[By VICTOR NZE]
Since his official defection to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in June, this year, Governor Ben Ayade has set about piecing together an ambitious and grand takeover project of the Cross River North Senatorial District from the grip of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as he steadily amassed local but major political heavyweights from the zone for a final onslaught come 2023.
From the state House of Assembly to the Federal House of Representatives, some elected officials from the zone have either openly or tacitly pledged their allegiance to him as sitting governor, even as many more have physically joined him at the APC.
That progression has now suffered a major setback following a ruling by an Appeal Court sacking Odey from his position as the Senator representing Cross River North at the senate.
Court of Appeal sitting in Calabar, Friday dismissed the suit filed by Senator Stephen Odey while upholding the election of the present Member representing Ogoja/Yala Federal Constituency at the Federal House of Representatives, Hon. Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe as senator-elect of Cross River North Senatorial District.
The Court also ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to re- issue Jarigbe with a Certificate of Return and invalidate the one earlier awarded to Senator Stephen Odey.
The three-man panel headed by Hon. Justice Chioma Iheme-Nwosu while dismissing an earlier ruling by a Port Harcourt High Court which had declared Senator Odey winner, upheld a December 2020 High Court judgment by the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court in Suit No. CV/77/2020 which voided the candidacy of Stephen Odey of the PDP as winner of the Cross River North senatorial bye-election conducted in October, last year.
The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court presided over by Justice Binta Mohammed had ruled that Jarigbe Agom did not supply any false information to INED ahead of the bye-election in his INEC Form CF001 with regard to educational qualification.
The suit filed by John Alaga, (complainant), also held that the Cross River North Senatorial primary election of the PDP wherein Jarigbe (1st defendant) was nominated as the Senatorial candidate was conducted with the authentic list of the Ward and Local Government Area Executives of the party.
The Court therefore directed INEC, sued as the second Defendant, to include and publish the name of Hon. Jarigbe on the list of candidates for the bye election scheduled for 5th December, 2020.
Consequently Jarigbe was issued with a certificate of return (CoR) as Senator-elect for Cross River North Senatorial District, and was supposed to have been inaugurated by the Nigeria Senate I accordance with Nigeria’s constitution on the 26th January, 2021, but for an appeal filed by Odey against that Abuja court ruling. At a ceremony in December in 2020, Jarigbe was given the CoR by INEC National Commissioner and Chairman of its information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye.
A Port Harcourt High Court where Jarigbe had gone to appeal INEC’s declaration of Odey as winner of the bye-election had upheld the authentic delegates list used for the exercise.
However, delivering judgment in an appeal filed by Odey against an Abuja High Court ruling, the Appeal Court sitting in Calabar in a Suit No CAL/C/NAEA/SEN/167/2021 ruled that the tribunal in the first place erred by making a resolution in an area it had no jurisdiction.
It held that their job has been made easier by the previous judgments tendered to the court.
The court said they have decided to give effects to the previous judgments since the tribunal refused to do so.
“It is our humble and firm view that the issue calls for consideration whether the tribunal was right to jettison the decision of the High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court and declare the 1st Respondent (Odey) as validly elected.
“The tribunal is bound by the decisions of Superior Courts on the same issue.
“The law does not allow the tribunal to take a different position as the law has already affirmed that Hon. Jarigbe is the lawful candidate of the PDP.
“The tribunal is bound by the decisions of superior courts on the same issue.
“The Election Tribunal has no right to determine the candidate of the party as it is a pre election issue.
“We are bound by the decisions of previous courts and return Jarigbe as the Senator Elect for Cross River North.
“INEC is ordered to issue a certificate of return to Jarigbe and that of Odey withdrawn.
“The judgment of the elections tribunal is hereby set aside”, said Justice Chioma I. Nwosu.
The Court also held that Odey’s nomination was a waste of time as it was done in contempt of court and the authentic list was not used.
The judgment was affirmed by the three members of the panel and no order was made as cost.
The court also dismissed all the Cross appeals in Suit Nos CAL/C/NAEA/SEN/168/2021and No CAL/C/NAEA/SEN/169/2021.
Both Jarigbe and Odey are members of the PDP, as the suit filed is related to the outcome of the primary conducted by the party for the October bye-election in the Cross River North senatorial zone, which became vacant following the death of Senator .
It would be recalled that the Campaign Council of Jarigbe Agom Jarigbe had faulted INEC for declaring Stephen Odey as winner of the Cross River North bye election and moved to battle it out in court as to who the authentic candidate of the party is.
Reacting to the exclusion of Jarigbe from the bye-election and subsequent declaration of Odey as winner, a party chieftain and former National Publicity Secretary of the PDP said: “At the closure of the elections it was clear from all documents made available, that INEC had not reflected the decision of the High Court with respect to the candidature of Rt. Hon. Jarigbe Agom.
“We are therefore surprised that the Returning Officer, unilaterally and without justification imported a name of a purported candidate of PDP (Odey) as the winner of the North Senatorial bye-election of Cross River State, even when INEC had not declared anyone candidate, prior to the election.”
The controversial bye-election held December 5, 2020 following the death of Senator Rose Oko in March of the same year.
Odey, the ex-Executive Chairman of the Cross River State Universal Basic Education Board, had according to result released by the primary election organizers, polled 450 votes to defeat his closest rival, Hon. Jarigbe Agom who allegedly scored 90 votes.
In rejecting the outcome of the primary, however, Jarigbe claimed he polled 381 votes to defeat his closest rival Stephen Odey, who scored 71 votes, as he further faulted the authenticity of the delegates list adopted for the conduct the primary.
The fallout has since seen party chieftains engage in war of words over conduct of the primary election to pick a ticket for the October 31, 2020 bye-election.
Odey’s emergence as the PDP candidate threw up a raging battle by stakeholders of the party, creating a rift which polarised the party culminating in the defection to the APC of the state Governor, Ben Ayade who was accused of plotting to foist the unpopular Odey on the party faithful.
Back in September, 2020 during the conduct of the primary, delegates alleged massive irregularities in the conduct of the exercise, with claims of one person being shot even before the commencement of the primary proper.
Former PDP National Publicity Secretary, Venatius Ikem, Esq, said ‘what transpired was not a true reflection of a party primary because even Hon Jarigbe had to leave when he noticed the irregularities.’
Ikem, who was also an automatic delegate from Obudu, alleged that some fake delegates were brought in from the backdoor just as officials from Government House and security agents manhandled delegates.
Cross River State Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) Comrade Victor Udu, who led the delegation condemned the mayhem that preceded the exercise.
Udu said: “I have not seen anything near this scale before where the security men refuse to recognise anybody even when journalists identified themselves with their tags.
“The security men said they were out on a mission it’s a shame.
“It’s deplorable that in a Senatorial by elections it could degenerate to this level. It’s indeed unfortunate and a shame to our democracy.
“The policeman pointed a gun at journalists and said every other person is an enemy and immediately opened teargas on us and we scampered for safety.
“This warning is especially for the security agencies. If after this exercise or during the exercise I hear or see that my members are being threatened then we will take it up with Nigeria Police”, he said.
Jarigbe who is presently the Member representing Yala/Ogoja Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, first approached a Port Harcourt High Court which upheld the authentic delegates list used for the exercise.
Political analysts posit that the controversial circumstances surrounding Odey’s emergence as PDP’s candidate in the 2020 bye-election bore traces of Ayade’s ambitions to expand his political clout beyond the expiration of his tenure as governor of the state in 2023.
Cross River State has three senatorial districts like all other states of the federation, namely; North, Central and South senatorial zones. Odey and Ayade both hail from the northern region.
According to political watchers, right from the party primary poll, the opposition to the emergence of the Ayade’s choice of Odey coming from some PDP stakeholders at the national body and in the state including past governors, signaled the genesis of the governor’s romance with the APC, which culminated in his eventual defection, as, it was also claimed that the governor felt he no longer had control over the party structure.
Analysts also posit that Odey was only bidding his time before formally announcing his defection to the APC and joining his ally, Ayade, in setting up a complete structure for the APC in Cross River North, which could guarantee them control of, if not the entire state, then for certainty, the senatorial zone.
“Odey was just waiting to hear the outcome of his suit at the appellant court before joining Ayade at the APC. Odey was the last piece in Ayade’s puzzle to securing his senatorial zone at least for his new party, the APC. So it must be a shock for him (Ayade) to not see that pan out.
“For those other elected officials who have joined him at the APC, the truth really is that he created them, he enabled their emergence in office in the first place, so it’s only natural that they troop out with him to the APC. Odey was that remaining chip to complete his project. I also think the PDP has now successfully deconstructed Ayade and removed his signature from the party with the Appeal Court ruling on Friday,” said Emmanuel Onung, a Political Science post-graduate student of the University of Calabar.
Onung’s position is corroborated by Mr. James Obo, a Current Affairs Analyst based in Calabar, who believes that Governor Ayade has suffered a major setback following the sacking of his political ally in Odey by the Appeal Court.
“Indeed, for the governor, it’s a setback. Odey was supposed to be his biggest catch for the APC. With Odey joining him at the APC, he can always have somebody to brag about. APC would have had a strong foothold in Cross River State with Senator Odey joining him there.
“I remember some people were even saying that Odey would eventually have stepped down for him to run as senator when his governorship tenure expires in two years’ time. This is something he knows Jarigbe (Agom) would not do for him anyway,” Obo said.
It would also be recalled that while addressing journalists in Abuja, last April, the embattled Odey who maintained that the said Certificate of Return initially issued to Jarigbe in December, last year was ‘obtained fraudulently,’ accused INEC of hastily granting the Reps member the document.
He, however, added that he will not heap the blame on either the electoral Commission or the courts, but that the fault lies squarely with Agom whom he accused of ‘trying to criminally deceive the two institutions to steal his mandate.’
Since his victory in 2020, Odey has remained with the PDP on which platform he was elected in the senatorial bye-election for Cross River North.
Despite Ayade’s defection to the APC and the mass movement of prominent Cross North politicians and electorate alike who have so far joined him, Odey has remained quiet on the subject of decamping, prompting many to presume that the politician may have been waiting to have a clearer picture of his future before making the move.
This is so because some stakeholders of the PDP had frowned at how Governor Ayade, then at the party, had gone to a great extent in ensuring Odey emerged as the Cross River North candidate of the party at the primary, and even winning the bye- election.
Past governors like Senator Liyel Imoke and other stakeholders who were not pleased with the development tacitly encouraged Jarigbe Agom to head to court to recover his mandate, a situation which irked Ayade, who felt that as governor and constitutionally-empowered leader of the party in the state, he had the authority to push for his preferred candidate in the election.
However, the stakeholders were of the contrary opinion, as they maintained that Jarigbe remains the better option, being more the popular candidate in Cross River North and also a ‘more reliable party man’ too.