South-East Bureau Chief, JUDE OSSAI, probes the dillema in which Abia State has found itself, with two persons laying claim to the position of governor.
until Monday 27, June 2016, there was relative peace in Abia State, even as some politicians in the state harboured bottled anger resulting from the fallout of the Supreme Court ruling that favoured the embattled Governor Okezie Ikpeazu.But dramatically, the order by the Federal High Court, Abuja, that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should issue a Certificate of Return to Uche Ogah forced many Nigerians and even passive politicians into guessing who becomes the authentic chief executive of the state.
The Abuja court had held that Ikpeazu did not possess the requisite qualifications to contest the election as governor, as he did not furnish credible evidence of payment of tax to the state government. The court ordered INEC to issue the Certificate of Return to Ogah, who came second in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) primaries as the elected candidate and governor of Abia State.
Some legal experts claimed that Ikpeazu ceased to be the governor of the state on the day Justice Okon Abang gave his judgment. Both Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) and Chief Femi Falana (SAN) belonged to such school of thought. The Senior Advocates went further to state that Ikpeazu’s filing of a Notice of Appeal could not stay execution of the judgment, as INEC acknowledged the receipt of only the Notice of Appeal. President of the Civil Rights Realisation and Advancement Network (CRRAN), Olu Omotayo, said the arguments of the two legal giants are in order. Omotayo told Nigerian Tribune that his organisation believed that the order of the State High Court, Aba, thwarting the execution of the judgment of the Federal High Court was not only ridiculous but a shame to the judiciary.
Now that the Chief Judge of Abia State has not been seen since June 28, Oguntayo said, the option is for the most senior judge to take over the functions of the Chief Judge. He alleged: “It is our submission that with the disappearance of the Chief Judge of Abia State for almost a week and without any communication to the National Judicial Council headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, he is unfit and incapable to perform the duties of his office by virtue of Section 271(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As amended). Section 271(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As amended) states: ‘If the office of the Chief judge of a State is vacant or if for any reason unable to perform the functions of the office, then until a person has been appointed to and has assumed the functions of that office or until the person holding the office has resumed those functions, the Governor of the State shall appoint the most senior Judge of the High Court to perform those functions.”
According to the right activist and lawyer, “There can never be a vacuum. The most senior Judge in Abia State High Court should save the state and the nation from the looming anarchy and swear in Uche Ogah as the new governor of the state.”
As a matter of fact, the current crisis began when opponents of Ikeazu alleged that his taxes for three years were paid on the same day. The plaintiff faulted the authenticity of Ikpeazu’s tax clearance certificate and the information contained in his INEC Form CF100. In his reaction, however, Ikpeazu challenged the competence of the Federal High Court Abuja to hear the case but the court overruled his objection. The Court of Appeal however ruled that the case ought to have been filed at the Abia State High Court.
Apparently to get justice, Ikpeazu’s opponents went ahead to seek redress at the Supreme Court following the Court of Appeal ruling and in a judgment handed down on January 22 by five Supreme Court justices led by Justice Mohammed Muntaka-Coomassie, the court faulted the decision of the Court of Appeal and affirmed the competence of the Federal High Court, Abuja, to try the case. The justices then ordered the Federal High Court to begin a fresh hearing of the suit challenging Ikpeazu’s qualification for governor, ordering the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to ensure that the case was heard. As a result of the Supreme Court order, the Federal High Court in Abuja re-opened the case against Ikpeazu, after which the governor was ordered to immediately vacate his office.
As things stand, both Ikpeazu and Ogah are laying claim to the governorship seat. To Ikpeazu’s supporters, the present constitutional crisis is not the first litmus test before their boss, as he had faced a similar threat when the Election Petitions Tribunal nullified his election on December 31, 2015 and declared the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Alex Otti, winner.
To stem the current crisis, Ikpeazu had appealed to his supporters to remain calm, saying he remained the legitimate governor of the state. He said:“I have received with concern, the report of the purported issuance of Certificate of Return to Mr Uche Ogah by INEC as governor of Abia State despite the dependency of a notice of appeal and motion for stay of the orders made by Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja.
“Our laws are clear on this issue. No one may be issued with a certificate of return, let alone be sworn in as governor when there is a subsisting Appeal and application of stay. I want to appeal to Abians to remain calm and law abiding in the face of this provocation, unless and until the Appellate courts have conclusively resolved the appeal, the status remains. I am still the governor of Abia State.”
In line with Ikpeazu’s submission, Ebun Olu Adegberuwa, a legal practitioner, stated that Ogah could not be sworn in as the state governor, alleging that there was a plot to swear in Ogah, who would subsequently defect to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) on the excuse of factionalisation in the PDP along Modu Sheriff and Ahmed Markafi lines. Adegboruwa said that on June 29, 2016, Ikpeazu filed an appeal against the said judgement together with an application for stay of execution of the judgement of the court, the consequence of which is that the judgement of the court could not be enforced.
“It is settled in our laws, up to the Supreme Court, that once a an appeal has been filed against a judgement and the appellant has also filed an application to stay the execution of the said judgment, that judgment cannot be enforced until the application for a stay of execution is heard and determined.
“It is a dangerous precedent that the APC-led government is setting for our democracy, if it is lying in wait and prodding INEC to violate the basic tenets of democracy which is respect for the rule of law and due process. In the times past, APC governors and public officers under its platform have benefitted robustly from this hallowed principle of law, the latest example being the President himself, Muhammadu Buhari. In one breadth, we are told the judiciary is the headache of this present administration. But when it suits the same administration, it frustrates, intimidates and muzzles the judiciary, judicial officers and even lawyers.”
So far, government’s activities have almost crippled since INEC issued the certificate of return to Ogah. Some commissioners and other top government officials are reportedly jittery, prompting them to pack some of their personal effects out of the Government House, Umuahia. The situation is tense in the state capital as people now discuss the political crisis in low tones.
Will Abia remain the same after the storm? This question will be answered with time. The state is fast moving towards the precipice, with gladiators on both sides allegedly recruiting jobless youths for political advantage.