Justice Okon Abang of a Federal High Court in Abuja on Thursday declared the Ahmed Makarfi-led Caretaker Committee of the national leadership of the People’s Democratic Party illegal. The judge ruled that the Makarfi-faction was illegal because it was a product of the party’s convention which held on May 21 in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, in defiance of an earlier order of Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, which had stopped the said convention from holding. The judge made the declaration in his ruling after entertaining arguments from separate lawyers from the Makarfi and the Ali Modu Sheriff-led factions of the party, who were jostling for the right to represent the PDP in a pending suit instituted by the Sheriff faction. But the Makarfi caretaker committee described the ruling of Justice Abang as objectionable, questionable and very strange in the history of Nigeria judiciary.
The party, in a statement by its spokesman, Mr. Dayo Adeyeye, on Thursday, declared that what Justice Abang did was to sit on an appeal over a court of competent and coordinate jurisdiction. Adeyeye added that the party’s national convention, slated for August 17 in Port Harcourt, would go ahead as scheduled. Justice Abang had slated Thursday for the hearing of an application filed by the Sheriff-led camp, seeking an interlocutory injunction to stop the Makarfi faction from going ahead with its plan to conduct the party’s national convention on August 17.
Two lawyers; Ferdinand Obi (SAN), representing the Makarfi camp, and Mr. Olagoke Fakunle (SAN), who represented Sheriff faction of the PDP announced their appearance for the party on Thursday. Counsel for the plaintiffs (Sheriff camp), Chief Niyi Akintola (SAN), urged the court to first determine the right lawyer to represent the PDP. In response, Justice Abang posed questions, which he said the Makarfi-led faction should answer to enable the court to determine whose appearance was legal.
Obi tendered the judgment of Justice A. M. Liman of the Port Harcourt Division in suit No. FHC/PH/CS/524/2016, which he said, settled issue and had ruled in Makarfi faction’s favour. But in his ruling, Justice Abang referred to the Justice Buba’s May 12 order from Lagos, restraining the PDP from conducting any election into the offices of its National Chairman, National Secretary and National Auditor, occupied by Sheriff and others. According to the court, “Ali Modu Sheriff is the National Chairman of the PDP. Any decision not taken by the Sheriff-led committee is not binding on the PDP.” He therefore affirmed Fakunle as the authentic lawyer for the PDP.
The judge ruled, “That order is still subsisting and has not been vacated. Yet again, on May 20th, the court made another order, directing INEC and the PDP to maintain the status quo on issue relating to the position of the plaintiffs pending the determination of the suit before it. Later in the same month, the PDP held a convention that removed these plaintiffs and set up a Caretaker Committee that led to the emergence of Makarfi, who briefed you (Obi) to appear in this matter. The question is, does the Port Harcourt Division have jurisdiction to entertain proceedings that led to various orders made by it and the judgment delivered on July 4, which neutralised the potency of the previous order by the Lagos Division, with the judges having coordinate jurisdiction? That was notwithstanding the fact that under Section 249 of the constitution, the Federal High Court is one. This is having regard to established principle of law that where an order, which ought to have been made, is made in error, a court of coordinate jurisdiction has the power to set it aside.” He said on the basis of the order made by the court in the Lagos Division, Makarfi could not legally hold the office he was laying claim to.
He ruled that Sheriff was the leader of the party recognised by subsisting court order. The judge ruled, “Parties have an uncompromising duty to obey a court order until it is set aside. 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. Having regard to the order of the court, the PDP had no lawful authority to hold the convention that led to the emergence of the Makarfi-led committee. 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. Consequently, any action taken by the Makarfi-led committee, including the purported mandate for legal representation in this matter, is hereby declared illegal. If the Makarfi-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 May 12 and 20.”
The judge said he would have voided the judgment of the Port Harcourt Division for being a nullity, assuming there was an application to that effect. He warned politicians not to cause disaffection among judges of the High Court, saying, “The culture of impunity must stop in this country.” Justice Okon Abang did not make a specific pronouncement on the planned national convention slated by the Makarfi camp for August 17.
Justice Abang, who adjourned to August 15 for a ruling on an application by members of the Makarfi-led committee to be made a party in the suit, drew parties attention to the doctrine of lis pendens (a notice of the pendency of a suit in respect of an issue) and warned them against the consequences of taking steps that could affect the subject of the suit before his court. “It will be in the interest of the plaintiff, defendants and parties, seeking to be joined not to take steps that will affect the claims of the plaintiffs in this suit in line with the principle of lis pendens.” the judge said.
But the statement by Adeyeye on behalf of the Makarfi-led caretaker committee added, “The judgment of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt was very clear that the National Caretaker Committee was duly constituted and recognised; and in line with that, the scheduled National Convention for August 17, 2016 still holds. “We have just received information that Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja has granted an Order of Interlocutory Injunction stopping our scheduled National Convention in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, but we want to state that the judgment of July 4, 2016, supersedes any exparte order or interlocutory injunctions. So, our National Convention will hold as scheduled in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Let Nigerians recall the two former judgments before the Port Harcourt judgment declared that Senator Sheriff is not qualified to be a National Chairman given that the PDP Constitution 2014, which he claimed brought him to power, is not in existence and therefore, null and void. The PDP wants Nigerians to know that Justice Okon Abang is deliberately engaging in acts of derailing the country’s democracy given the fact that his court is not an Appeal Court that can set aside any judgment.” He added that being law-abiding, the caretaker committee would apply for a stay of execution of the order and also appeal it.
The substantive suit was filed by Sheriff and eight others who said they filed the suit numbered FHC/ABJ/CS/464/2016 for themselves and on behalf of the Executive Committee/National Working Committee of the PDP. They are Sheriff as National Chairman; Prof. Wale Oladipo (National Secretary); Dennis Alonge-Niyi (Deputy National Youth Leader); Alhaji Bashir Maidugu (Deputy National Legal Adviser); Mrs. Hanatu Ulam (Deputy National Women Leader); Alhaji Lawa Anchi (Deputy National Auditor); Chief Okey Nnadozie (Deputy National Organising Secretary), and Chief Olisa Metuh (National Publicity Secretary).
The suit has only the Independent National Electoral Commission and the PDP as defendants. The plaintiffs had filed the substantive suit on July 4, 2016, contending that that by virtue of the PDP’s constitution, they must remain in office till 2018.