Court Orders INEC to Immediately Issue Certificate of Return to Okorocha

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Rochas Okorocha

• Inec promises to resolve conflicting judgments on certificate

Chuks Okocha and  Alex Enumah in Abuja

Justice Okon Abang of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court has ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to immediately issue Certificate of Return to former governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha.

However, the Director of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Voters Education and Public Enlightenment, Wale Osaze Uzzi, said that the Commission had not been served the court order, adding, “Once the Commsion is served with any court order,  it is referred to the legal department or the  commission’s lawyers for study and advice. So, when we get the court order that says that INEC should issue him with the certificate of return,  it shall be subjected to the same process.”

INEC had while pledging obedience to court orders pointed out that it was in possession of a High Court Order from Imo State under the trial of Justice Njemanze which ordered that the certificate not be issued to any of the parties and said it would meet to harmonise and take a position on both judgments.

The court yesterday also ordered INEC to publish Okorocha’s name in its list of winners of the 2019 National Assembly Election, having been declared winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election of February 23, 2019.

Justice Abang gave the order, while delivering judgment in the suit filed by Okorocha, challenging the refusal of INEC to issue him with Certificate of Return, having won the senatorial seat with majority lawful votes cast at the election.

According to the court, the electoral body lacks the lawful authority to withhold the Certificate of Return to Okorocha, winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election.

Okorocha was declared winner of the February 23 senatorial election in Imo State, however his name was omitted in the INEC list of winners of the election. The electoral commission further refused to issue him with certificate on grounds that the Returning Officer for the senatorial election was forced to announce Okorocha as winner of the election.

Okorocha, accordingly, approached the court to compel INEC to issue him with Certificate of Return, having been declared winner of the election by INEC’s Returning Officer.

In his judgment, Justice Abang declared that INEC’s unilateral decision to withhold Okorocha’s certificate was unlawful ultra vires, null and void.

Justice Abang insisted that INEC’s decision which had no legal justification and could not be allowed to stand so as not to create problems for the polity.

According to Abang, if the electoral body’s action was condoned, election could easily be cancelled on mere claims of acting under duress by returning Officers.

“INEC has no lawful authority under the Electoral Act or Constitution to withhold Certificate of Return, it is unlawful. No law that supports the unilateral decision of INEC. Assuming that its electoral Returning Officer claimed that he made the declaration under duress, INEC cannot be the prosecutor and  judge in its own case”, he held.

Justice Abang noted that INEC had taken sides in a matter he ought to be an umpire and as such ought not to act beyond the declaration of the results.

He further held that if the defendants in the suit were aggrieved about the outcome of the results, they were at liberty to approach the tribunal that would avail them the opportunity to ventilate their grievances and call witnesses to prove their claim that the Returning Officer announced the result under duress. 

Besides, Abang stated that INEC would have withheld the Certificate of Return, if it had declared the election inconclusive or if there was a rerun. 

He held that by claiming that the Returning Officer announced the result under duress INEC breached the right of fair hearing of the plaintiff, as he was not allowed to tell his own side of the story, adding that INEC did even consider police report before the unilateral decision.

Abang accordingly slammed a cost of N200k against INEC and N100k each against the other seven defendants in favour of Okorocha. 

Earlier, Justice Abang dismissed the preliminary objection filed by INEC and six other defendants against the jurisdiction of the court to hear the suit on claims that the suit filed by Okorocha was a post-election matter, which ought to be filed at the National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal in Owerri, Imo State.

The trial court stated that although the refusal of INEC to issue Okorocha with a Certificate of Return relates to a post-election dispute, however the question raised by the plaintiff and the reliefs sought bordered on the administrative decision of INEC, which is within the purview of the Federal High Court.

 

Abang specifically held that the jurisdiction of election petition tribunal was limited to whether a person was duly elected or validly returned, adding that the tribunal could not be saddled with mundane things such as the administrative decision of INEC.

 

“Refusal to issue certificate of return is not one of the four grounds to go to the tribunal. The core mandate of the tribunal is whether a person is validly elected or returned”, he held.

 

He further stated that by the statutory provisions of the tribunal, the plaintiff, who is declared winner of the senatorial election cannot go to the tribunal as a petitioner.

 

He said the grievances of the plaintiff could not be addressed by the tribunal, as there was no legal provision for the tribunal to entertain matters relating to the administrative decision of INEC.

 

Abang consequently held that the court had jurisdiction to hear the suit.

 “It is not a post-election dispute that can be filed at the tribunal, no section of the law establishing the tribunal allows the plaintiff to go to the tribunal as petitioner; plaintiff cannot go to the tribunal to challenge an election he won”, the judge ruled.

 

 

In a statement signed by Festus Okoye, National Commissioner and  Chairman,

Information and Voter Education Committee, the commission said, “The attention of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has been drawn to the judgement of the Federal High Court, Abuja, presided over by the Hon. Justice Okon Abang, directing the Commission to issue a Certificate of Return to Rochas Okorocha as the Senator-elect for Imo West Senatorial District. 

 

“The Commission is also aware of and has been served with the Order of a High Court of Imo State, presided over by Hon. Justice Njemanze, directing the Commission not to issue a Certificate of Return to any of the candidates that contested the Imo West Senatorial District election. The Order from the High Court of Imo State was issued on 23rdMay 2019 and the suit has been further adjourned to 26thJune 2019. 

 

“The Commission is aware that the judgement delivered by the Federal High Court, Abuja is the latest in time and determined the rights of the parties in relation to the subject matter of the Certificate of Return, in respect of the Imo West Senatorial Election. 

 

“The Commission is currently undertaking State level reviews of the 2019 general elections and all the National Commissioners are either in or heading to their States of Supervision to coordinate activities relating to the said review. 

 

“In view of the import and directives of the said judgement, the Commission will meet as soon as practicable to do the needful.

 

As a law-abiding institution, the Commission will continue to obey judgements of all courts of competent jurisdiction. 

 

“However, the Commission’s overriding consideration is the safety of its ad-hoc staff, Electoral Officers and Collation/Returning Officers and is worried that if electoral impunity is allowed to flourish, any individual can harass, intimidate and put the Commission’s officers under duress, procure a favourable declaration and be rewarded with a Certificate of Return. “