The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court on Thursday suspended its decision regarding the status of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and 51 other lawmakers who defected from their various parties ahead of the 2019 general elections.
The court’s decision followed an application by Mr Saraki and the affected lawmakers for them to be heard before the court reaches a decision on the matter.
A group, Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), had taken Mr Saraki and 51 other National Assembly members to court over their defection from the parties on which platform they were elected to the National Assembly.
The applicants asked the court to determine whether the respondents can retain their seats after their defection.
LEDAP in the suit filed on September 14 asked the court to order that the members of the National Assembly who defected should vacate their seats.
In July 2018, 37 members of the House of Representatives defected from the All Progressives Congress (APC). About 32 of them joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), four joined the African Democratic Congress (ADC) while one did not announce his new party at the time.
On the same day, 14 APC senators defected to the PDP.
About a week after the senators’ defection, Mr Saraki himself announced his decision to quit the APC for the PDP.
The defections led to the suit by LEDAP, which also included such defendants as the Attorney-General of the Federation, Independent National Electoral Commission, the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu; and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara.
The court had slated Thursday for its verdict on the matter. But when the case was called, the lawyer representing the National Assembly members, Mahmoud Magaji, asked the court to allow them to respond to the arguments during the hearing.
According to Mr Magaji, his clients only became aware of the matter after the last adjourned date.
Mr Magaji said they had filed a written response to the issues raised by the applicants and that they were seeking the indulgence of the court to respond in open court.
He cited section 6 (6) of the Constitution to show that the court has powers to give its verdicts but added that the court also has a responsibility to entertain all arguments relevant to the proposed judgement.
The section dealing with the powers of the court, cited by Mr Magaji states thus: “The judicial powers vested in accordance with the foregoing provisions of this section -shall extend, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution, to all inherent powers and sanctions of a court of law.”
Mr Magaji said his clients were challenging the powers of the applicants to bring their request. He said his clients were consequently questioning the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the matter since the applicants allegedly lack ‘locus standi’.
The lawyer added that the issue of jurisdiction was an important matter that would have an adverse effect on the judgement.
“It is trite law that the issue of jurisdiction can be raised at any time: even for the first time in Supreme Court on the day of judgement,” said Mr Magaji.
According to the senior lawyer, “the rules guiding the court have made it necessary for us to be heard in the given circumstance.”
Mr Magaji urged the court to be judicious in its application of discretion.
In a reaction, the judge, Okon Abang, said the situation presented by the respondents’ application would have been prevented if they had presented a counsel to argue their matter, timeously.
In a further reaction, Mr Magaji said the issue of jurisdiction was so radical that any lawyer present in court could draw the attention of the court to it, without being a counsel in the instant case.
In a reaction, the applicant’s lawyer, Ede Uko, said the submissions of the defence counsel is primarily aimed at “arresting the judgement.”
“The law is trite that judgment cannot be arrested,” Mr Uko said.
The lawyer who works in the chamber of another senior lawyer, Jibrin Okutepa, cited two Supreme Court judgments from 2006 and 2013.
According to Mr Uko, the apex court had decided in both judgements that “antics employed by parties shall not be allowed to stop an already prepared judgment.”
Mr Uko submitted that the conduct of the respondents was “not worthy of any sympathy from the court.”
“What they are seeking can be likened to the actions of a drowning man,” Mr Uko said.
The lawyer said the attempts by the respondents to fish out defects in the processes before the court, rather than tender their argument, was proof of his submission “that the respondents were desperate to prevent the judgement, after failing to formally present their arguments.”
“They had all the chances. They conceded to the submissions of the plaintiff. Now they are coming with technical issues of jurisdiction and locus standi,” Mr Uko said.
“If they wanted the court to hear them, they would have respected the court and come earlier. The only option they have is to go on appeal, whichever angle they view the judgement. They cannot arrest the judgment of this honourable court,” Mr Uko added.
After listening to the arguments by counsel, Mr Abang adjourned till 11 a.m. on Friday to hear the arguments of the respondents.
Mr Abang condemned the senators for failing to appear and respond to issues on time but added that it was necessary to grant their application in the interest of justice.
“The actions of the defendants (amounts to) slapping the court in the face by refusing to defend the proceedings; their effort to arrest the judgment is unheard of in law.
“It is the fundamental rights for the defendants to be heard. They cannot be driven away from the seat of Justice. For the court to deliver judgment it will be a wrong exercise of the court.
“Notwithstanding the disrespectful conduct of the lawmakers; though the defendants snubbed the court and waived their rights; they have woken up from their slumber and should be accommodated by the court,” Mr Abang ruled.
The judge adjourned the matter to Friday when he will allow the application by Mr Saraki and the other lawmakers to be heard.