Osun Tribunal: Myriad of Litigations

IT is ironic that after seven months of legal fireworks at the Osun Governorship Elections Tribunal, the petitioner and the respondent are seeking God’s intervention in the case. Tension had gripped Osogbo, the Osun State capital, 24 hours to the pronouncement of judgment even as offices; schools, shops and markets hurriedly closed on Monday, A bald-headed riot policeman reportedly attached to MOPOL 39 Unit, Stadium Area and identified as Wale, heightened tension in Ayetoro area of Osogbo on Monday evening when he shot into the air Pedestrians and traders scampered for safety when the apparently inebriated cop shrieked hysterically as he playfully chased a colleague about, shooting into the air. Police vehicles had paraded Osogbo major roads on Monday – in a show to highlight preparedness for any eventuality. The message was not lost on the citizenry most of whom stayed indoors on Tuesday.

Aregbesola, who is contesting the victory of Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola, in the April 14, 2007 governorship election in Osun State, opened his 1004-page petition on October 3, 2007, and closed it on May 15, 2008, after calling 102 witnesses and tendering 171 exhibits. Aregbesola sought nullification of election results in 12 of the 30 local government councils of the state. But the tribunal upheld the election in all the Councils just as it-retuned all AC and PDP legislators in the state and federal parliaments.

Events leading to the discrediting of the five-member tribunal led by Justice Thomas Naron, began with an allegation that the panel was deliberately shutting out evidence against the opposition. But the panel cited practice direction of the Electoral Act as the basis of its rulings, saying that petitions not frontloaded could not be heard. This position on Practice Direction, the tribunal said, informed its decision to reject admitting the forensic evidence it granted the Action Congress governorship candidate and petitioner, Mr. Rauf Aregbesola, an order to perform. Various counsels to the opposition, however, opposed the adherence to Practice Direction theory of the tribunal, saying that substantive (evidential) nature of law should supersede its technical aspect. The opposition, in essence, was saying that the tribunal was upholding the technical aspect of law and relegating the evidential aspect.

Events turned messier when AC lead counsel, Mr. Kola Awodehin (SAN), during the closing day of the tribunal, looked at the tribunal members in the face and pointedly accused them of colluding with the Peoples Democratic Party governor and respondent, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, to pervert justice. This followed the rejection of Awodehin’s prayer, which urged the tribunal to subpoena the Managing Director of telecommunications firm, MTN, to appear before the panel. Awodehin’s prayer came on the heels of the publication by a national magazine, TheNews, which accused the Chairman of the tribunal, Naron, and Justice Ekanem, of having surreptitious contacts with a counsel to Oyinlola, Chief Kunle Kalejaye (SAN).

TheNews, in its July edition, published a telephone call log, which allegedly transpired between Kalejaye and the two members of the tribunal. Awodehin said the rejection of his prayer ­was a rape of judicial process, stressing that the action underscored the allegations of comprise levelled against the tribunal. He said the petitioner was justified to call on the tribunal members to disqualify themselves from the petition.

“The judiciary is on trial. Why can’t MTN be compelled to come and show proof of the claim that the call logs did not emanate from it? The judiciary will be best served if the tribunal members disqualify themselves from the petition,” he said. He stormed out of the court even before the tribunal pronounced judgment on his prayers and later delivered judgment.

In this light, the AC sought the dissolution of the tribunal on the basis of the allegations of compromise but the PDP lead counsel, Chief Nathaniel Oke (SAN), described the call as an ambush of the judiciary. He maintained that the call was an attempt to arrest judgment. The PDP said the AC wanted a reconstitution of the tribunal so as to remedy the mistakes it made while filing the governorship petition.

As expected – going by various counsels’ submissions and the pronouncements of the tribunal during the trial period – the panel, in a judgment that lasted three hours, threw out the petition of Aregbesola on July 15, 2008.

The fallouts of the call log accusation, no doubt, took its toll on all members of the tribunal which included Justices Naron, Joe Ekanen, whose integrity and image were grossly impugned. All members of the panel received a deluge of phone calls and texts messages from relatives, colleagues, friends and associates – seeking clarification on the allegation even as they offered their sympathies.

They also received many threatening phone calls and text messages, which poured invectives on their persons – from those in sympathy with the opposition. Kalejaye was not left out of verbal threats over the phone and abusive text messages. The police stepped up security around Royal Hotel, Ilobu, where the tribunal members were lodged. Extra protection was also provided for Kalejaye’s family.

In the case of an allegation of corruption against an election petition tribunal, the National Judicial Counsel, upon receipt of a petition by the complaining party, will set up a three- member judicial panel, which will comprise s two judges and one lawyer, who must be a 2 SAN. The panel will conduct a close-door (investigation by telling the judges) accused to state their side of the case. The panel will later forward its findings and recommendations to the NJC. On the strength of the findings and recommendation, the NJC shall thus take action – either in favour or in disfavour of the petitioner and, or those accused.

If found guilty of the allegation, the NJC will recommend sanctions for the erring judges – and Kalejaye just as it would recommend the inauguration of another tribunal to hear the case afresh. Criminal charges await the publishers of TheNews if the published call logs were found to be untrue. It is believed in both the AC and PDP circles that the NJC is judiciously conducting its investigation into the allegation of corruption.

However, the recourse to nemesis has been highlighted by both the AC and the PDP. The National Vice Chairman of the PDP, South-West, Alhaji Tajudeen Oladipo, the state Deputy Chairman of the party, Mr Ojo Williams, state Secretary, Chief Yinka Adeojo, and the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Defence, Chief Oluwole Oke, has described the AC as a party of the godless and the wicked, invoking God to punish the party for telling lies against Oyinlola, tribunal members and Kalejaye.

Oyinlola, popularly called Omoluabi (good-natured man) in many public gathering had said that he would never do anything to bring disrepute to the legacy and good name his late father, Oba Moses Oyinlola, left behind. But Aregbesola, who is referred to, by his supporters, as an embodiment of Oranmiyan – the Yoruba warrior prince that later became the king of Old Benin kingdom, in a statement which repudiated the judgment of the tribunal, said nobody steals from Oranmiyan!

He maintained that the wrath of God would be on any individual or group that allegedly plotted to deny the masses their electoral wish through rigging and judicial collusion. Although the Secretary to the tribunal, Mr Anthony Ezike, absolved the tribunal of compromise, the inability of the judges to seek legal redress, is a great hindrance on the individual rights of the judges. The accusing opposition party might have taken advantage of this inhibition to rubbish the integrity of the judges. The tribunal chairman, while delivering judgment in the governorship petition, said the panel was unfazed about the hoopla generated by media publications, stressing that his panel only considered the merits of the petition.

Both Kalejaye and TheNews have threatened to go to court over allegations of libel. Kalejaye, who feels strongly about the damage done to his reputation by TheNews publication, is reportedly gearing to do battle against magazine. But Kalejaye is yet to make good his threat as he is yet to file a summons in court to challenge the alleged libel. However, TheNews, which, accused Kalejaye and the Special Adviser and Chief Press Secretary to Oyinlola, Mr. Lasisi Olagunju, of libel, has written to the two personalities, through its lawyer, Prof Yemi Osibajo (SAN), seeking a public apology in national news dailies and demanding N200 million from them within seven days.

Specifically, Osibajo, who addressed the letter to Kalejaye and Olagunju, requested them to apologise for the series of publications which refuted TheNews publication on the call log and impugned the integrity of the magazine.

The new phase of litigation is expected to be backed by media hype and robust legal fees that would be charged by representing legal counsels. The state Deputy Chairman of PDP refused to disclose the amount spent by the party in prosecuting the governorship petition, saying that, “The PDP will disclose the amount it has spent on the governorship election petition if the AC makes public how much it has spent on the process.” Stalwarts of the AC declined to reveal the cost of the governorship petition.

The hearing of governorship election petition was widely given publicity in the media – so would the next stage of the unfolding libel litigation. Pray, in what way would the verdict of God be delivered? Is the answer located in the bowel of time?

• Culled from SUNDAY PUNCH