Ikpeazu and the legal faux pas

Dr Okezie Ikpeazu

IT was a rude shock to all lovers of democracy, especially indigenes and residents of Abia State, when the news broke out that the mandate freely expressed by the electorate under the rage of the sun and rain of April 11, 2015 was supposedly truncated by a Federal High Court in Abuja. His Excellency, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, did not just emerge as a governor of Abia by inconsequential happenings. His emergence was the deliberate expression of the will of the people of the state. The people of Abia translated themselves through their fingerprints on the ballot for Okezie Ikpeazu. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) captured their figure as 248,459 votes. This choice by the  Abia people empowered Governor Ikpeazu  to lead the state on the path of prosperity and development.  As expected by the electorate, he has proved his capacity since he came to office in spite of the various legal distractions. What could have informed such a crude joke?

Many had wondered. When the report first filtered out on the social media it was, as usual, dismissed by many. As time went by, the social media feasted even deeper on the story that was earlier dismissed by the wave of the hand by many intelligent and learnered minds. “No such judgement cannot flow from the fountain of justice,” many said in dismissals. Alas, the supposedly crude joke stood out as not just an incredible report after all. A Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja, has annulled the election of Governor Ikpeazu of Abia State.

The court dismissed the votes of the electorate. Votes which the people had cast for Ikpeazu on April 11, 2015 and upheld by the Supreme Court after a long legal battle that traversed the various ladders of the judiciary. What was the premise of the order? That Ikpeazu did not pay his personal tax as and when due in 2010 and 2011. The claim of malfeasance was not investigated but a mere allegation. No wonder, Mike Ozekhome (SAN) while commenting on the matter dismissed the judgement is laughable.

The court did not just stop there but stretch its wisdom further. It directed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to immediately issue a Certificate of Return to Samson Ogar who slugged it out in the party primary with Ikpeazu. Ogar lost in the primary of December 8, 2014 to Ikpeazu who scored 489 votes and became the standard-bearer of the party while Ogah trailed him by 103 votes.

Ikpeazu’s popularity was further tested in the May 28 gubernatorial election in Abia where he defeated candidates of other parties to prove that Abians had him for choice as governor. He scored 248,459 votes, against Alex Otti of the All Progressive Grand Alliance and closest contestant who polled 165,406. How can a court ignore this volume of mass support for candidate on a matter of tax which it has not properly investigated?

Such judgment has drawn the irk of the public, both learned and ordinary men, who have been finding it difficult to come to terms with the judgment. No wonder, a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chieftain and former special assistant to Dr Alex Ekwueme, Mr Ben Onyechere, queried the sort of wisdom that inspired the controversial judgment which, in his view, would not stand the test of time and justice.

In his interview with the media, Onyechere said: “The case of annulment of Abia governor’s election by merely declaring that he forged tax receipts is mischievous because the governor’s records can be investigated by the EFCC to verify whether he worked and resigned from government services in which case his tax was deductible at the end of every month. The way and manner that order was made in which the judge ordered that a Certificate of Return be issued to Ogah immediately, in flagrant disregard of the constitution, is not only curious but also an aberration of justice.”

The case being preferred against Ikpeazu held that he was guilty of tax evasion and was therefore unqualified to have contested the 2015 governorship election in the state. Even at that, does he not have the right to contest the matter at the Court of Appeal? It is the knowledge of this fact that actually probes the hurried manner with which INEC was so ordered by the Federal High Court, Abuja to issue a certificate of Return to Ogah.

Ozekhome further said: “There is what you call doctrine of lis pendens which means that once a matter has been submitted to court and the parties are aware that one of the parties is already in court or on an appeal, then the parties should refrain from taking any steps that will be detrimental to the other party in the matter. This judgment is not going to stand for so many reasons, from what I have read in the last few days, a judge who is not a member of the Election Petition Tribunal is annulling the election of a governor after the governor has been successfully elected and after he has fought his election up to the Supreme and the Supreme Court validated his election.”

It is such enlightened view which Governor Ikpeazu and his camp know that has made the peace-loving governor to continue to calm his supporters across the state to be law abiding and await the outcome of the appeal. Already, the view of Professor Itse Sagay captures the matter appropriately when he said that “This is an unprecedented case because it has never happened in law. The only similar case was the Amaechi vs. Omehia case which was taken to the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, the Supreme Court ruled that Amaechi was the candidate of the party and should be the governor. In this case, Ogah came second during the primaries while Ikpeazu came first. I think the courts will be ones to decide.” And Ikpeazu has approached the Court. In this case the Appeal Court.

Exploring the Electoral Act exposes the weakness of the judgment by Federal High Court. This is because the provisions of section 145 of the Electoral Act, 2015 which posits that any  person against whom a decision has been handed down by the Courts or Tribunal under the Electoral Act, has a window period of 21 days within which to file an Appeal challenging the decision of the lower Court or tribunal.

Ezikiel  is an Abuja based journalist