The battle for Imo North senatorial seat is still raging. The duo of Sir Frank Ibezim and Senator Ifeanyi Araraume has been holding each other by the jugular, contesting who actually was the bonafide candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for the by-election held on December 5, last year.
The by-election was necessitated by the unfortunate death of Senator Benjamin Uwajumogu in late 2019. Since then, Imo North has not been represented in the Senate and, even five months after the by-election, there is still confusion with regard to who should represent the suffering zone.
In fact, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should bear the bulk of the blame for the mystery surrounding this stalemate. The electoral umpire prevaricated and failed to declare Ibezim winner, being the candidate on the ballot on the day of election, following the court ruling. Hiding under the guise of contradictory court rulings was wrong because the implication of court’s endorsement of Ibezim’s candidature meant that any other claimant was an impostor.
Actually, the entire puzzle began soon after INEC lifted the lid on the bid for Uwajumogu’s replacement. While the PDP seemed not to have had any serious issues settling for Okewulonu, APC was torn in the middle between Ibezim, a former commissioner in Imo State, and Araraume, who had previously represented the zone for eight years.
The APC had actually sought to avoid acrimony by first making a consensus arrangement whereby the aspirants chose the best alternative to themselves. At the end of the exercise, Ibezim emerged winner but, as is characteristic of Nigerian politicians, who never accept defeat, the losers reneged on their earlier agreement, hence, the decision for all to go into the primary.
However, confusion trailed the exercise when the primary committee split. Chairman and secretary of the seven-member APC primary election team, Senator Surajudeen Bashiru and Samuel Ogbuku, respectively, and two other members, Senator Jibrin Gada and Bello Kumo, announced Ibezim as the winner of their own primary. However, three other members of the team, Alhaji Umar Gana, Mohammed Saba and Godfrey Ejim, submitted a separate report, which declared Ararume as the winner of the same contest.
Senator Bashiru, who briefed the media after submitting his team’s report, accused the other three members of abandoning the job they were sent to do, adding, however, that the remaining four members, a simple majority on which its rule was based, declared Ibezim winner. The three other members, led by Gana, also submitted a parallel report to the National Organising Secretary, saying Ararume emerged winner of the primary election.
This led to legal disputation that further created more confusion than it solved. Bringing the courts into the fray to dictate who was the party’s candidate ran against all known legal tenets. The law of the land expressly allows political parties to choose their own candidates; APC did and submitted Ibezim’s name to INEC, as required by law. It was never contemplated by the framers of our laws that a time would come when courts would usurp the roles of political parties, as is currently the case.
A lot of legal salvos are being shot from all corners to torpedo Ibezim but the man is also fighting back with as much vehemence as his opponents. He has won some of the cases and lost some too but is very hopeful that he would make it to the Senate in the end.
The ding-dong legal battle had landed at the Supreme Court, which on February 5, ruled in favour of Ibezim by refusing the plea of Ararume to be declared the authentic candidate of the party after dismissing two of his appeals.
The Supreme Court held that the appeals lacked merit and should be dismissed. Ruling in two separate judgments, the five-man panel of the apex court, led by Justice Amina Augie, affirmed the decisions of the Court of Appeal, Owerri Division, which voided the proceedings and decisions in the suit filed by Lady Uchenna Onyeiwu Ubah before the Federal High Court in Owerri.
Justice Tijani Abubakar, who read the lead judgments, held that the Court of Appeal was right in coming to the conclusion that the first respondent (Ibezim) was shut out and denied his right to be heard as a necessary party in the suit at the Federal High Court.
However, just as Ibezim and his supporters went to town in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling, an Appeal Court sitting in Abuja upheld the disqualification of Ibezim as the candidate of the party. The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja, which ordered INEC to remove Ibezim’s name from the list of candidates for the by-election, after it found him guilty of submitting falsified documents.
The trial court held that Ibezim was not qualified and eligible for nomination to contest the by-election, having made false declarations in the affidavit and certificates he submitted to INEC for the purpose of contesting the Imo North senatorial by-election and the irreconcilable conflicts in his name. It, therefore, barred INEC from accepting him as the candidate of the APC for the senatorial by-election.
Following the judgment, Ibezim had challenged the ruling of the appellate court at the Supreme Court, saying that the court was wrong on many grounds. He said, in disqualifying him based on allegations of certificate forgery, the petitioner failed to invite Uboma Secondary School, Ikperejere Etiti, or the West African Examination Council (WAEC) as witnesses in the suit to deny or confirm the veracity of the certificates he presented. With regard to variations in his name Ibezim had maintained that it wasn’t sufficient evidence to disqualify him.
Ibezim insists on the genuineness of his certificates and accused the court of being too lenient on his opponents and relied on him to prove his innocence, instead of expecting them to prove their allegations against him, as is standard in matters of this nature.
All eyes are now on the Supreme Court to unravel the puzzles and mystery of the legal rigmarole that has kept Imo North down all this while. The apex court should decide whether the matter the Federal High Court, Abuja, adjudicated on was a pre-election or post-election matter. If it is pre-election, was it not filed outside the stipulated time? If it is post-election, should it be of interest to the ordinary courts or election tribunal?
The apex court is also to decide whether it is correct to declare Ibezim’s certificates as forged without the input of the issuing authorities, WAEC, and Uboma Secondary School, Ikperejere Etiti.
The issue of ‘Frank’ and ‘Francis’ is just making a mountain out of a molehill. Frank is a variant of Francis. Moreover, as Ibezim rightly pointed out, what more proof of his ownership of the certificates than his photographs, or did he forge those too?
For instance, ruling in the petition of Atiku Abubakar against President Muhammadu Buhari’s election, the Supreme Court had noted the discrepancy in the name of Atiku’s lead counsel, who had signed the substantive petition as ‘Dr. Livy Uzoukwu’, even though the name in his Call to Bar certificate read ‘Livinus Uzoukwu’. However, the apex court held that it was not in doubt that both Livy and Livinus referred to the same person.
Therefore, it is self-evident that there is no big deal about Frank and Francis, except for mischief-makers seeking to make invidious gain out of a non-issue.
It is also left for the apex court to decide whether a court can adjudicate a matter on appeal, as in this instance, while an appeal is pending before the Supreme Court. Equally significant is whether a lower court has power to override the decision of a higher court, even a decision of the Supreme Court, as has been done in this matter, considering the Supreme Court’s ruling of February 5.
As the Supreme Court sits to determine who represents the people of Imo North in the Senate of the Ninth National Assembly, it should take seriously the fact that all eyes are on the eminent justices to unravel these puzzles and mysteries that have not allowed Imo North to breathe and, thereby, further enrich Nigeria’s jurisprudence and people’s faith in the judiciary.