Abia State governorship crisis turned dramatic yesterday as two divisions of the same court gave conflicting orders on the fate of the embattled Governor Okezie Ikpeazu. While a Federal High Court Abuja which had on June 27 sacked the governor from office held that he remained sacked until a higher court decides otherwise, another Federal High Court sitting in Owerri, Imo State ruled that Ikpeazu was validly elected and he therefore remains the governor.
Interestingly, both courts relied on the same tax receipts presented before them by Governor Ikpeazu which was alleged to have been forged. At the resumed hearing yesterday of the suit challenging Ikpeazu’s eligibility to contest the primaries of the Peoples’ Democratic Pary, PDP filed by Mr Uche Ogah, Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, declined to hear an application for stay of execution of the June 27 judgment that sacked Governor Okezie Ikpeazu from office.
The Judge said he no longer had jurisdiction to decide Ikpeazu’s application for stay of execution since the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal is already seized with facts of the case. Consequently, he directed both Ikpeazu and the beneficiary of the judgment, Mr. Uche Ogah, to go to the appellate court for the resolution of the governorship logjam in Abia State.
Justice Okon Abang had on Monday, adjourned to hear the motion as well as to decide whether or not he has the powers to set aside the ex-parte order by a High Court in Abia State that stopped the Chief Judge of the state from swearing in Mr. Ogah as governor. More so, Justice Abang said he would also decide the merit of an oral application by Ikpeazu’s lead counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, for it to set aside the Certificate of Return the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, issued to Ogah. The Judge was to also determine whether the provisions of Section 143(1) of the Electoral Act applied to the judgment he delivered against Ikpeazu on June 27.
The court had at the last adjourned date, dismissed as lacking in merit, an application that sought to void the enrolled order of the judgment. Justice Abang noted yesterday that both Ikpeazu and Ogah conceded to the existence of another motion for stay of execution before the appellate court. The court said there was nothing for it to stay since INEC had already executed the order it made on June 27 by issuing Certificate of Return to Ogah as it was directed to do.
Similarly, the court refused an application for stay of execution of the judgment which was filed by the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. Justice Abang said Ikpeazu’s sack remained valid until it is set-aside by a higher court.
“The order of the court subsists until set aside by the Court of Appeal.Therefore, the INEC lawfully issued Certificate of Return to Mr Uche Ogah as it was in line with the judgment of this court”, the judge held.
Ikpeazu’s lawyer, Olanipekun, SAN, had urged the Judge to hands-off the matter and transmit the records of the proceedings to the appellate court. However, Ogah’s lead counsel, Dr. Alex Iziyon, SAN, while admitting that the appellate court has seized jurisdiction of the matter, urged the court to rule on pending applications before it, especially on alleged abuse of court process by Ikpeazu. Iziyon told the court that Ikpeazu went and obtained a restraining order from another high court at Osisioma in Abia State that prevented Ogah from being sworn in as governor. He stressed that Ikpeazu got the restraining order from the Abia court when his motion for stay of execution was already pending before the court in Abuja. Ogah accused Ikpeazu of resorting to “self help”. Despite Iziyon’s submissions, Justice Abang declined to take further step on the matter, even as he directed both parties to go and ventilate their grievances at the appellate court.
Justice Abang had in his judgment, ordered Ikpeazu to vacate his office, even as he directed INEC to immediately issue a fresh Certificate of Return to Ogah who came second in the December 8, 2014, gubernatorial primary election of the PDP.
Although INEC had since issued Certificate of Return to Ogah, however, another court in Abia State restrained the Chief Judge from swearing him in.
Federal High Court, Owerri
The suit challenging Ikpeazu’s election at Federal High Court sitting in Owerri, was filed by a third claimant to governorship seat, Chief Friday Nwosu. Nwosu had, in his submission, urged the court to hold that the tax receipts and the Tax Clearance Certificate, presented to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, by Ikpeazu were forged. Apart from other prayers, the plaintiff equally urged the court to hold that having forged his tax papers, Ikpeazu was not qualified to stand for gubernatorial election.
Delivering the two and a half hours judgment, Justice A. Lewis Allagoa said that the plaintiff did not lead any evidence to show that the tax documents he relied on, were forged. “The third defendant (Governor Ikpeazu), was not the maker of the document. It was rather made by the Abia State Board of Internal Revenue, a body corporate established for assessing and collecting taxes for the state”, Justice Allagoa said.
While agreeing with the submissions of counsel to the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, and INEC, Dr. Livy Uzoukwu (SAN) and Jude T.U. Nnodum (SAN) respectively, Justice Allagoa said that a top official of the Board of Internal Revenue had given oral evidence to the effect that the documents were not forged.
“There is no evidence from the Abia State Internal Revenue Service, relied on by the plaintiff, showing that those taxes were not paid as shown in the documents or by other act of impropriety. The plaintiff, rather, rested on his ipse dixit in declaring the documents a forgery and, audaciously, has asked the court to approve his stance”, the court said.
Justice Allagoa also aligned his thought with that of Nnodum when he held that “by alleging that the third defendant (Ikpeazu) presented forged or false documents to the second defendant (PDP), the plaintiff has undertaken the burden of proving the allegation beyond reasonable doubt”. The court also agreed that what the plaintiff has done in this case “is to amass documents and bring them to court with his own interpretation of their contents”, adding that the plaintiff has by his own showing, disclosed that Ikpeazu was a Pay as You Earn tax payer in the employment of Abia State Government.
“I hold that the Tax Clearance Certificate and receipts were not forged. Having so held, all the other reliefs sought by the plaintiff are hereby dismissed. The position of the Governor of Abia State, remains as it is”, Justice Allagoa said.
Abia State High Court, Osisioma
Meanwhile, an Abia State High Court in Osisioma has also granted a motion filed by Ikpeazu for extension of order stopping the swearing-in of Mr Uche Ogah as the governor till July 18. A statement from Mr Enyinnaya Appolos, the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, said on Friday that the court presided over by Justice C.H. Ahuchaogu granted the motion for extension of order restraining the Chief Judge of Abia State from swearing in Uche Ogar as governor. It also restrained the Customary Court of Appeal and any other judicial officer from performing the function.
Reacting to the judgement delivered by the Federal High Court Owerri while addressing his supporters, embattled Governor Okezie Ikpeazu described the court verdict as “significant and important”. He said, “this victory is particularly important and significant to us because the matter that was decided in Owerri today is on all falls with the one that we are battling at Abuja. Precisely, my briefing informs me that the learned Judge declared that my tax papers were genuine and good, he also declared that I was qualified to contest the governorship election that was held on the 11th and 25th of April, 2015 and that the declaration of INEC which subsequently culminated in my swearing-in ceremonies that I remain the governor of Abia State.
“This victory is a victory for light over darkness, it is a victory of good over evil, it is a victory for founding fathers and lovers of Abia State, it is a victory for equity and Justice; it is also victory for the Nigeria Judiciary”, Ikpeazu said.
Thanking God for the way the judgment had gone in his favour, the governor restated his earlier position that the attempt to remove him was akin to Coup d’état. “It was a clever plot designed to bring in a usurper through the window, but our God of justice who never changes that spoke in April last year spoke through the tribunal to the Supreme Court has done it again. We are confident that victory will continue to follow us to the glory of God so that we will be empowered to serve our people”.
Calling for peace and support of all Abia people, Ikpeazu: “I would not want a disintegrated State under my watch; I would do everything under my powers to make sure that Abia State remains one strong, united family.
“We are aware of the evil attempts by some people, we are aware that some elements within our boundaries are overly ambitious, we are aware that some people may be coerced into schemes and designs that led to undermine the substance and fabrics that brings us together, but I want assure such people that they will meet with stiff resistance and as long as God gives us strength, we will continue to stand for equity and justice”.(Vanguard)