Emmanuel Ugwu, in Umuahia, writes on the political situation in Abia State following the court judgement ordering the governor’s removal from office
The judgement by Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja, that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu should vacate office has plunged Abia State into another round of political crisis. The court ordered that Dr Sampson Uche Ogah, who placed second in the primary election of the Peoples Democratic Party prior to the 2015 governorship election, was the rightful candidate of the party. It directed that the Independent National Electoral Commission should issue Ogah with the certificate of return immediately, thus, invalidating the certificate issued to Ikpeazu after the election last year.
The verdict came like a bolt from the blues, given that Ikpeazu had emerged from a gruelling legal duel that almost claimed his political life. Mr. Alex Otti, who was the flag bearer of the All Progressives Grand Alliance in the governorship election of April 2015 almost succeeded in unseating Ikpeazu when the appeal court upturned the tribunal ruling affirming his electoral victory. As the governor continued to fight for his mandate, Abia was then plunged into the dark cloud of political uncertainty, as the two gladiators jostled for the Government House. The dark cloud finally cleared when the Supreme Court set aside the judgement of the lower court and affirmed Ikpeazu’s mandate.
But Ikpeazu had barely heaved a sigh of relief and settled down to work when what seemed like the most potent threat to his mandate ensued.
Perhaps Abia would have been spared the current crisis if INEC had waited for the appeal process to run its full course before complying with the order of the Abuja high court. The electoral body, which ordinarily is noted for its lethargic compliance to court decisions, opted to act fast this time around. With this suspicious compliance to court order, INEC wittingly or unwittingly caused so much tension in God’s Own State, as Ikpeazu battled to stay in office while Ogah intensified efforts to unseat him.
INEC said its action in the whole imbroglio was justified. According to the INEC National Commissioner in charge of the South-east, Chief Lawerence Nwurukwu, the commission merely obeyed a court order which, according to him, was “wonderful and direct” with a clause that INEC should issue a certificate of return to Ogah “with immediate effect”. Nwuruku, who personally issued the controversial document to Ogah, conferring on the oil magnet the status of governor-elect, said INEC studied and interpreted the court order before taking action. “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.”
The INEC commissioner said the electoral umpire was ready to dance to any tune played by the court at any point in time, saying, “If the court tomorrow issues another order, we will obey the same. I will do the same thing if the court orders us to issue the certificate to another person.”
INEC has been vilified and roundly condemned for issuing the certificate of return to Ogah. Chairman of Abia State chapter of PDP, Chief Johnson Onuigbo, said INEC acted in bad faith given that the legal team of Ikpeazu had filed a notice of appeal and stay of execution. He said his party was concerned about the role of INEC in the Abia political crisis.
“Our democracy is being threatened and endangered by those who do not believe in the rule of law,” Onuigbo said, adding that it has grave implication for Abia as the prevailing peace was under serious threat. The party chairman alleged that there was a surreptitious plan to swear in Ogah as governor under an atmosphere of confusion created by disobeying a court order. “We are here to tell the world that this state is tensed up because democracy is going to be raped and we say no. We are here to tell you that Abia is not safe,” he lamented at a press conference.
Onuigbo said those prodding Ogah to be installed as governor “are calling for anarchy in the state and we will give it to them. We are ready to die in defence of democracy.”
Events started moving in unpredictable direction on June 30 when Ogah, armed with his certificate of return, made his way to Umuahia to be sworn in as governor. His supporters were agog as they waited for his arrival. Apparently taking comfort in his notice of appeal and stay of execution, Ikpeazu was oblivious of the plan to unseat him with immediate effect. He was scheduled to attend a public event at the Abia State University, Uturu. It was the maiden edition of the Eminent Persons Lecture series introduced by the university and the state governor was billed to be the first eminent lecturer to kick-start the series. He was to deliver his lecture on the topic, “Socio-cultural diversity and economic development in Nigeria: Challenges and prospects.”
The stage was already set for Ikpeazu to be ushered into the university auditorium to deliver the lecture when information filtered in about the imminent threat to his mandate. He made a U-turn and headed back to Government House, Umuahia. The audience waited in vain, not knowing that the expected eminent lecturer was no longer coming, even though he was already within the premises of ABSU and announcement was being made that “any moment from now” Ikpeazu would enter the auditorium. By 12.10pm commissioners and other government officials who were seated and waiting for the arrival of the governor started moving out of the auditorium very briskly. Former Minister of Information, Professor Jerry Gana, who had come as an invited guest was said to be waiting in the office of the Vice-chancellor when the event collapsed.
Back in Umuahia, Ikpeazu called his “war cabinet” and held discussions on how to quench the raging inferno threatening to consume his mandate. The information was that Ogah was coming down to Umuahia purposely to be sworn in as governor and something had to be done to scuttle the plan. A suit was promptly filed at a state high court in Osisioma. After hearing the ex-parte application by the counsel to the governor, O.O. Nkume, in the suit No. HOS/52/2016, the presiding judge, Justice C.H Ahuchaogu, gave the order restraining INEC from issuing certificate of return to Ogah, the first defendant. The state chief judge, who was listed as third defendant, or any other judicial officer in the state was also restrained from swearing in the first defendant (Ogah). The motion ex-parte was brought pursuant to Section 143 (1) and (2) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended).
The ex-parte order appeared to have worked as the status quo in Abia Government House remains.
Ogah on arrival in Umuahia did not make any attempt to enter Government House. His convoy had the paraphernalia of “governor elect” by virtue of the certificate of return in his possession. The security component of his convoy included Army, police and DSS personnel. As his supporters cheered and Umuahia residents waited in bated breath over the unfolding drama, Ogah and his convoy sped past and headed to the office of the Department of State Service. It could not be ascertained if it was on invitation or he just went there to inform the service of his plan to be sworn in as governor. However, after conferring with the state director of DSS, Ogah drove out about 8pm with his convoy. It could not be confirmed if the challenger for the Abia governorship seat stayed back in Umuahia or went to his country home in Onuaku Uturu in Isuikwuato local government.
Nonetheless, it was a long night for Ikpeazu and his supporters as rumour filled the air that there were plans to bring in the chief judge of Imo State to administer the oath of office on Ogah. The anxiety and uncertainty created by Ogah prompted some political appointees to start moving their belongings out of Government House. But the Secretary to the State Government, Dr Eme Okoro, said it was not unusual if those with “weak knees” decided to panic due to the tension generated in the state.
Unlike the challenge by Otti on the platform of an opposition party, Ogah’s challenge is an intra-party struggle, which ensued after the primary election. Nonetheless, those outside the PDP fold were equally excited over the unfolding political drama. They pitched their support with either Ikpeazu or his challenger, Ogah. The coming of the president of Masters Energy Group to be sworn in as governor generated so much tension in the capital city of Umuahia, almost pushing it to explosive point. By nightfall youths loyal to either of the gladiators poured into the streets of Umuahia, especially the Akanu Ibiam road that leads directly to Government House, singing and brandishing clubs and other dangerous items.
Motorists and passers-by were harassed as the angry youths banged on passing vehicles and even blocked the entire road to Government House.
By day break the tension appeared to subside. There was no sign that Ogah had transformed as governor overnight as it was believed that he would be sworn in secretly overnight and emerge as governor on the first day of July. On the contrary Ikpeazu continues to hold his mandate.
“There is no doubt who is in charge and who is governor,” he told journalists at Government House the morning after fending off the attempt to unseat him. “You people witnessed the day we were sworn in. You people also witnessed when we took the Oath of Allegiance and no other person has taken that oath on behalf of the governor of Abia State. No other person has taken allegiance as Abia governor.”