Matawalle’s judicial victory: Matters arising

By Tonnie Iredia

The Federal High Court, Gusau Division last week, was reported to have affirmed Bello Matawalle as governor of Zamfara state. The verdict of the case which was to oust Matawalle for defecting to another party did not surprise many because the reason for it is not new.

One point that has been consistently canvassed is that the defection of a governor from one party to another is not one of the conditions listed in our constitution for the removal of a governor from office. As a result, anyone who is eager to remove governor Matawalle or any of his colleagues from office has to follow the legal and appropriate provisions of the law. If so, why were very senior and respected lawyers part of the move by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to use the judiciary to sack the Zamfara governor for an offence that is said to be unknown to the law? Were they testing the waters or hoping that some activist judge might be swayed by the need to help society attain good public policy? However, the last may not have been heard of the case because only last Thursday, the Federal High Court Abuja granted a plea by the PDP to join governor Matawalle as a defendant in another suit seeking his removal.

While we are confident that the judiciary would in due course deal with the issues raised, many politicians and perhaps some curious individuals are becoming more concerned about how best to deal with many subjects which are also reportedly not known to the law but from which some people are reaping legal fruits. One such subject is what now looks like the participation of a non-existent entity in the government of Zamfara state.

The story behind it all is not difficult to recall. During the last general elections in the country, the ruling party in the state, the All Progressives Congress (APC) was declared winner of both the governorship and majority of the seats at the House of Assembly by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The judiciary however over-turned the verdict having found the APC guilty of breaching the rules of the game. In other words, in the eyes of the law, the APC did not participate in the election and was even asked to pay a fine of N10million. From nowhere, some politicians have ‘circumlocuted’ to now conceive an inexplicable idea that some people answering the same name of APC and recognized by the national leadership of the APC now constitute the state government.

Expectedly, people are now asking a series of questions: (a) Can the APC which in the eyes of the law was non-existent in a state produce a governor for such a state? (b) Should the law recognize anyone who purports to be an APC governor in Zamfara state? (c) Should we discountenance those who think Matawalle should not be assisted to sustain such weird claim? (d) Are such persons, not raising a fundamental poser which public policy actors should ponder over quickly and seriously too? While not discussing the rationality of the judicial affirmation of Matawalle as governor especially because this column is not the correct location for that, it seems obvious that the judicial pronouncement has a technical foundation. In which case, the scenario may not be the fault of the judiciary as it is not expected to base its decisions on issues of morality or emotions and pressures of the moment. If so, it is time to begin to consider the other options that can be employed to make our democracy have a proper character.

In fact, like many other defects such as the issue of fake credentials by candidates which we have since been dealing with, it is also critical to identify strategies by which society can stop unstable actors who jump from one political divide to another from spending precious governance time on politicization. While it is likely that the Zamfara case would have been easily handled if it had arisen during the electioneering era especially during election petitions, time cannot legitimize inappropriate behaviour.

If it is allowed to remain, the contradictions it poses for the political system can pollute our democracy. To start with, it overturns the wishes of the people. During the 2019 general elections, the people of Cross River and Ebonyi states voted for the PDP. The defections of Governors Ben Ayade and Dave Umahi respectively from the people’s party of choice to their newly found party of interest, are quite capable of negating the democratic tenet of the sovereignty of the people. The governors neither sponsored themselves nor were they voted to represent themselves. They were supposed to be in office to represent the people.

As i have argued at some other fora in the past, the sovereignty of the people is the prime tenet of democracy. In every society, power belongs to the people because they are the source of political power. Everything in politics is supposedly done on their behalf by their representatives. When it is the other way round as happens in parts of Nigeria, it merely reverses the legitimacy of government which ought to be premised on the consent of the people. It is perhaps for this reason that many scholars have continued to argue that electoral victory is superior to judicial victory.

We need to take a more critical look at the subject and return power to the Nigerian people. While the power of the judiciary to settle election disputes has been helpful, the judiciary should not have the last say in determining the wishes of the people. A re-run election which gives the people the last say might be better. For instance, there is no proof that such a fresh exercise in Zamfara state which would have excluded APC having been disqualified would have been won by PDP that was second in the first exercise.

In Nigeria, party supremacy may be a myth in practice but in law it is real because the Nigerian constitution provides that only persons sponsored by political parties can contest elections in the country. To further confirm this privileged position of Nigeria’s political party system, the judiciary has consistently held that it is political parties that win elections and not their candidates.

As stated earlier, elections that were won by PDP in Cross River and Ebonyi states can at no point in time become APC victories simply because their governors found cause to change ship. It is worse in Zamfara, where APC was not one of the contesting parties in both the governorship elections and in the entire general elections of 2019. We cannot continue to criticise our parties as having no distinct manifestos and at the same time pretend not to know that politicians who can switch parties at will cannot in truth stand for anything distinct or original.

I consider it simplistic to argue that the defection of a governor is in line with the principle of freedom of movement. My position is that there is time for everything. A decent governor can resign at any time to join another party which he suddenly finds more appealing but it certainly amounts to usurpation for such a governor to hold-on to the mandate of another party while moving to a new party. Such a governor betrays the people who voted for him because he was known as the candidate of their preferred political party.

He also betrays many others such as those who stood as his nominees as part of the requirement for eligibility to contest elections in Nigeria. What the unending issues of materialistic defections suggest is that the constitutional provision which bars individuals from contesting elections as independent candidates has since become superfluous. Too many of such contradictions in our system ought to be expunged. They are the real issues which our law makers should put in the front burner of our so-called constitution amendment instead of issues of personal and party interest.

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