Court to INEC: Issue certificate of return to Okorocha immediately
THE Federal High Court, Abuja on Friday ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to immediately issue Certificate of Return to the immediate past governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha.
The court also ordered the electoral body to publish Okorocha’s name in its list of winners of the 2019 National Assembly Election, having been declared the winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election held on 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, INEC lacks the lawful authority to withhold the Certificate of Return to Okorocha, winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election.
Okorocha was declared the winner of the senatorial election in Imo State, however, his name was omitted in the INEC list of winners of the said election. The electoral umpire further refused to issue him with Certificate of Return on grounds that the Returning Officer for the senatorial election was forced to announce Okorocha as the winner of the election.
Okorocha accordingly approached the court to compel INEC to issue him with Certificate of Return, having been declared the winner of the Senatorial election by INEC’s Returning Officer for the Imo West Senatorial election.
In his judgment, Justice Okon Abang declared that INEC’s unilateral decision to withhold Okorocha’s Certificate of Return is unlawful, ultra vires, null and void.
Justice Abang insisted that INEC’s decision which has no legal justification cannot be allowed to stand so as not to create problems for the polity.
According to Abang if the electoral body’s action is condoned, the election can 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 unlaw. 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 are at liberty to approach the tribunal who 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 didn’t even consider police report before the unilateral decision.
Abang accordingly slammed a cost of N200, 000 against INEC and N100, 000 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.
He 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 borders 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 is limited to whether a person was duly elected or validly returned, adding that the tribunal cannot be saddled with mundane things such as the administrative decision of INEC.
“Refusal to issue a 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 said.
He further stated that by the statutory provisions of the tribunal, the plaintiff, who is declared the winner of the senatorial election cannot go to the tribunal as a petitioner.
He said the grievances of the plaintiff cannot be addressed by the tribunal, as there are no legal provisions for the tribunal to entertain matters relating to the administrative decision of INEC.
Abang consequently held that the court has jurisdiction to hear the suit, saying, “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 the petitioner.
” Plaintiff cannot go to the tribunal to challenge an election he won,” Justice Abang stated.