Tribunal verdicts and Plateau political discord, By Zainab Suleiman Okino

Zainab Suleiman Okino

Anger seems to be welling up on the Plateau over recent judicial pronouncements in respect of the last elections. The outcomes of the Benue and Plateau elections were hailed as examples of enduring political legacy of loyalty to, and influence of godfathers because of the return of Jonah Jang of PDP and George Akume of APC. Their candidates were victorious in the governorship election and the incumbents lost out while a substantial number of lawmakers also emerged from their camps.

However, while those gains are being consolidated in Benue state, in Plateau state, the initial successes and victories have been eroded due to some inconsistent, unconventional and controversial judicial interventions. First to go “down” was the Senate Minority Leader representing Plateau North Senatorial District, Simon Mwadkwon who was sacked by a three-member panel of the Appeal Court over lack of structure in the PDP. It equally ordered a re-run. These annulments are contrary to the ruling of Justice Haruna Tsammani of the Presidential Petition Election Tribunal in Allied People’s Movement’s (APM) petition challenging the qualification of Vice President Kashim Shettima. “The issue of qualification or disqualification is a pre-election matter and must be determined before the conduct of the election.” 

Section 285 (14) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Section 29(5) of the Electoral Act 2022’s reference to pre-election matters talk of “aspirant” which borders on a party’s internal mechanism and not “candidate” which involves other parties, and the suit that could be filed in this instance (if any) is at the Federal High Court and not a tribunal or Appeal Court. But in Plateau state, most of the examples in point are pre-election matters.

For the Tribunal judges to depart from this judicial precedence is to leave themselves to accusations of bias. And tongues are already wagging over two causal factors—the emergence of Lalong as minister under an APC-controlled federal government. Lalong even as a sitting governor and DG of Tinubu’s Presidential Campaign lost elections up to his ward and now hope to win at the tribunals what he could not get at the polls where the people’s votes favoured the PDP, so goes the allegation.

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Two, there are concerns about the president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem who happens to hail from Plateau state and is of the same ethnic stock with Lalong. Having been appointed by the APC government (with Lalong’s influence) under President Muhammadu Buhari, her sympathy, observers say, is with the governing party at the centre regardless of how the votes went.

The allegation gained more traction in view of retired Supreme Court Justice Musa Dattijo Muhammad’s valedictory speech that added a scathing swipe at judges for corruption. In any case, Rule 8.3 of the judicial Code of Conduct says, “any judge who takes advantage of his judicial office for personal gain or for gain by his or her relative or relation abuses the power vested in him”. Justice Dattijo Muhammed specifically referenced the Court of Appeal and the “unpredictable nature of recent decisions of the courts as well”. The obvious question is, is there more to Justice Dattijo’s assertion that is not in the public glare?

This and more are what the PDP spokesperson, Debo Ologunagba, Honorable Yobo Maren of the state house of assembly and other players in Plateau politics condemned and also hoped would be addressed in the coming weeks even as they bemoan their losses.  At both national and state levels, the party has accused the tribunal and Appeal Court panel of showing “manifest bias” in favour of the ruling party and complained bitterly about “dangerous pattern of varying and conflicting judicial pronouncements”.

Explaining further the party men state thus: “What is more disturbing is that in all the appeal cases, the court ordered a rerun where the PDP won and the APC came third, while where the APC came second, it ordered that the Certificate of Return issued to the victorious PDP candidate be withdrawn and a new Certificate of Return be issued to the APC candidate, who came second in the election. Specifically, in the case of Plateau North Senatorial District won by Sen. Simon Mwadkwon of the PDP and the APC candidate coming third, the Panel in its judgment in the Court of Appeal delivered on Sunday 22nd October, 2023 curiously annulled PDP’s victory and ordered INEC to conduct a rerun election among all the parties.

“In the case of Jos North/Bassa Federal Constituency won by Hon. Musa Agar of the PDP and where the APC candidate also came third, the Panel in its judgment in Court of Appeal judgement delivered on Friday 27th October 2023 annulled the victory of the PDP and ordered a rerun excluding the PDP.

“In the third Appeal Case of Shendam/Quaan-Pan/Mikang Federal Constituency, won by Hon. Isaac Kwallu of the PDP with John Dafwan of the APC as runner-up, the Appeal Court Justices in Court of Appeal annulled the victory of the PDP candidate, declared the APC candidate as outright winner and ordered that the Certificate of Return issued to the victorious PDP candidate be withdrawn and a fresh Certificate of Return issued to the APC candidate.”

The Plateau laswmaker, Maren noted further that “the issue of nomination and sponsorship was the crux of the APC’s petition and all other petitions which are pre-election matters that the Supreme Court has since settled. The Court of Appeal deliberately chose not to look at the evidence of the PDP before the tribunal did not deliver the judgements based on the law and the facts, as the law, as it is, are quite different from the position of the Court of Appeal,” the lawmaker noted.

Other than what the constitution and Electoral Act 2023 say on the issue of pre-election matter (which have been flagrantly abused at the Appeal Court), the onlookers of Plateau politics might not be able to establish what other issues informed the judges’ decisions. However, it is pertinent to be mindful of the public image of the judiciary as players in the sector and as admonished by Justice Dattijo Muhammad.  “Public perceptions of the judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical. It has been in the public space that court officials and judges are easily bribed by litigants to obviate delays and or obtain favourable judgements”.

Earlier on another retiring Supreme Court Justice, Justice Adefope Okojie, on exit said, “does judiciary need to be begged or cajoled to be “just and truthful”? adding that “what is it that qualifies any person to bear that exalted name ‘Honourable Justice’? Is it not for him to administer justice without fear or favour”?

Moving forward, it is pertinent to internalize and take cognizance of the learned retired justices’ opinions, observations, admonitions with regards to the loud complaints about the judiciary and make amends. We all don’t have to be judges to be able to decipher. Above all, judges should not act infallible because Nigeria’s democracy is subject to their logic and whims lately. For when push comes to shove, public opinions and their wishes will trump falsehood.  Judgments should be rendered based on established legal provisions devoid of sentiment and personal wishes.

Zainab Suleiman Okino is a syndicated columnist. She can be reached via [email protected]

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