The Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, Monday, ordered the stay of execution of the bench warrant directing the Nigerian Police Force to arrest chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, for disobeying court orders.
A three-man special panel of the appellate court held that the arrest order should be placed on hold, pending the hearing and determination of an appeal the INEC boss lodged before it.
The Justice Abdul Aboki-led panel also ordered the Federal High Court in Abuja to temporarily hands off the case, saying it would be prejudicial for the contempt proceeding against Mahmood to continue while his appeal is still pending.
“Since the court below is aware that an appeal has been entered in this court and is pending here. Also considering that the legality of the warrant of arrest is an issue in this appeal, it will be prejudicial to the appeal for the trial court to continue dealing with the issue.
“We, therefore, stay the execution of the warrant of arrest pending the determination of the motion on notice, which will be taken together with the main appeal.
“The application is adjourned till 17th of September for hearing”, the appellate court held in the ruling delivered by Justice Aboki.
Besides, the court directed the Chairman and Legal Adviser of Anambra State chapter of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Ejike Oguebego and Chuks Okoye, respectively, who are Respondents in the appeal, to file their brief of argument before the adjourned date.
Prof. Yakubu had through his lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, begged the appellate court to stop trial Justice Stephen Pam from sitting on the contempt charge against him on Tuesday.
The INEC boss told the appellate court that he was apprehensive that the high court Judge would send him to prison if allowed to proceed with the case as scheduled.
“My lords, it will appear that the trial Judge is bent on committing the appellant to prison at all cost and our worry is that he has dragged himself into the arena.
“The danger is that if my lords do not do anything, our appeal before you will be in vain and by the time we come back in September to hear the matter, he must have sent my client to jail,” Awomolo submitted.
However, counsel to the Respondents, Mr. Goddy Uche, SAN, accused the INEC chairman of deliberately using the appeal to frustrate the contempt charge against him.
Uche urged the appellate court to uphold the integrity of the judiciary by compelling the Appellant to obey subsisting orders from the high court.
“This whole thing is bordering on the integrity of the judiciary. We have not got to the stage of anybody being sent to jail. All the trial court has asked is for the appellant to come and show cause why he should not be committed to prison for disobeying valid court orders,” Uche stated.
Responding to submissions from both parties, the appellate court panel said it would in the interim, refrain from delving into the legality or otherwise of the arrest warrant vis-a-vis Prof. Yakubu’s alleged disregard to court orders.
Warning that no one found to have held valid court orders in contempt would be spared from facing the legal consequences, the appellate court however stressed that such punishment must follow the due process.
“If we allow some people to willingly disobey orders of court, then there will be no rule of law. No body is going to accept that nonsense from anybody no matter how highly placed.
“But the proceeding concerning the alleged disobedience must be compacted within the law. Before anyone’s liberty is shackled, it must be done within the confines of the rule of law.
“The position we have found ourselves in today is that we cannot hear the matter and conclude it today,” the court added.
Meanwhile, in his appeal marked CA/A/765/2018, the INEC chairman said he was denied fair hearing by the trial Judge, insisting that he was not properly served with an enrolled summon by the court’s bailiff.
He argued that the high court erred in law when it ordered that he should be arrested for allegedly disobeying its order, “when the conditions necessary to warrant the issuance of bench warrant have not been satisfied.”
He told the appellate court that Justice Pam’s arrest order, “occasioned a grave miscarriage of justice”, saying he was being punished for alleged non-obedience of a summon the court issued on on July 5, despite an appeal against the order.
“The learned trial judge erred in law when he descended into the arena of conflict when he argued the case of the respondents without opportunity of hearing given to the Appellants or their counsel before striking out the motion asking for adjournment of further hearing of the alleged contempt proceedings,” the appellant added.
More so, he argued that the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, which the judge relied on, were not referred to by any of the counsel in the matter, thereby violating “the rights of the appellants preserved by Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.”
Justice Pam had on August 1, ordered Prof. Yakubu’s arrest, following his repeated refusal to honour a summon that was issued for him to appear before the court to defend a contempt charge against him.
The trial court further re-activated the order last week Wednesday, even as it specifically directed the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, to ensure that the INEC boss was arrested and produced in court on Tuesday.
Prof. Yakubu had on four different adjourned dates, failed to appear in court to answer to the contempt proceeding that was initiated against him by the Anambra State Chapter of the PDP, led by Chief Oguebego.
The INEC boss was alleged to have snubbed a Supreme Court judgment that mandated him to only recognise the list of Senatorial and House of Representatives candidates that was submitted by the Oguebego-led faction of the PDP in Anambra State.
It will be recalled that Justice John Tsoho of the high court had on July 4, 2016, made an initial order that summoned the INEC boss to personally appear before the court on the premise that the contempt charge against him, which emanated from a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/854/2014, was “quasi criminal in nature.”
After adjourning the case to July 7, 2016 for hearing, the ruling was appealed by a chieftain of the PDP in Anambra, Mr. Chukwudi Okasia.
In a unanimous verdict on February 15, 2017, the appellate court dismissed the appeal and awarded N250, 000. 00 cost against the appellant.
Dissatisfied with the verdict, Okasia took the matter before the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s judgements, though it directed the high court to hear a preliminary objection that was filed by the alleged Contemnors, INEC and its Chairman.
Owing to the apex court’s verdict, the Chief Judge of Federal High Court, Justice Abdul Kafarati, set up a special court and assigned Justice Pam to hear the matter.
In a ruling on July 5, 2018, Justice Pam dismissed the preliminary objection that INEC and its Chairman lodged to challenge the contempt proceeding, and consequently ordered Prof. Yakubu to appear before him to show cause why he should not be sent to prison.
The INEC chairman had since petitioned the Chief Judge, accusing Justice Pam of exhibiting bias tendencies against him.