Umahi: Caught in the web of defection – TrendyNewsReporters

Umahi: Caught in the web of defection

The ruling of a Federal High Court which sacked Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State may curb the wave of defections by elected political office holders, writes EDWARD NNACHI

THERE is no doubt that the Abuja High Court judgment that sacked the Ebonyi State Governor, Dave Umahi, may have jolted other elected officeholders who have planned to defect to rival political parties. While many observers believe that the reasons given by these ‘political nomads’ for jumping ship have always been puerile and most times personal and pedestrian, members of the political parties who bear the loss from such defections feel short-changed but take their fate with equanimity.

Governors and former governors like Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, Ben Ayade of Cross River, Rochas Okorocha, Theodore Orji of Abia State, and Rotimi Amaechi among others.

Recall that a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja and presided over by Justice Inyang Ekwo delivered a judgment ordering the sacking of Umahi and his deputy, Dr Kelechi Igwe, on March 9, 2022. The judge had declared that the mandate of the Peoples Democratic Party, on whose platform Umahi won before he decamped, could not be transferred to the APC.

Since then, the Umahi-led administration and the judiciary have been enmeshed in a lingering legal tussle turning the temple of justice into a theatre of ‘war’. The judgment also caught 15 Ebonyi State lawmakers who defected with Umahi from the Peoples’Democratic Party to the All Progressive Congress, in the same web, with the governor, as they would have to relinquish their seats for the PDP as well.

While the PDP in the state awaits the inauguration of its candidate, Iduma Igariwey, as governor and Fred Udeogu as the deputy in accordance with the directive of Judge Ekwo to INEC, there seems to be a stalemate between in the implementation of the judgment which has made the PDP furious as they accused not only Umahi but also INEC of sleight of hand on the issue.

Some political pundits have noted that with the judgment, Umahi may not have any right to assert any power vested in the state government. He may not have the right to present himself in any forum or platform as the governor of the state. In a bid to salvage the situation, Umahi allegedly erred when he lambasted Justice Ekwo, describing the judgment as a move propped to embarrass the ruling APC in the state.

This raised ample backlash from the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olumide Akpata, who said Umahi’s utterances were “unfortunate” and “totally unacceptable”. Umahi, the embattled governor of the state and the presidential aspirant of the APC was forced to reverse himself with an apology when public outrage came to a hilt.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Publicity and Mobilisation of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Mr Festus Okoye, who earlier asserted that Umahi remained the governor had been faulted and forced to reverse his statement. A certified true copy of the judgment that sacked Umahi was officially transmitted to INEC on Friday, March 11, 2022. The legal document duly acknowledged by the electoral umpire in the state was made available to the general public.

In a bid to render the judgment a nullity, the governor employed 17 Senior Advocates of Nigeria to appeal the judgment of the Federal High Court, at the Federal Court of Appeal in Abuja. Umahi and Igwe in Suit No: FHC/ABJ/CS/920/2021 noted that there were no existing legal precedents that removed a sitting governor, deputy, and other leaders of a state over their defection to other political parties while serving their tenures.

While making reference to the judgment of the Supreme Court between Attorney General of the Federation vs. Atiku Abubakar and three others which stated “the effect that there are no constitutional provisions prohibiting President or Vice President and invariably the governor and or deputy governor from defecting to another political party,” Umahi and Igwe also approached the same Ebonyi High Court, penultimate Thursday, and prayed it to declare that it’s earlier February 28 judgment remained valid, and takes precedence over any other contrary judgment.

It was earlier reported that the Ebonyi State High Court quashed the suit filed by the APC governorship candidate, Senator Sonni Ogbuoji, and his deputy, Justin Ogodo Mbam, APC governorship and deputy governorship candidates of the APC for the 2019 election, who sought the court to inaugurate them instead of allowing Umahi and his deputy to continue to defect and continue to preside over the affairs of the state.

The Ebonyi State High Court presided by Justice Henry Njoku granted the prayers of Umahi and his counterpart and adjourned the case till Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Justice Njoku declared, “It is hereby ordered as follows, an interim order of this honorable court for seven days (subject to renewal) is hereby granted in view of the judgment in Suit No. HAB/13/22 delivered on the 28th day of February 2022, being a judgment in rem and having precedence over any contrary judgment.

“The applicants, David Nweze Umahi and Dr. Eric Kelechi Igwe shall accordingly remain and not be removed from office as governor and deputy governor of Ebonyi State, respectively.”

Many analysts and pundits have also expressed concern about the incessant defections of political officeholders.

An Aba-based legal practitioner argued, “The major takeaway from the judgment is that it will help to stop elected leaders from jumping from one party to another after winning elections. The idea of turncoats winning the election on the platform of a political party only to dump the same platform that brought them to power will stop. The judgment will help to strengthen democracy and instill sanity among elected leaders.

“There have been several court pronouncements that held that elections are for the party and the contestants are mere agents who cannot stop the principal from enjoying the benefits of his victory. How did Governor Umahi determine that those who voted him as a PDP candidate wanted him to defect to the APC the time he did? He should not take the people for granted,” he remarked.

In the same vein, another lawyer, Mr. Dotun Fasanya, submitted that “by several previous judgments of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the party and not the candidate is the entity voted for when the electorate cast their votes. Therefore, the mandate rests with the party. The major implication of this judgment is its potency for stemming the indiscriminate cross-carpeting amongst elected officeholders. Another implication is that party discipline will fare better within our political parties. Many other suits and judgments will be generated from this precedence. This will develop our law further and by extension, our democracy will become stronger.”

The embattled Umahi and his legal counsel seem ruffled by the judgment of the Federal High Court and have since approached the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court to withdraw an earlier stay-of-execution motion filed by him due to an error in the application. This was just as the PDP praised the judgment of the Federal High Court, describing it as a landmark constitutional intervention. The party, however, appealed to INEC to obey the court pending the conclusion of the suits instituted by the governor in order to avoid a “governorship vacuum” in the state.

A former federal lawmaker, who represented the Ohaozara/Onicha/Ivo Federal Constituency in the state, Linus Okorie, stated that the judgment sought to fill a looming vacuum in the nation’s electoral jurisprudence, “by introducing sanity into the erratic behavior of people elected into executive positions.

“The argument that there is no constitutional provision for sanctioning Presidents, governors, and their deputies has now been very creatively punctured by the very sound reasoning and argument presented in the Umahi judgment. As an Ebonyi man and member of the PDP, I am very excited that the court has restored the confidence of the majority of the people that chose the PDP at the polls before the governor ‘kidnapped’ the victory to the APC. This happiness is supported by the spontaneous jubilation across the state on the day of the judgment, and its euphoria has not died down till date.”

A resident of the state and stalwart of the PDP, Chief Abia Onyike, said, “The judgment is a significant milestone in Nigeria’s political history. It will checkmate the excesses of the political class. It is a cure against random defections in our political culture. It is the greatest ruling to come out of the judiciary. It has brought sanity to politics.”

While reacting to the APC’s recent remarks on the certificate of return, the Chairman of the PDP in the state, Tochukwu Okorie, stressed that “a court of competent jurisdiction ordered that the certificate of return be given to us and this was not an interlocutory injunction,”

APC rejects court order, alleging bias  

The Ebonyi State APC Chairman, Stanley Emegha, also warned the PDP to desist from deceiving herself and the general public, adding that the APC had appealed on the sacking of Umahi and stay of execution served on the PDP. Emegha said the party in the state had described the demand made by the PDP for INEC to give the certificate of return to Iduma Igariwey and his deputy, as unwise. He declared that Igariwey never participated as a party candidate in the elections that brought Umahi to power.

“The Constitution of Nigeria, section 285(13) and the amended electoral laws both 2010 and 2022, including all known cases of both Appeal and Supreme court decisions, already made it clear that you cannot benefit or sue or be sued for an election you did not participate. It is therefore very funny and childish for the PDP to be requesting for certificate of return from INEC, even without regard to the Abakaliki court order which is a judgement in rem on the seat of the governor and deputy governor of Ebonyi State.

In addition, the Chairman of Afikpo South Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, Eni Uduma-Chima, told our correspondent that the judgment was not only unjust, but also unpopular, saying it would definitely attract the widest condemnation across the country. He also lamented that those sabotaging Umahi with court cases were people who were “revived politically” by the governor.

In his own words, “The appellate courts with erudite and versatile gentlemen sitting on their benches will soon be provided with the opportunity of doing justice to the case, and as we all know, the court is not just the last hope of the common man, but the last hope of the uncommon governor of Ebonyi State.”

On his part, a former chairman of the APC in the state, Pastor Eze Nwachukwu, noted that the judgment of the Federal High Court was unpopular and lacked the ample precedence to prevail over other processes. He said, “In the first place, I have heard the court judgment and I can tell you that the PDP in Ebonyi State are rejoicing over nothing.

The state APC Chairman, Emegha maintained that the PDP would not get the certificate of return for the governorship position it had been clamoring for from INEC. Emegha drew his conclusions from the judgment made by the Ebonyi State High Court, which Umahi won.

“It is childish for the PDP to be requesting for the certificate of return from INEC without regard to the Abakaliki Court order on the issue,” Emegha said.

A lawyer in the state, Sampson Ekigbo, aligned with the view that the judgment of Justice Ekwo, describing it as a sound judgment. Ekigbo, who spoke with Sunday PUNCH, said, “Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) deals with restrictions on legal proceedings due to the immunity clause in it. But the advocates of this section have not, in the actual sense, taken cognizance of the provision thereof.

 “It may interest all to know that the subsection (1) of the section says, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution, but subject to subsection (2) of this section” and that the said subsection (2) says that “The provisions of subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to civil proceedings against a person to whom this section applies in his official capacity…”Umahi defected in his official capacity and so the provisions of section 308(1) shall not apply here.

“Permit me to state the obvious, the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court, under both federal and state judiciaries, and the Federal High Court Act, among others, are provisions of the constitution; a tenure of a governor can come to an end as a result of them,” he remarked.

For an Abakaliki-based lawyer, Nwugo Nwugo, he said it would be best to wait for the judgment of the appellate courts as he predicted that the case would go on to the Supreme Court, where judgment would go beyond mere academic exercise. He described the judgment as a “novel idea” which may help deepen democratic practices in the country.

He added, “But one important lesson we may take from that judgment is that time has come when the judiciary intends to help deepen Nigerian democracy. Time has come also for politicians not to take the electorate for a ride. This will now help us to make states’ Houses of Assembly more autonomous.

“If the governor is defecting, it is not compulsory that members should follow him because any member that decides to follow him does so at his or her own peril. I think these are important lessons we can take from the judgment, as far as I’m concerned.”

From the foregoing, it is obvious that although some governors and other elected officeholders have been involved in a wave of defection in the past, Umahi was not lucky enough as he was caught in the web of cross-carpeting. Only time will tell if the governor will wriggle out of the current legal jigsaw and retain his position as the Number One citizen of Ebonyi State.

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