obi Soniyi, Onyebuchi Ezigbo and Alex Enumah in Abuja and Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt
The judiciary would appear to have descended into an arena of political conflicts as two divisions of the Federal High Court engage in a fight for supremacy, delivering four contradictory rulings within two days centering on the repeat National Convention of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) holding today in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital.
While Justice Ibrahim Watila of the Port Harcourt Division ruled emphatically yesterday that the party’s convention being organised by the Ahmed Makarfi-led National Caretaker Committee should go on, ordering the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the Department of State Services (DSS) and the police to provide legal cover for the exercise, Justice Okon Abang of the Abuja Division barred the convention from holding.
The two judges had on Monday delivered contradictory rulings with the same effect on the subject matter.
The PDP had become polarised following the 21 May, 2016 National Convention held in Port Harcourt, which sacked the Modu Sheriff-led National Executive Committee (NEC) and replaced it with the seven-man Makarfi National Caretaker Committee, with a mandate to organise another convention within 90 days.
But both camps instituted a litany of suits at the Federal High Court, creating the prevailing situation which concerned legal authorities regretted had brought ridicule and shame to the judiciary.
As the two divisions are of coordinate jurisdiction, the disputants have decided to pick and choose which order they would obey. The Makarfi committee said yesterday that the convention would proceed today without fail as ordered by Justice Watila, preferring to ignore the rulings of Justice Abang that not only suspended the exercise on Monday but ordered INEC, DSS and the police to stop it from holding.
Whilst it was unclear which of the orders the DSS and the police would obey, INEC said yesterday that it was on standby to give effect to the rulings of Justice Watila.
The Deputy Director of Voter Education and Publicity of INEC, Mr. Nick Dazang, told journalists on telephone that while the commission had been served the Port Harcourt Division judgment, it was yet to be served the Abuja Division judgment.
“As soon as it (the commission) is served the Abuja High Court judgment, it will take a decision. In the meantime, and following the Port Harcourt judgment, our monitoring staff are on standby,” he said.
Justice Watila Recognises Makarfi, Revalidates Convention
Justice Watila in his ruling yesterday declared that the National Caretaker Committee of the PDP is the executive authority in all matters concerning the party and that today’s National Convention of the party in Port Harcourt is in line with the July 4 judgment of his court which validated the May 21, 2016 National Convention.
He, therefore, ordered INEC to monitor the convention. He also ordered the Inspector General of Police (IG), the Director General of DSS, the Rivers State Commissioner of Police and the Rivers State Director of DSS to provide security at the convention.
The decisions of the court were contained in its judgment in suit no: FHC/PH/CS/585/2016 between Senator Ben Obi (plaintiff) on behalf of the National Convention Planning Committee of the PDP, and the IG, state commissioner of police, the DSS, the state director of DSS and INEC (as defendants).
Justice Watila noted that the July 4 judgment of his court had not been upturned by any appellate court and so was valid and subsisting.
A mild drama, however, played out in the court as the judge was about to deliver his judgment.
A lawyer, who gave his name as T. A. Damiari, rose to get the attention of the court that he represented a party seeking to be joined in the suit.
But the judge said he had not seen any process to that effect and would go on to deliver his judgment.
When Damiari insisted on being joined, Watila ordered the lawyer to sit down as he would not entertain any attempt to ridicule his court.
“Please sit down. You cannot arrest my judgment. This is not a kangaroo court. Neither am I a politician,” Watila said.
While delivering his judgment, Watila also noted that the defendants in the suit were appropriately served but failed to enter appearance in the suit, adding that that would not be an excuse for him not to rule on the application.
Watila declared that the July 4 judgment of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt recognised the May 21 National Convention which produced the National Caretaker Committee and that it had not been appealed against or set aside, hence it behoves the court to protect that judgment.
“It is necessary for the defendants to carry out their respective functions at the 17th August, 2016 event,” he declared.
The court stressed that all the defendants were clearly and without dispute bound to obey the judgment.
“This court will not shy away from protecting the sanctity of its judgment. The court has held that the appointment of the PDP National Caretaker Committee is valid,” he said.
He stated: “In view of the subsisting judgment of this Honourable Court in Suit No: FHC/PH /CS /524/2016, PDP V. Senator Ali Modu Sheriff and others, the defendants cannot lawfully interfere or prevent the plaintiff from organising/holding the planned National Convention of the PDP to hold in Port Harcourt on August 17th 2016.”
In granting the originating summons, Watila declared that the defendants were duly served all the processes of the suit filed by the Secretary of the National Caretaker Committee, but chose not to contest the facts.
He stated that court records indicated that the proceedings and order of 10th August, 2016 and the interlocutory injunction of 15th August, 2016 were served on the defendants with proof of service.
Addressing journalists after the judgment, counsel to Senator Obi, Dejo Lamikanra (SAN), said the ruling gave effect to the judgment of July 4 of the Federal High Court.
Lamikanra said: “There is only one judgment with regards to the validity of the convention which held on the 21st of May in Port Harcourt and that judgment is the judgment of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt given on the 4th of July. That judgment is final and it has completely determined questions on the validity of the convention and the validity of the decisions of that convention.
“A ruling or an opinion of a court of coordinate jurisdiction which suggests anything else must be discountenanced. It is only the Court of Appeal that can set aside the judgment of the Federal High Court.”
Justice Abang Supports Sheriff, Bars Convention
But sitting in Abuja, Justice Abang while stopping the convention, went ahead to threaten to deal with the organisers of the convention if they refuse to comply with his orders.
He said his decision and that of his colleague in Port Harcourt were capable of ridiculing the judiciary and laboured to extricate himself by blaming his colleague sitting in Port Harcourt.
The judge contended that the orders made by his colleague in Port Harcourt were not capable of neutralising orders made by him, adding that he also lacked the powers to neutralise their orders because they are courts of coordinate jurisdiction. None is superior to the other.
Ruling on a motion of interlocutory injunction brought by Sheriff, seeking to stop the convention by the Makarfi Caretaker Committee, Justice Abang berated the defendants particularly Obi for what he considered as flagrant disregard for his court.
The judge in the restraining order stopped the PDP from conducting the convention and restrained INEC from supervising or monitoring the convention slated for today or any other planned date pending the determination of the substantive matter before him.
He also restrained the party from presenting or sponsoring any person or holding any convention that would produce a new chairman of the party.
On Monday, the judge issued an order suspending the convention.
He also directed the IG to enforce the order while the plaintiff was also directed to complete form 48 and serve the parties particularly INEC.
Abang, while delivering ruling on the motion, stated that there was need to take a decision that would ensure the safety of life and property as well as prevent the breakdown of law and order.
The judge held that the unfortunate situation that the court found itself could have been avoided if the Port Harcourt judge had drawn the attention of the chief judge to the suit when it was filed on the 9th of August.
He stated that the Federal High Court was just one court with several divisions for administrative purposes with the intention of delivering justice to all Nigerians and as such, no division was superior to the other.
Abang claimed that he was first assigned the case by the chief judge and as such had jurisdiction over the matter, adding that the Port Harcourt division should not have entertained jurisdiction and thereby gave orders that were conflicting.
He said the Port Harcourt division could not make an order neutralising the orders made by the Abuja division as a court of coordinate jurisdiction.
Abang warned that any party that failed to comply with the decision of the court would have itself to blame.
He also warned that nobody by his conduct should bring himself into confrontation with the court, stressing that nobody was above the law.
He adjourned till 7th of September, 2016 for the hearing of the substantive matter.
Sheriff Petitions NJC to Probe Port Harcourt Division
Sheriff has called on the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN) and the National Judicial Commission (NJC) to investigate the activities of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt Division before they throw the country into anarchy.
Sheriff, who expressed his frustrations at seeking justice and stop the PDP convention he considered to be illegal, said that he had realised that President Muhammadu Buhari was right in his critique of the judiciary.
He alleged that as part of a ploy to frustrate his case, the registry staff of the Port Harcourt Division ran away from their duty post and kept his lawyers searching all over the place to enable them file their papers.
Speaking at a press conference in Abuja yesterday, Sheriff alleged that the registry staff disappeared from their duty post when his lawyers went to file his defence.
He said he was ready to quit the stage even if it was only a segment of the party members that did not want him but that the process must be right.
He said that he would not recognise the national convention being held today in Port Harcourt or anyone elected at the event, adding that he was ready to pursue the court case until justice was done
“I will not recognise any of these gatherings. I will pursue the rule of law until justice is done,” Sheriff said.
The July 4th judgment delivered by Justice Muhammed Liman recognised the caretaker committee led by Makarfi as the authentic acting national chairman of the PDP and also said that the May 21 convention was legally constituted.
Convention on Course, Says Wike
Chairman of the PDP National Convention Planning Committee and Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, has said the party’s convention slated for today is on course despite the ruling of Justice Abang.
Addressing journalists in a pre-convention briefing yesterday evening in Port Harcourt, Wike noted that the Abuja court merely issued an interlocutory order after the Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt had given a judgment that the convention was valid.
He stated that the judgment of the Port Harcourt Division revalidated the court’s earlier judgment of July 4 in a suit of which ousted Sheriff who was a defendant.
“We stand by the judgment of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt on July 4, which has not been set aside. We are not disobeying any court order,” Wike said.
He also said his committee was set to organise a transparent and successful national convention of the party and described fears of imposition of candidates as baseless.
“Aspirants have been screened, the venue is ready and everything is set for the convention,” he said.
PDP Board of Trustees endorses Convention
Also yesterday, the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the PDP declared its support for the convention.
Speaking during a solidarity visit to Wike at the Government House, Port Harcourt, Chairman of the BoT, Wali Jubrin, said the board members at their pre-convention meeting endorsed the contributions of the governor to re-position the party.
The BoT stated that the appointment of the governor as the chairman of the National Convention Planning Committee was commendable as it has helped to set up a worthwhile convention.
Jubrin said all the leaders of the PDP are in Rivers State for the convention.
Responding, Wike said that members of the PDP must make sacrifices to ensure that the party moved forward in the interest of the party.