It is electioneering season in the Sunshine State; a State richly blessed with an enviable multitude of highly educated, sophisticated and irrepressible indigenes.
Beyond what is customary with every electoral contest in Nigeria, especially owing to the ongoing ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) desires that political parties de-emphasise the mobilization of campaign crowds, but instead maximally engage social media for the upcoming Edo and Ondo States gubernatorial elections. Consequently, the political traffic and incidental mudslinging on social media has not only gathered momentum, but is now overwhelming. It is practically impossible to circumvent the traffic, no matter how apolitical one is, or claims to be.
I am somehow enjoying the political traffic in the Sunshine State, where almost all those who political analysts would describe as the leading aspirants, together with their frontline supporters, are legal luminaries. I am a Lawyer; I should enjoy their legal fireworks.
Within the past twenty-four hours, social media has been awash with some publications that the incumbent Governor, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, SAN had been banned from holding any public office for 25 years since year 2000 or so, and ordered to refund some unspecified amount(s) of money, by a Judicial Commission of Enquiry set up by a former Governor of the State, Late Chief Adebayo Adefarati, to probe capital projects and contracts awarded in Ondo State between 1995 and May, 2000, covering the period when the incumbent Governor was the State Attorney-General & Commissioner for Justice. The publications further alleged that the incumbent Governor lied on oath when in year 2016, he filled INEC Forms CF001 and CF002, stating that he had never been indicted for fraud by “any Court of Law or Tribunal”.
The subtle intendment of the publications is very clear to the discerning minds. Party primaries are approaching. Incidentally each political party would (or should) screen aspirants for its primary election. Expectedly, candidates and/or their supporters would soon start writing petitions and counter-petitions to the screening committees of their respective parties, seeking the disqualification of their opponents for the slightest justifiable and sometimes unjustifiable grounds. This is politics, and these are veterans.
One of such publications, as reported on social media, was authored by my Learned Friend, Barr. Olu Akinola. In his submission, Mr. Akinola reportedly concluded that “In view of his indictments, Governor Akeredolu stands disqualified from contesting as Governor of Ondo State.” My learned friend’s submission is the object of my legal reaction in this write-up.
At about 12:38am today, my long-time friend, the eloquent and indefatigable Ondo State P.D.P Publicity Secretary, Zadok Akintoye, reposted Barr. Akinola’s legal opinion. Smart politicians would leverage on just anything that appeals to their fantasies, and Zadok is a smart one. Zadok is such a wonderful Christian and a great brother that I can comfortably risk ‘offending’ him by my harmless choice of words here, believing that he would readily forgive me seventy times seven times in a day, as Jesus Christ admonishes us in Mathew 18:22.
I am sure that Mr. Governor would invariably react to these allegations at whatever time he thinks is appropriate, at least on moral grounds. I am an advocate of probity and accountability in governance and personal life, and I believe he is, also.
On strictly legal grounds however, I authoritatively submit that a Judicial Commission of Enquiry, even where headed by a serving Judge, is not a court of law or judicial tribunal. It cannot formally accuse anyone of any crime; it can only investigate. It does not and cannot prosecute anybody, and certainly cannot punish anybody. The law is settled that any person summoned by such Commission to appear and give evidence on any allegation against him, is not even bound to honour such summons.
It is therefore ridiculous, with due respect, for any legal expert to submit that anybody is banned or remains banned from holding any public office, based on any purported recommendation of any Judicial Commission of Enquiry, notwithstanding the ‘acceptance’ of such recommendations by any government and/or its release of a White Paper thereon.
There are legions of court judgments in this regard, which are too numerous to be mentioned, but I choose to quote, extensively, I hope, the relevant portions of just one of such judgments by the highest appellate courts.
In the case of BARIGHA-AMANGE V. ADUMEIN (2016) 13 NWLR (PT1530) 349 AT 386, PARAS A-B, the Port-Harcourt Judicial Division of the Court of Appeal, presided over by Ejembi Eko, J.C.A, as he then was (but now a Justice of the Supreme Court), held or restated, that:
“The Commission is not a court of law or a judicial tribunal. This is obvious because nobody can be convicted by a judicial commission or administrative panel or a tribunal of enquiry established by law. There is no prosecutor because there is no prosecution. No one is formally accused, as it is not a criminal proceeding.”
At paragraphs H-A in pages 382-383 of the same Report, the Court stated further that:
“It is instructive to note that Judicial Commission of Enquiry is not part of the criminal justice system, to such an extent that even if a sitting Judge of the High Court is appointed under the Commission of Inquiry Law, the powers wielded by him as a sitting Judge will not be available to him in the Commission.”
The Court went further, in pages 389-390, paragraphs H-D of that same judgment (and there is a plenitude of similar judgments, as I stated earlier) that:
“Once a person is accused of the commission of a criminal offence, he must only be tried by a court of law established under the Constitution where the complaints of his prosecutors can be ventilated in public in accordance with the law and where his constitutional right of fair hearing would be assured. No tribunal, investigating panel or committee will do. The determination of the guilt or innocence of any person accused of the commission of a criminal offence is within the jurisdiction of court of law constituted in the manner prescribed under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Finally on this issue, and in support of my earlier submission that a person summoned by a Judicial Commission of Enquiry over an allegation of crime against him may even choose to ignore same, I reproduce below the decision of the Court in the above case at page 396, Paras D-E as follows:
“The appellant contends that the summons to him to appear at the Commission of Inquiry violated his right to remain silent and not to be compelled to defend a criminal allegation. I agree, prima facie, that compulsive summons directed at any person to appear at the tribunal or Commission of Inquiry to defend himself against a criminal allegation negates such a person’s right to remain silent or his right not to be compelled to give evidence in his defence of allegation of criminal activities”.
Before concluding this legal analysis, I respectfully restate that the judgment copiously quoted above does not exist in isolation. In fact, it has been cited with approval in numerous similar decisions of the highest appellate Courts on the same principles of law.
I do not have the facts relating to the alleged or purported 25-year ban of the incumbent Governor by the said Judicial Commission of Enquiry, and in the realm of law, facts are sacred. But having established that a Judicial Commission of Enquiry is not a court of law or judicial tribunal, as repeatedly held by the highest courts in the land, the question is: where anybody, particularly a Lawyer who has attained the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and therefore has a mastery of the law, fills INEC Form CF001 or CF002, or any official document whatsoever, including an affidavit, to the effect that “no court of law or tribunal” has ever convicted or indicted him for fraud, can we rely on any purported indictment by a Judicial Commission of Enquiry, not being “a court of law or judicial tribunal”, to accuse such a person of perjury or lying on oath? The answer is an emphatic NO.
Laying ambush, in order to use the alleged or purported 25-year ban from holding any public office against Arakunrin Oluwarorimi Akeredolu, SAN and any other Nigerian, or alleging that he lied on oath when he filled INEC Forms in year 2016 by stating that “no court of law or tribunal” has ever convicted or indicted him for fraud, is waiting in vain.
I am not on anybody’s side; my own constituency is the law. I am simply on the Law’s and the Lord’s side, and both the Lord and the Law are on my side, to borrow and adapt the popular phrase of the Christian faithfuls. After all, even Jesus Christ, who the Bible rightly describes in 1 John 2:1 as An (A Senior) Advocate in heaven, unequivocally declares in Mathew 5:17 that he has not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. Let us all strive to fulfill the law.
According to the first indigenous Nigerian Lawyer, Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams, (1855-1915), “A Legal Practitioner lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.” And as the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, the legal colossus under whom I was privileged to have personal tutelage would admonish, “A Legal Practitioner must be prepared to stand by the truth, to stand for the truth, and to stand with the truth, even if he has to stand alone.”
These are the admonitions that drive my advocacy on matters of public interest; I am not a politician.
Be that as it may, let us all appreciate the obvious signs that political campaigns in Nigeria are gradually being dominated by issues of personal integrity, probity and accountability, rather than primordial sentiments of ethnicity and religion. Honestly, if we all sustain this trend, then there is hope for our dear Country.
Femi Emmanuel Emodamori.