In an effort to reverse a ruling by the Federal High Court, Abuja, which ordered their removal from office, Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State and his deputy, Kelechi Igwe, yesterday engaged 18 Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) to represent them in an appeal against the judgement. Umahi disclosed this during a solidarity rally held in Abakaliki, the state capital, by supporters of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
But the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said it was awaiting the certified true copy of the court judgement.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), yesterday, rose with indignation against Umahi for making unpleasant comments about a judge of the Federal High Court.
Umahi said he had confidence in the judiciary, but he accused the legal team of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of misleading the judge of the Federal High Court, who ordered his removal from office.
The governor said, “I want to thank Nigerians; I want to thank Ebonyi people. I am just here for two things: one is to urge you all to be very peaceful, another is to tell you that we still have very serious confidence in the judiciary.
“The PDP lawyers were the people that did the hatchet job; the PDP were the people that were doing forum shopping and I am going to write the NBA to discipline them because you know, the judge was misled.
“In Bayelsa governorship election, APC won the election but because there was defect in the credentials of the deputy, the Supreme Court, in their wisdom, saw that the votes cast in any election belongs to the candidates and not the party but lawyers knew about this but they misled the judge.
“I am using the opportunity to let Nigerians know that nobody castigated the judge and we will not do such.”
He added, “We have done three things: we have done the appeal at Enugu and when I said that we have two judgements, I said that the judgement in Ebonyi State, which has equal powers with that of Abuja, will be obeyed.
“We will appeal the judgement of Abuja High court; we did not say we will disobey the court, otherwise, we will not appeal the judgement.”
The chairman of South East Governors’ Forum said the appeal was already before the appeal court in Enugu. “We are also before the appeal court in Abuja and we have also filed stay of execution,” he added.
Umahi noted that with the appeal already filled, he still remained the governor while Igwe remained the deputy governor of the state.
“Yesterday, I made it very clear that the Supreme Court has said that for any defection in the legislative houses, the presiding officer, who is the Speaker or the Senate President, has the duty and not the court to declare the seat vacant,” he added.
He stated further that the House of Assembly had also appealed against the judgement of the Federal High Court, Abuja, adding that the Assembly is still intact.
Umahi told the people, “There is nothing to be afraid of, go about your businesses very peacefully and let me assure the NBA chairman that he is a perfect gentleman and that we will never insult the judiciary.
“We have confidence in the judiciary and I know they will do the right thing and we have engaged eight SANs to proceed to Abuja, we have also engaged 10 SANs to proceed to Enugu. Do not be angry about anything, it is for our promotion.
“What the people intended for evil, God has turned it for good. When it happened yesterday, God told me be still and know that I am God. And so, you will see what God is going to do, Nigerians are fighting for us.”
Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, had on Tuesday ordered Umahi, his deputy, and 16 state lawmakers to vacate their offices on account of their defection from PDP to APC. Ekwo held that their continued stay in office after defecting was illegal, null and void because the votes, which brought them into office, belonged to PDP that they had dumped for APC.
However, in the notice of appeal filed by their lead lawyer, Chukwuma Machukwu-Ume, Umahi and Igwe asked the court to allow their appeal and set aside the judgment of the trial court that ordered their sack.
The appellants predicated the appeal on 11 grounds on which they argued that the trial court erred in law in arriving at the decision to remove them from office.
In ground one of the appeal, the appellants contended that the lower court erred in law and misdirected itself when it held that they “have not seen any authority which propounds that where a governor or deputy governor defects, his political party on which platform he was elected into office, he cannot be sued by that political party to reclaim its mandate…Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution did not envisage such a situation.”
The appellants submitted that the trial court was virtually setting aside the Supreme Court of Nigeria’s decision in “AG Federation v. Atiku Abubakar & 3 ORS (2007) LCN/3799(SC) to the effect that there is no constitutional provisions prohibiting the president or vice and invariably the governor and or deputy governor from defecting to another political party or meting out punishment for doing same.
“The trial court was also virtually setting aside the decision of the Supreme Court in Global Excellence Communications Ltd v. Duke (2007) LPELR — 1323 to the effect that state governors and their deputies have immunity against being sued while in office.”
Umahi and Igwe argued that the provisions of Section 308 were specific, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the constitution, but subject to Subsection (2) of the section that “no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against 3th and 4th appellants during their mandate in office as governor and deputy governor respectively.”
More so, the appellants maintained, “There is no provision of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) that provides for the removal of the appellants as sitting governor and deputy governor, respectively, of Ebonyi State for reason of defection.”
Among other grounds, the appellants argued that the lower court erred in law when it assumed jurisdiction on the issue of defection of appellants, when it had no jurisdiction over it.
The error, according to Umahi and Igwe, was that the trial court’s interpretation of what amounted to the Federal High Court having the powers of State High Court under the constitution was wrong.
“Power of court and jurisdiction are not the same,” the appellants argued.
The appellants argued that they were state officers and not federal officers. They faulted Ekwo for relying on Sections 68 and 109 of the 1999 Constitution in holding that the appellants, having defected from PDP to APC, offended the provisions of the constitution and must vacate their offices as governor and deputy governor.
They further claimed that the trial court misdirected itself because, “There is no specific mention of governor and deputy governor in the provisions of Section 68 and 109, respectively, of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“By relying on Sections 68 and 109 of the constitution, the trial court assumed the role of the legislator and arrogated to itself the powers of amendment of the constitution.
“There is no provision in the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which state that governor or deputy governor will vacate his office if he defects from his political party to another political party.”
Similarly, the 16 lawmakers of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly prayed the appellate court to set aside Ekwo’s judgement of March 8, which also asked them to vacate their seats.
The affected lawmakers, in their notice of appeal dated March 9, also sought an order of the Court of Appeal setting aside the judgement of Ekwo.
Respondents in the appeal are PDP, INEC, and APC.
We Are Waiting for Certified True Copy of Judgement, Says INEC
INEC yesterday said it was yet to be served the certified true copy of the court ruling sacking Umahi and the others. INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Mr. Festus Okoye, disclosed this in an interview with newsmen in Abuja.
Okoye said the commission would meet and take a decision when it receives the certified true copy of the court judgement.
He stated, “The commission has not been served with a copy of the said judgement. The commission will meet and take a decision when it is served with a Certified True Copy of the judgement.”
Speaking in the same vein, Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Rotimi Oyekalmi, said, “At the close of work yesterday, Tuesday 8th March, the commission had not received the Certified True Copy of the judgement of the Federal High Court on the matter.
“It is only when this happens that the commission will meet and take a decision.”
In reaction to the court judgement, PDP said it had submitted to INEC the names of Iduma Igariwey, a serving member of the House of Representatives, as nominee to replace Umahi, and Fred Udogwu as deputy governor to replace Igwe.
PDP National Chairman, Sen. Iyorchia Ayu, said at a press conference in Abuja that the decision was made after due consultation with party stakeholders at the national and Ebonyi State chapter, in compliance with the Tuesday’s judgement of the Federal High Court.
NBA Condemns Umahi’s Attack on Judge, Demands Apology
NBA yesterday rose with indignation against Umahi for making unsavoury comments against a judge of the Federal High Court.
In his immediate reaction to the judgement, Umahi had in a press briefing attacked the person and judgement of Justice Ekwo, an action NBA said was not only unwarranted but a display of impunity.
The umbrella association of Nigerian lawyers said in a statement, “The NBA has noted with utter dismay, the unfortunate and totally unacceptable reaction of Engr. Dave Umahi to the judgement of the Federal High Court, Abuja, delivered on March 8, 2022, by Justice Inyang Ekwo, which inter-alia ordered him and Mr. Eric Igwe to vacate the offices of governor and deputy governor, respectively, of Ebonyi State on grounds of their defection from the Peoples Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress.
“Following the judgement, Engr. Umahi, in the course of a press conference – video evidence of which is currently making the rounds on both new and mainstream media – threw caution to the wind and deployed very uncomplimentary adjectives and intemperate language in characterising both the judgment and Justice Ekwo, including but not limited to describing the judgment as jungle justice and His Lordship as a hatchet man.
“As if these were not enough, Engr. Umahi accused the court of murdering justice and also arrogated to himself the judicial powers and magisterial authority to declare the judgement of a court of competent jurisdiction as null and void while unashamedly declaring his intention to disregard the judgement in favour of another.
“To put it plainly, this is impunity of the highest order and executive rascality taken too far.”
President of NBA, Mr. Olumide Akpata, who signed the statement, noted that although NBA had absolutely no interest in the outcome of the case in question and would continue to stay away from partisan politics, it would not “sit idly by in the face of this unprovoked and totally unwarranted attack on the judiciary.”
Akpata disclosed that the leadership of NBA had been inundated with calls from a cross-section of well-meaning Nigerians who were outraged by the utterances of Umahi and who had rightly demanded that appropriate action be taken to protect the sanctity of the judiciary.
He stated, “It is for this reason that we condemn without equivocation, Engr. Umahi’s unfortunate diatribe which, if it had emanated from an average litigant, would still have been regarded as shocking but coming from one who occupies the exalted office of a state governor, is nothing short of a national embarrassment.
“In the wake of the judgement, one would have expected Engr. Umahi to sue for calm from his supporters and to assure them that all legal and constitutional avenues would be explored to challenge the judgement.
“For Umahi to, instead, resort to attacking and denigrating the high office of a judge in this unprecedented manner is disgraceful, undemocratic, and completely unacceptable.
“We view Engr. Umahi’s reaction to this judgement as being consistent with the current penchant, on the part of those in the executive arm of government, for intimidating the judiciary whilst taking advantage of the historical reluctance of that arm of government to rise to its own defence.
“In light of the forgoing, the NBA hereby demands an immediate apology from Dave Umahi and a retraction of the comments he made against the person and judgement of Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court. It is also our demand that this apology and retraction is given as much media coverage as the press conference where the unfortunate comments were made.”