The Chairman of the election regulating body in Nigeria, Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, has challenged the validity of the arrest warrant that was issued against him by the Federal High Court in Abuja.
In a six grounds of appeal he filed before the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, the INEC boss made it clear that he could not be arrested on the basis of a bench warrant he said was legally defective.
He urged the appellate court to invoke its powers and void the arrest order that was issued against him by trial Justice Stephen Pam.
You would recall that Justice Pam had in a bench ruling on Wednesday, ordered the Nigerian Police Force to arrest and produce the INEC boss in court on August 8 to face a contempt charge. The order followed Mahmood’s failure to honour a summon the court issued for him to appear with respect to a suit involving the Anambra State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
Before the ruling, the INEC Chairman had on July 5 and 10, equally failed to honour the court’s summon to appear and defend a contempt proceeding that was initiated against him by Chairman and Legal Adviser of the PDP in Anambra state, Ejike Oguebego and Chuks Okoye, respectively. The high court had ordered him to appear before it to show cause why he should not be committed to prison for refusing to recognize the Oguebego-led faction of the PDP in Anambra state in compliance with a judgment the Supreme Court delivered in December 2014.
The Applicants had prayed the court to jail Mahmood for disregarding the said judgment, decrying that contrary to the apex court’s verdict, both INEC, and its Chairman, continued to relate with another faction of the PDP in the state. Meantime, in a notice of appeal he lodged barely 24 hours after the arrest warrant was issued against him, Mahmood, denied disobeying any order from the high court. Insisting that he was denied fair hearing by the trial Judge, the INEC Chairman said there was no evidence that any court summon was enrolled and served on him 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”, it explained.
Mahmood’s legal counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, further argued that no order was enrolled and served on his client for his personal appearance in court. “The court did not give Professor Yakubu or his counsel opportunity to explain his absence in court and why the Bench warrant should not be issued”, he added. Besides, Awomolo, SAN, faulted the court’s order of arrest on the grounds that it was “made in the absence of Professor Yakubu and such order was not enrolled or personally served on him and when the disobedience was in the nature of contempt ex-facie curie which the honourable judge has no power to punish its disobedience”. He contended that the judge acted illegally, thus rendering the bench warrant void ab-initio.
More so, Awomolo told the appellate court that Justice Pam’s arrest order, “occasioned a grave miscarriage of justice”, saying the judge “punished Professor Yakubu for alleged non-obedience of the court’s order made on 5th July 2018, when there was an appeal against the order”. According to him, “The learned trial judge erred in law when he descended into the arena of conflict when he argued the case of the respondents without the opportunity of hearing given to the Appellants or their counsel before striking out the motion asking for an adjournment of further hearing of the alleged contempt proceedings”. 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”.
Meanwhile, no date has been fixed for the hearing of the appeal. Mahmood had before the arrest warrant was issued against him, claimed that he could not be held liable for disrespecting any court order since he was not in office in 2014 when the said apex court verdict was delivered. Awomolo told the court that his client was absent at the proceeding owing to the fact that he led a team of electoral officers from the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, to Mali, on a very crucial assignment. His excuse for Mahmood’s absence in court for the third consecutive time was however rejected by Justice Pam who said he would no longer tolerate an attempt to turn his court to a toothless bulldog. “It is sad that the contemnor and his senior counsel have chosen not to obey the order of this court in respect of this contempt charge. “The contempt of the contemnor to this court can no longer be tolerated and he should not be allowed to continue to take the court for a ride”, the Judge fumed.
Justice Pan held that he was not convinced that the INEC boss had any justifiable reason not to attend the court proceeding as he was ordered to do.
Consequently, he ordered that he should be arrested and produced in court on the next adjourned date. Earlier, the Judge struck out a motion that asked him to hands off or step aside from the matter on the premise that an appeal had been filed to challenge the legality of the court summon that was issued against the INEC boss. Justice Pam maintained that the motion amounted to an application for stay of proceeding, contrary to section 360 of the ACJA, which he said forbade the grant of a stay in criminal matters.