The Supreme Court yesterday ended a 14-month leadership squabble within the country’s main opposition — the Peoples Democratic Party — and gave it a new lease of life ahead of an important general election in 2019.
Senator Ahmed Makarfi, the former governor of Kaduna State and his counterpart from Borno, Senator Alli-Modu Sheriff, have been locked in a protracted legal battle for the soul of the party, forcing the main opposition to lose critical elections, including governorship seats in Edo and Ondo states and legislative seats in many others.
Across the country, the opposition party has been grappling with a loss of membership to President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) after it suffered an embarrassing defeat in the 2015 presidential election under the leadership of former President Goodluck Jonathan and had to face the ruling party’s crackdown on corruption. The campaign trains of selected PDP candidates in the affected states lost steam as rival candidates arose within the party to challenge the credibility of the faction that nominated them for the election. In many of the instances, as was the case in Ondo, the litigations were resolved few days to the election, giving candidates in rival political parties a better chance of winning the elections.
The unanimous decision of the apex court read by Justice Bode Rhodes Vivour yesterday declared Markafi the authentic chairman of the PDP and upturned the judgment given earlier by the Court of Appeal in Port Harcourt, which declared Alhaji Sheriff chairman of the party.
Comments trailing the judgment agreed that it could put the PDP on a ‘recovery mode’ and restore many of the party’s prodigal members, especially as the ruling APC has its own share of internal challenges.
They remarked that Nigeria was heading towards a one-party state and the apex court judgment would rally the opposition once again and save the country’s democracy.
Former Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, described it as “the work of God” who used the Supreme Court to heal the wounds of the PDP family. He noted that the judgment would usher in an effective opposition that would contribute meaningfully to governance and bring the country out of the current recession, as well as contain various agitations.
Calling for unity among party members, former Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Mr. Olisa Metuh appealed to members who defected to the APC prior to the 2015 general elections to return and help rebuild the party. Metuh called on members to discountenance mistakes of the past and build “a new PDP” around the former President, Jonathan.
“This is a victory for and triumph of democracy,’ says former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Emeka Ihedioha, in a text message to The Guardian. “It is a celebration of the enthronement of light over forces of darkness. Long live Nigeria,” he said.
The judgment of the three-man panel held that Makarfi’s appeal has merit and was subsequently upheld. The panel also awarded a cost of N250,000 against the first respondent, Sheriff. The court in the judgment, held that the national convention of the party held on May 21, 2016, was validly convened and in line with the PDP constitution. It also agreed with the appellant that the national convention is the supreme organ of the party, which controls every other organ. The justices unanimously held that the national convention was in order, when it set up a caretaker committee, having dissolved the national executive committee. The apex court also held that the dissolution of the National Executive Committee at the convention was in order, since the national deputy chairman, who presided has the constitutional backing to act in the capacity he did. “Was the caretaker committee properly constituted?” the court asked. It went on to respond that going by the party’s constitution, it was properly constituted.
The justices expressed worry that Senator Sheriff, who submitted himself to the national convention to seek election into the office of the national chairman, came with a half-filled nomination form and was consequently screened out. The judgment read that going by the report of the electoral screening committee, Sheriff was disqualified on the ground that he did not have PDP membership card, and he also failed to produce a three-year tax clearance and voter card as required by law.
The court noted that in line with Section 35 (3) of the PDP Constitution, a national officer could be removed without a vote of no confidence. “The party can remove any member who engages in act of dishonesty or contrary to its guideline.” It went further to state that any member of the party who commits any of the offences in section 58 (1) can be sanctioned, and that the national convention has enormous power to decide on the party’s policies. It added that the appeal court was wrong to have arrived in that perverse conclusion without reference to the party constitution.
The judgment further read that immediately he was screened out by the electoral committee, Sheriff sought to cancel the election and when the attempt failed, he resorted to court actions as part of a desperate attempt to perpetuate himself in office. The apex court noted that in the process, Senator Sheriff had filed 10 suits in different courts within one year, an effort described by court as an “infantile desperation.” It held that that those suits “would end up gathering dust in the judicial archives of the court.”
While admonishing politicians to stop engaging in “forum shopping”, the apex court held that heads of courts should always assign cases of the same nature and content to a single judge so as to avoid getting conflicting judgments.
There was apprehension among the factions prior to the judgment. The courtroom was filled to its capacity as party members and supporters awaited the Supreme Court verdict.
As soon as the judgment was delivered, a faction loyal to Makarfi broke into wild jubilation, waving a PDP flag and chanting the party slogan.
Among the PDP faithful in court were Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State, as well as former Governor of Kano State, Ibrahim Shekarau. Other party chieftains included Senator Ahmed Markafi, Senator Ben Obi, Bode George, Dayo Adeyeye, Jerry Gana, former Deputy Speaker Ihedioha, former National Publicity Secretary, Metuh and Chief Tom Ikimi. Sheriff was, however, absent from yesterday’s sitting. The apex court had reserved judgment till yesterday in the leadership tussle.
The legal battle started from the Federal High Court, Abuja and then, Port Harcourt, where there were conflicting judgments between an Abuja Division of the Federal High Court and the Port Harcourt Division. The Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt division, in a later judgment validated the Sheriff faction as the authentic faction.
But not satisfied with the decision of the court, the Makarfi faction approached the Supreme Court, seeking to upturn the judgment of the court of appeal. A five-man panel of justices of the apex court headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, had reserved judgment after striking out an application that sought to abort hearing on the appeal that was lodged by the Markafi-led faction of the party. Sheriff’s faction had challenged Makarfi’s appeal on the ground that Makarfi no longer had the authority to initiate a suit on behalf of the party. Sheriff and his group failed to persuade the apex court not to hear the appeal.
The panel, in a ruling that was delivered by the CJN, granted the Markafi-led faction leave to challenge the appeal court verdict that recognised Sheriff as leader of the party. The CJN held that under section 27 of the Supreme Court Rules, the appellants had a period of three months to appeal against the judgment. The apex court held that the notice of appeal was properly filed in April, and that all the processes by the appellants were duly filed and served. “We find merit in the application. Leave is hereby granted to the appellants to appeal on grounds of mixed laws and facts,” the CJN had ruled.