By Ebere Uzoukwa
Since last month when the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC) purportedly issued Mr. Uche Ogah a Certificate of Return(CoR) following the judgment of a Federal High Court in Abuja that asked Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu to vacate the governorship seat over alleged tax falsification, Abia, the God’s Own State has been enveloped in unnecessary but avoidable political turmoil and confusion.
Reason being that Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu acted swiftly within the law to protect the mandate freely and collectively given to him via the ballot by Abians. Within the four-year lifetime of the gubernatorial mandate, Ikpeazu expectedly must not relinquish willingly or unwillingly that sacred property to whoever that aspires to steal or usurp it. He is constitutionally empowered to protect the mandate as a way of fulfilling his own obligation in the four-year contract democratically entered with Abians.
In the very challenging process of securing the contract, Dr. Ikpeazu painstakingly toured the entire 17 local government areas in Abia state. I am a witness with regard to my active involvement as the Deputy Director (Media & Publicity) Okezuo Abia/Abia State PDP 2015 Governorship Campaign Organization. As a governorship aspirant, the Obingwa-born university don turned politician visited the 17 local government chapters of PDP in Abia state where he purposefully engaged and consulted party stakeholders. Expectedly, that afforded him the opportunity to unveil and present his well articulated manifesto to party members ahead of the December 8, 2014 governorship primary election. That first local government tour marked the beginning of Dr. Ikpeazu’s historic journey to Government House. It was strategically planned and coordinated by his campaign organization, Okezuo Abia 2015 Campaign Organization led by Elder John Nwangborogwu who currently serves as Deputy Chief of Staff, Government House.
Following his nomination as PDP governorship candidate in Abia State after polling the highest number of votes cast by the delegates, the party constituted an all-inclusive campaign organization led by the immediate past chairman of Abia PDP, Sen. Emma Nwaka. Other individual campaign organizations that hitherto marketed all guber aspirants were disbanded and collapsed into the expanded Abia State PDP Governorship Campaign Organization with Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu as the duly nominated governorship candidate. Mr. Uche Ogah, indeed, complied with the directive as he dismantled and collapsed his campaign organization. He also donated handsomely for Dr. Ikpeazu’s governorship project. The coast, however, became clearer as Dr. Ikpeazu moved round the state campaigning and presenting himself and deputy, Rt. Hon. Ude Oko Chukwu to the electorate. The PDP also played a key role by persuasively marketing its programmes and economic blueprint as encapsulated in Dr. Ikpeazu’s manifesto at campaign rallies held across the 17 local government areas.
Dr. Ikpeazu had concluded his campaigns before the poll was postponed to enable increased military operations in the North East, that was intended to curtail the bloody activities of the Boko Haram Islamist sect before elections were conducted. The election postponement, however, became a blessing in disguise as it created the forum for Dr. Ikpeazu to engage Abians in a closer interaction and exchange of ideas. The town hall meetings held across the 17 local government areas indeed marked Dr. Ikpeazu’s third successive visit before his election as governor of Abia state.
As Dr. Ikpeazu was moving round Abia state for campaigns, Uche Ogah returned to his Lagos abode and continued his oil trade and participated in the subsidy bazaar used to empty and funnel the nation’s treasury. When the election finally held, Dr. Ikpeazu after polling the highest number of votes to defeat other candidates was declared winner and returned as governor-elect of Abia state by INEC. This, however, didn’t happen without INEC’s ‘inconclusive’ drama. The electoral body had cancelled election in some areas on the grounds of irregularities and rescheduled what it called supplementary election. Dr. Ikpeazu won both the April 11 and April 25 rescheduled polls. Mr. Lawrence Nwuruku in his capacity as INEC commissioner in-charge of South East, supervised the brief ceremony that heralded the official handover of Certificate of Return to Dr. Ikpeazu. The Certificate of Return authentically captured and reflected the peculiarity of 2015 Abia governorship election. The dates of the two elections (11th & 25th) that returned Dr. Ikpeazu as Governor-Elect were validly and boldly written in the document. But, this is not the same with the document Ogah parades. Beside lacking basic regular features, Ogah’s Certificate of Return as issued by same Nwuruku which bears only April 11, 2015 is indisputably an invalid document as Abia governor-elect was not returned that particular day. This is because the election was that day declared inconclusive by INEC.
Going by the law, logic and common sense, INEC is deemed not to have returned Uche Ogah as Abia governor-elect. This is evident as Nwuruku’s purported Certificate of Return to Ogah never reflected the REALITY of ABIA 2015 GOVERNORSHIP ELECTION. The implication as sufficiently established remains that Ogah is merely parading a fake document that can’t be referred as Certificate of Return. Gov. Okezie Ikpeazu’s Certificate of Return, so far as the 2015 Abia governorship election is concerned, remains valid and intact. Ogah’s fake document lacks the potency and constitutionality to neutralize Ikpeazu’s authentic Certificate of Return.
There is no gainsaying that the raging political debacle in Abia has largely diminished INEC as an umpire and embarrassingly lowered its effectiveness and performance. Can anyone exonerate INEC as not being architect of the political turmoil in Abia? Why has the umpire remained insensitive and silent in the face of the political confusion engulfing the God’s Own State? Can INEC claim not to have seen enough reasons under the law to withdraw whatever document purportedly issued to Ogah as Certificate of Return? Is the pendency of Gov. Ikpeazu’s appeal and recent pronouncement by the Appeal Court ordering status quo to be maintained not enough to withdraw Ogah’s document? Is Certificate of Return given in anticipation of judgment? Is that Certificate of Return yet in Ogah’s possession not pre-emptive of the anticipated ruling of the court of appeal?
Recall the South East Progressive Assembly (SEPA), an advocacy and socio-political group had publicly canvassed a patriotic stand INEC as a responsible institution could have considered to quell the trouble it carelessly instigated in Abia. Part of SEPA’s position as reproduced said: “The governorship of a state is sacred and constitutionally protected from any form of invasion and intrusion. A situation where a usurper who never participated in all stages of an election brandishes the toga of ‘Governor-Elect’ by virtue of certificate of return unlawfully given by INEC does not only pose a threat to the sitting governor but suggests a conscripted coup against the state.
“There is no provision whatsoever in the constitution and electoral act that justifies the Certificate of Return Ogah parades especially as Ikpeazu’s appeal had legally activated the ‘status quo’ that must be respected by parties pending the determination of the case by the court of appeal. It becomes more worrisome and appalling considering that the said tax matter has a jurisdiction to the Supreme Court and shall be determined by the apex court to either affirm Ikpeazu as governor or otherwise”.
Suffice it to say that enough reasons why INEC should have withdrawn Ogah’s Certificate of Return have been substantially established within this period. Prominent among them include the obvious disagreement between Ogah’s Certificate of Return and the 2015 Abia governorship election, the pending appeal filed by Dr. Ikpeazu against the judgment of Justice Okon Abang of Abuja Federal High Court and the judgment of Justice Lewis Allagoa of Owerri Federal High Court that absolved the governor from the tax forgery and falsification allegations. Above all, the recent pronouncement by court of appeal ordering that status quo be maintained.
It is disturbing that Ogah who never contested the governorship election is today struggling to be sworn-in as governor of Abia while a duly lodged appeal against the said judgment is pending at the court of appeal. This laughable situation has continued to make huge mockery of our democracy and judicial system. No governor in Nigeria has ever lost the plum position by mere judgement of a high court as gubernatorial matter has always gotten to the Supreme Court. Nobody also declared governor by the Supreme Court has ever struggled to be sworn-in. If Ogah, in the end, is declared governor by the Supreme Court, his four-year tenure will run uninterruptedly without any form of hindrance. Then, why the hurry? Why the attempted coup? Why the desperation? Why trying to rob-off Dr. Ikpeazu his right of appeal? Why destabilizing the existing peace in Abia?
Apparently sensing danger at the appellate court, it appears the political merchants behind the Abia political crisis are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that Ogah is smuggled into office at all cost. For them, ‘Let Ogah be sworn-in first before the appeal’ ‘He will leave office if appeal court asks Ikpeazu to return as governor’ ‘Ikpeazu should vacate office and pursue his appeal from outside’ Haba! Is that the practice or what the law says?
It is therefore time for INEC to patriotically reconsider its stand and align with the order of the appeal court. It should withdraw without further delay that fake Certificate of Return given to Uche Ogah to allow the appellant court hears and determines the appeal as well as other motions filed by the contending parties.
Ebere Uzoukwa, a journalist and policy analyst writes from Umuahia