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Supreme Court Sacks Federal Lawmaker Over Defection

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BEVERLY HILLS, April 17, (THEWILL) – A federal lawmaker from Ondo State has been sacked by the Supreme Court.

The lawmaker, Mr ‎Ifedayo Abegunde, representing Akure South/North Federal Constituency of Ondo State in the House of Representatives, was sacked for defecting from the Labour Party (LP), which sponsored his election to the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN).

Handing over judgement on the matter on Friday, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who led a seven-man panel with a unanimous decision, held that a legislator's defection to another party could only be justified if there was a division in the national structures which incapacitated the party that sponsored his election, to function.

Other Justices on the Supreme Court panel were Justices John Fabiyi, Suleiman Galadima, Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, Musa Muhammad, Clara Ogunbiyi and Kudirat Kekere-Ekun.

The defendants in the suits were the Ondo State House of Assembly, its clerk and speaker as the first to third defendants.

Others include seven factional chairmen of the party at the state, local government and ward levels in the state.

The 11th and 12th defendants were the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, and Dan Nwanyanwu, who was sued as the National Chairman of the Labour Party.

Maintaining that Abegunde's defection to ACN in 2011 could not be justified since his excuse of purported division in the Labour Party was not in existence at the national level of the party, the apex court noted that the “division” or “factionalisation” of Labour Party cited by Abegunde as his excuse for defecting from the party was only at the state level.

Affirming the concurrent decisions of the Akure divisions of the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal, both of which had earlier ruled that Abegunde's defection was unjustifiable, the apex court ordered that he should vacate his seat.

The CJN, who read the lead judgment of the Supreme Court, held that only a “division that made it “impossible or impracticable” for the party to function by virtue of the proviso in section 68(1)(g) of the constitution “justifies” a person's defection to another party.‎ Justice Muhammad, in the opening of his judgment, recalled that he had earlier on March 19, 2015 dismissed Abegunde's appeal, maintaining that the cross-appeal filed with respect to the case was also “unmeritorious”.

Explaining that the Friday's judgment was to give the reasons for dismissing the appeal and the cross appeal, the CJN cited previous Supreme Court decisions in ‎FEDECO‎ v Goni and Attorney General of the Federation v Abubakar to support his decision.

According to him, “The principles enunciated by this court in the two cases – FEDECO‎ v Goni supra and Attorney General of the Federation v Abubakar supra – is to the effect that only such factionalisation, fragmentation, splintering or 'division' that makes it impossible or impracticable for a particular party to function as such will, by virtue of the proviso to section 68(1)(g), justify a person's defection to another party and the retention of his seat for the unexpired term in the house inspite of the defection. “Otherwise, has rightly held by the courts below, the defector automatically loses his seat.”

Justice Muhammad also explained that by virtue of the combined provisions of section 68(1)(a) and (g) as well as section 222(a), (e) and (f) of the constitution, division in a party at the state level did not entitle a legislator to abandon the party on which platform he or she contested and won his or her seat.

Rejecting the argument canvassed by the counsel for the appellant, Mr. Akin Ladipo, to the effect that “any division” in a political party would entitle a person to defect from a party who sponsored his election without having to lose his seat, Justice Muhammad held: “I am unable to agree with learned counsel to the appellant that on facts and law as concurrently applied by the two courts below, their decisions can be interfered with.”

According to the CJN, “One is left in no doubt that the determination of the dispute, the trial court is approached to resolve, turns decisively on the meaning of word 'division' as used by the framers of the proviso to section 68(1)(g) of the 1999 constitution as amended.

“Not being the kind of 'division' that affects the national struc‎tures and therefore the corporate existence of the party, learned counsel insists, appellant's defection does not come within the proviso to section 68(1)(g) to entitle him to retain his seat in the House of Representatives in spite of his defection to the ACN from the Labour Party on which platform he contested and won the seat. “This position of the respondents is unassailable.”

Abegunde, who filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Akure, had defected from LP to the ACN in 2011 in a bid to pre-empt the party from recalling him.

In its judgment delivered on May 30, 2012, the Federal High Court dismissed his suit and the counter-claim filed by some of the defendants in the suit.

But not satisfied with the judgment, Abegunde further appealed to the Court of Appeal, which in its decision delivered on September 15, 2014, also dismissed his case.

He further appealed to the Supreme Court and on March 19, the apex court dismissed the appeal‎ and the respondents' cross-appeals. The apex court only explained the reasoning behind its earlier March 19 decision.