•INEC issues certificate of return to Ogah •Ikpeazu gets court order restraining CJ from swearing him in •INEC explains position •Heavy security at Government House
LEGAL confusion enveloped Abia State, on Thursday, as two claimants to the governorship seat emerged.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) caught political watchers by surprise, by issuing a fresh certificate of return to Dr Uchechukwu Emeka Ogah, superseding the one earlier issued the incumbent governor, Okezie Ikpeazu.
The commission said it acted in deference to the order of a Federal High Court in Abuja on Monday, sacking the incumbent and enthroning Ogah as the lawful candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the 2015 governorship election.
The court also ordered immediate issuance of certificate of return to him, but Ikpeazu filed an appeal against the judgment.
However the swearing-in of Ogah that should have ordinarily followed the issuance of the certificate was stalled by an order of a High Court in the state, which barred the Chief Judge, constitutionally-empowered to undertake the exercise, from conducting it.
The order, obtained at Osisioma judicial division High Court, ruled that “an order 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.
“That the third defendant (Chief Judge of Abia State) 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.”
Legal opinions have been varied since the unusual political development surfaced in the state.
Top echelon of the nation’s judiciary, Nigerian Tribune gathered, had also been watching the unfolding scenario with keen interest, with a view to ensuring that there was no constitutional meltdown in the state.
Though a couple of those who called the shots at the zenith of the nation’s judiciary were said to be abroad, findings revealed that they had been well briefed.
A top judicial source told the Nigerian Tribune that with the emergence of the duo, both could be considered as lawful governors as well as being constitutionally-deficient in laying claim to the seat.
The return of the decision-makers within the system, expected to be soon, could change a lot of dynamics, Nigerian Tribune was told.
Osisioma Ngwa High Court in the state, on Thursday, issued injunction restraining the swearing of Ogah by the state Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Uzokwe.
Ikpeazu, who was billed to deliver the maiden edition lecture on “social cultural diversity and economic development in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospect,” at Abia State University, Uturu was caught midway when the news filtered through that he should vacate his seat for Ogah.
Reacting to the development, Ikpeazu called on the people of the state to remain calm and move about their normal businesses.
He said he received with concern report of issuance of certificate of return to Ogah, despite the pendency of notice of appeal and motion for stay of the order of Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja.
The governor contended that the nation’s laws were clear on the matter of issuance of certificate of return and swearing-in as governor, where there is a subsistent appeal and application.
Addressing newsmen at the Government House, the state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Bonny Iwuoha, said the state had filed a process restraining the swearing-in of Ogah, adding that the process was to take immediate effect.
Also speaking at the joint press briefing, the Secretary to the State Government, Dr Eme Okoro, corroborated the claim that the state had secured court injunction restraining the chief judge from taking any further steps on the issue of Ogah’s swearing-in.
State chairman of the PDP, Chief Johnson Onuigbo, alleged that there was an unholy plan to invade the state by the powers-that-be, stressing that democracy was being threatened.
He argued that those who did not believe in the rule of law were behind the latest alleged assault on the nation’s democracy.
He further stated that with the court order already appealed, the process should have been seen to a logical conclusion judicially.
Onuigbo added that even Ogah did not, in the first place, accept the results of the primaries nor sign the result sheet.
Calling the Abuja development a rape on the nation’s democracy, the party boss alleged that the state was not safe, because of rumour of a plot by certain elements to invade it Thursday night.
There were claims of Ikpeazu’s special assistants and other top government officials attached to the Government House in Umuahia seen hurriedly packing out their belongings.
Meanwhile, INEC has explained reasons it issued the certificate.
The National Commissioner representing the South East, Ambassador Lawrence Nwuruku, said “INEC issued the certificate of return to Ogah as Abia governor-elect in obedience to the order of court.”
According to him, “the situation is that 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 court tomorrow issues another order, we will obey the same. By the grace of God, I am the INEC National Commissioner in charge of South-East.
“I will do the same thing if court orders us to do so, that we should issue the same certificate to another person. In this case, court ordered us to issue certificate to the person who won the election, that is Uchechukwu Ogah.
“I was the person who issued certificate of return to Governor Ikpeazu because he was declared winner. 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. I will urge you, members of the media, to go and study the court decision very well. It was wonderful, it was direct,” Nwurukwu said.
Speaking on whether the commission was aware of the appeal filed by Ikpeazu, Nwuruku said “if he does that, we will give him another certificate. We write it, the certificates are there. Even the certificate of Mr President is there. It is just the signature that matters. We will just file it.”
According to him, “we strictly want to obey court order. If there is another court judgment overruling us that it was wrong to have issued certificate, by God’s grace, I am still alive, I will do it again, I will give it to Ikpeazu. After all, I was the person that gave it to him in Abuja and the same thing is happening today.
On enforcement of the order, he said “INEC is not army or police that monitor court orders. We have our own responsibilities, to carry out and do election.
“If we give certificates and somebody says he cannot execute it, that is left for him to talk with law enforcement.”
Ikpeazu had earlier written to the chairman of INEC, intimating the commission that he had filed an appeal against the judgment.
Ikpeazu, in an open letter written to the commission by his lawyer, Valentine Offia, informed the INEC chairman that he had lodged appeals against the decision of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, adding that mere pendency of appeal did not serve as a stay of execution of judgment, he also filed an application for the stay of the execution of the said judgment yet to be determined.
He consequently asked the commission to maintain the status quo and refrain from issuing a certificate of return until his appeal had been heard by the appellate court.
“This correspondence is aimed at notifying your good self of the fact that His Excellency has taken all requisite steps available to him to ensure that matters are left in status quo, pending the determination of the appeals lodged against the decisions of the Federal High Court.
“In this stead, there is a need to refrain from issuing a certificate of return, pending when the constitutional right of appeal of His Excellency is fully ventilated or at least when applications for stay of executions of the judgments are heard and determined,” the letter stated.
The letter concluded that the right of appeal is constitutional and eloquent principle of law and that nothing shall be effected to stultify the exercise of that right.
He had, also in the letter, enjoined all authorities to observe and preserve the rights reserved in the constitution, especially when such rights involve the civil rights and liberties of citizens of Nigeria.
Speaking on the development, Lagos-based lawyer, Ebun Olu Adegboruwa, categorically said that the move was a wrong one.
“With all due respect to the court, this judgment is wrong, both in law and morality.
“The issue of payment or non payment of tax cannot invalidate an otherwise valid election.
“Furthermore, the consequences of a failure, by any public officer, to pay tax, are well articulated in the various tax statutes. In this case, it is said that one of the documents furnished by the governor was said to have been forged, because it was issued on a Saturday.
“Under the Public Holidays Act, all days are working days except the ones specifically declared as public holiday. Indeed, section 1 of the said Act states public holidays as New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Workers’ Day, National Day, Christmas Day, Id el Fitr, Id el Kabir, Id el Maulud or any other day so declared by the president or governor.
“So, Saturdays and Sundays are not public holidays to nullify official acts carried out on those days. This was why the former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, signed the appropriation bill of Lagos State on a Sunday.
“So the fact that a document is signed and dated on a Saturday or Sunday does not, of itself alone, render it invalid. In any case, any mistake occurring upon a document issued by the Abia State government cannot be blamed on the beneficiary of the document itself,” he said.
Speaking on the issue of tax, Adegboruwa noted that issue of tax evasion or tax default is a matter to be resolved between the citizen and the government, being one affecting revenue.
“I cannot see how that can lead to the annulment of the votes lawfully cast by the people of Abia State for their choice of governor.
“The other point that makes the judgment totally unacceptable is that it is totally against the tenets of democracy and the rule of choice, for courts to be supplanting pubic office holders that have been conferred with a sacred mandate by the people.
“This is why matters relating to elections have been limited to election petitions, so that it is only those who canvassed for the votes of the people that should expect to enjoy their mandate.
“The courts should not be imposing leaders on the people, to annul their mandate, through judgments that have no bearing with and cannot be traced to the votes cast,” he said.
Anxiety in Abia
Meanwhile, on Thursday night, a combined force of soldiers and police took over the Government House in Umuahia.
The whereabouts of the incumbent governor was also said to be unknown as of press time (8.15 p.m.).
The entire Government House was said to have been thrown into total darkness by unknown persons, compelling everyone to scamper to safety.
There were also indications that Ogar could be sworn in today by another top judicial officer in the state, following a court order restraining the Chief Judge from performing the exercise.
Reports reaching the Nigerian Tribune last night said he was already in the state capital as he earlier promised in Abuja to take over the reins of government.
He was said to have been quartered at the office of the Department of the State Security Service in Umuahia, from where he would allegedly be led to the Government House for his swearing-in today.
Officials of the DSS in Abuja reportedly saw him to Umuahia, before he was said to have been handed over to the state command of the Service.
Ikpeazu declares today, Monday public holidays for Maduekwe
The Abia State government has declared today and 4 work-free days, in honour of the late elder statesman, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, who died on Wednesday.
The public holiday was announced on Thursday.
Ikpeazu, through the state Information Commissioner, Bonnie Iwuoha, asked the people to pray for the family the late Maduekwe left behind.
The PDP chieftain, who hailed from Abia, was the secretary of the PDP Board of Trustees until his death.