Calculations for the next governorship election in Rivers State threaten the health of the Peoples Democratic Party in the state
Ahead of the next general elections, the crisis rocking the Rivers State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, appears set to produce its first casualty in the person of Chief Godspower Umejuru Ake, incumbent party chairman in the state.
Two chieftains of the party, Chief Amechi Felix Obuah and Walter Ibibia Opuene, alleged to have the backing of Mr. Nyesom Wike, Minister of State for Education, have dragged the party, members of the panel that conducted the party’s 2012 state congress and the the Independent National Election Commission before an Abuja High Court, seeking Ake’s ouster.
Ake is said to enjoy the support of Governor Rotimi Amaechi and Senator Magnus Abe. Stakeholders view the attempt to dethrone the Chief Ake-led executive committe of the party as not unconnected to disagreement of members with Amaechi over the choice of the party’s flagbearer for the next governorship election.
Wike, Amaechi’s former Chief of Staff, is thought to be suspicious that the governor will plump for Abe as the PDP governorship candidate in 2015.
In an effort to wrest the party machinery from the governor’s grip, Obuah and Opuene went to court, claiming they were validly nominated and elected Chairman and Secretary respectively at the 2012 state congress conducted by a panel led by Chief Dan Orbih and Steve Emelieze, who were the chairman and secretary respectively.
The duo tendered an endorsed list of elected officials at the congress, with the number of votes secured by each of the elected officials and their party membership numbers and voters card details written against their names.
The list, which bears the signatures of the chairman and secretary of the electoral panel, is printed on a letter headed paper of the national secretariat of the party and shows that Obuah and Opuene were nominated and elected as chairman and secretary with 721 votes and 713 votes respectively.
They contend that as winners at the state congress conducted by a properly constituted electoral panel and monitored by INEC, they ought to be the respective occupants of the offices of chairman and secretary of the state chapter and urged the court to compel the national leadership of the party and the electoral body to recognise them as state executive committee members of the PDP.
Rattled by the possibility of an ouster, Ake approached the court and asked to be joined in the matter. He told the court that he had the authority of other members of the party’s state executive committee to defend the suit on their behalf and that the reliefs being sought by Obuah and Opuene will adversely affect him and the others, as the decision of the court will likely remove them from office.
The court agreed and ordered that he be joined as the 5th defendant in the matter and directed that the court processes and documents in the matter be amended to include him as a party in the suit.
Upon being joined in the suit, Ake challenged the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the matter as well as the competence of the case, which he said is provocative and ought not to be commenced by an originating summons.
The embattled chairman, through his lawyer, Mr. Olalekan Ojo, told the court that the matter ought to be filed at a Federal High Court and not the Abuja High Court, as INEC, a federal agency, is a party in the suit. He, therefore, urged the court to dismiss the suit.
In support of his position, Ake claimed that he was elected chairman, having won, alongside other members of the executive committee, the election conducted by the electoral panel at the state congress. He claimed they were all elected unopposed.
He exhibited a list of the executive members and the offices they were elected into to support his claim that they were duly nominated and participated in the election where they were elected unopposed.
Ake’s list, however, did not bear the letterhead of the national secretariat of the party and only bore a purported signature of the secretary of the electoral panel, Emelieze, who has denied signing the list. Mandatory ingredients like membership numbers and voters registration details of the purported elected officials were also missing from the list.
Emelieze and Orbih, who led the electoral panel, distanced themselves from Ake’s list and told the court that the list exhibited by Ake was a forged document.
To buttress his allegation that his signature was forged, Emelieze, through his lawyer, Mr. Ibrahim Eddy Mark, exhibited official documents he signed in the last five years to enable the court verify his signature and contended that the list submitted by Obuah and Opuene is the authentic list of winners at the state congress, as it bears their authentic signatures and was printed on the party’s letter headed paper consistent with official correspondence between the electoral body and the national secretariat of the party at the time of the election.
Orbih, through his lawyer, Mr. John Alu, also dissociated himself from Ake’s list and agreed that the list of Obuah and Opuene is the authentic one.
Last Tuesday, when the court heard the preliminary objections filed by the PDP, INEC and Ake alongside the substantive matter, the electoral body contended that it is mandated by Section 85 of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, to monitor party congresses and nothing more and argued that very little reference was made to it by the plaintiffs which, according to the electoral body, is an evidence that there are no issues to warrant a response from it.
However, it went further to challenge the competence of the suit on the basis that any deficiency at the congress cannot be brought to the court at this time for the simple reason that it had become statute barred.
INEC argued that it monitored the congress on 17 March, 2012, and that Section 2(a) of Public Officers Protection Act prescribed that any act against any decision taken by a public officer shall be commenced within a period of three months and argued that the failure of the plaintiffs to act against such an act by INEC makes their case statute barred and urged the court to dismiss the suit.
In response, Chief Godwin Obla, who represented Obuah and Opuene, countered the submissions of the electoral body. Obla argued that the three months can only begin to count from the time the electoral body has officially recognised any person as the chairman.
INEC is yet to officially recognise any of the warring parties. Obla further argued that his clients participated and emerged winners as chairman and secretary at the state congress conducted by an electoral panel constituted by the national leadership of the party and monitored by INEC and asked the court to declare that they are duly nominated and elected as chairman and secretary.
He urged the court to discountenance the objections of the PDP, INEC and Ake and determine the real winners of the election so that his clients would benefit from their victories at the congress.
The court, presided over by Justice Talba Mohammed, adjourned the matter for ruling on the preliminary objections. If the preliminary objections succeed, the substantive matter will collapse. Otherwise, Ake will be evicted.