Tobi Soniyi in Abuja and Emmanuel Ugwu in Umuahia
The Court of Appeal in Abuja on Thursday came down heavily on Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court Abuja over his ruling on June 27, 2016, removing the Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, averring that his judgment was biased and turned the law on its head.
In a unanimous judgment, which lasted for six hours, the five justices of the court held that Justice Abang went beyond his remit as a judge, was biased and turned the law upside down.
The Appeal Court justices further held that the matter was hostile, controversial and contentious and should not have been commenced with an originating summons.
In the view of the Appeal Court justices, the proper mode of commencement of the case should have been through a writ of summons.
The court held that Justice Abang erred in law and occasioned a miscarriage of justice against the governor when he refused to give fair hearing.
The court further held that the judge pre-judged the matter when he touched on the substantive issues at the preliminary stage without hearing the appellant.
The justices who heard the case were Ibrahim Shatta Bdliya, Philomena Buwa Ekpe, Morenikeji Ogunwumiju, Abubakar Datti Yahaya and Saidu Tanko Huseni.
Justice Abang has in the last couple of months acquired a reputation for his controversial rulings that have raised eyebrows and reinforced the perception of rascality in the Nigerian judiciary.
Other than his controversial ruling on the Okezie Ikpeazu vs. Samson Ogah case, he has granted a series of orders that have added to the confusion over the leadership crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Some detainees of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have also fingered him as one of the to-go-to judges who readily grants long detention orders to the commission during its investigation of high profile corruption cases.
Abang also refused to recuse himself from a corruption trial involving the former National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Olisa Metuh, after the latter accused him of bias and being his classmate at the Nigerian Law School between 1987 and 1988, a claim Abang denied.
Justice Ogunwumiju, who delivered the lead judgment yesterday in one of the appeals, held that Justice Abang “committed grave violence against one of the pillars of justice” relating to fair hearing.
She further held that Justice Abang raped democracy in his order that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should issue a certificate of return to Dr. Samson Ogah when there was no evidence of forgery or criminality against the appellant.
According to the court, the judgment given by Justice Abang was grossly erroneous, because it was based on inadequacy of tax receipts that could not be visited on the appellant (Ikpeazu).
Justice Ogunwumiju held: “After reading through the judgment several times, I was amazed at how the trial judge arrived at his conclusion of perjury against the appellant when there was no evidence of forgery. His findings are ridiculous.
“The judge must have sat in his chambers, unilaterally assessed and computed the taxes of the appellant and came to the conclusion that he did not pay the required taxes.
“Courts are not allowed to speculate, as the trial judge did in the instant case. In one breadth, the trial judge spoke from the two sides of his mouth when he claimed that he based his findings on supply of false information and in another breadth he came to the conclusion that the appellant committed perjury even when there was no allegation of forgery and no allegation that he did not pay tax.”
Justice Ogunwumiju also held that the trial judge turned the head of the law upside down in his conclusion that it was the appellant that should bear the burden of proof of an allegation made by Ogah.
She held: “With respect, we disagree with him because it is the person that makes the allegation of falsehood that must prove it.
“The court erred when he imported the phrase, ‘as and when due’ into the PDP 2014 guidelines. The judge would not have imported the phrase into his findings if a copy of the PDP guidelines had been attached to the originating summons. The judge violated the party’s guidelines.”
The court held that the plaintiff did not exhibit the party guidelines which the trial judge relied on.
“From whatever angle one looks at the judgment of the trial court, the decision of the court is grossly erroneous,” she held.
She further held that the inadequacies of the tax receipts of the appellant who scored the highest votes at the election could not be visited on him, adding that “doing so will amount to a rape of democracy”.
Justice Ogunwumiju further held that although the falsification of tax documents or tax evasion are criminal offences for which a candidate seeking public office could be questioned, it could only form a basis for disqualification where the person had been convicted.
“All the issues about tax goes to no issue because the second respondent (Ikpeazu) was a civil servant and his tax deducted from source.
“The question is not that the second respondent (Ikpeazu) did not pay his tax, but that the documents given to him by the tax office was false. I do not think that the learned trial judge was right to have found that it was the second respondent that gave false information.
“The situation would have been different if he had a private business, from which he earns revenue, but made false tax payment claims.
“There are nothing spectacularly irregular with the tax clearance receipts submitted by the second respondent. Why would the second respondent be blamed for the tax recording system of the tax office?
“Without the facts of falsifying the documents to confer undue advantage, the perceived irregularities are of no moment,” she said.
The court said Justice Abang placed the law on its head when it directed INEC to issue a fresh certificate of return to Ogah.
While upholding the appeal, the court awarded N100,000 cost against Ogah.
The Appeal Court further held that Justice Abang was wrong to have assumed jurisdiction on a motion for stay of execution of his earlier judgment delivered on June 27, even after the appeals against the judgments had been entered.
Justice Ekpe, who read the lead judgment, held that what Justice Abang ought to have done in line with the time honoured doctrine of “stari decisis” was to have transferred the motion to the Court of Appeal for determination.
The appellate court, therefore, ruled in favour of Ikpeazu on his appeal challenging Justice Abang’s decision to hear the application for a stay of execution of his judgment when he was duly informed that the appeals had been entered.
Justice Ekpe held: “The lower court (Justice Abang) has made a complete summersault of the entire suit. Once an appeal is entered into, there is nothing left for the trial court to adjudicate upon.
“All the trial court was supposed to do was to transmit the record of proceedings to the appellate court.
“But it deliberately chose to do otherwise. This is against Order 4 Rules 10 and 11 of the Court of Appeal Rules 2011. The lower court acted ultra vires.”
Justice Abang had insisted that he had jurisdiction to hear a motion for stay of execution of his earlier judgment delivered on June 27, even after the appeals against the judgments had been entered at the Appeal Court.
In her contributing judgment, Justice Ogunwumiju held that Justice Abang “deliberately stood the law on its head” when he erroneously assumed jurisdiction to hear the motion and adjourned it till a later date.
She further held that Justice Abang lacked jurisdiction to interpret the provisions of the Court of Appeal being the rules of a superior court.
The hearing of all the appeals filed by Ikpeazu, which lasted till 5 p.m. yesterday, witnessed some drama including the attempt by the Ali Modu Sherrif faction of the PDP to come in, but was rebuffed by the court.
Justice Abang had on June 27, ordered Ikpeazu to immediately vacate the governorship seat and directed INEC to issue a certificate of return to Ogah who came second in the PDP primary conducted in Abia State on December 8, 2014.
Justice Abang said he was satisfied that Ikpeazu perjured by giving false information in his tax receipts in the Form CF001 and documents accompanying it, which he submitted to both PDP and the INEC.
After the Appeal Court ruling, the Abia State governor and his counterpart in Delta State, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, yesterday welcomed the verdict of the Appeal Court in Abuja, which upturned the removal of Ikpeazu by a Federal High Court, saying that it was “wonderful” news.
Addressing journalists at the Government House, Umuahia, the capital of Abia, after praying in the chapel, Ikpeazu said that the verdict of the appellate court once again demonstrated that the people of Abia freely gave him their mandate in the 2015 governorship election.
“Our mandate once again has been affirmed by the Court of Appeal in Abuja. This to us is a victory for the common people of Abia State that voted massively for us in 2015 general election,” he said.
Though the long drawn legal tussle over his mandate appeared to have taken its toll on governance, Ikpeazu assured the people that with the favourable Appeal Court ruling, “we’ve been reinvigorated to continue our service to the people of Abia without let”.
While expressing his thanks to God for seeing him through his tribulations, Ikpeazu equally lauded the judiciary that stood as the last hope of the common man.
“Without the judiciary of this country, what would have been the fate of the son of a poor teacher who became governor at the mercy of God and Abia people?” he asked.
According to him, without the steadfastness of the judiciary, it would have been very difficult for ordinary people like him to aspire to be anything, much less becoming the governor of Abia State, given the penchant of the rich and mighty to trample on the weak and poor.
The Abia governor also asked the Nigerian media to rise up to the task of “firming up our democracy and making sure that all arms of government work in consonance to promote the ideals of democracy”.
Ikpeazu had emerged from the government house chapel where he had gone to pray and give thanks to God after receiving the news about his victory at the court.
Shortly after the governor’s session with journalists, members of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) arrived at the governor’s lodge and congratulated the victorious governor.
The BoT Chairman, Senator Wahid Jubrin, who led the team, comprising Professor Jerry Gana, Senator Ibrahim Mantu, Senator Stella Omu, Hajia Zainab Maina, Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, and Air Commodore Dan Suleiman (rtd), said they were in Abia for the burial of Chief Ojo Maduekwe.
Jubrin said they were on their way to Maduekwe’s country home when they heard about the Appeal Court verdict, adding that PDP did not make any mistake in choosing Ikpeazu to be its standard-bearer in the 2015 governorship poll, adding that he was confident that the Abia governor would deliver on his election promises to the people of the state.
Also, Okowa congratulated Ikpeazu on his victory at the Appeal Court. The governor, in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Charles Ehiedu Aniagwu, said the victory of Ikpeazu at the Appeal Court was a true test of the rule of law and commended the unanimous judgment of the court by not allowing political opportunists to take over power through the back door.
He also thanked the justices for holding on to justice and fairness in their judgment.
He noted that the judgment had once more restored the hope, faith and confidence of Nigerians on the country’s judicial system.
The Delta governor further called on the dramatis personae in the Abia governorship debacle to end the unnecessary legal battles to enable its government focus on bringing democratic dividends to the people of the state.