Tobi Soniyi, Alex Enumah in Abuja and Emmanuel Ugwu in Umuahia
Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, has assured the people of his state that he remains their governor and shall appeal the Federal High Court ruling, which yesterday set aside his election citing his non-qualification to contest the 2015 governorship election for tax evasion as reason for his sack.
Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja, who delivered the judgment, also ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue a certificate of return to Uche Samson Ogah, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who contested the party’s primary that produced the governor.
Justice Abang gave the verdict in a ruling he delivered on a pre-election matter challenging the emergence of Ikpeazu as the standard-bearer of the PDP in the 2015 gubernatorial election in Abia and ordered Ikpeazu to vacate the office immediately.
He said his judgment was based on the Supreme Court decision in the case of Obi v INEC and Amaechi v INEC.
The judge held: “That to give effect to the judgment of this court, the plaintiff, Dr. Samson Ogah, the candidate of the PDP in the 2015 gubernatorial election in Abia, is the person entitled to the certificate of return in the election for the office of governor of Abia State of Nigeria in the election held in April 2015.
“It is hereby ordered that INEC, the third defendant, should immediately issue a certificate of return to the plaintiff, Dr. Samson Ogah, as governor of Abia State in the election held in 2015 and restore to him all the entitlements as the elected governor of Abia.
“Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu is hereby ordered to vacate office as governor of Abia immediately relying on the decision of the Supreme Court in INEC vs Obi.”
In the more than two-hour judgment, Justice Abang said the submission of a tax clearance certificate and income tax receipts by Ikpeazu was unknown to the law.
According to him, the 2011 tax clearance certificate and income tax receipts submitted to INEC before the 2014 PDP primary contained false information.
“Going by the second defendant’s appointment letter, as General Manager Abia Passenger Integrated Scheme, with effect from July 18, 2011 with the amount payable as salaries and entitlement clearly spelt out.
“Going by the second defendant’s appointment letter, the second defendant would have worked for Abia Passenger Integrated Scheme for five months, 12 days.
“The earnings of the second defendant, based on the letter of appointment by single calculation in 2011 for five months, 12 days is N493 or N546,669 if not assigned a government vehicle.
“The tax payment submitted by the second defendant didn’t reflect this figure,” he said.
The judge argued that the tax certificate indicated the gross earnings of the second defendant for 2011 to be N1.135 million and the income tax was assessed on this figure.
He disclosed further that the date on the tax receipt filed by the second defendant was on a Saturday, adding that Saturday, even in Abia, is a public holiday.
The judge pointed out that Ikpeazu did not file his tax clearance in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and that all payments he made preceding the 2014 primary were made in one day and not as and when due.
In his view, he held that Ikpeazu perjured by lying under oath when he said that he had fulfilled all the requirements to contest the 2015 governorship election.
Based on these, the court ruled that Ikpeazu was not qualified to be the candidate of the PDP in the primary of 2014 and was also not qualified to be fielded as the candidate for the 2015 election.
Justice Abang said the plaintiff was the eligible or qualified candidate to contest as the candidate of the PDP for the 2015 election and his name should be forwarded to INEC as the PDP candidate.
He held that the second defendant did not win the PDP primary, as he was not eligible or qualified to contest and that it was the plaintiff that won.
The court further declared that Ikpeazu was guilty of tax evasion and was therefore unqualified to have contested the 2015 governorship election in the state.
The court also awarded N100,000 as costs in favour of the plaintiff.
But in a swift reaction, the governor called on the people of Abia not to panic, saying he remained the state governor.
In a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Enyinnaya Appolos, the governor called on residents of the state to remain calm over the judgment.
Ikpeazu, who said that he had faith in the judiciary and rule of law, added that he would appeal the ruling as he had instructed his lawyers to file an appeal immediately against the judgment removing him.
The governor stated that as an appointee of the Abia State Government from 2011 to 2014, when he served as the General Manager, Abia State Passengers Integrated Manifest and Safety Scheme (ASPIMSS), and first Deputy General Manager, Abia State Environmental Protection Agency (ASEPA), Aba and its environs respectively, and before his resignation in October 2014 to contest the governorship election in the state, within the period his taxes were deducted at source, and when he had need of his tax clearance in 2014, he applied to the Abia State Board of Internal Revenue, and was duly issued with his tax receipts for the period in question.
He maintained that he remained the governor of the state according to law and would await the final determination of the matter by the appellate court.
In its reaction, the ruling PDP said that it was unfazed by the court judgment, adding that the ruling had changed nothing since it would be challenged.
Speaking in a phone interview, the state publicity secretary of PDP, Chief Don Ubani, said that the party strongly believed that Ikpeazu “is eminently qualified” to be governor, adding that the party would give him all the needed support to exhaust all available judicial processes to get justice.
However, an uneasy calm fell over the state following the judgment.
Meanwhile, the campaign office of Ogah burst into life as supporters thronged the premises located along Umuwaya Road, Umuahia, to celebrate the court judgment.
The administrative manager of the office, Wisdom Maduforo, said the judgment was long awaited, describing it as a “victory for democracy”.
Two members of the PDP had accused Ikpeazu of failing to pay personal income tax as and when due for the years 2010 and 2011 in line with Section 24(f) of the 1999 Constitution, which states that “it shall be the duty of every citizen to … declare his income honestly to appropriate and lawful agencies and pay his tax promptly”.
Subsequently, a lawsuit was instituted at the Federal High Court, Abuja in December in 2014, by two individuals, Obasi Eke and Chukwuemeka Mba, who had asked the PDP and INEC to disqualify Ikpeazu from contesting the governorship election.
The plaintiffs contended that Ikpeazu was not fit and proper, having failed to pay his personal income tax for two years in line with the demands of the constitution.
They also asked for an order barring the PDP from presenting Ikpeazu as their candidate for governor in the 2015 election.