The ruling removing Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State from office was completely misplaced, writes Jesutega Onopkasa
Courts are always under a strict and unwavering obligation to only do that which is reasonable. Thus, the law does not envisage that absurd, unjust or otherwise unreasonable judgments should emanate from quarters as noble and prestigious as the court.
It is in this light that I find it most remarkable that the Honourable Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court would, in the case brought against Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State, come to the conclusion that a citizen did not pay his taxes and is a forger of documents without verifying such weighty facts from the tax collecting authority, which also happens to be the maker of the documents.
Was Okezie Ikpeazu on trial before Justice Abang on charges of forgery and tax evasion? Who was the Investigating Police Officer? Who were the witnesses? Who examined, cross-examined or reexamined them? Where is the proof of evidence? How does a judge, in chambers, come to the conclusion that a citizen is guilty of heinous crimes, simply by scrutinizing documents the citizen didn’t make even if the judge happened to be armed with the biggest pair of magnifying lenses ever made?
Did the Revenue Board of Abia assert that Ikpeazu is a tax evader? Did it repudiate the documents he submitted as tax clearance or tax returns issued by it? How can the cited inconsistencies regarding the serial numbers on the returns constitute more grounds for coming to the hasty conclusion that they were forged by Ikpeazu rather than that they indicate errors on the part of their maker and issuing authority? Did Ikpeazu issue himself with tax clearance certificates?
How can the fact that, on the face of the documents, Ikpeazu paid less tax in a given year than he did in a preceding one, go to any issue that can possibly constitute grounds for which he must suffer when he is not competent to assess himself as to how much is due from him as tax? At any rate, did the tax collector complain that it was thereby shortchanged? Is it for Ikpeazu to assess himself or for the taxman to assess him?
How can a court play the ostrich and pretend it is not part of the society and has no clue as to how taxes are paid by public servants or indeed how Pay As You Earn (PAYE) taxation operates in Nigeria? How does the Honourable Justice Abang pay his own taxes other than that they are deducted at source by the Accountant General and forwarded to the revenue authorities?
Does the learned judge have tax receipts for absolutely every month or year he has been paying tax, and if he has, were those receipts automatically transmitted to him by the taxman or did he request for them? And suppose he has not requested for any or all of them, does that even in the least remotely suggest to any reasonable man that he has been evading tax?
How many civil servants or other categories of public officers have up to date tax receipts? These are normally obtained on request and the mere fact of not possessing them does not even in the least reasonably suggest that any given public servant has not paid tax!
Has Justice Abang ever caused any document to be made in his career, both as a lawyer and then a judge and it turned out that there were errors, discrepancies or inconsistencies on the document after having handed them over to someone else? At the point at which the errors, discrepancies or inconsistencies were noticed, did that mean the documents were forged by the bearer or indeed by the learned judge himself? Good God!
Where there appear to be errors, discrepancies or inconsistencies on a document, how can that be the fault of the bearer and not the maker of the document? If some clown were to question whether or not I am a lawyer, would it be at all tenable for a judge to come to the conclusion that I am not one, simply by forming the opinion that my Call to the Bar certificate is in his eyes more yellowish than cream or vice versa? What sort of reasoning is that?
Suppose it all came down to a case of colour blindness, faulty vision or indeed, poor lighting in the court house or chambers? What then happens to such a laughable conclusion when the Body of Benchers asserts that it called me to the Nigerian Bar or when the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court submits that my name is on the role of Legal Practitioners of which he is custodian?
What is my business with the precise minute detail of the colour of a certificate I am not the maker of and did not award to myself? Am I the Chairman of the Body of Benchers, a member of the Council of Legal Education or the Registrar of the Supreme Court? Do I own a paper making factory? Am I a printer? Do I know where or from whom the sheet of paper was purchased? How can my status be questioned, my integrity queried or otherwise be made to suffer over a process I had absolutely no control over?
Without even submitting any documents, Ikpeazu being a public servant is deemed to have paid his tax until the contrary is proved. Where he submits documents issued by the appropriate authority to that effect, he cannot be victimised for discrepancies on the documents, which prima facie must be blamed on the maker until the contrary is proved.
How does a judge come to the conclusion that a citizen is a forger of documents, a tax evader and thus a criminal without subjecting his inquiry to the entire gamut of the equivalent of a criminal proceeding which is the only means by which such weighty conclusions can be reached by any court?
I love judges and hold them in the highest esteem. Recently, I found cause to lampoon the Learned Attorney General for sarcastically threatening to jail judges, when he has no competence to do any such thing. I equally upbraided him for pontificating to the rest of us while our noble judges are constrained to labour in the demeaning environments that most court houses are in this country while all manner of public agencies routinely break the law without as much as a whimper from him.
Unfortunately, the cause of upholding the well-earned and time hallowed prestige of our judiciary cannot by any means be aided by judgments that can only serve to bring such a noble institution into disrepute, ridicule and suspicion of incompetence.
Justice Abang has neither deepened nor illuminated the law vide this decision. He has only ended up doing great injustice, grievous reputational harm and alarming judicial oppression to a man, whose integrity and rights he is, as a judge, sworn to jealously guard until and unless he is proved guilty.
In a country where people are all too willing to believe everyone else is a crook, the learned judge has only succeeded in doing heinous violence to the law by delivering a judgment casting aspersion on the integrity of a fellow citizen in circumstances in which he had absolutely no basis for reaching such a disastrous decision.
-Onopkasa, a lawyer, wrote from Sapele, Delta State