By Chinelo Obogo
The Appeal Court sitting in Port Harcourt is due to deliver its judgment tomorrow, which will lay the lingering Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) national leadership tussle, to rest. The tussle is between two factions, led by former Kaduna state governor, Ahmed Makarfi and former Borno State governor, Ali Modu Sheriff to rest.
As the Appeal court sets to deliver judgment tomorrow, Friday, February 17, 2019, there is tension as to which of the warring factions the ruling would favour.
Two separate Federal High Courts in Abuja and Port- Harcourt of the same coordinate jurisdiction had given conflicting judgments regarding who the authentic chairman of the party is. While Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court Abuja ruled that Sheriff was the authentic national chairman, the Federal High Court in Port -Harcourt ruled that Makarfi was the rightful chairman.
But in December 16, 2016, the Appeal Court in Abuja adjourned indefinitely a separate hearing in the leadership tussle. It did it to await the outcome of a related case pending before the Port-Harcourt Division of the Court. The adjournment was sequel to a motion filed by the Sheriff faction which urged it to temporarily hands off the suit filed by the Makarfi faction.
PDP’s legal dilemma
For a party that had ruled for over 16 years, PDP has had its fair share of prolonged internal crisis, but the ongoing leadership tussle between the Makarfi-led national caretaker committee and Sheriff’s faction of the party is one, observers say may be the final nail on the coffin of the party. Since the last convention, held on May 21, 2016, in Port- Harcourt, the party has been polarised into two camps, with each faction proclaiming itself as the authentic one. The Makarfi caretaker committee is a creation of the national convention, the highest organ of the party, and the other is led by Sheriff whose national working committee was dissolved in Port- Harcourt. But Sheriff believes that the purported dissolution did not follow due process.
Critical observers argue that even though majority of the stakeholders in the embattled party including members of the Board of Trustees(BOT), all current governors and virtually all members of the National Assembly are with the Markafi faction, Sheriff is confident that legally, there is still a window for him to determine how and when the crisis will end.
How it all started
The party’s legal quagmire began at the Federal High Court in Lagos where Sheriff, Alhaji Fatai Adeyanju and Prof. Wale Oladipo, as plaintiffs prayed the court for an interlocutory injunction restraining the PDP from conducting any election to the offices of the national chairman, national secretary and national auditor, which they occupied, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit. This was before the national convention which was slated to hold on May 21, 2015.
The trial judge, Ibrahim Buba, granted their prayers, but the planned convention went ahead with Sheriff in attendance.
Notwithstanding protests from other prominent party members against his emergence as acting chairman, Sheriff, who was initially backed by the PDP Governors’ Forum, a powerful bloc within the party, ironically, sanctioned the May 21, 2016 convention with optimism about his possible confirmation for another two years.
But that did not happen. Instead, the stakeholders wanted Sheriff to step aside. But he saw it as an ambush. And he quickly called off the convention. But others went ahead, and it was the convention that produced Makarfi.
Battle for Wadata plaza
24 hours after the controversial national convention, precisely on Sunday, May 22, 2016, heavily armed policemen took over the national headquarters of the PDP when news filtered in that Sheriff and his supporters would storm the place to continue to lay claim to the office. Five police vehicles, comprising two trucks and two pick up vans blocked access on both ends of the street directly in front of the secretariat. The Makarfi faction did not occupy the PDP facility for long as Sheriff and his supporters later forced themselves into the national secretariat, making the Caretaker committee and his group to move temporarily to a hotel.
Sheriff goes to court
On May 23, Sheriff filed a motion on notice in the Federal High Court, Lagos, for the purpose of setting aside the national convention of the party held on May 21 where he hoped to emerge as chairman. On May 24, counsel to Sherriff and other plaintiffs, Mr. R. A. Oluyede, told the court that the PDP had flouted the order dated May 12, 2016, as it had gone ahead to conduct elections into the offices of: national chairman, national secretary and national auditor. Thereafter, Justice Buba declared the caretaker committee illegal.
But the caretaker committee insisted that elections were not conducted during the convention and that it did not fill the three posts in line with the court orders, as there was no order against setting up a caretaker committee. While Buba in Lagos affirmed the interim chairmanship of Sheriff, another Federal High Court sitting in Port- Harcourt ordered him and the NWC to stop parading themselves as leaders of the party.
A new twist
On June 29, Justice Valentiine Ashi of Court 29 Abuja, nullified the 2014 amendment of the PDP constitution on the grounds that it did not comply with Section 66(2)(3) of its constitution, by not serving the National Secretary with a written copy of the proposed amendment two months before the convention, which the Secretary was also required to circulate among secretaries of the party a month before the convention. Ironically, it was the same provision; the party had relied on to appoint Sheriff, as chairman, in the first instance.
Article 47, paragraph 6 of the amended constitution states: “in case of any vacancy, the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) can appoint an Acting Chairman from the area or zone where the last occupant of the office comes from, pending when election is conducted, to reflect that where there is vacancy, the acting chairman shall serve the tenure of the officer who left before the expiration of the tenure.”
This ruling was a major blow to Sheriff whose emergence in the first place was predicated on the 2014 amended constitution of the party. But Sheriff rejected the ruling, stating that he had not yet joined the party when the amendment was made, and as such, does not affect his position as chairman.
Legal battles continue
The legal conundrum continued when on July 28, a Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja nullified the Markafi-led caretaker committee. Justice Okon Abang, who ruled in Sheriff’s favour, held that the convention held on May 21, 2016, was a nullity.
Delivering his ruling, he said: “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 12 and 20 May”.
On August 17, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja reaffirmed Sheriff’s removal. The court, which was presided over by Justice Nwamaka Ogbonnaya, reaffirmed the sack on the ground that the judgment of Justice Ashi, which nullified his appointment on June 29, has not been set aside or vacated and was therefore subsisting.
Before the national convention which held on May 21, where Makarfi was appointed Care-taker chairman, Sheriff had planned to reduce the influence of the BoT members, many of who were opposed to his emergence. In order to achieve that, Sheriff began moves to checkmate that organ of the party, by proposing an amendment to the party’s constitution, where he added a clause that the body would need to consult him before it could call for any meeting.
According to the party’s constitution, the BoT, of which the national chairman is a member, does not need only the chairman’s permission to hold its meeting. It is a statutory organ of the party with powers to act as its conscience, and it needed two-third of its members to agree for a meeting to be called. But in the proposed amendment, which was meant to be discussed at the meeting of the party’s NEC which took place before May 21, Sheriff wanted a clause to be added to the constitution, so that he would have to be the only one who would be consulted before the BoT of the party could meet.
Sheriff was however forced to withdraw the proposed amendment when it was met with stiff opposition by members of the BoT. They accused him of wanting to decimate its powers by asking to be consulted before the body could hold meetings.
Whichever way the pendulum swings, there is the likelihood of the aggrieved party proceeding to the apex court. If that happens, it means the party crisis is far from being over.