By Ebere Uzoukwa
On Monday June 27, Nigerians were stunned with a shocking judicial pronouncement sacking Dr. Okezie Victor Ikpeazu as Governor of Abia state. Justice Okon Abang of Abuja Federal High Court had in his judgment asked the governor to vacate office for Uche Ogah who polled second highest votes during the primary election that produced/nominated Gov. Ikpeazu as governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abia state.
Justice Abang granted the relief sought by Ogah and ruled that Gov. Ikpeazu’s tax papers were questionable and was therefore unlawfully nominated as PDP candidate for the governorship election. That Justice Abang relied upon to order for Ogah’s swearing-in as Governor of Abia State.
In less than two weeks precisely on Friday July 8, Justice Lewis Allagoa of Owerri Federal High Court in a similar suit also filed by one of the governorship aspirants, Sir Friday Nwosu absolved Gov. Ikpeazu of any wrongdoing in the same alleged tax forgery or falsification. While dismissing the suit for Nwosu’s inability to prove forgery or falsification as alleged, Justice Allagoa ruled that Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu was validly nominated as PDP candidate and remains the elected Governor of Abia state.
In burying Nwosu’s suit, Justice Allagoa declared inter alia-“The Plantiff, Mr. Nwosu did not lead any shred of evidence to show that the tax documents he relied on were forged. The third defendant, Dr. 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, and a top official of the Board had given oral evidence to the effect that the documents were not forged. There is no evidence from the Abia State Board of Internal Revenue 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. By alleging that the third defendant, Ikpeazu presented forged OR FALSE TAX DOCUMENTS to the second defendant, the PDP, the plaintiff has undertaken the burden of proving the allegations beyond reasonable doubt. This, the plaintiff failed or even made any attempt to do. Rather, what the plaintiff has done in this case is to amass documents and bring them to the court with his own interpretation of their contents but has, by his own showing disclosed that Ikpeazu was a PAYE tax payer in the employment of the 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’s judgment didn’t come without a shocking intrigue that ostensibly played out shortly after the judgment of Abuja Federal High Court. Apparently aided by some political merchants, Ogah quickly secured a seven-page enrollment order from Justice Abang which Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC), a supposed umpire, surprisingly embraced as a working tool with an overt excitement and celebration. Mr John Nwuruku, the INEC federal commissioner, relaxed his ‘umpire-ship’ and celebrated the judgment which he even described as ‘wonderful’ during an interview with newsmen after issuing the controversial certificate of return to Ogah. The infractions were audaciously committed regardless of the pending notice of appeal and stay of execution duly served to parties including INEC . The electoral umpire was served through its legal department. First, INEC denied being served, a lie that provoked Gov. Ikpeazu’s legal team to publish detailed proof of service. Later, the electoral body changed its rhetorics with another claim of receiving only notice of appeal. This is even as Justice Abang’s enrollment order was hurriedly churned out before making the judgment available to parties. The shocking speed and conspiracy that enveloped and propelled that Ogah’s failed trip to Umuahia were not only tantamount to a coup d’tat against the state and the sitting governor but a well rehearsed ploy to smuggle the Isikwuato-born oil merchant into office before the tax case enters the appeal court.
A further review of Gov. Ikpeazu’s tax imbroglio with reference to Owerri Federal High Court pronouncement and ‘common logic’ strengthens the argument that suggests that Abia State Board of Internal Revenue sits prominently and decisively on the tax matter. The Board as constitutionally established is undoubtedly the institution with capacity and powers to proffer answers to pertinent questions which answers can conclusively rest the entire tax brouhaha. Where was Ikpeazu within the period his tax payment is being probed? Were deductions made from his monthly salaries if he was indeed an appointee of Abia state government within the relevant years? Were the deductions made at source if indeed deductions were made? Were there record(s) of such deductions? Can a tax receipt or clearance cover a period served as public officer and when outside government within a year?
Apparently proffering answers to these questions and to reasonably clarify its roles in the tax saga, the Board of Internal Revenue reeled out an unambiguous and explainable stand. In a terse statement signed by the executive chairman, Udochukwu Ogbonna, the Board declared:
“That the tax clearance certificate referred to in that judgment(Abuja FHC) was duly issued to Dr. Okezie Victor Ikpeazu by the Service and was therefore not fake.
That the taxes for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 were PAYE taxes deducted at source from his personal emoluments by his employers (Abia State Passengers’ Integrated Manifest Scheme and Abia State Environmental Protection Agency) and remitted to the Service in the relevant tax years.
That the dates on the tax receipts of the relevant years (2011, 2012 and 2013) did not suggest that they were paid on those dates, but only reflected the date he applied to be issued with the receipts, because that was when he needed them. In the same vein, the dates on the tax receipts did not suggest that they were written out on those days. The date on the receipts only indicates the last day of the last month of the year when the PAYE tax payer became entitled to the receipts, as the receipts could not have carried a date earlier or later than the 31st December of the relevant tax year. It is immaterial that it fell on a Saturday or Sunday or any other day of the week. For example, if 31st December 2011 fell on a Saturday, in the month following i.e January when the receipts are to be written out, it cannot carry any date in January 2012 or any other month in 2012.
“That his taxes having been deducted by his aforesaid employers and remitted to the Service within the relevant years will not be said to have been paid on the same day, as such were paid as at when due. In fact, the issue of payment as at when due does not apply to PAYE taxes because the tax payer has no part to play in the deduction and remittance of his PAYE as same is done by his employer. Where there is failure to deduct and remit PAYE taxes, it is the employer and not the tax payer that is liable. See LSIRS and Seven Up Bottling Company reported in year 2000. Having stated the facts as they are above, we make bold to say that the tax returns filed by Dr. Okezie Victor Ikpeazu to his party(Peoples Democratic Party) were neither false nor fake and cannot be said to amount to fraudulent payment of taxes.
“Consequently, we affirm that both the Tax Clearance Certificate and the Tax Receipts referred to in the aforesaid judgment were the documents of Abia State Internal Revenue Service as the authority empowered by law to do so. Finally, we state emphatically for the records and for the attention of the general public that we were never invited(subpoenaed) by the court or the plaintiff, Dr. Uche Ogah during the pendency of the subject suit that led to the judgment in Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu’s tax matter to sate the authenticity or otherwise of the tax papers”
Certainly, with the load of facts and explanation adduced by Abia State Board of Internal Revenue, no discerning mind needs a soothsayer to draw a fair conclusion that Dr. Ikpeazu is not guilty of whatever tax impropriety alleged against him. It is rather unfortunate that someone who never participated in an election will employ the judiciary to subvert the peoples sacred mandate hiding under legal technicalities. How can the incontestable submissions of Abia State Board of Internal Revenue be ignored in judging this matter? Is it not glaring that some political merchants are surreptitiously plotting to recolonize Abia using Ogah as the cannon folder?
That Ikpeazu served in several positions in the government of Abia state before his resignation to join the governorship race in 2014 is obviously indisputable. That his taxes within the relevant years were traditionally and compulsorily deducted at source remains a sacred fact. That tax deductions and records are constitutionally made and kept by the Board of Internal Revenue(BIR) of the states is not arguable. That the submission of Abia state Board of Internal Revenue in the matter supersedes and outweighs other claims or evidence that may have been tendered before the court is not legally contestable. That is justice.
What presently disturbs the peace-loving Abians and Nigerians today is the alarming sequence the governor is troubled since he assumed power. The governorship candidate of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Alex Otti, had earlier employed several legal tactics but failed to remove the governor. While Otti’s trouble lasted at the tribunal which stretched to the Supreme Court, a few other disgruntled politicians ambushed the governor at Abuja and Owerri federal high courts. With two conflicting judgments from both courts, it is expected that the appellant courts will rise to the occasion to save the day. The Independent National Electoral Commission that may have ignited the raging political turmoil in Abia with the certificate of return it unlawfully issued to Ogah should withdraw the said document to give room for superior courts to review the judgment of Abuja and Owerri Federal High Courts. The 50-grounds of appeal lodged by Gov. Ikpeazu’s lawyers is believed and suppose to halt further actions by parties involve in the matter. This becomes evident as no provision under the law justifies Ogah’s certificate of return being bandied around while the said judgment that caused that particular action by INEC is currently being challenged at the appeal court.
Gov. Okezie Victor Ikpeazu as a citizen of Nigeria should NOT be denied his fundamental right of appeal. He needs justice in this matter.
Ebere Uzoukwa, a journalist and policy analyst writes from Umuahia.