The judgement of the Federal High Court, Abuja, which declared that 37 members of the House of Representatives who defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the newly formed All Progressives Congress (APC) had no basis to retain their seats, having dumped the party which sponsored them, has expectedly been generating ripples across the country. In the landmark verdict on March 31, Justice Adeniyi Ademola held that the lawmakers no longer had any business, morally and legally, in the National Assembly.
Consequently, he ruled that the affected legislators should honourably resign from their seats in the lower chamber of the National Assembly, having crossed to another political party while their tenure was yet to expire. Also, the court barred the House of Representatives from changing its principal officers. This, Justice Ademola ruled, was because the defecting lawmakers were not competent to vote in any process to remove its leadership, or sponsor a motion to that effect on the floor of the House. The High Court verdict is the outcome of a suit filed against the leadership of the House by the ruling PDP. The defecting lawmakers were listed as 12th and 53rd defendants.
Meanwhile, the APC has gone on appeal, while the leadership of the House of Representatives has said it would stay action on the court verdict until all the issues at stake run their full course in court. That, in our view, is the best way to go about this controversial matter, considering the fact that the defection has generated a bitter and potentially dangerous furore in both chambers of the National Assembly. It has also elicited rowdy sessions that disrupted proceedings in both legislative houses. Undoubtedly, the courts are the appropriate venues to resolve such a major controversial dispute, in accordance with constitutional provisions and acceptable democratic norms.
We, however, hope all aggrieved parties in this dispute will allow the courts to resolve the matter peacefully. This is in spite of the claims by the plaintiffs (PDP) that the judgment of Justice Ademola was executory, and not declaratory, that requires immediate enforcement.
At the heart of this dispute, and which all the parties, including the presiding judge relied upon, is the correct legal interpretation of Section 68(1)(g) of the 1999 Constitution. The section provides as follows: A member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member if: (g) being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected. This provision, however, comes with a condition, that is, “provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously sponsored.”
Expectedly, this section of the Constitution has been subjected to various interpretations, depending on the side of the divide to which the interpreter belongs.
But, since any declaration of a court, whether right or wrong, remains law until it is upturned by a superior court, the verdict of the Abuja court, is the position of the law for now, until the Court of Appeal rules otherwise.
Nonetheless, the Justice Ademola ruling has both positive and negative connotations for our democracy. On the positive side, the position that a legislator who crosses to another party when the party that sponsored him to office is not divided has to vacate his seat, will likely sound the death-knell to whimsical and capricious carpet-crossing in the legislative chambers. This will, perhaps, usher in some measure of stability and sanity in our legislature.
On the negative side, if the High Court verdict is upheld on appeal and becomes the position of the law, that position might further encourage impunity in the ruling party and other parties, as it will stifle dissenting voices and worsen the current lack of internal democracy that has become a common feature in virtually all the major political parties. This may ultimately not bode well for our democracy.
Altogether, we urge the Appeal Court, and the Supreme Court (if the case gets to that level), to give a definitive and well-reasoned interpretation to Section (1)(g) of the 1999 Constitution so that the controversies over carpet-crossing can be amicably and finally laid to rest.
It is instructive that until 1952 when Chief Meredith Akinloye defected from his party in the then Western Region House of Representatives to another party, upsetting the stability of politics, carpet-crossing was alien to our politics. We are inclined to believe that Sections 68(1)(g) and 109 of the 1999 Constitution were designed to remedy this. Let the courts be guided properly so that the contentious matter of carpet-crossing will be resolved once and for all so that our democracy can move forward.