EMEKA NZE juxtaposes the views that have trailed last Friday’s Justice Okon Abang’s judgement in the Imo West senatorial election debacle
Abang orders INEC
The last we heard about Justice Okon Abang was when the management of the Federal High Court led by the chief judge, Justice Ibrahim Auta, redeployed 11 judges, including Justice Mohammed Liman of the Port Harcourt division of the court and his counterpart in the Abuja division, Justice Okon Abang.
In a circular then addressed to all judges of the court, it was announced that Justice Liman had been moved to Enugu division while Justice Abang was transferred to Asaba division.
This was not unconnected to the conflicting judgements by the courts of coordinate jurisdiction on the then crisis of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which experts said subjected the judiciary to public odium and portrayed it in bad light.
Since last Friday, controversial Justice Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja has resurfaced again after delivering judgement on the Imo West election debacle, which directed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue certificate of return to Rochas Okorocha.
The judgment has opened a floodgate of criticisms with only a pocket of stakeholders hailing the verdict.
While a former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Imo state, Prof Francis Dike said, since “the learned judge acknowledged two separate but concurrent issues in the case but regrettably failed to reconcile them”, it amounted to miscarriage of justice.
Others noted the judgement would open the floodgate for impunity in the electoral process, while some people recalled that Abang has lived up to his billing as a “cash and carry judge.”
Others held that the Federal High Court, Abuja lacked jurisdiction on the matter and should have referred the matter to the election petition tribunal since it was a post election matter.
Yet there is also a few stakeholders who have hailed the judgement.
INEC, others react
After the judgement, INEC, a principal respondent in the suit, did not delay in issuing a statement in which it more or less showed its angst.
According to INEC, “If electoral impunity is allowed to flourish, any individual can harass, intimidate and put the commission’s officers under duress, procure a favourable declaration and be rewarded with a certificate of return.”
In saying this, the electoral umpire noted that its overriding consideration is the safety of its ad-hoc staff, electoral officers and collation/returning officers.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in Imo West, Jones Onyereri, described the judgement as ‘slaughtering of justice’.
Expectedly, the governorship candidate of the Action Alliance in the state and a son in-law to Okorocha, Uche Nwosu, described the ruling as a defender of constitution and democracy.
Speaking with journalists in Owerri, the Imo state capital, Nwosu said the judiciary had continued to ‘preserve our democracy.”
He said, “The judiciary has shown that it is the last hope of the common man. The landmark judgement has shown that no matter how hard you try to suppress the truth, justice will always prevail.”
But in a statement by Director General, Jones Onyereri Campaign Organisation, Eze Ugochukwu, shortly after the judgment was delivered, accused Abang of bias in the matter.
Onyereri, the PDP candidate in the election while promising he would appeal the judgment described it as a ‘nauseating decision’.
He accused Justice Abang of intimidating and harassing defence lawyers while allowing the plaintiff to have “a field day in court.”
The statement read in part, “We are not surprised by the decision of the Abuja High Court 7, presided over by Justice Okon Abang.
“Right from the commencement of the ex-parte application by Owelle Rochas Okorocha against INEC, the inevitability of the judgement was obvious.
“The handling of the case from the start, left much to be desired, as issues of obvious bias were not hidden, including suspension and abridgement of rules of court, overt intimidation of defence lawyers, and harassment of same; whereas the plaintiff lawyer was allowed a field day in court.
“The reality is that the decision came from a court of first instance. “Therefore, the decision stands to be tested at the appellate courts while the trial at the tribunal goes on.”
Also an elder statesman and indigene of Owerri, Prince Bob Njemanze, in what he called “my layman’s view,” had this to say about Abang’s judgement, “When is an election process deemed to have been completed? If it is by that “false and forced” declaration, then the courts lack jurisdiction.
“What is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law and how far can they be separated to avoid miscarriage? Abang was just being clever by half. He considered his personal interest above public interest.
“I blame the establishment for not looking inwards for the welfare and wellbeing of judicial officers and still expect justice across bar. The judgement will collapse like pack of cards on appeal.
Issues raised on judgement
A former Attorney General Imo state and Commissioner for Justice, Prof Francis Dike, SAN, in his own response to Abang’s judgement made the following observations:
“The learned judge acknowledged two separate but concurrent issues in the case but regrettably failed to reconcile them. These are: (1) INEC becomes functus officio after announcing a result (2) Duress applied on the Electoral Officer by a candidate on an electoral officer to announce a result in favour of the candidate
“The learned judge treated the second as arbiter by saying it’s a matter for separate consideration when he went on to deal with the first as ratio for his judgment i.e. that INEC having announced a result it cannot deny the result as so to speak it had become functus officio.
“This reasoning is with respect incorrect as the learned judge having adverted to the evidence of duress he with respect ought to have decided whether there was any announcement of result under the law? Should the court not have imported the maxim of non est factum (it’s not my deed) i.e. what is apparent is not real.
“He ought to consider that before applying the first conclusion. Words control or define the mental state of a person conduct. Over 100years ago a man holding his sword said to another “were it not for the assizes I would have run this sword through you’. In suit for assault the court held that the defendant’s words governed his act and he could not be liable for assault.
“The electoral officer said I am announcing this under duress only translates as I’m not doing this as my own. To hold otherwise does not make common sense.
“From above, if he did not announce his result then of course that was also not that of his master INEC. He was hijacked and the most charitable description is to say he was servant albeit unwilling servant of the hijacker who n law should be vicariously the person doing the announcement.
In sum, the law professor said, “My grouse with the judgment is that the court failed to consider both issues before him together but preferred to postpone it and the failure constituted a miscarriage.”
On the other hand Dike held that since it was a post election matter it ought to have been struck out arguing that the Federal High Court, Abuja lacked jurisdiction on the case.
“I’m having the thinking that if the issue is matter of announced result as the judge held then shouldn’t matter of the resultant effect be a matter of tribunal not the high court?
“Abang said INEC announced a result and I think that announcing a result is the trigger for a tribunal, then the judge should have stopped at that point and hold that he hasn’t jurisdiction as its election matter whether counsel raised it or not.”