Alleged tax fraud: Double jeopardy for Ikpeazu by Johnkay Ibeabuchi

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Former Governor Theodore Orji of Abia state actually threw caution and statesmanship to the winds in the build up to the April 2015 governorship election in the state, when he shoved all the other governorship aspirants on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) aside, thus paving the way for his marionette, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, to succeed him in office.

Orji in an apparent display of political recklessness and rascality out-maneuvered all the bigwigs in the party in furtherance of his selfish ambition to unilaterally decide the man that would take over from him after he had falsely and shadily endorsed other notable aspirants for the plum job.

The list of those who became victims of his characteristic antics included former Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chief Emeka Wogu, former Deputy Governor Acho Nwakanma, Senator Nkechi Nwaogu, legal practitioner, Chief FN Nwosu, former Nigerian Consul-General to South Africa, Amb. Okey Emuchay, former Managing Director of defunct Hallmark Bank, Chief Mark Wabara, as well as oil merchant and successful businessman, Dr. Uche Ogah, and former Commissioner for Housing, Chief Okezie Orji.

Each of these distinguished and eminent aspirants received Orji’s blessing, secretly and independently. Of course they had no known blemish, not even the moral burden of tax evasion, yet they were dumped and publicly ridiculed during the PDP kangaroo primaries in Umuahia.

Dr. Alex Otti, who is today the governor-elect, following the Dec. 31, 2015 judgment of the Court of Appeal, sitting in Owerri, would also have been a victim, having also received a similar false endorsement by Orji ahead of the primaries. But like the man who saw tomorrow, Otti read the handwriting on the wall and envisioned that the primaries, ranging from the ward to the state congresses, would be everything but democratic and credible. So, no sooner did he obtain the expression of intent form than he bade the party a quick farewell.

For Orji, having smartly and successfully eliminated his possible threats in PDP, the coast seemed clear for him to masterly foist Ikpeazu on the supposedly subdued people of God’s own state. He may have also reasoned that with PDP retaining power at the centre, it would be carry-go for the party in Abia and other PDP-controlled states. How he goofed!!

Like the Catholic liturgical citation, Orji may also have concluded that ‘’As it was in the beginning, it’s now and ever shall be, world without end, amen.’’ He did not reckon that the only permanent thing in life is change, change and only change. He underestimated the battle ahead. Indeed, he under-rated the capacity of Dr. Alex Otti to turn the table against him.

Early Signs of Ikpeazy’s Failure

Signs that Ikpeazu’s candidacy would hit the rock began to manifest early in the day. With the take off of the campaigns, PDP suddenly realized that marketing Ikpeazu was a hard nut. It soon became apparent to the party that it was swimming against the tide. And while some communities merely obliged the party their civic centres, halls and squares for its campaigns, many others blatantly shut their gateways against Ikpeazu’s campaign train. It was this bad but characteristic of PDP, the people’s inalienable and constitutional right to choose who should govern them was of little or no meaning. So the early warning signs notwithstanding, PDP pressed on…nothing mega! To the party, ‘’Whether the people vote or them no vote, Ikpeazu must be gov’nor.’’

The Alleged Tax Certificate Fraud Against Ikpeazu

Hardly had the dust generated in the party as a result of Ikpeazu’s imposition by the Abia PDP-Dictator-In-Chief (Ochendo) settled than some aggrieved members of the party dragged him to the Federal High Court, Abuja, challenging his alleged ‘’fraudulent’’ payment of three-year taxes in one day to enable him qualify to contest the governorship election of the state.

The duo of Messrs Obasi Uba Ekagbara and Chukwuemeka Mba took their case to the Federal High Court Abuja and in their suit No FHC/ABJ/C8/1086/2014, they contended that Ikpeazu was not eligible to contest PDP’s governorship primaries. They alleged that ‘’he did not pay his taxes for 2011, 2012 and 2013 as at when due.’’

The plaintiffs produced evidence at the hearing of the case to prove that ‘’taxes allegedly paid for three years were paid on the same day.’’ They maintained that the development vitiated the authenticity of the tax clearance certificate issued to Ikpeazu and his INEC ‘’Form CF100.’’

Ikpeazu raised objection against the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court Abuja to entertain the case. The court over-ruled his objection, forcing him to appeal against the ruling. The Court of Appeal upheld his ground of objection and ruled that the case ‘’ought to have been filed at the Abia state High Court.’’ Temporary reprieve for him!

But dissatisfied with the decision of the appellate court, the plaintiffs proceeded to the Supreme Court, where the five Justices, led by Justice Mohammed Muntaka-Coomassie, set aside the judgment of the Court of Appeal and ‘’affirmed the competence of the Federal High Court Abuja to try the case.

Consequently, the court remitted the case back to the Federal High Court Abuja for an accelerated trial of the suit, which challenged the eligibility of Ikpeazu to stand for the governorship election.

In order to ensure that the case did not suffer undue delay, the Supreme Court ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria ‘’to ensure that the case is heard and determined expeditiously.’’

 

In its January 25-27, 2016 publication, the Nigeria Spectator stated that ‘’The recent ruling shows that Ikpeazu has not been able to counter the serious allegation from his opponents that he fraudulently and criminally evaded payment of taxes to the Federal Government until he began to run for election.’’

According to the paper’s analysis, the implication of the foregoing is that ‘’If Ikpeazu loses the pre-election case at the Federal High Court, he will be ordered to vacate the office of the governor of Abia state, since he was not competent to have contested, talk less of winning the election.’’

Indeed, not many Nigerians were aware that the tax case was still pending in court, until the Supreme Court judgment was published in the media.

Feasting on the report in its front page lead story, ‘’westafrica BusinessNews’’ entitled it ‘’More troubles for Abia Gov. as S/Court orders re-trial,’’ while the Nigeria Spectator captioned it ‘’Gov. Ikpeazu in trouble over tax fraud case, with a rider, ‘’Supreme Court orders retrial of case at the Federal High Court.’’

T. A. Orji’s Connection

The rumour that Orji had tipped Ikpeazu to succeed him gained momentum shortly after he appointed him (Ikpeazu) as the Deputy General Manager of the Abia State Environmental Protection Agency, Aba Zone. Over time, the rumour turned out to be real.

In order to ensure that the project sailed through, Orji deployed state resources to sponsor the campaign for the zoning of the governorship slot to Abia South Senatorial District, of course within PDP. In his desperation to see that he installed Ikpeazu, he turned blind eye to a critical constitutional infraction as the allegation of tax evasion by his anointed candidate. Or maybe he settled to handle the matter his usual way of getting things done by hook or crook.

So, when it became necessary for Ikpeazu to show proof of tax payment for three consecutive years as required by law for political office seekers, Orji performed his traditional abracadabra that helped to produce the tax clearance certificate, after payment was made, one way or the other just in one day.

Today, like the proverbial pregnancy, which cannot be concealed ad infinitum, the truth about Ikpeazu’s tax payment status is beginning to unveil fatally against his purported election as governor and political career.

Ikpeazu’s Appeal Vs Otti’s Cross Appeal at Supreme Court

But beyond and above the case of allegedly obtaining a tax clearance certificate in the most ignominious and fraudulent manner is the battle over the massive electoral fraud, which Orji, Ikpeazu and PDP conspired with corrupt officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission to perpetrate against the land and good people of the state, who trooped out enmasse during the governorship poll to cast their votes for Dr. Alex Otti, the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), in accordance with their conscience and desire for change.

These enemies of the people conspired, in the most brutish and barbaric manner never experienced in the nation’s electoral process, to ambush and brazenly steal their mandate in a broad day light robbery, using the election results from Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North Local Government Areas (LGAs) as catalyst to accomplish their mischief.

It was this unforgivable electoral fraud, which was deployed in the sustained attempt to bury the people’s wish, that has, more than anything else, threatened Ikpeazu’s occupation of the Government House, making his stay more precarious and uncertain.

In affirming his purported election, the three-member governorship election tribunal, headed by Hon. Justice Usman Bwala, dismissed all the reliefs pleaded by the petitioners, viz: Otti and APGA.

But the landmark judgment of Thursday, December 31, 2015, delivered by the five-member Appeal Court, headed by Hon. Justice Oyebisi Omoleye, which upturned the judgment of the lower tribunal, has further compounded Ikpeazu’s wahala.

In his official reaction to the judgment, the embattled governor announced that he would seek redress at the Supreme Court. This is certainly a misfire against a judgment that triggered off spontaneous and widespread jubilation in the land, bringing back to life, those who literally died out of the shock they suffered as a result of their stolen mandate.

Ikpeazu’s decision, though his entitlement, has been interpreted in many quarters as his deliberate ploy to buy more time to enable him to complete the ongoing road construction in Aba, which he awarded without regard to due process. Like Theodore Orji, like Ikpeazu!!

Another school of thought believes he may have been spurred to fight on by the Pyrrhic victory that was awarded to him by the trial tribunal in Umuahia at a huge cost to the state. Besides, it is common knowledge that the additional cost of seeking redress at the Supreme Court would still be bankrolled from the coffers of Abia State.

Interestingly, in reviewing the judgment of the tribunal, the Court of Appeal did not only annul Ikpeazu’s election, it also lampooned the tribunal for failing to dutifully acquit itself in the discharge of the petition as required by law. Hear what the Appellate Court has to say about the tribunal on page 42 of its judgment:

‘’We find it perplexing that the tribunal, instead of reading and considering carefully the pleadings and evidence adduced in the petition and determining all the issues raised by the respective parties, seemed more concerned with getting rid of as many of the reliefs as possible by striking them out for one unacceptable reason or the other.

‘’All the reasons given are untenable and at the end of the day amount to depriving the Appellants of fair hearing guaranteed under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

‘’These generalizations that the claims of the Appellants/Petitioners were not grantable without giving plausible and definite reasons are unacceptable in law,’’ the justices stated in their unanimous judgment.

Ikpeazu enjoys the constitutional right to seek redress in the nation’s Apex Court if he felt dissatisfied with the judgment. In like manner, Otti has also proceeded to the Supreme Court in exercise of his fundamental human right with a cross-appeal to seek the apex court’s decision on the sundry other reliefs he pleaded in his petition, which were not specifically addressed by the Court of Appeal.

It is gratifying that the Court of Appeal affirmed Otti as the duly and legally elected governor of the state and premised its judgment on the proven case of over-voting in the controversial and notorious Obingwa, Osisioma and Isialangwa North LGAs.

This however did not diminish the fact that there are other reliefs that were fatal to Ikpeazu’s purported election, which are still begging for appropriate judicial attention and the only window still open to the Appellants/Petitioners to ventilate their grievances remained the Supreme Court.

These pending reliefs include but not limited to the legality or otherwise of the annulment of the contentious results of the above-mentioned council areas and subsequent de-annulment by the State Returning Officer, Prof. Benjamin Ozumba, after he was reportedly intimidated and harassed by a delegation of PDP chieftains, led by Theodore Orji and the embattled National Publicity Secretary of the party, Chief Olise Metuh.

Otti also expects the Supreme Court to decide on the propriety or otherwise of a Local Government Agent of PDP signing multiple result sheets for the ward and local governments repeatedly in the contentious three council areas and the compliance of such an action with the specific provisions of the Electoral Act on the signing of election results.

Governor Ikpeazu
Governor Ikpeazu

These and other established cases of electoral malpractices, which largely vitiated the results of the affected three local government areas and rendered them substantially non-compliant with the Electoral Act, constitute the nucleus of Otti’s cross-appeal, designed for the determination of the Supreme Court.

Indeed, time is longer Ikpeazu’s friend and any moment from now, the death knell would sound and it will be farewell from the Government House, Umuahia and a resounding welcome to Otti, the man after the peoples’ heart. To God be the glory!

Ibeabuchi, a public affairs analyst, writes from Aba

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