By Olusegun Adeniyi
Following the 5th December 2020 Imo North Senatorial by-election to replace the late Benjamin Uwajumogu, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared victory in favour of the All Progressives Congress (APC) without proclaiming a winner. This was due to a multiplicity of cases by APC members claming to be the party’s candidate and the various reliefs they were able to procure from different courts. But in a recent petition signed by the party’s acting National Chairman and governor of Yobe, Mai Mala Buni, APC accused Supreme Court Justices Mohammed Dattijo, Abdu Aboki and Helen Ogunwumiju of conspiring with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to deliver the senate seat. This grave allegation has already elicited a response from the apex court with dire implications for the people of Imo North and democracy in Nigeria.
Announcing the suspension of proceedings in the appeal by Chukwuemeka Ibezim regarding his dispute with Ifeanyi Ararume, Justice Mohammed Dattijo—who led a five-member panel of the apex court—said APC has called to question his integrity and that of two colleagues. “Let me confirm to all counsel in this matter that the Interim National Chairman of APC had written a petition against me and two other Justices of this court, namely Helen Ogunwumiju and Abdu Aboki” said Dattijo. “They alleged that my humble self had led my two brothers to attend a meeting with members of the PDP to strategize on how to subvert the outcome of this case. I must say that this is most unfortunate and my heart bleeds for this country. This is a reckless and irresponsible statement. If they have honour, let them substantiate their allegations and I will not stay a day longer in this court. So, this matter is adjourned sine die,” meaning indefinitely.
The problem began on 5th September last year when factions emerged from the seven-man committee established by the APC to conduct primaries for Imo North senatorial election. Chaired by Senator Ajibola Bashiru with Samuel Ogbuku as Secretary, other committee members included Jibrin Gada, Bello Kumo, Umar Gana, Mohammed Saba and Godfrey Ejim. At the end of the exercise, two APC senatorial candidates emerged. While Bashiru led the secretary and two other members to declare Ibezim winner, the remaining three committee members gave victory to Ifeanyi Ararume. The party headquarters threw its weight behind Ibezim and submitted his name to INEC. But several politicians, including those from parties that ordinarily had no dog in the fight, went to court with all manner of cases. That was how the judiciary became a pawn in the political chess game.
In the Nigerian legal system, there is only ONE Federal High Court. There is also only ONE Court of Appeal. That has not stopped our politicians from instituting cases involving same parties at different locations of the same court. On 6th November 2020, the Federal High Court sitting in Owerri disqualified Ibezim and declared Ararume the APC candidate in a case filed by Lady Uchenna Ubah. This case proceeded to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court and both overturned the verdict which then left the coast clear for Ibezim. But in a case filed by Tony Elebeke on 4th December 2020, another Federal High Court sitting in Abuja disqualified Ibezim, thus technically giving the ticket to Ararume 24 hours to the election. This judgement was affirmed by the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja. However, we must remember that the Owerri panel of the Court of Appeal (in the case filed against APC by Lady Ubah) had earlier upheld the election of the same Ibezim. Were different facts presented before the two panels? Similarly, the Supreme Court that had earlier validated the election of Ibezim in the Ubah case against APC disqualified him on this latter case thus effectively giving the ticket to Ararume. Were different facts presented before the Supreme Court too?
That of course was not the end of the court drama. On 8th March 2021, an interim order was sought at the FCT High Court to compel INEC to recognize Chief Emmanuel Okewulonu, the PDP candidate, winner of the election. This is forum shopping by another politician who had actually filed a similar case at the Election Petition Tribunal that is still pending. However, the Judge was also clever. Apparently in a bid to buy time for the matter to be decided either by the Supreme Court or the Election Tribunal, he adjourned the case. On 18th March, 2021, without waiting for the appeal pending at the Supreme Court, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja declared Ararume winner of the election. On the same day, an Interim Injunction was obtained from the High Court of Imo State, restraining INEC from recognizing Ararume as the candidate for the election. Curiously, the case was filed by a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). What is APGA’s interest in APC internal issues? Obviously a case of hand of Esau, voice of Jacob!
Interestingly, before the Imo North Senatorial contest became enmeshed in litigation, the APC screening committee had disqualified Ibezim and the decision was upheld by the party’s appeal panel. Somehow, somehow as we say in Nigeria, it was the name of this same disqualified aspirant that the party sent to INEC as APC candidate. With that, the commission is helpless because by design, our politicians have protected themselves, regardless of how they circumvent their own internal processes. Section 31 of the Electoral Act says that once a party submits the list of candidates, INEC has no power to reject or disqualify “for any reason whatsoever”.
As sordid as the foregoing may appear, nobody should imagine this is only an APC problem. Internal democracy is alien to all our political parties as can be glimpsed from a similar problem in Cross River State involving the PDP. In a split decision of four to three, the supreme court on 17th February dismissed the appeal filed by Stephen Odey challenging the judgement of the Court of Appeal which declared Agom Jarigbe the validly-nominated candidate for Cross River Senatorial District. But the role played by the judiciary was, to put it mildly, very suspicious. Why, for instance, was Jarigbe’s case filed before the Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, rather than in Calabar, the capital of Cross River State where the contentious PDP primary was held and the venue of the by-election? Then there is a glaring abuse of court processes by the use of interim exparte orders.
As its name implies, an ‘interim’ order is a temporary order but has long become a potent tool in the hands of Nigerian politicians to checkmate being denied justice or compel compliance with a ruse. As absurd as it may sound, however, we should not blame Jarigbe. He evidently won the primaries but the PDP panel gave victory to his opponent, apparently to appease a powerful man in the state. Jarigbe may therefore have reasoned that those behind his travail were in control of the judicial arm in Calabar, including the Federal High Court. So, at the end, what saved the day for him was the curious judgement he got from Port Harcourt. In a dramatic development on 17th December last year, just 24 hours after the Clerk of the National Assembly had sworn-in Odey as a Senator, the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja declared Jarigbe the duly nominated PDP candidate for the electon. And that has been affirmed by the apex court. How do you run a country like that?
The challenge at hand is the absence of internal party democracy. In fact, the most lucrative enterprise for party members is to be saddled with the assignment of primaries in the states. This explains why most election cases are those that challenge the conduct/management of the nomination of candidates. Party primaries are replete with manipulation of membership registers, total disregard for their own constitutions and guidelines as well as blatant corruption and imposition of candidates, especially by governors.
That Nigerian politicians refuse to see the danger of subverting democracy is very clear. Where they don’t resort to litigation, they disrupt well organized elections by INEC, using thugs as it happened in Ekiti State two weeke ago. What is sad about Ekiti is not just that lives were lost but also that the constituency (Ekiti East 1 State Constituency) is one of the smallest in Nigeria. It covers half of just one local government with only five Wards, 39 polling units and 23,670 registered voters. If this trend continues unchecked, one can only imagine what will happen during the governorship election next year or in the 2023 general election involving the entire country.
Meanwhile, INEC has been statutorily restrained by the provision of Section 31(1) of the Electoral Act from exercising any discretion on the candidates being sponsored by a party. This is to ensure that INEC is apolitical. Fine. But the spurious court verdicts don’t help the commission either. Sadly, the Supreme Court which ordinarily has the duty to hammer against judicial rascality in lower courts has been dragged into the mess by its own internal contradictions. We now have a situation where people who come fourth in elections are able to become governors by the benevolence of judicial officers. Or as it is the case with Imo North Senatorial District, thousands of people will turn out to vote yet four months after, they would have no representation at the National Assembly. It is getting to a point in which Nigerians will begin to ask themselves, why bother to vote?
In the course of interrogating this same vexatious issue last year, I made allusion to why democracy, according to Ross Feingold, is considered the most legitimate form of government, essentially because the power of choice rests with the people. “But when this power dynamic is altered and citizens lose their influence, the legitimacy of the system is threatened.” In a situation where politicians no longer campaign but rely on the court to get to power, that is no longer democracy. Both the National Judicial Commission (NJC) and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) as well as other critical stakeholders should work together to save our judiciary from this shameful conduct. To file frivolous cases, lawyers after filthy lucre will breach civil procedural demands and get such cases assigned to and heard by their accomplices on the bench. While we must put an end to such unholy alliances, there is also an urgent need to bring post-party primaries litigations under the electoral law. This will eliminate forum shopping and also deal with the issue of proliferation of orders and judgments emanating from different courts of coordinate jurisdiction.
While political parties must wean themselves of bad behaviour in the conduct of their primaries to nominate candidates for elections, both the Constitution and the Electoral Act require amendment. We cannot continue with a situation in which Judges veto the choices of the electorate on the basis of technicalities such as how names are written on certificates. If this democracy is to survive, it is imperative that the judiciary as an institution and judges as individuals are not only impartial to those who appear before them but also that the wider public have the confidence that cases affecting their well-being will be decided fairly and in accordance with the law.
As a cornerstone of democracy, any judiciary that doesn’t serve constitutional goals is a problem for the society. It’s worse when Judges are perceived as not acting fairly, reasonably, and in preservation of public trust in the rule of law. That sadly is the state we are in Nigeria today and it calls for a lot of soul searching by judicial officers. Proliferation of court cases with similar cause of action at different locations of courts of coordinate jurisdiction indicates forum shopping and may point to the fact that justice is now cash and carry. This can only encourage jungle justice. However, the greater responsibility lies with the political class. Which is why the APC, as the ruling party, should be restrained in making claims it cannot substantiate against judicial officers at the apex court. In their own enlightened interest, they must begin to accord the judiciary the respect and dignity necessary for judges to do their work without being dragged into partisan politics or having their reputation sullied.
Amatala and Other ‘Unforgotten’ Children
Despite protestation from my friend, Waziri Adio who has been her greatest supporter and encourager right from the beginning, I had warned my wife when this whole idea started three years ago that on no account should it get to the media. I promised financial support and when necessary rally close friends but it should always be our own way of giving back to the society in a quiet way. When Ms Tolu Salami, a Masters degree holder and job seeker, joined to assist in managing the ‘school’, I should have seen a red flag with the opening of a Twitter account. But with a followership of just 75 comprising family and friends, I never thought much of it. Then the photograph of Amatala, a two-year old who was in the habit of loitering around the ‘school’ premises with book in hand, changed everything!
Within a few hours, the Twitter account had attracted more than a thousand followers with many people asking how they could support the initiative. When Waziri told me he was going to blow my cover about the project as a follow up to the tweet, I really couldn’t care anymore. But I have so many people to thank for the way my wife is gradually transforming the lives of 54 children, 17 young adults and their parents through an informal project she was compelled to register and now goes by the name Not Forgotten Initiative (NFI).
It’s a long story but let me share the key points. There were many ramshackle shanties around our house in Asokoro with inhabitants whose children were just roaming the area. On a particular day in 2018, a pregnant woman flagged down my wife as she drove past, asking for help. Her husband had asked her to move her things from their abode and she needed someone to intervene. Upon investigation, the conflict stemmed from her refusal to give him the N5,000 she had saved from her petty trading to send Haruna, her first son whose father is late, to school. She was looking to get the savings to N15,000 to register the boy in school and here she was, about to be kicked out of her matrimonial home.
When my wife discussed the matter with me, she followed up with a proposition: Why don’t we take up Haruna’s education? I agreed instantly. Then she added, ‘What about the other kids? We need to do something about them as well.’ She told me she had discussed with parents and they expressed willingness to have their children (14 at the time) in school but had no money. I told her to go ahead with whatever she planned, promising to provide the financial resources. I know I have good friends I can always count on.
My wife took my word as a license to construct two classrooms in a make-shift structure on an empty land within the area. But the moment the 14 pupils were enrolled and one teacher employed, we had many children showing up, looking all scruffy and tattered. And we could not turn them back. We hired two more teacers. Just as I was getting worried by the financial implications as the number of pupils kept increasing, my friend, Folorunsho (Foli) Coker, added a new idea. Following his appointment as Director General of Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Coker arrived Abuja in 2017 to take accommodation beside the ‘school’. He fell in love with the children and inquired about people behind the idea. When he got to know I was involved, Foli called me to suggest, “Segun, your wife has to go beyond teaching those children. They deserve at least one meal a day. I will support you.” That was how meal became part of the project.
We soon introduced the ‘extension school’ with the sole purpose of providing after school support to struggling students from government owned secondary schools, particularly in Mathematics, English and basic science. We also serve them lunch and the number grew from the initial eight to 17. One of them emerged the president of his school’s mathematics club, another became the best overall student in mathematics. It was like a dream come true when we offered a full boarding scholarship to two of them who recently completed their junior WAEC and others are working so hard to benefit from this opportunity. We have since extended the ‘school’ from two to seven classrooms, five teachers, several volunteers. And from the beginning, we promised that we would give those kids the best education so they undertake excursion visits, have movie days and many professionals come in from time to time to fire their imaginations. But the most fulfilling for me is that our three children love the idea and treat those NFI children, all of whose names they know (I know only a few) like siblings.
For proper documentation, my wife was advised to register the ‘school’. It was at the point of registration that she was told that if we were providing uniforms, bags, shoes, socks, stationary, one meal a day and everything, we couldn’t register it as a school. They said it had to be registered as an NGO. That was how the Not Forgotten Initiative (NFI) came to be. There are currently 54 registered pupils but there are 83 more on the ‘Waiting List’ (those that could not be accommodated) and 17 ‘extension school’ students.
During the pandemic, it was impossible to transition to digital learning, so my wife and children dropped off homework and relief materials to their houses for the children and families. A young lady named Mariam joined our evening tutorial programme for secondary school students. Then the story emerged that her mother was planning to give her away in marriage. After investigation, we realised that the mother wanted to take advantage of an offer of 150,000 Naira from a suitor to marry her off. My wife spoke to the mother, auntie and the brother in law, and they agreed to cancel the marriage if NFI would cater for Mariam’s education. We gladly accepted the deal. Another young lady, Nana Usman was brought to us to be a cleaner because the family could no longer cater for her education. We also accepted responsibility for her education. She has just completed her junior WAEC as well.
But not all stories are pleasant. Very recently, two NFI pupils, ages 8 and 5, witnessed the rape of their two-year-old sibling in their home. We sought help from the good people of Cece-yara foundation and all three kids are getting therapy and the culprit is currently in police custody, because he was actually caught in the act. The story of Amatala has resonated but there is still trouble in her home. Her father, who had abandoned their mother since last year, walked into NFI two weeks ago and asked to withdraw his four children and take them to the village. We thought by putting Haruna (whose father is late) in boarding school, the man would relent but he is fighting back through the children enrolled in NFI, including Amatala! Incodentally, part of the programme include persuading difficult parents like him and building a support system that can pressurise them into pursuing the best interests of their children.
The NFI experience has been an exciting journey and hopefully, one day I will tell the complete story. The aim is to help these children and young adults to become the best they can possibly be and break the cycle of poverty in heir families. My wife is a chartered insurer (ACIIN) and a chartered accountant (with both ICAN and ACCA). But she stopped her business to devote all her attention to running the ‘school’. We started with a 6/6 feet structure in December 2018. Then expanded the structure to 12/12 feet in March 2019. And built another in January this year. All these structures are on a land whose owner we still don’t know and from whom we never secured any permission in the first place. I suspect that the owner is aware of what we are doing and is probably watching.
It is interesting that we have become like foster parents to these children whose parents are also to us almost like families. To all of them, I am daddy and my wife, mummy. But we could not have come this far without the support of very good people. Waziri and Sandra Adio as well as Mustapha and ‘Sweetheart’ Onoyiveta have been wonderful and so have been Mrs Sylvia Garuba (I will tell her story one day) and Mrs Ibilola Essien. We appreciate the many people who have supported us either in cash or in kind. To Mr Nduka Obaigbena, Ms Jacqueline Farris, Father George Ehusani, Pastor Tunde Olorunwunmi, Mrs Maryam Uwais, Mrs Mosunmola Jegede, Dr (Mrs) Ngozi Azodoh, Mrs Yoyinsola Makanjuola, Mr Ferdinand Agu, Mr Olawale Banmore, Pastor Martins, Mrs Funke Abegunde, Mrs Ebere Ihedioha, Pastor Niyi Ajibola, Mrs Tinuke Kuti, Malam Musa Bello, Ms Liz Ekpenyong, Mrs Chinwe Umeh-Ujobuona, Dr (Mrs) Rosemary Nwokorie, Mr Mohammed Bello Adoke, SAN, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, Dr Iko Ibanga, Mr Kayode Komolafe, Mrs Koyinsola Dickson, Mrs Maria Uwalla, Mrs Tosin Dokpesi, Mr Ubile Lawson, Mrs Florence Egopija, Mr Simon Kolawole, Mrs Toyosi Ahmadu, Mr Ola Awoniyi, Mrs Aisha Coker, Mrs Obiageli Obianozie, Mr Bamidele Okunowo, Mrs Taiwo Ojo, Pastor Dayo Kayode, Pastor (Mrs) Elsie Otegbade, Mr Ismaila Lawal, Mr Bunmi Thomas and several others who support the project without any solicitation from us, I say a very big thank you.
I am of the firm conviction that the issue of millions of out-of-school children is something that should concern not only the government but the larger society. Together, we can collectively tackle this menace.
You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com
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