Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court Abuja, the other day, sacked Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State and his 17 co-travellers, as reprisal for dumping the party on whose ticket they were elected into office in 2019. The landmark ruling was the long awaited pushback against incessant rape on democracy and moral perfidy of the political class. Though another round of legal fireworks is set to begin on the matter, the immorality of political prostitution and daylight robbery of the peoples’ mandate are the crux of the matter. Modern democracy has no tolerance for the twin evil.
In a surprise pronouncement from the judiciary, though often expected of the rule of law, Justice Ekwo declared illegal the defection of Umahi, his deputy and 16 lawmakers from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC). In the suit filed by the PDP seeking their removal from office, the judge said Umahi and his deputy cannot transfer PDP votes to APC because there was enough evidence that the APC contested the Ebonyi State governorship election held in March 2019 with its own candidates.
Consequently, the court declared that under the democratic system operated in Nigeria, PDP won the majority of votes during the election and was entitled to enjoy the same till the end of tenure of office for which the election was made. Umahi, in a manner uncharacteristic of leaders, berated the Judge, describing the judgment as “a hatchet job” and “null and void,” though later sought to appeal the ruling.
Whatever the outcome may be, Justice Ekwo has written his name in gold, and it is a path of courage and honour expected of defenders of democracy. The truth is that our party politics is in a mess because the beneficiaries have refused to play by the letter and spirit of the law. In a manner that belies the principles of modern democracy, the political class has consistently violated the rule of law, debased the party system and cheated the people that entrusted the mandate.
Indeed, political parties are important institutions for developing policies and platforms, providing critical oversight and accountability of government action. Through their elected representatives, political parties implement policies that reflect the ideology of the party. Political parties are vessels to government and power globally, including Nigeria. Hence, every person must contest under a political party and it is morally expected that they maintain fidelity to the party. In the American presidential system of governance upon which Nigeria modelled hers, the party system is supreme. The parties are ruled by ideology that fascinates life membership, fidelity and strictly govern conduct of representatives.
Curiously, the reverse is consistently the case in Nigerian democracy where the dominant parties are averse to ideology, and membership a fleeting exercise. Most disturbing in the last 23 years has been the gale of defections of sitting officeholders, without any recourse to either party or the people that gave the mandate. In one fell swoop in 2013, five governors from Adamawa, Kano, Kwara, River, and Sokoto, 37 representatives and 11 senators left the PDP and joined the APC. Many of those defectors made a return to PDP about five years later. In August 2018, 15 senators, 37 representatives, and three state governors left the APC to join other political parties. Lately, it has been the turn of governors of Ebonyi, Cross Rivers and Zamfara to dump the PDP for APC. But the antidote to the political malady is implied by the constitution.
The 1999 Constitution, as amended, frowns at cross-carpeting. Section 68 (1) states that “A member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member if – (g) being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected.” However, the control measure, rather than prohibition of the malaise, is qualified by the requirement in the proviso stating when vacation of the seat will only occur: “Provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.” And that condition has always been explored by desperate politicians that would even sponsor division in their party to justify defection to another. Besides that, drafters of the constitution did not envisage that a perilous time would come when executives would lose all principles and conscience to jump ships at will. Yet, the lack of foresight should not be taken as a validation of the aberration. That is the jurisprudential significance of the ruling on the Ebonyi governor.
A state executive, ditto for all public officeholders, has a moral obligation to remain committed to his party and make the same stronger than he met it. Defection does otherwise and that is the immorality that should worry all and sundry. When a governor abandons members of a party that had entrusted him with their mandate, to join another, a legal justification from constitutional exclusion is puerile and insensitive. The members of the erstwhile ruling class had exercised their freedom to vote for the fellow and when the same is expected to do their bidding, he jumps ship and lands in another party. It is the travesty of justice, disloyalty and bereft of fairness. That is the robbery of the peoples’ mandate and reckless denigration of the party system into a special purpose vehicle for a selfish agenda. No democracy thrives amid such abuses.
While the country awaits the verdict of the Appeal Court, it is incumbent on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), to move in and carry out the ruling of the High Court. INEC has the duty to produce credible elections and it should insist that they remain credible at all levels. As the American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, once stated, the law is what a court says, not what is written in the books. Also, the precedent has it that “let the pronouncement of a judge stand where a lacunae in the law could have been left out of mischief.”
The political officeholders are also duty bound to obey the law and preserve the sanctity of the rule of law. It is another breach of public trust to sit in public office and ridicule the judiciary because its verdict is not favourable. Nothing pushes a state to anarchy faster than such irresponsibility. Hopefully, other judges will find the right motivation in Ekwo’s courage to say no to bad behaviour of the political class. It is incumbent on the judiciary to rescue governance from the irresponsible and unscrupulous politicians.
Defection is a malaise with the capacity to spread its poison to all things political and decent. It fosters impunity and corruption. It is because of defection that Nigeria cannot build political parties around a well-defined ideology intended to promote economic and social development. By making Justice Ekwo’s judgment stand and replicated across the land, it will represent a milestone in our statute books and the means of rescuing Nigerian governance from scoundrels. Nigeria deserves parties that are not only generating answers to the country’s complex problems but also engaging its citizens about the best way forward and its public officeholders more responsible and held accountable for every choice.