Embattled National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, Chief Victor Umeh, last week, heaved a sigh of relief when the Court of Appeal, Abuja, resolved the lingering leadership tussle in his favour. Davidson Iriekpen writes
Respite came the way of the embattled National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Chief Victor Umeh, last week when the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal finally rested the lingering tussle over the leadership of the party. The court, in its judgment delivered by Justice T.Y Hassan, not only set aside the decision of Justice Abdul Kafarati of the Federal High Court which sacked Umeh and the party’s National Secretary, Alhaji Sani Abdulahi Shinkafi, but returned them to their positions.
The court also berated Justice Kafarati for assuming jurisdiction in the matter when he lacked the jurisdiction to hear the case. It held that the first respondent, Maxi Okwu, had no locus standi to have instituted the suit having been expelled from the party in the first place. The court held that the actions of the Umeh-led leadership of APGA complied with the provisions of the party’s constitution. It consequently upheld the APGA convention conducted in February 10, 2011 as having complied with the provisions of the APGA constitution.
Those who have been following events in the polity in the last four years know that the APGA leadership had been in and out of the courtrooms. First it was between Chekwas Okorie and Umeh. As soon as that was resolved, and group led by Okwu originated. The situation was so bad that it became difficult to know who was really in charge of the party as two factions, backed by their gladiators were laid claims to the soul of the party.
The climax was when Kafarati, while delivering judgment in the suit filed by Okwu, claiming that Umeh and Shinkafi had over-stayed their tenure, on January 15 this year, sacked the duo from office. Kafarati declared that their tenure had constitutionally expired and ordered it dissolved forthwith. He cited Article 18(2) of the constitution of the party, which provides that any official of the party can only stay in office for a maximum of two terms of four years.
He further held that because Umeh and Shinkafi were voted into office by voice votes rather than secret ballots as stipulated by Article 18(3) of the Constitution of APGA, were not validly elected. In the circumstance, the judge ordered both men to vacate their respective offices.
Kafarati’s verdict, coming after the judgment of the Enugu Division of the Court of Appeal which reinstated Umeh and Shinkafi, was a surprise to many.
The judgment which had elicited a lot of reactions from analysts was vehemently faulted. First, they argued that Umeh had not spent up to 10 years at the helm of affairs of the party as claimed in the judgment. They added that he was first elected the National Chairman of APGA on December 2, 2006 and wondered how the judge arrived at 10 years from 2006 to the time he delivered judgment in the suit.
The analysts claimed that since the issues in the case were based on what a higher court, the Court of Appeal in Enugu, had decided, it was supposed to be a no-go area for the judge.
The issues Umeh’s counsel, Chief Wole Olanikpekun (SAN), took to the Court of Appeal were: Can a Federal High Court disregard a binding and subsisting order of the Court of Appeal on APGA leadership? If there was no vacancy in the leadership of APGA as at April 8, 2013, what vacancy was Okwu filling in that convention?
Can a High Court of Anambra State validate a convention which was purported to have been conducted in breach of a subsisting order of the Court of Appeal? Didn’t Justice Kafarati know that APGA was not made a party in the same action which also robbed him of jurisdiction? Can Okwu who bears an APGA membership card signed by Umeh as National Chairman and Shinkafi as National Secretary and claimed that he rejoined the party in February 2013, challenge an APGA convention conducted in 2011 when he was not a member of the party?
Assuming that the membership card entitles him to be a member of the party, can he turn around in 2013 to challenge a convention conducted in 2011 when he was not a member of the party?
For many therefore, there was no doubt that Justice Kafarati did not consider the ruling of the Court of Appeal delivered on April 8 and the subsisting judgment of the Enugu Division of the Court of Appeal, delivered on July 15, 2013 on the APGA leadership tussle before he arrived at his decision.
The case started when the party had a convention on February 10, 2011 at the Women Development Centre, Awka, where the Umeh leadership was elected for another four years which will expire on February 10, 2015.
In July 2012, a former member of the party in Enugu State, Jude Okuli, sued him (Umeh) at the Enugu State High Court contending that his tenure had expired. The Chief Judge of the state who heard the matter, delivered judgment on February 8, 2013 voiding the convention conducted and ordered that a fresh convention be conducted to elect new officers of the party.
Umeh subsequently went to the Court of Appeal in Enugu where he raised the issue of jurisdiction on the matter. He also raised the issue that APGA was not a party in the suit and challenged all the decisions in the judgment.
While the APGA National Chairman filed the appeal, he also filed for a stay of execution of the judgment, and on March 25, 2013, the Appeal Court heard his motion for stay of execution of the Enugu State High Court judgment and reserved ruling on his motion for April 8, 2013.
On that date, the appellate court granted the stay of execution and made an order staying the execution of the orders made by the Enugu State High Court and also granted an order for the maintenance of the status quo ante bellium pending the determination of the appeal.
By that order, the appellate court had restored the leadership of APGA to the position it was before the judgment of the Enugu State High Court.
On the same date, against the order of the Court of Appeal for parties to maintain the status quo ante bellium pending the determination of the appeal, Okwu and his group held a convention where he was elected the National Chairman along with some people.
Not satisfied, Okwu on the first week of May 2013 surreptitiously took the convention he had in breach of the subsisting orders of the Court of Appeal to the Awka High Court for validation. The Awka High Court held that the convention was valid and that he was now the National Chairman of the party.
On July 15, 2013, the Court of Appeal delivered judgment on Umeh’s appeal and nullified the judgment of the Enugu State High Court presided over by Justice Innocent Umezurike.
The appellate court in a unanimous judgment delivered by Justice Tom Yakubu and concurred by two other justices in the appeal panel, Justices Paul Galinje (Chairman) and Modupe Kwasami, the appellate court granted all the four reliefs sought by Umeh and resolved all the issues set out for determination in his favour.
The court also set aside all the orders contained in the judgment of the Enugu State High Court which included that APGA should conduct another convention.
The justices equally relied on several authorities that the courts should not interfere with the internal affairs of the political parties except on issue of wrongful substitution as contained in Section 87 (9) of the Electoral Act 1999 as amended.
It was therefore reasoned that with the judgment of the Court of Appeal delivered on July 15, 2013, the originating judgment that gave rise to all the actions taken by Okwu and others were flushed out. The judgment of Umezurike was completely set aside and all the orders he made set aside. Since there was no appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal at the Supreme Court till date, there is no doubt that the judgment subsists.
Still not satisfied, Okwu on August 19, 2013, sued Umeh again and all the people elected with him at the convention of 2011 at the Federal High Court in Abuja, claiming that he was the National Chairman. He relied on the decision of the Anambra State High Court, Awka which validated his convention as the authentic Chairman of APGA.
On January 15, 2014, Justice Kafarati agreed with him that based on the Awka State High Court judgment delivered on May 27, 2013 which was in flagrant breach of the subsisting order made by the Court of Appeal on April 8, 2013, that they are now the authentic leaders of APGA.
But now that the leadership crisis has been settled, it is hoped that all hatchets will be buried and all the parties united for the good of the party.
This was the position of the chairman of the Abia State chapter of the party, Mr. Ukaegbu, who while lauding the judgment called for unity among members. Ukaegbu, who is also the chairman of Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP) in Abia State, said the party was not surprised at the judgment and commended the judiciary for being just in the case.
“Right from time, we knew the lower court judgment would stand the taste of time. I am a lawyer and I knew there was no way Maxi Okwu and his co-travellers could have won the case going by the issues involved.”
He said the appellate court’s judgment had removed the last hurdle on the road for the emancipation of the Igbo man in Nigeria, stressing that APGA was poised to take over the entire South-east and proceed to other zones in the country to remove the erroneously held view that the All Progressives Congress (APC) is the main opposition party in the country.
He called on all those he said had tried to derail the APGA unsuccessfully to come back as the doors of the party was still wide open to accommodate them, pointing out that some members of the Okwu group who came back to the party last week were well received.
A former state secretary of the Okwu group, Rev. Austin Chinonye Ehiemere, who was among those that returned to the Umeh group last week, said they had been reintegrated into the party and urged others who had not come back to do so as he expressed happiness at the judgment, stating that with it, progress would be made in APGA.