By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—The Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, on Tuesday, reserved its judgment on appeal challenging the removal of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State from office over alleged tax fraud.
A five-man panel of Justices of the apex court led by Justice Morenike Ogunwumiju, adjourned the matter for judgment after it heard six separate appeals that arose from verdict of the Federal High Court in Abuja that removed Ikpeazu.
Trial Justice Okon Abang had on June 27, ordered Ikpeazu to immediately vacate the governorship seat, even as he directed the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to issue fresh Certificate of Return to Mr. Sampson Ogah who came second in the gubernatorial primary election the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, conducted in Abia State on December 8, 2014.
Justice Abang said he was satisfied that Ikpeazu perjured by giving false information in the Form CF001 and documents accompanying it, which he submitted to both PDP and the INEC.
Meantime, both Ikpeazu and the PDP, through their respective team of lawyers, on Tuesday, urged the appellate court to set-aside the high court judgement which they said has occasioned a huge miscarriage of justice.
Arguing his appeal, Ikpeazu, through his team of lawyers led by Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, insisted that Justice Abang acted beyond his powers and misdirected himself in law.
According to him, “The trial judge erred in law when he ordered as a consequential order that the appellant vacates his office as the Governor of Abia state immediately when there was no jurisdiction in the Federal High Court to remove, vacate the occupier of the office of the governor of a state or order the removal of such officer after the unsuccessful challenge of the result of the election at the Tribunal and swearing in of the appellant as the governor.”
He contended that the only power, authority and order exercisable by the trial court was to disqualify a candidate from contesting election based on section 31(6) of the Electoral Act 2010.
Ikpeazu faulted Justice Abang for arriving at the conclusion that he did not pay his tax for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, as at when due.
He said the high court judge got it wrong considering that he was a public officer whose tax deduction was under Pay As You Earn, PAYE, scheme where tax deductions were from the source of his monthly salary by the tax authorities who issued all the tax receipts and certificates.
Ikpeazu told the appellate court that Abia State Board of Internal Revenue Services that issued tax certificates to him had not declared the certificates forged.
Ikpeazu maintained that trial Justice Abang violated his right to fair hearing by embarking on judicial investigation without granting him the opportunity to address the court on the issue.
He argued that the judge had no duty to investigate contents of documents that were merely dumped on the court by the plaintiff.
“The decision of the judge which arose from the judicial investigation without opportunity to the appellant violated the appellant’s right to fair hearing”, the governor contended.
Ikpeazu also rejected decision of the high court that he was not qualified to be nominated at the primary election that was conducted by the PDP, because he supplied false information to INEC .
He told the appellate court that INEC Form CF001 which the judge relied on was not one of the grounds of qualification to contest the primary election of PDP.
Similarly, PDP lawyer, Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN, told the appellate court that Justice Abang wrongly relied on 2010 guidelines of the party to hold that governor Ikpeazu did not pay his tax as at when due.
He argued that 2014 guidelines of the PDP did not stipulate that an aspirant must pay tax “as at when due”.
PDP said the appellate court must construe section 31(2) of the Electoral Act, 2010, that provides for filing of Form CF001, in line with sections 177 and 182 of the 1999 Constitution that stipulated qualifications for governorship aspirants.
“My lords, we submit that there is no law that tax papers must be submitted to INEC as part of the qualifications”, PDP lawyer argued.
Earlier in the proceeding, Justice Ogunwumiju drew Ikpeazu’s attention to a letter from the Ali Modu Sheriff-led faction of the PDP that sought to withdraw the appeal.
The said letter was signed by the Deputy National Legal Adviser of the party, Bashir Maidugu.
Meanwhile, Ogah, through his lawyer, Dr. Alex Iziyon, SAN, on Tuesday, prayed the appellate court to dismiss all the appeals and affirm the trial court judgment.
Iziyon stressed that PDP had at the lower court, admitted that it submitted Ikpeazu’s tax papers to INEC in error.
He argued that issue of payment of tax as at when due was immaterial since information on the tax document itself was false.
Ogah further accused Ikpeazu of abusing judicial process by taking the subject matter of the case before an Abia State High Court despite the pendency of his appeal.
Aside Ikpeazu and PDP, the other appeals were filed by another gubernatorial aspirant of the party in the state, Mr. Friday Nwosu, who is also laying claim to the governorship seat.
Nwosu is contending that Ogah ought not to benefit from the December 8, 2014, primary election of the PDP since he publicly condemned the exercise which he said was rigged in favour of Ikpeazu.
Besides, Nwosu who came fourth at the said primary election, argued that since Ogah who emerged second refused to sign the result, the high court ought to have declared him as the bonafide replacement for governor Ikpeazu.
On its part, INEC withdrew all the processes it filed in respect of the matter, saying it will abide by whatever decision the appellate court arrives at.
The appeal court panel said it would communicate the judgment date to all the parties.
It will be recalled that the appellate court had on July 26, given Ikpeazu the nod to remain on seat pending the determination of the appeals.
Trial Justice Abang had in a ruling he delivered on July 8, declined Ikpeazu’s plea for a stay of execution of the verdict, saying his sack remained valid until a higher court states otherwise.