From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
it is all over. The battle for the control of the Peoples Democratic Party ( PDP) has been won and lost.
Last Wednesday the Supreme Court decided the leadership tussle between the former National Chairman of the party, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff and chairman of its National Caretaker Committee, Senator Ahmed Makarfi in favour of the latter.
The apex court in its verdict in a suit filed by the caretaker committee challenging the February 17 judgment of Appeal Court, Port Harcourt Division, which nullified the sack of the Sheriff led PDP National Working Committee (NWC) by the party’s National Convention held in Port Harcourt on May 21,2016, upheld the appeal.
The five man panel in a unanimous judgement read by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour held that “The National Conventions of Political Parties are the supreme organs which control every other organs of the party.
“In the light of this, the highest organ of the party did not breach any laws by dissolving the National Executive Committee headed by Sheriff at that convention.”
Consequently, the Supreme Court panel headed by Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen held that “the caretaker committee of the PDP led by Senator Ahmed Makarfi is hereby affirmed as the authentic national leadership of the party.”
That judgment brought to an end the 14 months leadership crisis that shook the opposition party to its foundation.
In its 19 years history, the PDP has always had crises, which it had often described as a “family affair”. But never has the opposition party witnessed the kind of crisis it experienced in the last 14 months.
It was a crisis that cost the party alot. Apart from splitting the PDP into two factions, from the national to the state chapters, the leadership imbroglio also affected the electoral fortunes of the party across the country.
For instance, the PDP lost the Edo and Ondo governorship elections- elections it claimed it could have won convincingly but for the crisis.
The leadership crisis while it lasted, also affected the cohesion of the party caucus in the National Assembly. At a point the PDP caucus in the House of Representatives were torn between Sheriff and Makarfi.
In all, 10 members of the party in the National Assembly defected to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), citing the party crisis as reason for their actions.
The polity also suffered from the crisis that ravaged the PDP from May 21, last year, as the party was unable to effectively checkmate the APC as the leading opposition party in the country.
National Publicity Secretary of the party , Prince Dayo Adeyeye described the 14 months leadership impasse that just ended as “agonising” for the opposition party.
How the crisis started
Full blown political hostilities broke out in the PDP following the sack of the party’s NWC led by Sheriff at the National Convention in Port Harcourt, Rivers State May 21, last year.
The convention appointed a caretaker committee led by Makarfi as chairman and Senator Ben Obi as secretary to pilot the affairs of the party pending the election of substantive party officers.
However, the leadership crisis in the PDP actually dates back to the period immediately after the 2015 general election, which the party lost.
In the aftermath of the election, the then National Chairman of the opposition party, Adamu Muazu resigned as party leader, as a result of intrigues that trailed the party ‘s abysmal performance at the 2015 polls.
In line with the party’s constitution, Muazu’s deputy, Uche Secondus, stepped into the National chairmanship position in acting capacity, pending the election of a substantive chairman.
When the party was not forthcoming in selecting a new national chairman from the North East to complete Muazu’s tenure, party leaders from the zone became agitated.
Consequently, the former political adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan, Ahmed Gulak obtained an injunction from an Abuja Court to the effect that either himself or any other PDP chieftain from the North East should be appointed as Muazu’s replacement.
Armed with the Court order, Gulak stormed the party’s National Secretariat, popularly known as Wadata House and declared himself the national chairman.
In the ensuring confusion, some PDP governors led by Ekiti State governor, Ayodele Fayose and his Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike and other interest groups in the party drafted Sheriff, a former Borno State governor, into the leadership of the party amidst protests by concerned party chiefs.
However, an understanding was reached among the PDP leaders that the former Borno governor will just complete Muazu’s tenure and quit.
In a twist, few weeks to the Port Harcourt Convention, the tunes changed. It all started by a visit by Senator Kashamu Buruji and some party leaders to Sheriff.
During the visit, the delegation endorsed the former PDP chairman to continue in office beyond the May 21 ,2016 terminal date of his administration.
In no time, the Sheriff bug caught many of the party leaders. The climax was the zoning of the National Chairmanship to North East by the party’s zoning committee chaired by Akwa Ibom State governor, Udom Emmanuel, against South West, where majority of party stalwarts had thought would produce Sheriff’s successor.
The stage was therefore set for the coronation of the former Borno governor as substantive national chairman in Port Harcourt. The former governor had arrived Port Harcourt full of hope, but unknown to him, the PDP governors, who were his major cheerleaders has changed their minds about him.
When Sheriff realised on the morning of May 21, that the governors had resolved to pull the rug off his feet at the convention venue, he boycotted the event. And hurriedly addressed a press conference in a hotel in the Rivers State capital, where he announced the cancellation of the national convention.
In his absence, Secondus, who was his deputy, took charge of proceedings. In the events that followed, the convention dissolved the NWC led by Sheriff and replaced it with the Caretaker Committee.
As the Port Harcourt convention was going on, party leaders opposed to Sheriff leadership of the party beyond May 21, held a “ pararell convention “ in Abuja. The Abuja event was co-chaired by Senator David Mantu and Professor Tunde Adeniran, former deputy Senate President and former Education Minister respectively.
The Legal battle
Sheriff first action after his sack was to approach a Federal High Court in Lagos.
Recall that pior to the May 21, 2016 convention, Chief Wale Oladipo and Alhaji Fatai Adeyanju, national secretary and auditor respectively, had obtained an injunction from the Federal High Court, Lagos presided by Justice Ibrahim Buba, restraining the party from conducting any election into the offices of national chairman, secretary and auditor, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.
Consequently, on May 23, 2016 , the former Borno State governor filed a motion before the court, praying it to declare the May 21 PDP convention null and void.
He argued that the convention was done in contravention of the orders of the court made on May 12 and 20.Justice Buba obliged him and declared the caretaker committee illegal.
In a counter action, loyalists of the caretaker committee obtained an order from the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt restraining Sheriff and other members of the dissolved NWC from parading themselves as leaders of the party.
Thus, the epic legal tussle commenced. In the days that followed it was confusion galore as courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction gave conflicting judgements on the PDP crisis.
On June 29, Justice Valentiine Ashi of the Abuja High Court, in one of the many cases on the leadership tussle nullified the 2014 amendment of the PDP constitution, based on which Sheriff became chairman. The court said the amendment did not comply with Section 66(2)(3) of the party constitution. Thus, in the verdict Sheriff was never chairman of the party.
On July 4, 2016, Justice Mohammed Liman of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt validated the out come of the May 21, 2016 convention.
Then, on July 28, a Federal High Court in Abuja, presided by Justice Okon Abang in its ruling in a suit brought before him by Sheriff, maintained that the convention where the latter was removed as PDP National chairman was null and void.
According to the judge :“the Lagos Division made orders on May 12 and 20, forbidding the PDP from removing the Sheriff-led Caretaker Committee. That order is still subsisting. The convention was unlawfully held and the Caretaker Committee was unlawfully and illegally appointed and could not take any legal decision for the PDP in view of the subsisting order of the Lagos Division of this court.
“ If the Markafi-led Caretaker Committee, as apostles of impunity, missed their way to the Port- Harcourt division of this court, that court could not have conveniently assumed jurisdiction to set aside the earlier decision of the Lagos Division. I hold that the Port Harcourt division of this court cannot make an order to neutralise the potency of the Lagos Division of this court dated 12th and 20th May”.
Again, on August 17,2016 Justice Nwamaka Ogbonnaya of Abuja High Court reaffirmed Sheriff as PDP chairman.
According to the judge, the judgment of Justice Abang was yet to be set aside by a superior court.
Efforts by the caretaker committee to hold a fresh convention in August last year was stalled by Justice Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja.
However, temporary reprieve came for the embattled former PDP leader on February 17, when the Appeal Court in Port Harcourt in a lead judgment by Justice Bitrus Sanga declared Sheriff the “ authentic” national chairman of the party.
Infuriated by the judgment, the caretaker committee approached the apex court for a redress. It was that appeal that was decided in favour of the Makarfi group by the Supreme Court last Wednesday.
The apex court had earlier dismissed a motion filed by Sheriff counsel Akinlolu Olujinmi(SAN) challenging the competence of caretaker committee to institute any suit in the name of the PDP.
Failed peace moves
Several efforts were made to resolve the PDP leadership crisis, but they all failed. The last and most prominent of such moves to reconcile the warring groups was the political solution proposed by Jonathan. The initiative by the ex-president like others before it failed, even before it started.
In the aftermath of the Appeal Court judgment, the PDP Governors Forum at a meeting with the former President agreed to explore a political solution to end the party crisis.
However, a stakeholders meeting convened by the former President in the search for peace in the PDP flopped after Sheriff walked out on Jonathan and other PDP leaders because he was not recognised to speak as national chairman.
Earlier, the party’s Reconciliation Committee headed by Governor Serieke Dickson of Bayelsa State had in its report recommended a National Unity Convention, where a new leadership would be elected, not later than June 30, this year.
There was also a peace initiative led by former Information Minister, Professor Jerry Gana and a move by Sheriff and Makarfi to come up to set up a joint committee to fashion out a peace deal. Unfortunately, none of the initiatives produced the desired fruit.
The winners, the losers
After his declaration as the authentic leader of the PDP, Makarfi declared that there was no victor, nor vanquished in the struggle. That pronouncement may just be in principle, because practically, there are winners and losers in the battle for control of the opposition party.
The winners are those who the Supreme Court judgment strengthened their hold on the levers of power in the party. While the losers are those whose political ambitions within the party crashed by virtue of the court judgment.
Among the winners are Fayose, Wike, members of the caretaker committee, various party organs and party men and women who ab-nitio opposed the emergence of Sheriff as PDP chairman.
However, the PDP National Legal Adviser Hon Dave Iorhemba said the ultimate winner is the country’s democracy and all political parties.
“It is victory for democracy. It is not only a victory for the PDP. It is a victory for all political parties. This judgment enshrined the supremacy of the convention of every political party. It is a victory for all of us”, he told journalists.
On the other hand, the major loser is Sheriff. The former PDP chairman, those in the know said, had planned to use the office as a launch for his much speculated 2019 presidential ambition.
Other losers include Buruji, Sheriff’s deputy, Dr Cairo Ojougboh, Oladipo and all those who had sought to use the camp of the former PDP leader to push their 2019 political ambitions within the party.
Lesson for the PDP
Analysts say that the leadership crisis that rocked the opposition party until last Wednesday is traceable to the actions and inactions of some leaders of the PDP.
Among those alleged to have plunged the PDP into crisis is Secondus. A school of thought argue that if the former PDP Deputy National chairman had not sought to transmute to a substantive national chairman, there would not have been a Sheriff in the leadership of the party.
The PDP Governors Forum is also blamed for foisting the former Borno governor on the “largest party in Africa “.
However, the bulk of the blame lies squarely at the doorsteps of former President Jonathan. The former President failed to provide leadership for the party when it mattered most.
Analysts say it was the vacuum created by Jonathan that the governors filled.
Going forward, the greatest lesson the opposition party should from the just ended crisis is to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
There is also the need for the PDP to adhere strictly to its rules and enthrone internal democracy within its fold.
If the PDP abides strictly by its rules, then it would have imbibed the lessons from its recent travails. On the other hand, if the party returns to its old ways, then another crisis might just be lurking in the corner.