Roughly 20 months after Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu was nominated as the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abia state, a court case on his candidature is still in court. Nearly 15 months after he won the governorship election proper, the case is still alive. And 14 months after he was sworn in, the matter is still breathing easy. The case is now at the appeal court. When the appeal court eventually makes its pronouncement on the matter, there is only one thing you can say with certainty: the case will end up at the Supreme Court. They say justice hurried is justice buried, but it is also said that hope deferred makes the heart sick.
|Abia State Governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu|
It seems peculiar to Nigeria that election litigations go on and on and on. I’m still researching into this. Mr. Peter Obi challenged the election of Dr. Chris Ngige in the 2003 governorship election in Anambra state; the case was not decided until March 2006 — three solid years later. Currently, in Kogi, the new governor, Alhaji Yahaya Bello, has done virtually nothing but meet with lawyers since his controversial election; the case is moving from one court to the other. The previous governor, Capt. Wada Idris, spent the whole of his tenure having breakfast, lunch and dinner with lawyers and trekking between courtrooms. In Abia, a 2014 case is still on the table.
I want to be well understood: I have nothing, absolutely nothing, against seeking justice in a court of law when you believe you have been unfairly allocated the shorter end of the stick. We would not need the judiciary if the world were full of justice and fair play. Rule of law is the oxygen of democracy — and the avenue to seek redress forms part of the definition of any modern human society. If you feel party officials cheated you, or the electoral umpire shortchanged you, or your opponent used unfair means to defeat you, seeking redress is logical. The court is the last bus stop, and if the judiciary denies you justice, you know you’ve tried your best, at least.
On Tuesday, the court of appeal sitting in Abuja reserved judgment in the case between Okezie and his challenger, Uche Ogah. The high court in Abuja had ruled that Okezie presented false information with the tax clearance he submitted to the PDP during the screening of governorship aspirants in 2014. The clearance carries a weekend date, which makes it questionable. The court subsequently annulled his candidature and declared Ogah, who came second in the primary election, as the validly nominated candidate of the PDP, and automatically the governor-elect — going by the legal logic that it is the party, not the individual, that contests in Nigerian elections.
I did not keenly follow the Abia case all along. It took me by surprise. I thought Mr. Alex Otti, the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), was the main litigant and when his case was exhausted at the Supreme Court, I moved on to other matters. But then headlines suddenly popped up on June 17 that an Abuja high court had removed Ikpeazu as governor and declared that Ogah be issued with the certificate of return by INEC (and, of course, sworn in immediately). My initial reaction was to dismiss it as one of “those verdicts”. Not providing any room for appeal looked too harsh to me. Look at the confusion it ending up creating.
I have listened to the arguments of both sides on the matter. I think it is an intriguing case that hopefully will set a few precedents. On the Ogah side, the argument is that Ikpeazu did not pay his taxes and was therefore not fit to run for office. They argued that Ogah, who polled the second highest number of votes in the PDP primary, should be declared the candidate of the party in the April 2015 gubernatorial election. The case was still on when the election was held and Ikpeazu, or PDP, won. Justice Okon Abang ruled in Ogah’s favour and then declared that since PDP won the election, and Ogah should have been the candidate, then Ogah is the elected governor.
On the Ikpeazu side, the argument is two-fold: one legal, the other political. The legal aspect is that Ikpeazu was an appointee of the Abia state government between 2011 and 2014. He resigned in October 2014 to contest the governorship election. He can, therefore, not be accused of tax evasion since, by law, it is the employer that deducts the employee’s tax and remits to the internal revenue board. Government employees cannot evade tax, logically. The judge did not dispute this, but noted that the tax clearance has a weekend date. He therefore considered this to be false information and nullified Ikpeazu’s candidature. He consequentially declared Ogah as the winner.
The political argument of Ikpeazu’s supporters is that Abia, for the purpose of politics, is divided into three senatorial districts — like every other state. They have Abia north, Abia central and Abia south. Abia north produced Orji Uzo Kalu as governor between 1999-2007, Abia central produced Theodore Orji from 2007-2015, and they think Abia south should naturally be allowed to do its turn, for the sake of “equity”. Ikpeazu is from Abia south while Ogah is from Abia north. Also, Abia has two historical divisions: Old Bende and Ukwa Ngwa. Kalu, Orji and Ogah are from Old Bende while Ikpeazu is from Ukwa Ngwa. Ikpeazu’s supporters are particular about this balancing.
What do I think? On the legal angle, PAYE is deducted at source. That is an employer’s responsibility. It is the employer that can be accused of tax evasion, not the employee. However, the bone of contention is actually the tax clearance — it carries a weekend date. Was it forged? Who can answer the question? If I submit a B.Sc. certificate in mass communication from the University of Lagos and it carries a weekend date, I think the university authorities should be asked to confirm the authenticity of my claim. There is no evidence the trial court asked the Abia state internal revenue board any questions. That is very harsh
The political argument looks very interesting to me. I am one of those Nigerians who believe in integration, equity, balancing and fairness in a diverse society. I believe in federal character. On top of it all, I believe in merit. I believe federal character and merit are not mutually exclusive. There is no zone or ethnic group or region in Nigeria that does not have qualified and competent people, and everybody must be given a sense of belonging in the interest of harmony, peace and unity. That is my belief which I have regularly expressed on this page, and for which I have lost many readers, especially from southern Nigeria.
I am therefore amused that my friends from Abia who are against federal character in Abuja are preaching “state character” back home. I thought it shouldn’t matter? I thought everything in this world should be on merit only? I love the Delta example where despite being in the majority, the Urhobo have supported the election of an Itsekiri and an Igbo as governors. That is fairness. There are many states in the north where minorities will never be supported to become governors by the same people preaching power rotation at the federal level. I will never give up my belief that diversity must be reflected in the politics of a diverse society. Never.
My soft spot for “political balancing” notwithstanding, it is not tenable in court in the Abia case. If Ogah can prove in court that Ikpeazu is not qualified to be governor, no amount of Ukwa Ngwa sentiments will sway the judges. I would advise Ikpeazu’s supporters to focus their energies on proving that the governor did not evade tax. Let the board of internal revenue explain if it works at the weekend or if it was a clerical error. Tax evasion can be easily proved. It is common sense. Most importantly, let the court do justice in time so that Abia can move on. Unending litigations are a terrible distraction to governance and development.
Written by Simon Kolawole