By Sufuyan Ojeifo
A Yoruba proverb aptly says: “Bi ina o ba tan li ori, eje ko le tan li eekan”, meaning: “for as long as lice are common features in the hair on the human head, there will always be blood stains on the finger nails.” Inferentially, as long as humanity exists, circumscribed and regulated by law, conflict will flow from socio-political interactions and cannot escape arbitration by the Judiciary.
Lacking judicial arbitration of feuds, civilization would descend to the Hobbesian state of nature and the law would be denied its stabilising, social engineering function. Proclivity for mischief in the polity by the political class, especially in the quest for power, has always been restrained by the sagacity of the courts.
But the courts have constantly been caught in a haze of partisan frenzy precipitated by politicians who cast doubt on the purity of the justice issued in favour of winners of election matters. And to be sure, the place of justice in human affairs is sacrosanct. Therefore, the Judiciary must not pervert it.
The Constitution provides for levels of judicial arbitration to subject the justice of a case to integrity test. Though justice is what the court of law says it is; the finality of weighty judicial verdicts rests in the Supreme Court and not in the courts of first instance. This explicates the rationale for appeals to the courts upstairs.
The notion of two or three good heads being better than one finds fitting and compelling justification in the constitution of a three-man panel of justices of the Court of Appeal to sit on cases heard by just one judge in the court below. The same reasoning informs the constitution of a five-man (for non-constitutional issues) or a quorum of seven-man panel of justices (for constitutional issues) at the Supreme Court to sit on appeals.
The Supreme Court is final in the issuance of justice. In recent times, Nigeria’s Supreme Court has been weighing in to sanitize and streamline the nation’s jurisprudence by the magnitude of its well-considered corpus of judgments. By so doing, the apex court has saved democracy, the nation and the Judiciary from embarrassment occasioned by questionable and contradictory verdicts sometimes delivered by the courts downstairs.
Consider the case of Oni vs Fayemi. The apex court is currently seized of the facts in the appeal before it. The issue for determination before the courts below was whether or not Fayemi as a serving minister should have resigned before participating in the APC primary election in line with the party’s guidelines. This is also in pari materia with the 1999 Constitution as amended that requires a public officer once he becomes a candidate to resign 30 days before the general election.
That was the issue for determination before Justice Uche Agomoh at the Federal High Court in Ado-Ekiti. But the court said that the issue of 30 days resignation before the primary election did not apply in this case and declared that Fayemi was validly nominated by the APC since he was not a public officer envisaged to resign before contesting as prescribed by the Electoral Act, 1999 Constitution and Article 2 of the APC’s 2014 Guidelines.
The Court of Appeal had taken the issue another notch when, in upholding the judgment of the Federal High Court, it delved into the definition of who an employee was in the context of assertion by Oni that Fayemi was a public officer by virtue of his employment as minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The appellate court’s intervention was quite interesting. It raised more questions than answers it sought to provide. Its summative verdict was that Fayemi was not an employee in the public service of the Federation.
I have read some elucidatory commentaries on the verdict of the Court of Appeal, particularly the one penned by Otunba Ben Oguntuase in THISDAY of Friday, March 29, 2019 at page 18. The thematic essence of the article was writ-large: there was a deliberate attempt to create loopholes in an otherwise simple understanding and interpretation of the provisions of the APC guidelines and the 1999 Constitution. And to be sure, courts latch on loopholes or ambiguities to give their verdicts.
But such latitude is not the forte of the Supreme Court, which must always rein in to clear as much as equitable and balanced any or all cases that verge on recondite aspects of law. The Supreme Court always expounds all issues and subjects all arguments to the rigorous test of legal scrutiny. It thus behoves the apex court to offer very sound interpretations and judgments in all circumstances. The case against Fayemi is one of such recondite aspect that had not been tested up to the apex court level.
This is an opportunity for such decisive and final intervention. The main issue for determination – whether or not Fayemi is an employee as envisaged in the extant laws and APC guidelines – has been rendered dilatory at the courts below. The apex court must clear the fog over the issue this week.
The commitment of the Supreme Court was evident when, Tuesday, last week, it dealt with the objection by Fayemi that the appeal was filed out of time. That such objection was raised at that intersection could be part of panicky moves. The panel and counsel to both parties had reportedly worked their adding machines to do the calculation. At the end of the exercise, the court ruled that the matter was filed within time.
It is appropriate to say that the nation and the entire world are waiting on the Supreme Court to issue a verdict that will answer the question as to whether or not a serving minister, as an aspirant, should resign in line with extant guidelines and the implicit intention of creating a level-play field during party primary election. This is the bottom-line.
Whether answer to the question is in the affirmative or negative, the Supreme Court would have established a locus classicus, anyhow, since there has yet to be any precedent by the apex court on the issue. Without a doubt, either way, the nation’s jurisprudence will be enriched. If the apex court ruling favours Kayode Fayemi, then it will be clear that, henceforth, ministers do not need to resign within any specified time to the primary election as aspirants or as candidates latest 30 days before the general election since they are not public officers.
On the other hand, if the ruling favours Segun Oni, then the ramifications will be self-evident for the governorship mandate of Fayemi. Also, the issue of resignation as a condition precedent to the nomination process involving serving ministers will be upended. The truth is that the nation cannot continue to accept ambiguities in the understanding of the actual intent of the drafters of the law in respect of this particular and other contentious issues.
Ojeifo, Abuja-based journalist, contributed this piece via firstname.lastname@example.org