Enugu Governor, Ugwuanyi and Justice N. E Maha of the Federal High Court, Abuja: When Justice Gets Murdered in its own temple.
By Chukwulobe Onovo.
It is no longer news that the Federal High Court Abuja presided over by Hon. Justice N. E. Maha on Tuesday 9th November, 2022 in suit no FHC|ABJ|CS|1222|2022, annulled the gubernatorial primaries conducted by the Enugu State Labour party on 4th August, 2022 and ordered the conduct of a fresh one within 14 days. That according to the court was to allow one Mr. Everest Edeh Nnaji otherwise known as Odengene who claimed to be an aspirant excluded from the process to participate. The judgement was predicated on an alternative relief sought by the applicant in lieu of declaring him the duly elected consensus gubernatorial candidate of the party, a relief the court declined.
Since the delivery of the judgment which has received widespread condemnation and cast a shadow on the entire state, the Labour party having become the toast of Ndi Enugu , a lot of postulations and pontifications have been made regarding its merit by legal pundits in and outside the state.
As a legal practitioner who took an oath to defend and uphold the law including judicial decisions, as a benchmark for an orderly and peaceful society, I refused to join the band wagon until I obtained a certified true copy of the judgment in order to have a firm grasp of the facts , issues and evidence placed before the honourable court and which informed its decision.
My search didn’t go easy as the judgment in question was delivered in far away Abuja instead of Enugu which has a Federal High Court and before which the matter ought to have been brought. All the contacts I made to assist me in obtaining a copy of the judgment failed making it imperative that I set a day aside to travel to Abuja solely for that purpose. Happily, I eventually did not as an unexpected source seeing my desperation, sent a soft copy to me a few days ago. Armed with the document, I can now make an informed opinion as to what transpired and which gave rise to a judgment widely regarded as hyper controversial.
In the first place, the suit which was commenced by originating summons and filed on 16th of August, 2022 contained a total of ten reliefs, two of which were alternative reliefs and which in the main prayed the honourable court to declare the applicant Everest Edeh Nnaji alias Odengene the authentic consensus gubernatorial candidate of the party in Enugu State. The prayer was premised on the applicant’s payment of the sum of 25 million naira to purchase an expression of interest and governorship nomination form of the 2nd respondent( the Labour party) and following which both parties allegedly reached an agreement to make the applicant the sole consensus gubernatorial candidate of the party in the state.
The Labour party or the 2nd respondent having reneged on the agreement by making someone else its gubernatorial candidate and going ahead to send his name to the 1st respondent; the Independent National Electoral Commission ( INEC) for recognition, the honourable court was called upon to compel it to implement the agreement.
The 2nd respondent (the Labour party) in response, filed a preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the matter and proposed three issues for determination of the court. First was whether the applicant Mr. Everest Nnaji alias Odengene was a gubernatorial aspirant known to the party failing which he lacked the requisite locus standi to institute the action? The second issue for determination was whether the applicant Everest Nnaji( alias Odengene) having not made Hon. Chijioke Edeoga the gubernatorial candidate of the party and a necessary party in the suit, denied him the right of fair hearing pursuant to section 36(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended and thus robbed the court of jurisdiction?
The 2nd respondent finally contended that the court assuming jurisdiction in the matter was tantamount to interfering in the internal affairs of a political party and which it was disentitled to do under relevant provisions of the Electoral Act and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Counsel to the 2nd respondent ( the Labour party) and learned S.A.N supplied superfluous judicial authorities to support his position.
The applicant’s counsel adopted the three issues as proposed by the 2nd respondent and on his part, cited authorities in support of the applicant’s case.
The Honourable court after adopting the three issues for determination, went ahead to evaluate them one after the other. The first issue was whether Mr Everest Nnaji the applicant was an aspirant capable of being excluded from the Labour party’s gubernatorial primaries held on 4th August, 2022 and thus had the locus standi to institute the action.
According to the honourable court, since there existed evidence of payment of the sum of 25 million naira as cost of the nomination form (EC13B) as well as a membership card, all showing substantial interest on the part of the applicant to participate in the governorship primaries of the party, it was wrong not to see him as an aspirant within the meaning of section 152 of the Electoral Act 2022. Citing some authorities, the court ruled that the applicant Mr Everest Nnaji alias Odengene was an aspirant within the meaning of section 152 of the Electoral Act and thus should have been notified of the date, time and venue of the primaries to enable him participate. The court finally ruled that being an aspirant in the election, the applicant possessed the requisite locus standi to institute the action. Holding otherwise the court maintained amounted to denying the applicant the right to fair hearing which is constitutionally guaranteed.
Before reaching the decision, the honourable court found as of fact that there was no evidence that any other person other than the applicant purchased the party’s nomination form for the gubernatorial primaries.
On issue no 1, it is imperative to examine the court’s own findings of fact after evaluating the evidence placed before it as well as arguments of counsel on both sides. Counsel for the 2nd respondent ( the Labour party) in his argument contended that the amount paid by the applicant which exceeded the official amount( 15 million naira ) charged by the party for its nomination form was a bribe done in contravention of the party’s electoral guidelines as well as the Electoral Act 2022. The learned counsel further contended that the amount which was paid with the name ‘Odengene Air Shuttle Services Ltd’ could not have been valid for the purpose of a nomination form having offended the express provision of section 43(2) of the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020 and which prohibits the use of a company’s resources to fund political parties or for any political purpose.
The learned counsel further contended that any agreement to make the applicant a sole gubernatorial candidate even if made, was illegal and offended the provisions of the Electoral Act which empowered political parties to make electoral guidelines for all aspirants and not for any one individual. In any event the learned Senior Advocate argued that the purported agreement and its terms and conditions were not placed before the court for inspection.
Despite the arguments of the 2nd respondent’s counsel, it is interesting to note that the court in coming to the conclusion that the applicant was an aspirant in the election within the contemplation of section 152 of the Electoral Act, agreed totally with him that the content of the agreement between the 2nd respondent ( the Labour party)and Odengene as well as its terms and conditions, were neither known nor produced for the inspection of the court.
The questions which arise are; how come the court by mere sighting of what it considered a nomination form (which the party denied as coming from it) as well as evidence of payment of the sum of #25 million without more, conclude that it constituted an agreement capable of being enforced by the court even when its content, terms and conditions weren’t known or produced before the court? Is the applicant’s production of a document purporting to be a nomination form and which cost #25 million naira( far above the cost of the party’s nomination form)not sufficient proof that the money if paid to the party, was for a different purpose since a political party is disentitled under the law, to charge discriminatory fees for its nomination form? Is Odengene Air Shuttle Services Ltd a natural person capable of contesting a gubernatorial election even if the payment did not offend the provisions of the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020? If the only evidence the applicant had to show that he was an aspirant was payment of #25 million to the party as well as an agreement which was not produced before the court, what was the basis for holding that the applicant was an aspirant having a locus standi to institute the action?
On issue no 2 which was the non joinder of Hon. Chijioke Edeoga as a necessary party in the suit, the court ruled that the applicant did not anywhere in his affidavit or originating summons, challenge the candidature of Hon. Chijioke Edeoga and thus needed not join him in the suit. The court also ruled that the applicant not seeking any relief from Hon. Chijioke Edeoga was under no obligation to join him in the suit adding that no where in the applicant’s affidavit was the name Chijioke Edeoga mentioned. The court went on to conclude that it had been held in a plethora of cases that the joinder or non joinder of a party in a suit does not rob the court of jurisdiction. It is however worthy of note that the court did not dispute the fact that Hon. Chijioke Edeoga as the gubernatorial candidate of the Labour party, already recognized by the independent National Electoral Commission INEC, was a necessary party.
The questions which arise are; if the applicant Odengene is not challenging the candidature of Chijioke Edeoga as stated by the court, why were the parties in court? Could a plaintiff or applicant avoid the joinder of a necessary party in a matter by simply avoiding the mention of his name in his process? How come the court was quick to posit that denying the applicant Odengene the right to be heard on the ground of lack of locus standi amounted to denial of his constitutional right to fair hearing but refused to acknowledge that the non joinder of Chijioke Edeoga a necessary party in a matter directly affecting him, was of serious consequence and had implications for his own constitutional right to fair hearing? Is Chijioke Edeoga not covered by the same constitution?
It would be recalled that the court had earlier found as of fact that only the applicant Everest Nnaji purchased the nomination form of the Labour party in Enugu State as there was no evidence that anyone else did. The question is; How could there be such evidence if Chijioke Edeoga was not made a party in the suit to enable him show the court that he was the first and in fact the only one who legitimately obtained the nomination form of the party after the withdrawal of the placeholder from the race?
On issue no 3 which is on court’s interference with the internal affairs of the party, the court held that it had the right to interfere under section 84(14) of the Electoral Act. That section clearly states that only an aspirant and not a mere member of a political party may apply to the court for redress.
Now the greatest shocker of all time. Hon. Justice N. E. Maha of the Federal High Court after adjudicating on the matter brought before her, went on a frolic of her own to meddle in the validity of substitution or replacement of the 2nd respondent’s placeholder who withdrew from the gubernatorial race, something none of the parties canvassed before her.
Doing so, she held that the replacement process or substitution did not follow due process certain conditions having not been met. She later cited authorities tending to establish that the substitution process which threw up Chijioke Edeoga as a replacement was irregular even when no evidence at all was led on the issue and when the issue was not mentioned either in the address or the affidavit of any of the parties. Not yet done, Justice Maha’s court went ahead to conclude that no fresh primary election was held in Enugu on 4th August 2022 even when the applicant Odengene admitted in several paragraphs of his affidavit that there was a primary election on that date and from which he was allegedly excluded.
The questions are; by bringing up on her own the issue of substitution or replacement of the gubernatorial candidate of the Labour party in Enugu State, citing authorities to that effect and making a finding of fact, was Hon. Justice Maha not descending into the arena of conflict and overstepping her bounds as an impartial judicial arbiter?
This is a very pertinent question because by holding that the Labour party’s placeholder substitution process was irregular, the court practically attempted to disqualify both the applicant and Chijioke Edeoga from replacing the placeholder since the issue of irregularity of substitution or replacement should have first been sorted out.
Whose interest was Justice M. N. Maha really serving if she embarked on such a reckless voyage the outcome of which would be unfavourable to all the parties before her? If the court found as of fact that the 2nd respondent’s placeholder replacement process did not follow due process, even when the issue was not before it, how come it ordered the conduct of another primary election to produce a candidate who would emerge from an already flawed process? Why should the 2nd respondent ( the Labour party) waste its time to conduct another primary election if the court had already held that the placeholder substitution process upon which the primaries could be founded is irregular? Can anyone put something on nothing and expect it to stand?
Many analysts have refused to see the terribly perverse judgement of the Federal High Court Abuja especially as it concerns the meddlesomeness of the presiding judge; Hon. Justice M. N. Maha on the issue of replacement or substitution of the Enugu Labour party’s gubernatorial placeholder as a mere gaffe coming from a pitiably ignorant judge as there could be more than meet the eye. The conclusion of most analysts in Enugu unfortunately is that Hon. Justice Maha was acting a script written by the Enugu State Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi who is generally believed to be fronting the pawn Odengene just to destabilize the Labour party in the state and pave way for his PDP candidate to win in the coming election. This fact has never been denied by the Governor or any of his aides as his long drawn determination to stop Chijioke Edeoga, believed to be the most popular candidate in the race is incontestable.
The exponents of this conspiracy theory are therefore of the opinion that by raising the issue of placeholder substitution, the court intended to have both the applicant and Chijioke Edeoga disqualified but could not do so as the issue was not before it.
Even though as a legal practitioner of many years standing with enormous reverence for the hallowed judicial bench, and who will not under any circumstances have anyone rubbish that sanctuary of justice, I find it extremely difficult not to believe what is being bandied around against Hon. Justice Maha of the Federal High Court Abuja taking into account her horribly perverse judgement.
Although is not a crime for a judge not to know the law, it is unheard of for a judicial officer to abandon issues brought before her to personally raise and pursue all by herself new issues, arguing them herself, supplying authorities herself and making a determination without the contribution of the parties or their legal representatives.
It is thus my humble conclusion that Hon. Justice M. N. Maha of the Federal High Court Abuja by reason of the unreasonableness , rascality and absurdity she demonstrated in the case under reference, is unworthy of a place at the Nigerian bench and should be hurriedly disengaged by the National Judicial Council before she causes more harm. That is if she is not already one of the 15 Judges being probed by that body. Her perverse conduct as eloquently expressed in the judgment, does not speak well of the image of the judiciary as a beacon of integrity, impartiality, trust and hope for the common man. There is always an urgent need to remove a bad egg in order not to contaminate the rest. This ought to be done urgently and in the public interest.
* Chukwulobe Onovo, a public affairs commentator contributed this piece from Enugu.