Claim: Social media post suggests that the transfer of Joseph Ikyegh to Port Harcourt was done because he ruled on Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi’s petition.
Verdict: MISLEADING. Our findings show the transfer of Joseph Ikyegh was done before the petition he ruled on was even filed. Also, the transfer of justices is under the purview of the President of the Court of Appeal, not an executive function.
On March 1, 2023, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairperson, Mahmood Yakubu, declared Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) winner of the February 25, 2023 election.
On that same day, Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) applied to the presidential election petition tribunal sitting at the Court of Appeal, Abuja, to access sensitive materials used for the polls. The following day, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) submitted his application for the same issue.
On Friday, March 3, 2023, both applicants were granted their requests to access the presidential election materials. However, on March 6, 2023, INEC filed an application at the tribunal asking permission to reconfigure the 176,000 Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) used for the Presidential and National Assembly election ahead of the Governorship and State House of Assembly election slated for March 11, 2023.
Subsequently, a report of Justice Joseph Ikyegh’s transfer to the Port Harcourt Division of the Court of Appeal surfaced on social media platforms on March 10, 2023, after his panel granted INEC’s application.
The post, which appeared on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, claims that Justice Joseph Ikyegh, who ruled on LP and PDP applications to inspect the BVAS, had been transferred.
A Twitter user, Ike Ihiala (@HisKnowledgeabl), in his post noted that the news of the transfer of Justice Ikyegh to Port Harcourt is sketchy and “leaves much to be desired.”.
As of March 28, 2023, the post had garnered over 382,000 views, and 1,946 likes, and has been retweeted 1,143 times.
The post was shared on WhatsApp with the caption, “I told you guys that APC cabals are not happy with his rulings, and the foundation of this country is about to shake.”
However, a Facebook user, Charles Ogbu, gave a contrary opinion about why Justice Ikyegh was transferred to Port Harcourt Division. Sharing some documents to support his position, he said that Justice Ikyegh had been in Port Harcourt Division before his (Ikyegh) ruling on the applications filed by Mr Atiku and Mr Obi.
He also maintained that the ruling by Justice Ikyegh to allow the duo access to the election materials was a normal ruling that any Justice would have granted.
The transfer and posting of justices is a regular phenomenon in the judicial system, but with the issues around the judiciary’s credibility and the tension surrounding matters of the February 25th election, DUBAWA thought it necessary to verify the claim to set the records straight.
We conducted a keyword search which led to news reports by Tribune Online, ThisDayLive, and the Court of Appeal’s website indicating that the letter bearing the names of justices of the Court of Appeal, including that of Ikyegh, was dated March 7, 2023. A copy of the letter can be seen here.
Who determines the transfer of judges?
According to a Legal Practitioner based in Ilorin, Kwara State, Olaitan Nurrein, the power to transfer rests on the head of the specific court.
“Each court, especially at the Federal level, has its head. At the State level, the Chief Justice Of the State is the head of all courts and the head of the Judiciary. At the Federal level, it depends on each court. At the Federal High Court, the head of the Federal High Court is the Chief Judge and is in charge of the entire Federal High Courts all over the Federation.
“The same thing applies to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal has a President. The President of the Court of Appeal transfers judges in all jurisdictions. It’s part of his administrative work.”
Mr Nurrein explained further that the issue of the transfer of judges is not contained in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; rather, how the transfers are made and how frequent they should be, is at the discretion of the President of the Court of Appeal. This, according to him, is done in the interest of proper administration of justice.
He, however, pointed out that for checks and balances, anyone who feels that transfer has been made inappropriately could write a petition to the National Judicial Council to seek redress.
“It’s the National Judicial Council responsible for the discipline of judges. That’s if anybody writes a petition. For example, now, the scenario at hand, if anybody is alleging that the president of the Court of Appeal has exercised her discretion in a wrong way and can give evidence to that effect, then he will have to write a petition, supply his evidence to the National Judicial Council and, the President of the Court of Appeal will be called to question.”
DUBAWA’s research led to a report on the posting of Justices of the Court of Appeal for the 2022/2023 legal year. The posting said to have been signed by the President of the Court, Dongban-Mensem, was to take effect from October 17, 2022. Concerned Justices were expected to be at their new stations by October 21, 2022.
On the list of 81 names, Mr Ikyegh was spotted as number 29 as the Presiding Justice for the Port Harcourt Division. He was posted to work with four other Justices; Ridwan Abdullahi; Gabriel Kolawole; Olabode Adegbehingbe, and A Waziri.
Comparing the transfer letters of 2022/2023 and the recent one dated March 7, 2023, we noticed that Mr Ikyegh retained his position as the Presiding Justice for the Port Harcourt division.
According to the information found on the website of the Court of Appeal, 77 Justices were posted to various divisions of the court across the Federation in 2023. For this posting, Mr Ikyegh’s name was number 27 on the list as the presiding justice in Port Harcourt, to be accompanied by three other Justices; Sa’idu Hussein, Folashade Ojo, and Abdul-Azeez Waziri.
What does the Constitution say?
In line with the constitution, the Court of Appeal has the authority to set up election tribunal courts ahead of the conduct of an election. This is why the presidential election tribunal sitting at Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, had been opened for business one week before the February 25th election under sections 285 of the Nigerian Constitution and 130 of the Electoral Act.
The law also mandates the Court of Appeal to constitute the tribunal not later than 30 days before elections are conducted. On February 23, 2023, Premium Times reported that the tribunal had opened for business and quoted the interim secretary of the court, Adamu Mohammed, as affirming that the tribunals have also opened their registries in the 36 states of the Federation and Abuja. The tribunal members were sworn-in in November 2022 and also underwent necessary capacity-building workshops.
In a reaction to the composition of the panel for the election tribunal, a legal practitioner in Ilorin, Amina Zulqarnain, told DUBAWA that Justices who sit at election tribunal panels are usually deployed to states outside their divisions to ensure proper dispensation of justice. This, of course, explains why Justice Ikyegh is in Abuja. He is heading the presidential election petition tribunal sitting at the court of appeal in Abuja and not as a member of the court of appeal, Abuja division.
Moreso, the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, only serves as a venue for the tribunal. Hence, Mr Ikyegh is not in Abuja as a justice of the Court of Appeal, Abuja division but as a presidential election petition tribunal member.
The March 7, 2023, transfer of justices did not affect him because he maintained his position as the presiding justice of the Port Harcourt division.
It is also noteworthy that as of March 22, 2023, eight days after the March 14, 2023, deadline for justices to resume at their newly transferred divisions, Mr Ikyegh remained in Abuja to adjudicate on the presidential election petition matter.
The post suggesting Justice Ikyegh’s transfer from Abuja to Port Harcourt was politically motivated because he ruled on LP/PDP applications to access election materials is misleading.
This is because Justice Ikyegh was not in Abuja as a justice of the Court of Appeal, but rather, he is in Abuja on a special assignment as a team lead of the three-man panel on the presidential election petition tribunal.
The researcher produced this fact-check per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Harmony FM to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.