From Judex Okoro, Calabar
The Supreme Court may have delivered its ruling in the case between Senator Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River State and Joe Agi (SAN), in favour of the former on December 9, 2016, but the echoes of the apex court verdict has continued to resonate across the length and breadth of the state.
While the ruling might have sent some shivers down the spine of some analysts and observers of state’s politics, to others it was a landmark judgement which restored the hope and confidence in the nation’s judiciary.
And to the PPD family in the state, Governor Ayade’s aides, loyalists and admirers, it was a red-letter day; it was the beginning of the annual 31 days of Yuletide activities in the state as hundreds of them turned up in front of the Supreme Court complex in jubilation of the victory after about 21 months of legal tussle. In short, it was another carnival of sorts.
Beginning of the legal battle
However, the journey to Supreme Court started on March 2, 2015 when Joe Agi, one of the aspirants in the PDP primary election held on December 8, 2014 at the U.J Esuene Stadium, Calabar, headed straight to Federal High Court Abuja, to challenge the eligibility of Ayade to contest.
Agi (the plaintiff) in a suit No FHC/ABJ/CS/25/2015 had among others sought a declaration that in line with section 8 (10) and (15) of the PDP constitution and article 13(a) of the Electoral Guidelines for primary elections 2014, Benedict Ayade (3rd defendant) was not qualified to validly vie and be nominated for any elective office under the platform of PDP.
In the place of Ayade, he argued that he, Agi, be declared the winner of the primary election since he met the constitutional requirement of the PDP and scored the highest number of valid votes cast.
Agi then asked the court to restrain INEC (the 2nd defendant) from accepting or using the name of Benedict Ayade as the lawful candidate of PDP in the governorship election and replace Ayade with his name as the lawful candidate for the Cross River State governorship election.
Ruling on the matter July 31, 2016, the presiding judge, Justice Abdul Kafarati, said the issue of payment of subscription fees by members of political party “is an internal affairs of the party concerned for which the court do not have jurisdiction to entertain.”
On the second issue bordering on criminality, to wit, forgery and perjury, the learned Judge ruled “I do not want to waste time on this. It is trite that both forgery and perjury being criminal offences have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. This suit was commenced by way of originating summons. It is impracticable to prove these by affidavit evidence.”
According to him, “the plaintiff’s case has no merit and is designed just to waste the precious time of this court. In the circumstance, the suit is dismissed for being frivolous and lacking in merit. That is the judgement of this court.”
Determined to seek further redress, the Senior Advocate, Agi, filed a suit in an Appeal Court with reference no CA/A/518/2015. Equally ruling on the matter, the lead judge at Court of Appeal, Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson, JCA, said “…the error made in the year 1969 instead of 1968 in the circumstances of this case cannot amount to a device to browbeat the constitutional requirement of the minimum age of 35 years for the office of a governor.
“It is instructive to note that at the primaries, the 3rd respondent now governor of Cross River State scored 752 votes while the appellant scored only 11 votes. Having resolved all the issues against the appellant, the appeal is disallowed.”
Corroborating the ruling of the lower court, Justice Akomolafe-Wilson said, “In the circumstances of this case, the learned trial judge was correct when he dismissed the appellant’s as lacking in merit. This appeal is unmeritorious and it is hereby dismissed.”
Determined to exhaust all legal avenues, Agi moved on to the Supreme Court seeking to upturn the rulings of the appeal- in a suit no SC/256/2016 received on March 31, 2016. All other appellants in the case including PDP, INEC filed their brief of argument dated May 17, 2016 and May 24, 2016 respectively.
And on September 27, 2016, the apex court heard the suit from counsels to Agi, PDP and Governor Ben Ayade. After listening to both parties, the Supreme Court fixed December 9, for judgment.
Intrigues, ‘palace coup’ before the verdict
In reminiscence of the nation’s political history, the counsel to PDP, Mr. N. Ibegbulam, fruitless attempt to concede to the appeal by Agi during the both parties’ addresses to the Supreme Court panel of judges was the twist that ignited the political fire back home. Besides, the fixing of December 9 for ruling created political tension and uncertainty in the state.
Ibegbulam had argued that Ayade violated the party’s electoral guidelines, and wants the court to apply Article 14b and Article 15 sub 2, adding that they are withdrawing the PDP brief of argument.
This, indeed, was the needed tonic to galvanise the media space into action. And true to type, the Social Media was awash with pieces of news item ranging from “Ayade set to go” to “Time tickles for the Digital Governor.”
Commissioned and un-commissioned commentaries flooded the social media and some hatchet online news sites, arguing and counter-arguing for and against depending on which side of the divide the writers belong.
All these rekindled some politicians’ hope that Ayade might be thrown overboard this time. To this group of politicians, it beckoned another era of political horse-trading, intrigues and manoeuvrings. To them, this is a golden opportunity to reposition for the pending “political tsunami” that was expected to have ushered in Agi New Era.
In view of the above permutations, some PDP big wigs who felt slighted, side-lined and relegated to the background by Ayade’s new political machinery had had series of nocturnal meetings at home and in Abuja trying to re-align to recapture power in the event the ruling favours Agi.
Some aides and appointees of Ayade were said to be discreetly hob-nobbing with Agi and were part of the shadow cabinet to usher in post Ayade era just as some contractors in the state who felt side-lined by the new administration made moves to curry favour from Agi’s camp.
An unconfirmed report had it that one of the Director-Generals heading one of the newly-created agencies from the central senatorial zone almost resigned his appointment two days to the Supreme Court ruling ostensibly to become the SSG to about-to-be-formed Agi’s government.
It was further learnt that another senior civil servant and a former associate of former Governor Duke also lobbied for the Secretary to the State Government position. Besides, while a top Calabar-based legal practitioner was angling for Agi’s Chief of Staff, a top financial expert from the central lobbied for position of Finance Commissioner.
According to a source close to Agi’s camp, they were cock sure of heading for victory and therefore needed to share sensitive positions before the judgement, fearing that once they come out victorious sycophants and political jobbers always waiting on the wings after every election might hijack it from them.
As the discreet lobbying and horse-trading continued, Daily Sun had it on good authority that some National assembly members, past PDP and present leaders kept sealed lips, fuelling speculations that all was not well within the party. Some of these party leaders are said to be piqued at the way and manner the party is being relegated to the background. So, they were oscillating between Ayade and Agi pretending to be neutral since both are members of PDP.
One of Agi’s supporters, who simply gave his name as Ogadang said: “Honestly, we were sure of victory and we couldn’t understand what happened. In fact, I can tell you that some key positions had been zoned while a few of us were already in acting capacity. We had repositioned ourselves for the new government but a pity we lost.
“Of course, if Agi had won, he would have totally restructured the political system, the civil service and the whole lot would have witnessed some dramatic changes. Well, we only gambled, after all we are all in the same PDP.”
Daily Sun further gathered that some core supporters of Agi organised prayer sessions among some religious groups and at homes, calling on the Almighty to hear their clamour and touch the heart of men of jury to rule in their favour.
At some prayer meetings held in Calabar, Ikom and Ogoja, a source confided in our correspondent that one of their prayer points was “Oh God touch the heart of the men of jury to give judgment in our favour so that our efforts from High Court to Apex Court will not be in vain.”
But pro-Ayade supporters were not resting on their oars. To counter what they termed negative presentation of Ayade, they also made overtures to some senior citizens to douse tension that all is well, insisting that ‘Oga’ was innocent and would emerge victorious in the end.
Some of the die-hard followers of Ayade had told those who cared to listen that the digital governor had performed and that the court case was a big distraction which he will surmount.
And for fear of losing their positions, some of the over 1000 political appointees of the Ayade administration and other supporters had equally gone spiritual.
Besides organising prayer sessions in mosque and in some churches as a mark of solidarity, some appointees adopted “My Case Will Be Different,” theme for Shiloh 2016 religious pilgrimage of the Living Faith Church International (Winner’s Chapel) as their prayer title.
At Christian Central Chapel International, CCCI, along 8 Miles in Calabar South, it was learnt that the Commissioner for Information, Rosemary Archibong and other appointees worshipping there organised series of prayer meetings.
While the prayer sessions were going on in different camps in support of their ‘bosses’, it was observed that some top APC leaders in the state were discreetly behind Ayade throughout his court travails.
Some of these big shots in APC were said to be more comfortable with Ayade’s ‘non-aligned’ style of leadership just as they see him as a lesser devil to Joe Agi.
One of them, who does not want his name in print told Daily Sun in a telephone interview before the ruling that Ayade is on their good books and have no bones to pick with him and therefore joined in praying for him.
He said, “Ayade is a lesser evil and known to us. We have no issues with him. We can contain him unlike the opponent. So, we also pray that he emerges at last.”
Behold December 9, the Judgement day
On the much-awaited December 9, 2016, the Supreme Court in its ruling, unanimously upheld the nomination of Ben Ayade as the valid candidate of PDP for the April 2015 governorship election in Cross River state. The court held that Ayade was validly nominated by his party and consequently dismissed the appeal filled by Chief Joe Agi, who was one of the governorship aspirants in the PDP primary election.
Delivering lead judgment, Justice Binta Clara Ogunbiyi, held that the issue of criminality or forgery of age declaration was not proved beyond reasonable doubt as required by law.
The court further said the discrepancy in the two age declarations, which bore March 2, 1968 and March 2, 1969, was not intended to cheat on Section 177 of the 1999 Constitution which puts mandatory age for a governorship candidate at 35.
Insisting that the decision on who flies the party’s ticket after her primaries, remains an internal matter of the party, the apex court wondered why after Agi swore to abide by the decision of the party, veered off and challenged an internal party matter to the Supreme Court.
According to the Court, Agi cannot “…go behind the backdoor…” to get what he could not get through the front door.
Shortly after the ruling, Ben Ayade’s legal team made up of 20 lawyers and led by Paul Erokoro, said “We are very happy for the judgement given in our favour. It shows that the apex court is alive and that justice has not died in Nigeria.”
Stakeholders react to Ayade’s court victory
Following the Supreme Court judgement, prominent citizens and party leaders in the state have continued to react.
The Speaker of the Cross River House of Assembly, Hon John Gaul-Lebo, said the victory shows that Ayade went through all the electoral processes in 2015 before being elected as a governor.
He wondered why Agi took the case to court, saying the matter would have been handled and resolved internally within the state PDP family.
Commending the apex Court, the Public Relations Officer of the PDP in the state, Odema Ekpung hailed the ruling, saying ‘’It is a thing of glory that what we work for nobody has taken it away from us”.
Also hailing the Supreme Court for standing for the truth, a member of Cross River state law Reform Commission, Ogar Ndoma Egodo, described the victory as a victory for democracy and Nigeria.
For the Ndidem of the Qua Nation and Paramount Ruler of Calabar Municipality. His Royal Majesty, Ndidem Patrick Inok Oquagbor, the recent victory of Ayade at the Supreme Court over the 2015 governorship elections was expected.
Speaking while receiving the new General Manager of NTA 9, Calabar, Mr. Peter Ngbeken in his Palace, the Ndidem of the Quas noted that the issues canvassed by Joe Agi, SAN were indeed an intra-party pre-election matter that were not cogent enough to warrant upturning the result of the poll; emphasizing that it was pleasing that the learned Justices of the Supreme Court affirmed the position of the lower courts on the matter.
Political analysts have, however, argued that the victory of Ayade at the Apex Court has changed the political configuration ahead of 2019 general election. While some agree that his emergence will stabilise the polity in the state, others contend that it will upset the apple cart.
But they are of the opinion that the court case was a lesson in disguise to enable him learn the intrigues and hard facts about party politics. They further argue that what happened to him is an eye-opener on how to work with the party to achieve success both at the polls and during governance as the party is supreme.
Certainly, this is the beginning of Governor Ayade’s journey into real murky waters of politicking. How he handles the victory is another kettle of fish which will point to the direction as he looks towards a second term.