Engr. Frank Okon
Can Frank Okon overcome the great obstacles on his way and actualize his ambition of being the governor of Akwa Ibom State?
What happened at the federal High Court Two, Abuja, presided over by Justice Abdul Kafarati, on Thursday, July 12, would for many years remain indelible in the memory of those who were privileged to be in court that day, other Nigerians and the international community who later got the news from the media. Weeks earlier, notification of judgement in the 2011 Akwa Ibom State governorship tussle between Frank Okon, an engineer, and Godwil Akpabio, a lawyer and governor of Akwa Ibom State, were sent by the same court to the parties involved. And the parties were in court to receive the much expected judgement.
However, after long wait, to most people’s amazement, Babatunde Ashada, registrar of the court, came out and dismissed the court without giving any reason! It was later rumoured that the judge had traveled out of the country that very day. Four days later, the Federal High Court, proceeded on along annual vacation which will last from July 16th to September 14th, 2012. It is now hoped that Justice Kafarati who is now back in the country will fix a new date for Judgement when the annual vacation is over.
In the meantime, some lawyers argued that the Judge could easily have given the Judgement which had been written, to another Judge to read. Again, they insist that he could also deliver Judgement during the annual vacation if he so wishes as skeletal court services continue during the period. However, some other lawyers alleged that the Judge’s hands were tied and there was nothing he could do in the circumstances. Those in this school of thought argue that the Judge could even have been deliberately placed on an international Seminar outside the country.
Okon, a former special assistant to former Governor, Victor Attah, was a Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Governorship Aspirant in the April 2011 elections in the state. He went to court seeking the nullification of the election of the April 26 governorship election on the ground that he was illegally excluded from the party primary held on January 15, 2011, which returned Akpabio as the party standard bearer. This, he argued before the court, breached his fundamental human rights.
According to Okon, he was screened and cleared by PDP to participate in the party primary initially held on January 9, 2011 which was later canceled by the party. However, “I was schemed out by the collusion between INEC, PDP and Akpabio from the subsequent re-run fixed for January 15,” he said.
Put together, Okon in an amended originating summons of January 5, 2012, formulated 10 issues for determination by the court, supported by a 65-paragraph affidavit he deposed to. Furthermore, he asked the court to grant him nine reliefs. Some of these are: a declaration that the purported re-run primary of January 15, 2011, which produced Akpabio as the Governorship candidate of PDP, did not comply with the provisions of the 2010 Electoral Act as amended; that the purported re-run was ordered by the National Working Committee, NWC, presided over by Okwesilieze Nwodo, then chairman of PDP after his tenure had been terminated by an order of an Enugu high Court could not have produced a valid candidate, making it unlawful, null, void and of no effect; that the re-run was discriminatory and prejudicial as he was not issued any notice of re-run by the party, thereby violating his constitutional rights; that the re-run did not comply with the 7 days notice condition before it was conducted with the purported notice issued on January 14 and the re-run conducted on January 15! According to PDP constitution, the NWC has no power to order a re-run; such power resides with the NEC. But the party argued in court that it was as a result of emergency, which Okon described as untenable “as no one is allowed to substitute or vary content of a document orally.”
Consequently, “The conduct of the January 15, 2011 re-run primary election was gross violations of PDP Constitution, the PDP Electoral Guidelines, the Electoral Acts as amended and the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” argued Okon.
Okon also raised the issue of Akpabio’s eligibility when he did not have valid evidence that he paid his taxes in the three years preceding the primary. According to Article 14, Part IV of the PDP Electoral Guideline, “an aspirant to gubernatorial primary election shall not be qualified to be nominated or to contest the primary election, if he/she fails to produce his personal income tax certificate as at when due for the last preceding three years or evideince of exemption from payment of personal income tax”.
Accordingly, Okon averred that, “The requirement of tax payment is part of the party’s guidelines to be qualified for nomination; once an aspirant shows evidence of exemption from tax, he would have met requirement for nomination and failure to so qualify is fatal.” Against this background, Okon asked the court to declare him as the valid winner of the PDP Governorship primary in Akwa Ibom State; or in the alternative order a re-run of the party primary in the state.
When the court sat on May 3, 2012, the presentation of final briefs by all interested parties on the originating application earlier fixed for the day, was put off due to an application by Paul Usoro, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Akpabio’s counsel, raising a preliminary objection to the jurisdiction of the court over the case. He cited the April 20, 2012 Supreme Court Judgement which dismissed the appeal by Timipre Sylva, former Governor of Bayelsa State, against his exclusion as candidate in the recent governorship primary in the state. The Supreme Court in the Bayelsa case held that the decision to sponsor a candidate for election is the internal decision of the political party, and not subject to being contested in court.
However, Lasun Sanusi, SAN, Okon’s counsel, argued that the two cases are fundamentally different. For instance, “Sylva was never cleared by the party to stand for election,” he argued. “In the plaintiff’s case, he was screened and cleared by the party to stand for that primaries election, and therefore has the right to challenge the conduct of that primaries election. Again, his name was conspicuously displayed on ballot paper for the January 9, 2011 election. So also was it on the result sheet of that election.” The Judge reserved the ruling of the preliminary objection to July 12 along with the final Judgement.
On its part, the Independent Electoral Commission, INEC, which is the first defendant, asked the court to dismiss the application against the commission for wrongful acceptance of a candidate for an election, saying the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act have not granted it any powers to reject a candidate for election that has been forwarded to it by the relevant officials of the political party. The commission pleaded that once that was done, only the court can decide the legitimacy of the choice, according to relevant laws. “As an umpire, INEC is enjoined to be neutral; hence, it must presume that any name forwarded to it by a political party is a name that emerged from a due process,” submitted the commission. However, it pledged to “Abide by whatever decision or order the court deems fit to make in the circumstance.”
On the other hand, Olusola Oke, SAN, counsel to the PDP, argued that claims by Okon that he was excluded to contest the primary could not be true as evidence showed that he was aware of the rescheduled election of January 15, 2011, but chose to stay away for personal reasons. The party further revealed that Nwodo’s signature was on the documents because they were signed in advance!
However, Sanusi countered that there is nothing in the constitution and regulation of the PDP to show that the party is authorized to accept as valid its documents printed in advance for an election, pointing out that if that is acceptable, then the party may publish the result of the election before they are held.
This was the state of affairs when the date of judgement was set. In Akwa Ibom State, the tension was palpable. There was visible fear at the Hilltop Manson, seat of power. And suddenly, the judgement could not be read. Meanwhile, Okon is on exile abroad. He has received several death threats; his phone and internet accounts have been hacked into to keep tabs on him. It’s a kind of David and Goliath duel as he has little weapons to fight other than the grace of God. His trial is the predicament of the average Nigerian who wants to exercise his right to run for any elective position of his choice as guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution.
Knowing that a sitting governor has a huge financial war chest and immense connections nationwide, the underdog should have the right to, at least contest, and lose honourably but not to be deliberately excluded from contesting. The court is still the last hope of the common man and Okon has left fate to God through the Court.
By Anayochukwu Agbo