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THE ARENA: Between Sheriff Oborevwori and David Lyon

By Jesutega Onokpasa

According to Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Mr. Sheriff Oborevwori, the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, gubernatorial flagbearer for Delta State, is not entitled to his party’s mandate, which he won by a landslide, because he submitted “dubious or forged documents”. I never heard anything more astonishing from a judge. What in the world is the meaning of “dubious or forged”? How does a judge even frame a judgement that way?

Is it that the court was not sure whether the documents were either “dubious” or “forged”, or, is it just that it was convinced they must be “dubious” or “forged” but not sure, exactly, which? When did courts start reasoning in this rather “dubious” fashion and judges handing down such utterly perplexing judgements? What, in the world, is going on with our judiciary, for God’s sake?

The court was not sure whether they are dubious or forged, or, either, or both, and, yet you go ahead to deliver judgement against the very party in whose benefit such doubt must be exercised? Isn’t it the law that where in doubt, judgement shall be given in favour of whom will suffer otherwise? Indeed, this, as far as I’m concerned, is not just a case of a most putrid and nauseating miscarriage of justice; it is also a most shameful profusion of stark judicial incompetence!

Did His Lordship find as a material fact that Mr. Oborevwori had forged his credentials? In which case, he would have found, in accordance with the strictest rules pertaining to criminal trial, no less, that Oborevwori is, beyond reasonable doubt, a forger of documents, therefore, a criminal! Otherwise, His Lordship would have descended into the fray and was merely pouting the plaintiff while masquerading his incredulous submission as a proper court judgment.

It is truly shameful when some of our jurists seem to pretend we are some first world jurisdiction where people have been formally educated, and been literate and numerate for centuries, if not millennia. We happen to be stuck in a country at the very bottom of all imaginable indices of development, in case those of us who happen to be privileged have forgotten.

Huge numbers, if not most, of our countrymen and women do not have formally educated parents who might had guided them in their formative years. We have nearly 20 million out of school children right now, and, in case anyone has forgotten, the time is 2022! Little children often have to be the ones to give out their names and even spell it to someone taking down their records.

Even where parents, guardians or other categories of adults might be present, they may not be well educated enough and are unable to do a better job. Mistakes will be made, discrepancies will arise, and, this is quite apart from the fact that people might have multiple names at birth and choose to incorporate them into their documentation (or discard them) as they go through life, and not for questionable purposes but, in fact, for reasons that the law permits them to! Even in climes where schools have existed for multiple centuries, if not thousands of years, people still present with discrepancies in their documentation and the courts do not declare them dubious persons or forgers of documents, for God’s sake!

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What are we even really supposed to make of this utter madness over documentation, anyway? Perhaps, we should audit the credentials of every judicial officer in the country and I would bet there would be many with similar issues with their documentation! Does that mean they forged documents or are liable to being declared to be dubious? What nonsense!

If you say the documents I have presented are questionable, the burden of proof is upon you. Ours is an adversarial process and it is up to you to prove the documents in contention do not belong to me because they were not issued to me by the appropriate issuing authority; or, where otherwise, that they belong to a determinate other person; or, that I simply forged them, myself, being not entitled to the degree purported, therein.

It is unless the court has completely decomposed into an ignoramus or a most unruly kangaroo that it would, instead, come to the utterly nonsensical conclusion that simply because there are differences in name or colour, or, maybe because the documents are faded, defaced, torn or, howsoever, damaged that they are, therefore, dubious or forged! The germane question is whether or not the documents in issue, belong to the individual in question, and, the process is unwaveringly adversarial, never inquisitorial! If you say my degrees are not mine, well, you prove they belong to another or were not issued to me – certainly not that there are differences in my names, therein.

Her Lordship, the Honourable Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili, whom I adore and have nothing but the greatest respect and administration for, once wrote this most untenable judgement that I consider one of the very worst to come out of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. According to Her Lordship and her most learned colleagues, because Senator Degi-Eremienyo, the deputy governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, for the Bayelsa polls, at the time, had “forged” documents, David Lyon, his principal and the party’s gubernatorial candidate must lose the mandate the citizens of Bayelsa had freely given him!

Their lordships had somehow managed to completely forget that they had absolutely no power under the law to deliver any verdict repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience, and, just went ahead to steal someone’s mandate and brazenly hand it over to the candidate the people had soundly rejected. Assuming, without conceding that Senator Eremienyo was a forger, how could that possibly invalidate Mr. Lyon’s mandate unless their lordships had completely forgotten the law they had studied in school and practiced for decades and simply sought refuge in legalism, the hiding place for lazy jurists? What Daniels come to judgement!

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This is quite apart from the fact that during the entire litigation of the case, not once was it found by any of the courts that Mr. Eremienyo was not the bearer of the various names on his documents, was not by birth or otherwise, lawfully entitled to bear those names, was not the owner of the documents he had presented, had stolen someone else’s documents, had been disclaimed by the issuing authorities of those documents, or, indeed, actually forged any documents according to the strict requirements of the criminal law! This is most certainly not how to practice law and most assuredly not how to determine cases in court.

Most Nigerians don’t have a birth certificate. Most of our people were born at home, for God’s sake! And, that includes many lawyers and judges, including many Justices of the Supreme Court, for that matter!

People are born and their father gives them one name, their mother gives them another, one grandfather shows up and adds yet another name, then a grandmother, after that, then an aunt, an uncle and so on. What right has any court to say those are not your names?

My late father, B. E. Onokpasa, was named “School” by his elder sister, Jekpeme Onokpasa. Everyone, back home, called him “School”. That is the name by which he was known by his cousin, Chief Thompson Okpoko, SAN! My surname might as well be “School-Onokpasa” or indeed, simply “School”! My father, on his part, never, for once, called himself, “School”.

I happen to have been born in a hospital and have a birth certificate under the hand of Dr. Frederick Esiri, the first indigenous medical doctor in Warri. How many people have that? How many lawyers have that? How many judges have that? Therefore they don’t have names, or, are not entitled to the names given to them at birth?

My school certificate bears “Michael Onokpasa”. Every single one of my degrees bears “Jesutega Onokpasa”. My birth certificate bears “Michael Jesutega Onokpasa”. Everyone back home calls me “Michael” or “Mike”. Almost everyone else I know, knows me as “Jesutega” or “Barrister Onokpasa”. Everyone I know abroad, knows me as “Jesutega Onokpasa”.

I rather like bearing my native name but the real question is “are my credentials actually mine or not?” And, if you say they are not, you would have to prove they belong to some other clearcut person or that they were never issued to me, in the first place. You certainly cannot come to court, cast unsubstantiated aspersion on them simply because of one “difference” or the other, and run away with a most dubious judgement as if the court were some total buffoon!

I remember running into David Lyon at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja, congratulating him on his victory, only to learn a few days later that his mandate had been misappropriated by the Supreme Court, of all institutions! I hope Mr. Lyon is a man of faith. God willing, he will still be Governor of Bayelsa.

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I don’t know whether or not Sheriff Oborevwori will be the next Governor of Delta but that is entirely beside the point. He won his mandate as his party’s flagbearer and defeated Mr. David Edevbie hands down! The courts should let the will of the people prevail and let him slug it out with the candidates of other parties. Our courts simply cannot continue to be the backdoor through which pathological thieves regularly steal mandates not handed them by the electorate.

It is quite unfortunate that history of law is not part of the syllabus of legal studies in our jurisdiction. While the Judiciary is often listed as the third arm of government, it is actually the oldest and original arm of government. Governmental functions, properly so-called, were first exercised at the level of dispute resolution backed with the sanction of the community in cases of default.

“Jura novit curia” we say in our profession, and, democracy only truly exists when the courts know the law and, indeed, do justice. Just as governance first emerged with the advent of judges, so also does the state not truly fail unless, and until, the courts completely collapse. Indeed, civilization, itself, is non-existent unless there are courts, or at any rate, judicial structures, even if there are no discernable executive or legislative counterparts. Even if everyone else has lost their heads, certainly not the judicial arm!

This is already a country in freefall, for God’s sake! The judiciary must remain the last man standing for God forbid it should capitulate and be rendered unto the filth, as well.

I may not be a fan of Mr. Oborevwori or aligned with his ambition but I cannot see how his documents are dubious. I am sorry but I think it is the court judgment itself that is pitiably dubious and most pathetically without foundation. We cannot have a judiciary that losers of elections can opportunistically approach to invalidate the mandates of their opponents upon utter frivolities. Neither, can we have courts in which the people feel judgements may be bought and sold.

We may continue to play the ostrich as a profession but the people we serve are fast losing all regard for our us and what we stand for. Faith in our courts is, in fact, fast ebbing away. The judicial branch is held by all of us who have been called to the bar in trust for the children of God to whom justice must be done no matter what. It cannot be the bench that we so love, admire, honour, look up to, and, celebrate that will keep spewing one embarrassing judgement after another, making lawyers cringe with shame. This just has to stop.

©Onokpasa, a lawyer, writes from Warri.

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