Taraba Guber: For Ishaku, Alhassan, Supreme Court Holds The Ace

As the battle over who takes charge of the governance of Taraba State continues to rage, ANDREW OJIH examines the verdict of the Court of Appeal which upturned the removal of Governor Darius Ishaku within the backdrop of the appeal by Senator Aisha Alhassan before the Supreme Court.

Last week, the legal battle over the governorship seat in Taraba State incidentally shifted ground to the Supreme Court. Senator Aisha Jumai Alhassan of the All Progressive Congress (APC) has taken the case on appeal to the apex court. She is challenging the verdict of the Court of Appeal which reversed the judgement of the governorship election petitions tribunal that nullified the election of Darius Ishaku as governor of the state.

The verdict of the appellate court on Taraba governorship tussle, coupled with another one bordering on Abia State gubernatorial seat delivered by the same court ended the year 2015 on a dramatic note. While somewhere in Jalingo, supporters of Governor Ishaku shut down the state capital in a frenzy of jubilation, Umuahia, the state capital of the South Eastern state wore a gloomy look in the camp of Gobernor Okezie Ikpeazu.

Of these two judicial pronouncement, the appellate court judgement on Taraba elicited much public interest. It seemed to have dashed the faith of thousands of Tarabans and, indeed, some Nigerians who were waiting curiously to see the state producing the first female governor. Alhassan met a tall brick wall on her way to the Taraba Government House which legal experts are wondering whether she would be able to climb over. For Ishaku, it was smiling all the way to the New Year together with his teaming supporters.

Presently, the last fight is in the highest court in the land and the watchword is ‘finish and go’, as there is no other platform to appeal the case after their lordships at the apex court would have taken their decision on Alhassan’s appeal. But considering the changing pattern of the legal tide in the matter, can Alhassan get her groove back at the Supreme Court? In attempting to answer this question, it would be better to take a look at the decision of the appellate court.

Likened to a football match, the political battle now stands at 1-1 draw. Ishaku came from behind after suffering a one goal down at the tribunal to register an equalizer against Alhassan at the appellate court. On November 7, 2015, the governorship election petitions tribunal sitting in Abuja had nullified Ishaku’s election and ordered the swearing in of Alhassan of the APC on the ground that the governor was not a validly nominated candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and therefore was not qualified to contest in the election ab initio.

The tribunal’s judgement sparked up a debate among legal experts who were sharply divided into two schools of thought. Some contended that the verdict of the tribunal was in order, while many maintained that it was the peak of judicial rascality which, if not reversed, could affect the country’s vibrant and promising democracy adversely.

Dissatisfied with the verdict, Ishaku approached the appellate with an appeal, challenge the decision of the tribunal. Confidently, he told his supporters that he was certain the appellate court would upturned the tribunal’s decision which allegedly stood the law on its head. Simultaneously, Alhassan also ran to the Court of Appeal to file a cross appeal, a development described by state the Commissioner for Justice, Yusufu Akirikwen as outright demonstration of lack of faith in the tribunal’s ruling. She challenged the decision of the tribunal that the Ishaku’s election was not marred by substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act.

But after all the legal fireworks at the appellate court, the five-member panel of justices sitting in Abuja upturned the verdict of the election tribunal. Their lordships ruled that the method of nomination of a candidate ought not to have been one of the grounds for removing an incumbent governor. In a unanimous judgement read by Justice Abdul Aboki, the five-man panel of justices held that the PDP primary which produced Governor Ishaku was a pre-election matter that ought not to have been entertained by the Tribunal.

The court also said that only the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and members of the PDP who participated in the primary election had the right to complain. The court held that whether the primary of a political party was done right or not cannot be subject of an election petition because it is purely a preselection matter meant for the ordinary court.

The appellate court said that the constitution clearly spelt out that until a candidate has been indicted by a court of law, or is known to have a criminal record, or has certain degree of health condition, among others, such a person cannot be determined by a tribunal as not being qualified as a candidate. Aboki said the inability of a political party to conduct a conclusive primaries was clearly a pre-election issue which the tribunal has no jurisdiction on. He said the important question about Section 85 of the Electoral Act was whether the INEC, which the section was made for, was complaining about the candidature of Ishaku.

“If INEC does not see any reason to complain, can the first and second respondent be seen complaining loudly? I have found in this case that the first and second respondent have no right to challenge the emergence of the PDP governorship candidate since none of them is a member of the PDP”, the judge stated.

According the appellate court, what was most important as a question was whether the appellant was a member of PDP and was sponsored by the party for the gubernatorial race. The court ruled that Ishaku was validly nominated candidate of PDP for the election and he participated in the election. It noted that in the eyes of the law, Alhassan and APC have no right to challenge the election in which Ishaku emerged, since none of them is a member of PDP.

According to the court, the decision of the Tribunal not to take into consideration the testimony of the appellant witnesses that the PDP primary election was shifted to Abuja because of security situation was perverse. Accordingly, it set aside the decision of the Tribunal. “If the Tribunal decides that a candidate elected at an election was not validly nominated, it can nullify the victory, it should order fresh election and not declaring the petitioner the winner of the poll”, Justice Aboki declared.

The court maintained that the tribunal erred in law when it declared the APC candidate who scored the second highest number of votes the winner of the election. The court said it was a gross misdirection for the tribunal to declare the APC candidate winner of the election on the basis that she secured the second highest number of votes. Allowing Ishaku’s appeal, the court summersaulted the judgement of the tribunal and held that Ishaku was validly elected as Governor of Taraba State and ordered that his certificate of return remains valid.

The five member panel of justices, however, dismissed arguments by the appellant, Ishaku, that the tribunal should not have accepted the statements of the witnesses because they were not properly signed. Ishaku had argued that the tribunal should have struck out the petition. But the appellate court held that the statements upon examination were properly signed and stamped by the secretary to the tribunal who statutorily was the head of the registry of the Tribunal. The court held that the petitioner, Alhassan fully complied with all statutory stipulations for filing of statement of witnesses and that the Tribunal was right to have accepted them.

The court also argued that it will amount to great injustice if the petitioner is held responsible for the mistake of the registry of the tribunal. Also, the court dismissed arguments by the appellant that the reliefs sought by the petitioner are incongruent. The appellant had argued that the petitioner cannot be claiming that the election was marred by malpractices and at the same time, asking to be declared winner of the election.

Reacting to the judgement, Senator Alhassan announced that she was heading for the Supreme Court to challenge the verdict. Her counsel, Mahmud Magaji (SAN) who spoke to journalists shortly after the verdict was delivered in Abuja, said, “Their lordships have gone through our various speeches and have come up with their own ruling and we feel that we have the right to proceed to the Supreme Court”.

On his part, governor Ishaku in reaction to the judgement said he would not undermine the right of the APC and its candidate to seek further appeal. Speaking through his through his, Kanu Agabi (SAN), the governor stressed that the right of appeal was what brought them to the court and the right of appeal is still what will take them to the Supreme Court. Ishaku, who further spoke to newsmen shortly after he returned to the state from Abuja advised senator Aisha and her supporters to concede to defeat and join the wining team.

He told them that he will run an all inclusive government that would carry every Taraban along to enable him achieve his rescue agenda. He noted that his decision to stopped his party supporters from jubilating over his recent victory was to ensure peace and order in the state. The governor added that he has confident in the judiciary, stressing that the Supreme Court would do justice to case at the end of it all.

The appellate court verdict has, however, led to a media tirade between supporters of the governor and those of the Minister. Ahlasssan’s camp are alleging that the appellate court ruling on Taraba guber promoted godfatherism. A group known as Taraba indigenes club support for Senator Alhassan said the appellate court judgement which returned Darius Ishaku of as duly elected governor of the state was a prove of “man pass man”.

Speaking on the verdict, the coordinator of the group, Aaron Wanchebe said that their lordship, by their ruling, disappointed the people of the state and indeed Nigerians who depend solidly on the judiciary for justice. “To be frank with you, we were all disappointed by the ruling. We have been following the entire scenario, the PDP did not conduct Primaries,because the party imposed a candidate on the people of the state”.

But the PDP in the state lambasted the APC, saying instead of conceding defeat and joining the wining train, Senator Alhassan and her party supporters were busy criticizing the ruling of the appellate court. The state chairman of the PDP, Mr. Victor Bala Kona said Alhassan and her party, the APC, were only showing its desperation in the face of obvious defeat by the PDP at the court. “As I speak with you, the APC is only being jittery and desperate, because it knows that if the court orders for fresh election, they can’t win an election in a predominantly PDP state like Taraba”, he said.

As it is, pundits are watching with ecclesiastic passion to see the outcome of the legal tussle bordering on the Taraba governorship seat which has gone before the Supreme Court. They say they are curiously waiting to see the legal ‘abracadabra’ Senator Alhassan’s team of lawyers would perform at the apex court. The thinking is that the appellate court verdict which reversed the judgement of the tribunal was clear on points of law as it was well fashioned. But since the apex court is a superior court with more experienced justices, it is still daisy for one to preempt or undermine Alhassan’s appeal, just as Ishaku himself has pointed out.

-Leadership ‎

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