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INEC And Judicial Landmines [2015 Elections]

LAGOS, Federal Republic of Nigeria. ‘INEC And Judicial Landmines [2015 Elections]’ (Report by Rotimi Akinwumi).

Its emergence on the political scene caught virtually everyone by surprise. On March 4th, a court pronouncement brought into the political arena, officially, a new political party: Young Democratic Party (YDP). According to some media reports on the court case, the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja had increased the number of political parties in the country when he ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue YDP registration certificate, making it one of the officially recognized parties in the country. If the reports were true, the country’s electoral body would have a difficult situation to manage.

Court verdict misinterpreted

The order was contained in the judgment delivered by Justice Ahmed Mohammed in the suit filed by YDP, an association that approached the court last October after the INEC allegedly ignored its application for registration as a political party.

Without seeing a certified copy of the court judgement, some journalists in the country reported that the court had ordered INEC to accommodate YDP in the general elections scheduled for March 28 and April 11. With the said second part of the court order, the electoral body was thrown into the problem of ensuring a reprint of the ballot papers if it chose not to appeal the judgment.

The judge, in ordering the recognition of  YDP, said the party was deemed registered to participate in all elections organised when INEC failed to inform the then political association of its decision not to register it as a political party within 30 days of receiving its application, as required under Section 78 (4) of the Electoral Act, 2010.

According to the document in court, INEC received the association’s application on April 1, 2014, but only notified the applicant of its decision not to register it on September 15, 2014.

The court held that even the said belated letter of the electoral body was an attempt to satisfy exhibits already tendered in court. Justice Mohammed said INEC received completed application of the association on April 1, 2014, and made an attempt to reply on August 13, four months after it received it, when the Electoral Act stipulates that the electoral body shall state reasons / defects of the application within 30 days of the receipt of the application or it shall be deemed registered as a political party.

He held that the plaintiff satisfied all the conditions required for registration and the defendant failed to discharge its obligation. “I am satisfied the plaintiff’s claims succeed and I grant all the reliefs,” he said.

In its originating summons, the party had prayed the court for a declaration that INEC has no reason whatsoever to refuse to issue the plaintiff with its Certificate of Registration being that the plaintiff was deemed registered as a political party by virtue of the provisions of the Electoral Act particularly Section 78 (4), also considering the letter of submission of application dated the March 17, 2014.

Tension in the land

As soon as the order of the court was made, the tension in the political ring rose sharply as the new political party assumed new status of a beautiful “bride” or “devil incarnate”, depending on which side of the divide the observer belonged.

YDP officials, banking on their new registration insisted that INEC must include the party on the ballot for the 2015 general election or in the alternative, postpone the election again to be able to achieve an equilibrium needed.

The new party was really vociferous in its demand that INEC must accommodate its participation in the general elections scheduled for March 28, 2015 and April 11, 2015.

INEC in a dilemma

The confused electoral umpire, which was still battling to save itself from the mess it got into with its desire to have the 2015 elections conducted with the use of Permanent Voter Cards and the controversial Smart Card Reader, was presented with another crisis in form of the new demand by the YDP for inclusion on the ballot paper, even when INEC said it has produced all ballots needed to conduct the elections.

While those who desire further postponement of the election saw an alibi in the YDP; those who resent any further postponement saw the party as the devil’s advocate, working to scuttle the general election.

Some stakeholders were quick to condemn the Judiciary for granting recognition to the new party at this point in time, with not a few seeing it as a covert attempt by the court to prevent the election from holding by creating a problem it knew INEC could possibly not solve before the Election Day.

YDP also did not give room for much doubt about its “destructive mission” as it promptly announced March 26 and 27 for the conduct of its party primaries, whereas, the rescheduled presidential election has been slated for March 28, 2015.

PDP fingered by opposition

Not a few political gladiators blamed the emergence of YDP and its hard stance on moves that could scuttle the general elections, on the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The talk of the town was that the PDP was positioning the new YDP as its next joker in the bid to reschedule this year’s elections again.

The ruling party, which has been robed as the harbinger of crisis in the political arena, was touted as the major unseen hand directing 15 other political parties which are threatening poll boycott should the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) proceed with its plan to use Card Readers during the forthcoming elections.

It was commonly believed that some top shots of PDP promoted YDP all the way until its registration, given the fact that one of the major brains behind YDP is a known hatchet man within the PDP.

The consensus within the rumor circles was that the new party will be used to place legal hurdles before INEC to pave the way for another postponement of the elections, with some going as far as speculating that the new party will soon file an application before a Federal High Court to compel INEC to include it on the ballot paper, if the electoral umpire did not announce in the immediate, its readiness to print another set of ballots with the new party listed on it.

Views in defence of INEC

As much as INEC tried to defend itself against the speculations of its culpability in the move by YDP to scuttle the election, most Nigerians were still not convinced the electoral body knew nothing about the YDP move.

However, some legal luminaries, seeing the dilemma of INEC decided to come to the rescue of the electoral umpire by stating the point of law on the import of the judgement.

Constitutional lawyer, Itse Sagay, one of the first set of Nigerians to speak on the matter, said in his comments that members of the YDP who demanded that INEC either include it on the ballot paper or postpone the election were being sponsored by some unscrupulous elements to scuttle democracy.

He opined that the demand of the new political party was not realistic in under any guise.

In his official reaction, former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja branch, Monday Ubani, said INEC has the right to decide if it can still accommodate the new party between now and March 28, the date of the rescheduled polls due to logistics issue.

He, however, added that if accommodating the new party will clash with issues of national interest, then issue of national interest should supersede that of personal or political party interest.

“If INEC has already printed the ballot papers based on the political parties already in existence, I think nobody can stop it because of the issue of logistics. Election date has been fixed and there is time limit into which electoral process has to run. Remember that INEC released this timetable that we are operating upon since last year,” he said.

Doubts over poll

However, former presidential candidate and founder of the National Action Council (NAC), Olapade Agoro, was a bit pessimistic in his opinion when he expressed doubts that the election might not hold.

While admitting that the court order came ‘damagingly too late’, he said INEC, going ahead with the election despite the court order, will amount to infringing on the court order.

“With the recent pronouncement by an Abuja based Federal High Court giving order to INEC to put the name of Young Democratic Party on the ballot, one is of serious doubt the election will hold as scheduled without infringing on the Court order.”

Misinterpreted verdict

However, a closer look at the content of the court order will prove that contrary to claims by YDP, the Federal High Court, Abuja, did not order INEC to include it in the ballot for the 2015 general elections in the country.

A copy of the judgment, sighted in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/ZRF/2014, delivered on March 4, 2015 showed that the judge only made four orders, which did not include directing INEC to accommodate YDP in the ballot papers for the next elections.

The judge had held as follows: “It is hereby declared that the defendant (INEC) has no reason whatsoever to refuse to issue the plaintiff with its certificate of registration, being that the plaintiff (YDP) was deemed registered as a political party by virtue of the provisions of the Electoral Act, particularly Section 78(4), and also considering the letter of submission of application dated March 17, 2014.

“It is hereby declared that the defendant has no reason whatsoever to refuse to issue the plaintiff with its certificate of registration, being that the plaintiff was deemed registered as a political party by virtue of the provisions of the Electoral Act, particularly Section 78(4), and also considering the letter from the defendant to the plaintiff, dated August 13, 2014 titled: Re: Application for Registration as political party.

“An order is also made directing the defendant to issue the plaintiff with its certificate of registration.

“Parties are to bear their own cost.”

YDP loses steam

The claims by YDP got to the hearing of Justice Ahmed Mohammed, and drew his ire.

The judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja, whose order was being misrepresented by YDP officials took the matter personal when he threatened to charge the national officers of YDP for contempt of court for misrepresenting the judgment of the court.

It is noteworthy that the YDP suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/736/14 was initially against INEC, Peter Fayose, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Rauf Aregbesola, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC), as first to sixth defendants respectively.,

However, the names of the second to sixth defendants were struck out by the court, leaving only INEC.

The court noted that in the judgement it held that “INEC has not discharged its constitutional obligation of informing the plaintiff why it has not been registered as a political party. The effect of INEC’s action as clearly spelt out in Section 78(4) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) is to deem the plaintiff as a duly registered political party.”

Consequently, the court ordered INEC to issue Certificate of Registration to the new political party.

INEC’s appeal

Apparently not satisfied with the judgment, the electoral body approached the same court and filed a notice of appeal and a motion for stay of execution of the judgment, last week where the issue of the conflicting order was tabled.

When the matter came up last Thursday, the presiding judge, Justice Mohammed, did not hide his resentment with the plaintiff, berating them for wrongly misrepresenting the judgment of the court.

Justice Mohammed who was visibly angry said his attention was drawn to a recent press conference held by officials of the YDP where they said the court had ordered INEC to include the name of the party and its logo in the ballot papers and boxes as well as shift election date by six months to enable the party hold its primaries.

“As far as this court is concerned, no such orders were made; the plaintiff (Young Democratic Party) did not seek such prayers and there was no way the court would have granted a relief not sought by a party in a suit.

“I did not grant an order directing INEC to include the name and logo of the plaintiff on the ballot papers and boxes; the court did not ask INEC to shift the election to enable the plaintiff hold its primaries,” Justice Mohammed declared.

“This rumour must be dispelled; those who held the press conference must retract it. It is very unfortunate that this court is portrayed in a negative light by officials of the political party. In the light of this embarrassing situation, I direct the plaintiff’s counsel to investigate the matter and bring those involved in the wicked rumour to court. Failure to produce them on the next adjourned date of March 23, this court will charge the officials of the party for contempt,” the judge ordered.

The court held that before the press conference was held, nobody came for the certified true copy of the judgment, and wondered why the party chose to ridicule the institution of the Federal High Court, and accused it of trying to scuttle the democratic process.

Dismay over reports

Earlier, when the court queried the plaintiff’s counsel, Kelvin Nwufor, if he was aware of the press conference, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria denied knowledge of it.

“My Lord, I was not aware of the said press conference, they did not give me a copy,” Nwufor said, but assured that he would investigate the matter to unearth those behind it” he said to wriggle himself out of the impending hammer of the angry judge.

On his part, INEC’s lawyer, Wale Balogun, expressed dismay over the way and manner, YDP officials decided to misrepresent judgment of the court, thereby casting aspersion and denigrating the judiciary.

“My Lord, this issue is so embarrassing and it is all over the world; we read it on the Internet that the court had ordered INEC to halt election so as to afford the plaintiff the luxury of time to conduct primaries and for INEC to include them in the ballot processes,” Balogun said.

Since the warning was issued by the court, the YDP officials have gone underground. The coast now seem clear for the INEC to continue its preparations for the election which come up in 10 days’ time, provided none of the multifaceted problems bedevilling the agency grows big enough to scuttle the elections.

In the meantime, the problems of INEC appear to have reduced by one.

 

 

 

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