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Exclusive: Abia Governorship Appeal Court ruling, the intrigues

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The judges of the Owerri Appeal Court who had earlier dismissed an interlocutory appeal by Alex Otti and APGA asking for more time to prove their case at the tribunal were reassigned away from Owerri appeal court division and a new specially assembled team to hear the appeal. 

The Appeal Court sitting at Owerri, Imo State capital, this Thursday nullified the election of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu [upper left] of PDP and declared the flag bearer of APGA, Mr Alex Otti [above], the winner of the election conducted twice before results were declared by the returning officer, Prof Benjamin Ozumba.

It will be recalled that Prof Ozumba declared the election inconclusive after reversing himself on his initial decision to cancel results from 3 LGAs: Obingwa, Osisioma and Isiala Ngwa north. He had earlier cancelled results from the 3 LGAs but after those present at the state collation headquarters pointed out to him that once results have been collated and accepted at the LGA collation centres he lacked statutory right to cancel the results. 

Then INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega, later agreed that the Returning Officer was wrong to cancel results already collated and stated that INEC had the powers to correct its administrative errors as long as it was done within reasonable time. 

Observers at the collation centre will recall that the same Returning Officer wrongly added votes by some of the political parties and after announcing them had to re-calculate when his error was pointed out to him by those present. That this was permitted will seem to buttress Prof Jega’s position that administrative errors can be corrected promptly if the final result is not yet announced. 

The same applied to Prof Ozumba’s error in cancelling the results from those 3 LGAs and his decision to reverse himself after it was pointed out to him that he lacked the statutory powers to cancel already collated and declared results. 

The Returning Officer for Obingwa LGA had before then alleged that someone he named that was working for APGA called him and offered him N50m bribe to cancel Obingwa result. The Divisional Police Officer for Obingwa confirmed that the RO reported the matter to him. But the man named in the bribe offer was never arrested for questioning by security agents and the issue was apparently rested when the PDP candidate was finally declared winner following the supplementary poll of April 25th.

Consequent on the declaration of Dr Okezie Ikpeazu (PDP) as the winner of the Governorship poll, his main rival Dr Alex Otti (APGA) petitioned the electoral tribunal and asked the tribunal to either nullify the election on the grounds that it was marred by widespread irregularities and massive fraud or declare him the winner of same election. He also asked the tribunal to uphold the cancellation of results from Obingwa, Osisioma and Isiala Ngwa Local Government Areas of the state.

In its ruling, the election petition tribunal headed by Justice Usman Bwala said that Otti and APGA failed to prove their claim to have won the election. The tribunal further refused to grant the petitioners’ request to uphold the cancellation of the results in the 3 LGAs as, according to the tribunal, Prof Benjamin Ozumba was not allowed under the law to cancel the results in the first place and hence subsequent reversal by him had no effect.

Following the dismissal of his petition, Mr Otti rushed to the Appeal Court at Owerri asking that the judgement of the tribunal be reversed. From that point the intrigues commenced in earnest in what seems to be a desperate attempt to acquire the seat of the Governor of Abia with expected immunity from prosecution.

The appeal by Otti coincided with the massive protests by members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) across the South East and South South states. When the protesters arrived Aba in massive numbers, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu made a broadcast urging the protesters to be peaceful and also ordered law enforcement agents not to shoot or engage the unarmed protesters to avoid needless bloodshed already witnessed at Onitsha.

While neutral observers applauded the peaceful nature of the protests, Dr Okezie’s political opponents rushed to Abuja with tales of his sponsoring the Biafra protests using a security chief and a former Governor of a South South state to ensure that President Buhari received doctored security reports to that effect.

Promptly, the judges of the Owerri Appeal Court who had earlier dismissed an interlocutory appeal by Alex Otti and APGA asking for more time to prove their case at the tribunal were reassigned away from Owerri appeal court division and a new team constituted with Justice Oyebisi Omoleye leading a panel of 5 specially assembled team to hear the appeal. 

While APGA leaders in Abia celebrated the new panel, PDP leaders who were aware of the “special assignment” given to the new panel members protested and alleged plans to deliver favorable judgement to Otti and APGA at all cost. They also pointed to Otti’s hobnobbing with the ruling APC and his widely reported attendance to their NWC meeting as well as his relationship with Minister of Transportation Chibuike Amaechi.

Two seemingly isolated incidents seems to lend credence to the PDP fears of a pre-arranged hatchet job.

During the burial of APGA Chieftain Chief J. N. Otisi popularly called Abbot, the Abia North Senatorial candidate of APGA whose petition was previously dismissed by the election petition tribunal signed his eulogy published in the APGA produced burial program as “Chief Bordex Onuoha, Senator Representing Abia North constituency”. 

The document which must have been produced before the appeal court dismissed his appeal but upheld that of Chief Orji Uzor Kalu had many wondering why he was so sure that he will be declared winner of the election at the Appeal court. As at the time the burial brochure was produced Mao Ohuabunwa was the senator representing Abia North. 

As if that was not enough, Dr Alex Otti was overheard during the burial at Late Chief Abbot’s residence telling former APGA Chairman Chief Victor Umeh and the owner of Nestoil that even if Abia PDP candidate offer N50b to the members of the appeal panel they will not rule in his favour because the president has directed them to sack Okezie or prepare to face corruption trial for the massive amount of money found in their bank accounts. 

He said all the judges were carefully selected after vetting by security agencies who tracked their accounts and discovered that they were previously accepting huge sums of money from litigants. And to ensure full compliance he has paid N500m to members of the 5 man panel through a South West leader of APC who will hand over the money to Justice Omoleye after the ruling.

Governor Okezie Ikpeazu received reports of the compromise of the judges 3 days before the December 31st ruling of the Appeal Court on his matter. He was said to have rushed to Lagos and Abuja to try to stave off the conspiracy. 

But when one of his contacts insisted that he makes available a huge sum of money to settle another political leader in the South West who can help him get the President to reverse the order given to the Appeal Court Judges he declined and allegedly retorted that his ambition to remain Governor of the state is not enough reason to mortgage the resources of the state and reverse the development strides his administration was making to re position Abia. 

According to our sources, he said he will rather return to the class room than accept to be paying more than 30 percent of the state’s monthly allocation to an individual. He also refused to accept to support security agents to clamp down on unarmed protesters with likelihood of hundreds of youths being murdered in cold blood.

With that position taken by Dr Okezie, his fate was sealed.

When the members of the appeal court panel arrived Owerri on a specially arranged private aircraft from Abuja most observers knew they will surely sack Governor Ikpeazu. At exactly 4pm on Thursday, 31st of December 2015, Justice Omoleye leading a panel of 5 judges with 3 male and 2 female members nullified the election of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu on a most contentious ground. 

In her ruling, she agreed with the tribunal that Prof Benjamin Ozumba never had the power to cancel the results from the 3 LGAs but stated that having cancelled it the result should have remained cancelled and the APGA candidate declared winner.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) who spoke with us on condition of anonymity expressed shock at the ruling of the appeal panel. According to him, “the law cannot uphold an illegality and award benefit of such illegality to a litigant”. 

He further queried why the panel will declare the cancellation valid and yet fail to note that the consequence of such cancelation would have been to call for supplementary polls at Obingwa in particular because the total number of cancelled votes would have exceeded the supposed victory margin of the “winner”. 

He stated that while there may have been justice for the litigants there appears to be no justice for the people of Obingwa and others whose votes were “wrongly cancelled in the view of the tribunal and Appeal Court judges”. 

He asked if the law can purport to exclude 3 LGAs from exercising their constitutional right to vote for no fault of theirs. The Senior Advocate and one time Chairman of Nigeria Bar Association asked the Governor to quickly appeal the ruling as according to him “the supreme court will do substantial justice to the matter”.

Meanwhile the ruling has further polarised inter communal relationships in Abia, especially at the commercial city of Aba. Political leaders and youths of Ukwa/Ngwa origin have taken to the streets to protest what they perceive as gang up of old Bende and Anambra residents of the state to remove the first ever Ngwa born governor of the state. 

Led by former Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara, Honorable Eziuche Ubani, Dr Gershon Amuta and virtually all the political leaders of the home area of the Governor, they are threatening to shut down the markets in the city and chase away all non-indigenes from the commercial town until the supreme court reverses what they perceive as orchestrated injustice and continuing political marginalization of their people who make up 9 of the 17 LGAs in the state.

They alleged that Otti who is from Arochukwu LGA and yet selected his running mate from Ohafia LGA of same Abia North Senatorial district has the active support of most of the leading lights of old Bende division of the former Eastern region.

The current tension is not helped by the fact that Otti supporters are boasting of already “buying” Supreme Court judges through the same South West politician and a former Governor of a South South state. The confidence of the Otti team is also said to have increased with the purported release of N2b by the Chairman of Nestoil to settle the Supreme Court judges through the APC leader.

All major roads leading to Aba has been blockaded by protesters including PH-Enugu Highway, Aba-Ikot Ekpene road as well as massive protests at different streets inside the city. Commercial activities have been totally paralyzed with most of the protesters being from the cancelled LGAs of Obingwa, Osisioma and Isiala Ngwa north. They were joined by others from the neighboring Aba North, Ugwunagbo, Isiala Ngwa South and Aba South LGAs.

Meanwhile Governor Okezie Ikpeazu has called for calm in the state and informed his supporters and residents of the state that while he remains the Governor of the state he has instructed his legal team to appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court and ensure that justice is done. In a media release made available to newsmen, he advised citizens and residents to go about their lawful duties without fear of molestation and promised to continue to focus on developing the state with new and ongoing projects receiving due attention.

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