Seized certificate: Judge hands-off Okorocha’s suit, transfers case-file back to CJ
Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja, on Wednesday, disqualified himself from presiding over the suit governor Rochas Okorocha filed to compel the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to issue him a Certificate of Return as the Senator- elect for Imo West Senatorial District.
At the resumed proceeding on the matter, Justice Taiwo told the parties that he would no longer entertain the case in view of a petition that was lodged against him by candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the disputed Imo West Senatorial election, Mr. Jones Onyereri. Justice Taiwo said he would transfer the case-file back to the Chief Judge for re-assignment to another Judge. Okorocha who vied for Senate on the banner of the All Progressives Congress, APC, had in his suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/296/2019, maintained that INEC lacked the statutory powers to withhold his Certificate of Return, saying he was validly elected to occupy the senatorial seat.
He is praying the court to declare that the electoral body acted in error when it refused to recognise him, even after the returning officer had declared him winner. Meanwhile, the Plaintiff’s bid to secure an interim order against INEC suffered setback last Friday following joinder applications by four candidates that participated in the senatorial poll, who separately persuaded the court to admit them as interested parties in the suit. Those the court considered their requests and joined in the suit were Mr. Nwachukwu Clement of KOWA party, Precious Nwadike of United Progressive Party, UPP, Dr. Uche Ibeh of Labour Party, and the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA. The court had earlier joined Hon. Onyeriri of the PDP and Senator Osita Izunaso of APGA as interested parties in the case.
The applicants were added as 2nd to 7th Defendants in the matter. They notified the court of their intentions to file preliminary objections to challenge the competence of suit. The Defendants said they were opposed to the issuance of Certificate of Return to the plaintiff. However, shortly after the court adjourned the case for hearing, PDP’s candidate, Onyereri, in an application he filed pursuant to section 22(1) of the Federal High Court Act, 2004, and section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, applied for an order transferring the suit to the Chief Judge of the High Court for reassignment to any other judge. The PDP candidate who was joined as the 2nd Defendant in the matter, through his lawyer, Mr. N.A. Nwawuchi, SAN, gave reasons why he said Justice Taiwo was no more qualified to continue with the hearing of the matter. In an affidavit that was deposed to by one Chijioke Nzekwe, he averred: “That this matter came up on 5/4/2019 before Honourable Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Abuja Judicial Division of the Federal High Court of Nigeria. I was one of the Lawyers that represented the 2nd Defendant / Applicant in this matter on the said date.
“That in the course of the said proceedings, the said Judge made utterances which clearly showed that he had taken sides in this matter. “That the Honourable Justice Taiwo Taiwo told the Counsel for the 1st Defendant, one Mrs Wendy Kuku, that it was the 1st Defendant that caused all the problems that gave rise to this suit. “According to His Lordship, if the 1st Defendant had done the right thing, there wouldn’t have been the need for parties to come to court. “That the said Honourable Judge went further to say that he has read through the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) and found nothing therein that robs him of the jurisdiction to hear his suit.
“That this pronouncement shocked all the counsel who were present in Court and even the members of the public and pressmen who were in the gallery because the 2nd and 3rd Defendants have Notices of Preliminary Objection challenging the jurisdiction of the Honourable Court to hear this matter. Those applications are yet to be taken by the Court. “That it was evidently clear to all and sundry that His Lordship had made up his mind on what to do about this matter and taken a position on the applications challenging his jurisdiction to hear the case before commencing hearing of the said applications. “That the 2nd Defendant / Applicant has consequently lost confidence in the ability of the Honourable Justice Taiwo Taiwo to hold the scale of justice in this matter any longer. “That following the aforesaid utterances, there was serious altercation between the lead counsel for the 3rd defendant, Orji Nwafo- Orizu, Esq, and plaintiff’s lead counsel which led the lead counsel for the 2nd defendant to request that the senior counsel in the matter see and have audience with his Lordship in chambers.
“That the application was granted, and I was informed by N. A. Nnawuchi, SAN of counsel at Reiz Continental Hotel, Plot 779, Cadastral Zone AO, Central Business District, Abuja on 6/4/19 by 6pm and I verily believe that in the subsequent meeting that held in his Lordship’s chambers, our aforesaid lead counsel, N.A. Nwawuchi SAN urged his Lordship to disqualify himself from hearing this suit in view of his utterances in open court as averred above”. It will be recalled that INEC had declined to issue Certificate of Return to Okorocha who was the senatorial candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, after the returning officer alleged that he was forced to declare him winner under duress.
The Returning Officer for the election, Prof Francis Ibeawuchi, declared Okorocha as the winner of the poll, having polled 97,762 votes ahead of his closest rival, Mr Jones Onyereri of the Peoples Democratic Party, who had 68,117 votes. Ibeawuchi claimed that he announced Okorocha as the winner to save his life and that of his household, insisting however that the election ought to have been declared inconclusive. Okorocha had through his team of lawyers led by Mr. Kehinde Ogunwumiju, SAN, prayed the court to order INEC to in the interim, issue him Certificate of Return, pending the determination of the suit. Vanguard