Friday, July 25, 2008

The Osun Tribunal Ruling

After some nerve-wracking 10 months and many controversies, the Osun State Election Petitions Tribunal led by Justice Thomas Naron on Tuesday, July 15, delivered its judgement in the petition brought by Rauf Aregbesola of the Action Congress (AC) to challenge the re-election of the state governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, in the April 2007 governorship election. The tribunal re-affirmed Oyinlola’s re-election, but the denouement to the whole saga was far from fitting: it has left a question mark hanging on Oyinlola’s victory and a sour taste in the mouth of many Nigerians who witnessed the sordid drama.
Significantly, the circumstances that provided the background for that ruling have conspired to put Naron and another member of the tribunal, Justice Ekpo Ekanem, squarely in the court of public opinion. The News magazine, in its last two editions, published call logs which, it alleged, represented phone conversations and text messages between Oyinlola’s counsel, Otunba Kunle Kalejaiye (SAN) and the two jurists since December last year. More tellingly, the magazine alleged, some of these calls and text messages were exchanged between Kalejaiye and the jurists shortly before some interim rulings that went against the petitioner.
For members of the tribunal who were supposed to be impartial and whose code of ethics forbids private contact with parties involved in litigation before them, these allegations were grave indeed. And their import for a fair ruling was ominous. Although Kalejaiye and Oyinlola denied having any private contacts with the jurists, their rebuttals still left many questions unanswered. They were silent on whether the phone numbers quoted by the magazine were genuine or not. Kalejaiye, in an advertorial, only said a lawyer in his chambers, Ekerenam Ekpo, had used the number given by the magazine as Ekanem’s number for six years. But the magazine countered that someone who admitted he was Justice Ekanem picked the call when it dialled the number. Kalejaiye equally averred that the phone service provider, MTN, had denied that the phone logs originated from it; which was not the same thing as saying the logs were fake or that the phone numbers in them never existed or belonged to other persons than the dramatis personae in the Osun tribunal saga.
Aregbesola and his counsel, Kola Awodein(SAN), would not give the jurists the benefit of the doubt as they had consistently alleged that the tribunal was biased, particularly when it refused to admit the result of forensic investigation of ballot papers that it had earlier ordered to be conducted. They petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC) for a suspension of ruling to allow for an investigation into the latest allegation of bias against the jurists. Their call was backed by respected voices of reason such as those of Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, retired Justice Kayode Eso, Nigerian Bar Association president, Olisa Agbakoba and Professor Itse Sagay. Aregbesola vowed that he would not accept any ruling from the tribunal, favourable or not. The tribunal delivered its ruling against this background last Tuesday.
Although, the judiciary has largely acquitted itself in its handling of election petitions across the nation, few of the election tribunals have been controversial. The one in Osun has been particularly so. This is not to rush to judge its members, but a call on NJC to investigate the allegation of bias against the jurists, particularly in reference to the phone records that were published. The NJC should dispense justice based on its findings, all in the interest of the image of the judiciary as the hope of citizens in search of justice.
We commend parties in the litigation, especially Aregbesola and his supporters, for maintaining the peace after the ruling. We urge them to continue to do so. A resort to violence serves no useful purpose. It only beclouds the issue and engenders criminality. The petitioner has said he will appeal the ruling. This is a proper step to take. But for the sake of the preservation of public morality, an investigation into the work of the Osun election tribunal is imperative.