guidelines.
The judgment of the Federal High Court Abuja was given on July 31, 2016 after both counsels made their oral and written addresses, and deposed affidavits. The presiding judge, Justice Abdul Kafarati, in his judgment ruled that, payment of subscription fees by members of political party “is an internal affair of the party concerned for which the court do not have jurisdiction to entertain.”
On Mr Agi’s second prayer bordering on criminality, forgery and perjury, the learned Judge ruled thus: “I do not want to waste time on this. It is trite that both forgery and perjury being criminal offences have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. This suit was commenced by way of originating summons. It is impracticable to prove these by affidavit evidence.
“Secondly, it was not pointed out by the plaintiff which document was forged. All these need to be properly investigated which had not been done. On the whole, I hold that the plaintiff’s case has no merit and is designed just to waste the precious time of this court. In the circumstance the suit is dismissed for being frivolous and lacking in merit. That is the judgment of this court.”
Mr Agi proceeded to the Court of Appeal, Abuja division and filed an appeal with suit number CA/A/518/2015, asking the appellate court to set aside the decision of the lower court.
After a thorough examination of the issues in contention, the court entered its judgment and the panel of Justices headed by Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson held that, “The error made in the year 1969 instead of 1968 in the circumstances of this case cannot amount to a device to browbeat the constitutional requirement of the minimum age of 35 years for the office of a Governor.
“In the circumstances, the Appellant (Agi) also failed to substantiate his allegation that the 1st respondent (PDP) breached its guidelines to the advantage of the 3rd respondent (Ayade) and to the disadvantage of the Appellant in nominating the 3rd respondent as its governorship candidate in the last elections.
“It is instructive to note that at the primaries, the 3rd respondent now governor of Cross River State scored 752 votes, while the Appellant scored only 11 votes. Having resolved all the issues against the Appellant, the appeal is disallowed. On the whole, in the circumstances of this case, the learned trial judge was correct when he dismissed the Appellant’s suit as lacking in merit. This appeal is unmeritorious and it is hereby dismissed”.
Still dissatisfied, Mr Agi approached the Supreme Court on March 31, 2016 seeking to upturn the rulings of the lower courts in a suit no. SC/256/2016. Appellants in the case – the PDP and INEC – filed their briefs of argument dated May 17, 2016 and May 24, 2016 respectively. While on September 27, 2016, the Apex Court heard the suit from counsels to all parties.
Pro et Contra
Looking at the pros and cons of the legal tussle between Governor Ayade and Mr Agi, which took a dramatic dimension at the Supreme Court during the parties’ pleadings, the counsel to PDP, Mr. N. Ibegbulam told the panel of five justices headed by Justice Rhodes-Vivour that his client has decided to concede the appeal to Mr Agi.
Justifying the reason for the sudden volte-face, Ibegbulam argued that Governor Ayade violated the party’s electoral guidelines, and wants the court to apply Article 14b and Article 15 sub 2, adding that they are withdrawing the PDP brief of argument.
“We are urging the court to apply the provisions of Articles 14(b) and 15(2) of the PDP guideline which disqualify the 3rd respondent (Ayade),” he said. When asked what law firm he belonged, Ibegbunam said he was a counsel in the firm of Ferdinand Orbih and Co. The court asked the question after Ayade’s lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) drew the attention of the court to the fact that the brief was settled by Ferdinand Orbih and not Ibegbunam.”
But the court turned down that request after asking Mr Ibegbunam which law firm he was operating from.
The PDP Chairman, Ahmed Makarfi, denounced the party’s lawyer’s antics with an official letter to the Executive Governor. Mr Makarfi restated the party’s support for the governor saying he remained the party’s legitimate candidate and Governor under the party’s platform.
Postulation of legal luminaries
Perhaps, since the spectacle at the apex court played out, some legal experts and concerned stakeholders have postulated their views on the case. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Paul Erokoro (SAN) contended that Mr Agi was “trying to capitalise on a simple error made by the governor’s special assistant on his nomination form, by writing 1969 instead of 1968. Neither date makes a difference to Prof Ayade’s qualification for the office of governor.”
In fact, he pointed out that “INEC saw it as a trivial error, especially as his (Ayade’s) age declaration attached to the form showed his correct age. Mr. Agi is, however, bent in feeding distorted facts to a section of the media in order to scandalise the governor”.
In the opinion of Mr Nehemiah Abang, the Special Legal Adviser to Governor Ayade, “it is impossible for PDP to approbate and reprobate.
“Remember that PDP as a party has filed court processes on oath and defended His Excellency, Governor Ayade in Court of first instance being the trial Court and also the Court of Appeal where Ayade emerged victorious.”
According to him, “Those processes formed part of the records of Appeal now before the Supreme Court. In law, the court is bound to look at all the documents in its record and also to take judicial notice of its records.
The fact that PDP has conceded to the case of the Appellant, doesn’t take away the evidence on printed record before the court,” Mr Abang said.
Also, the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC) frown at the drama in court saying, “We say this attitude of the PDP as a party is uncultured, undemocratic and selfish.”
Mr Paddy Ally and Hon. Baron Eyo, state secretary and chairman of IPAC, respectively stated in a statement jointly signed, “That IPAC frowns at the drama at the Supreme Court where a Political Party denies its member.
“That the action of the defence lawyer of a political party denying its client at the level it deed is unethical, uncivilised and makes a ridicule of Nigeria’s lawyers and its judicial process and progress. IPAC condemns this in totality and calls on the NJC to investigate the lawyers or lawyers to restore hope of Nigerians on Lawyers.
“IPAC calls on the Supreme Court to take strict disciplinary measures on the action, confession, and attitude of the PDP agreeing through their Lawyer to sponsoring a wrong candidate before the Supreme Court”.
But legal experts have said he Supreme Court will not find I difficult to make objective decision when it rules tomorrow as the lower courts have made similar commendation judicial pronouncement. But the Supreme Court decision will no doubt enhance the legal structure in the country due to the peculiar nature of this case.