• Electoral commission justifies issuance of certificate of return, PDP, others cry foul
Tobi Soniyi, Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja, Emmanuel Ugwu in Umuahia and Amby Uneze in Owerri with agency report
Tension enveloped the sleepy state of Abia on Thursday when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) complied with the ruling of a Federal High Court, Abuja, on Monday, which removed Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu as the governor of the state, by issuing a certificate of return as the duly elected governor of Abia State to Sampson Uche Ogah, who came second in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) primary that produced the governorship candidate to contest the April 2015 election.
The Abuja Federal High Court, in a pre-election matter, had declared Ikpeazu’s election as the governor of Abia State null and void on the grounds that he allegedly submitting falsified tax returns to INEC in the run up to the governorship election.
The court, presided over by Justice Okon Abang, ruled that Ikpeazu was not fit to contest the 2015 governorship election on account of his faulty tax returns.
Consequently, Ogar was adjudged by the court as the rightful candidate of the PDP in the election, having come second behind the ousted governor.
However, Ikpeazu immediately challenged the judgment of the Federal High Court by proceeding to the Court of Appeal, thus leaving the impression that he would remain in office until the judicial process challenging the validity of his candidacy had run its course.
But a state of confusion pervaded Abia yesterday as Ikpeazu fought back to prevent Ogah, who flew into the state capital, Umuahia, from being sworn in as governor after INEC had issued a certificate of return to him.
The embattled governor on receiving information that he was about to be unseated, rushed to an Abia High Court, sitting in Osisioma Ngwa, and obtained an ex parte injunction restraining his opponent from being sworn in.
Based on the ex parte motion moved by the counsel to the governor, O.O. Nkume, the presiding judge, Justice C.H Ahuchaogu gave the order restraining INEC from issuing the certificate of return to Ogah while the state chief judge or any other judicial officer in the state was also restrained from swearing him in.
In the application, Ogah was listed as first defendant, INEC as second defendant, and the chief judge of Abia state as third defendant.
A copy of the order read: “It is hereby ordered: That an order of injunction is hereby made restraining the second defendant (INEC) from issuing a certificate of return to the first defendant (Ogah) while the claimant (Ikpeazu) remains in office in accordance with Section 143(1) and (2) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) and pending the determination of the motion on notice.”
It is further ordered: “That the third defendant or any other judge of the court or any judicial officer are hereby restrained from swearing in the first defendant while the claimant remains in office in accordance with Section 143(1) and (2) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) and pending the determination of the motion on notice.”
Also, in an ex-parte order, the court restricted INEC from issuing a certificate of return to Ogah, stating: “An order of injunction restraining the second defendant from issuing a certificate of return to the first defendant while the claimant remains in office in accordance with Aection 143(1) & (2) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) and pending the determination of the motion on notice.
“An order of injunction restraining the third defendant (Chief Judge of Abia State) or any other judge of the court, or any judicial officer from swearing in the first defendant while the claimant remains in office in accordance with Section 143(1) & (2) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) and pending the determination of the motion on notice.”
According to sources in the state, Ikpeazu was scared stiff when information filtered in that INEC had issued Ogah with the certificate of return which authorised his opponent to displace the governor from Government House, Umuahia.
He was billed to take the first slot to speak as an eminent lecturer in the maiden edition of Eminent Persons Lecture series of the Abia State University Uturu (ABSU).
The stage was already set for Ikpeazu to be ushered into the university auditorium to deliver the lecture titled “Socio-cultural Diversity and Economic Development in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects”, when word filtered in that his governorship was in jeopardy.
The governor was already within the premises of ABSU and it was being announced that the governor would “any moment from now” enter the auditorium, when government officials who were already seated, started leaving the venue.
It was gathered that the governor’s convoy turned back and headed back to Aba when he got wind of what had transpired at the INEC headquarters in Abuja and the implication for his mandate.
Also, in order to forestall a break down of law and order, the police immediately stepped up security around Abia Government House in Umuahia.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported that the news of the issuance of the certificate of return to Ogah, which filtered into the state around noon, caused anxiety among residents of Umuahia.
At the city centre, popularly called Isi-gate, some traders, tricycle riders and passersby expressed support for the development.
The situation, however, was different at the Government House, where political office holders were seen moving hurriedly out of their offices, while workers simply watched.
INEC Justifies Ogah’s Certification
However, while confirming the issuance of the certificate of return to the new governor-elect, the INEC National Commissioner in charge of the South-east, Chief Lawerence Nwurukwu said that the commission did so in compliance with the court order which ordered it to issue the certificate to Ogah with immediate effect.
Nwuruku, who addressed journalists at the Sheraton Hotel in Abuja, venue of the stakeholders’ meeting convened to review positions on the suspended re-run elections, said that as the NEC Commissioner in charge of the South-east, he personally issued the certificate to return to Ogah as Abia governor-elect of Abia.
According to him, the presentation of the certificate of return was performed early yesterday morning at INEC’s headquarters after due interpretation of the court judgment and consultations with the relevant units of the commission.
“The situation is we are simply obeying the court order. The court said with immediate effect, we should issue him certificate of return, and that is what we have done.
“If the court tomorrow issues another order, we will obey the same. By the grace of God I am the INEC Commissioner in charge of South-east. I will do the same thing if the court orders us to issue the certificate to another person.
“In this case, the court ordered us to issue the certificate to the person who won the election and that is Uchechukwu Ogah. I was the person who issued the certificate of return to Governor Ikpeazu because he was declared winner of the election then. Now the court is saying otherwise.
“One thing is that, we are not above the law and we cannot disobey the law of the land. After the court, another person we obey is God. And my conscience is my God. If you were in the court that day and I will urge you, members of the media to go and study the court decision very well. It was wonderful, it was direct,” he said.
Nwurukwu noted that as I as law abiding institution, neither the commission nor himself would want to flout the orders of the court, adding that he was ready to be dragged to jail for not obeying court order.
Ogah Arrives Abia, Forced to Wait
Meanwhile, Ogah who arrived Abia immediately after he was issued the certificate of return, declared that it was the dawn of new beginning and a fresh breath of air for the entire people of the state.
He stated this yesterday at the Sam Mbakwe International Airport, Owerri, on his arrival from Abuja en route to Umuahia, adding that the people of Abia had been celebrating following his declaration by the court as the duly elected governor of the state.
According him, “The entire people of Abia state have been celebrating because it is the dawn of new beginning and a breath of fresh air and that is why there are wild celebrations by the people of the state here at the airport because they know it is going to be a new and better deal for all Abians.”
Ogah, who was flanked by his wife and his supporters, said: “I have been issued with the certificate of return by the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as the lawfully and duly elected governor of the state in the 2015 governorship polls in Abia State.
“I want to assure the people of the state that this is a new dawn of a better future for all.”
He added: “By the grace of God, I will be sworn in as the governor today or tomorrow.”
However, when Ogah eventually arrived Umuahia, he did not head for Government House. It was gathered that he went to the state office of the Department of State Service (DSS) for undisclosed reasons.
Irrespective of his failure to assume the mantle of leadership in the state yesterday, Ogah through his media adviser, Monday Ubani said that the injunction obtained by Ikpeazu could not invalidate his certificate of return, as it came from a subordinate court to the Federal High Court that ordered his swearing in.
He maintained that the state High Court which granted the injunction lacked the locus to do so, adding that only an Appeal Court could grant such injunction.
He also said the appeal filed by Ikpeazu at the Court of Appeal could not be considered a stay on the judgment of Justice Abang.
Ogah urged the chief judge and all concerned to respect the ruling and allow him to immediately take over the reigns of leadership so as to move the state forward.
Ubani said: “The Federal High Court of Abuja presided over by Justice Okon Abang ordered Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu to vacate his seat for Mr. Uche Ogah as the rightful person for the seat.
“INEC was ordered to issue the said Ogah with a certificate of return which that body has complied with.
“The next order that was issued by the Federal High Court was for the Chief Judge of Abia to swear in Uche Ogah, the rightful person to occupy the governor’s seat. That order is yet to be complied with.
“I understand that a High Court in Osisioma Ngwa, the axis where the governor hails from, has issued an interim order restraining the Chief Judge from swearing in Uche Ogah as the governor of the state. The point must be made that this order cannot stand, as it is invalid in law.
“The order did not emanate from a higher court but from a court of coordinate jurisdiction and does not in any vitiate or invalidate the earlier judgment of the Federal High Court in which the Chief Judge of Abia State was ordered to swear-in Uche Sampson Ogah.
“Only a higher court, in this case, the Court of Appeal, has the jurisdiction to reverse the judgment of the Federal High Court.
“Note also that appeal of Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu before the Court of Appeal does not operate as a stay over the judgment of Justice Okon Abang. In the absence of any express order of the High Court or the Court of Appeal ordering a stay of execution, the judgment of the Federal High Court delivered on the 27th of June, 2016 should be obeyed by all the parties.”
Abia PDP Cries Out
Reacting to the latest turn of events, the Abia State chapter of the PDP, which is controlled by Ikpeazu, yesterday raised the alarm, stating that Nigeria’s democracy was under threat and “endangered by those who do not believe in the rule of law”.
The chairman of the party, Chief Johnson Onuigbo expressed the party’s concerns at a news conference in Umuahia, saying that events following the judgment given by Justice Abang.
Onuigbo held the view that in order to install Ogah as governor, plans had been concluded to ignore the court injunction and send the military to invade Abia last night, adding that tension had enveloped Abia State.
He accused the presidency and the ruling party All Progressives Congress (APC) of being behind the plot to cause confusion in Abia.
He said: “We are here to tell the world that there is tension in the state because democracy is going to be raped and we say no to this plot. We are here to tell you that Abia is not safe. The state is going to be invaded this night by the military. But we will resist any attempt to undermine the peace in Abia state.”
The party chairman warned that if Ogah and those behind him ignored the court injunction the party would call for anarchy in the state, adding: “And we will give it to them.”
“We are ready to die in defence of democracy,” Onuigbo vowed.
According to him, Abia has been a peaceful state but there were serious attempt to cause anarchy in the state and called on every lover of peace and democracy to rise up to condemn the unravelling events.
He regretted that Ogah had rebuffed “several efforts made by the party for him to sheathe his sword and let sleeping dogs lie”, adding that he remained “obstinate and continued to perfect his plan to become governor through undemocratic means”.
“I’m surprised that he (Ogah) could be deceitful,” he said.
Also, when contacted to comment on the turn of events in Abia, the former governor of Anambra State Peter Obi, said that in very sensitive cases like this, all due legal means should be completely exhausted.
He further submitted that the outcome of the decision of the final court will be required for any institution or organisation to take action “for the sake of our nascent democracy, peace and stability of Abia State and our dear country Nigeria”.
Similarly, a constitutional lawyer, Mr. Sebastine Hone (SAN), faulted the decision of INeC to issue a certificate of return to Ogah based on the judgment of the court, which removed Ikepazu as governor.
Hon, who has written many books on the constitution, said INEC was wrong. He said: “INEC can’t do that since it has been served with the application for a stay of execution and a notice of appeal. The commission is wrong.
“If it is true that INEC has issued a certificate of return inspite of been served with a notice of appeal and the motion on notice for stay of execution by the governor’s legal team, that is most unfortunate.
“The certificate of return issued to Ogah is null and void because it is issued contemptuous of the powers of the Court of Appeal over this matter.
“It should not be recognised by any law enforcement agent for the purpose of enforcement of the terms of the said certificate of return.”
He called on President Muhammadu Buhari, the Attorney General of the Federation and the acting Inspector General of Police to respect the rules of law and therefore to disregard with immediate effect the purported certificate of return issued to Ogah.