Some deregistered political parties ordered to be relisted by the Court of Appeal have exposed the use of fake court records by the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) in pursuing its appeal at the Supreme Court.
The fake court records surfaced in the appeal filed by INEC at the Supreme Court to challenge the August 10, 2020 judgment of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, ordering the relisting of 23 political parties earlier deregistered by the electoral body.
The rules require an intending appellant to file a notice of appeal and compile the records of the lower court and have them transmitted to the higher court within three months of the delivery of the judgment to be challenged.
INEC had filed a notice of appeal against the August 10, 2020 judgment of the Court of Appeal, but the records it claimed to have compiled and transmitted to the Supreme Court to set the stage for the hearing of its case by the apex court, have been exposed by the respondents to be fraudulent.
We spoke with lawyers involved in the case and obtained relevant correspondences and court documents showing how the curiosity of the political parties led them into discovering that the records of appeal transmitted by INEC were fake as they were signed by an impostor pretending to be an official of the Court of Appeal in Abuja.
From the court documents seen by this newspaper, INEC, which admitted that an impostor truly signed its transmitted records, is now scrambling to be granted an extension of time to compile and transmit fresh records from the Court of Appeal to the apex court.
On February 6, 2020, INEC deregistered 74 political parties, reducing the number of registered parties in the country to 18.
The INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, said the decision was based on the poor performance of the deregistered parties in the 2019 general elections.
Mr Yakubu said by their dismal performances in the elections, the 74 affected parties had not satisfied the requirements of constitutional provisions to remain registered political parties.
Some of the affected parties approached the courts to challenge the commission’s interpretation of Section 225 of the Nigerian Constitution.
But the Advanced Congress of Democrats (ACD) and 30 other political parties, acting on information about INEC’s plan to deregister political parties, had filed their suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/444/19 at the Federal High Court in Abuja months before the electoral body announced the deregistration in February 2020.
The judge, Anwuli Chikere, in her judgment on June 12, 2020, dismissed their suit and affirmed the powers of INEC.
However, following the appeal by 23 of the political parties, the Federal High Court’s judgment was upturned by a five-member panel of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, led by Monica Dongban-Mensem on August 10, 2020.
In the judgment, the Court of Appeal said “illegally deregistered” the political parties without following due process by denying them the opportunity to defend themselves, before announcing their deregistration.
The Court of Appeal also criticised the INEC for going ahead to deregister the 22 political parties while their suit filed in 2019 to stop the plan to deregister them was pending in court.
It ruled that the electoral body “showed utmost contempt and disregard for the due process of law and the court when it proceeded to deregister the appellants” during “the pendency of their suit”.
INEC, in its reaction, said the ruling contradicted an earlier one by the same Court of Appeal and that because of the contradiction, it will not obey the ruling but will wait for the Supreme Court to decide on the matter.
But a review of the two court judgments showed that the rulings are not contradictory. While the court, in both instances, upheld INEC’s power to deregister parties, in the case by the 31 political parties, it ruled that due process was not followed.
Not pleased with the appeal court’s ruling, the electoral body filed a notice of appeal in the Supreme Court, challenging the verdict.
But curious about the records transmitted by INEC in pursuing the appeal, the law firm of the legal icon, Afe Babalola, which is defending one of the respondents, the Advanced Congress of Democrats (ACD), had written to the Court of Appeal authorities on December 10, 2020, alleging that an impostor of the court official signed the records purportedly transmitted by the electoral body.
The Court of Appeal, in a letter dated December 21, 2020, confirmed that Hassan Binta, who signed the record of appeal transmitted by INEC, was not known to the court.
“The record of appeal and the supplementary record of appeal were not compiled and transmitted by the registry of this court.
“The Registrar in the person of Hassan Binta, who is said to have signed the record of Appeal and the Supplementary record is not a staff of this court,” the Head, Litigation Department of the Court of Appeal, Sehriffat Adebayo, stated in the December 21, 2020, reply to the letter by Mr Babalola’s law firm.
Following the Court of Appeal’s confirmation, the law firm, through one of its lawyers, Funmilayo Longe, sent a letter dated January 14, 2021, to the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, expressing shock about the development and demanding an investigation.
A copy of the letter, seen by source, was entitled ‘Request For Clarification On The Transmission of Records of Appeal’.
It reads, in part, “To our chagrin, the Court of Appeal vide their letter December 21, 2020 informed us that even though the notice of appeal was filed in the registry of the Court of Appeal, the record of appeal was not compiled and transmitted by the lower court’s registry and the registrar in the person of Hassan Binta, who signed the records of appeal is not a staff (member) of the Court of Appeal. (A copy of the aforementioned letter written by the Court of Appeal is herewith attached).
“In the light of the above facts, we hereby request that investigation be carried out regarding the transmission of records in this appeal.”
How the controversy started
Kehinde Ogunwumiju, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria in Mr Babalola’s law firm, when contacted by sources, said the procedural breach in the transmission of INEC’s records of appeal was what led to their enquiry at the Court of Appeal.
He said, “There is a procedure for transmitting a record from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. They call it the settlement of records.
“If an appellant is dissatisfied with a judgement at the appeal court, after filing his notice of appeal and applying for transmission of the records of appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal would invite all the parties and their various legal representatives so they can reach an agreement on what documents would form part of the documents to be sent to the Supreme Court for hearing. But this procedure was never followed.
“This was why we were concerned, and we wrote to the Court of Appeal to say we were never aware they were going to transmit any records to the Supreme Court. And the Court of Appeal wrote back to us that the record of appeal was signed by a fictitious person.”
INEC admits breaches, seeks fresh opportunity
INEC has admitted that a court official’s impostor signed its record of appeal but failed to offer any explanation about how it happened.
The electoral body is now scrambling to be allowed to compile a fresh record of appeal.
It filed application an application before the Supreme Court on January 25, 2021, seeking leave and an extension of time to compile and transmit the fresh records.
The commission, in an affidavit filed in support of the application, stated that it sought to compile and transmit fresh record after it was only informed of the fraud in the previous records by Mr Babalola’s law firm.
Speaking with sources, John Agim, lead counsel for the 13th respondent, the People’s Coalition Party, (PCP), said that the Supreme had once slated the INEC’s application for hearing but could not proceed because the adverse parties were not served.
He added that although the Supreme Court fixed October 28, 2021, for the hearing of the substantive appeal, he could not confirm if INEC’s application for extension of time had been granted the court.
He said, “The Supreme Court can grant and hear the application for leave in chambers, it doesn’t necessarily need to be done in the open court.
“As we speak, I haven’t been served any proper notice to show the leave has been granted for them to transmit records. But I am aware that the substantive appeal has been fixed for October 28, 2021, for hearing.”
Mr Ogunwumiju, who told our correspondent that his law firm’s petitions to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal were done “to force the lawyers to INEC to do the proper thing”, told our reporter that INEC’s application for extension of time had not been granted.
Asked if the probe requested in his law firm’s petition to the Supreme Court was carried out, he said “perhaps a fact-finding” could have been done to fish out those behind the scam.
When the comment of INEC’s lawyer was asked , Emeka Ozoani, whose phone number appeared on the court documents filed by the electoral body, he said, “I am not the lead counsel, so I cannot respond.”