Controversial judgments and corruption claims against judiciary
Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja, has lately been in the eyes of the storm. This is due to the numerous controversial and contentious decisions he had given in political disputes. To many, he seems to be determined to assist the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to disintegrate the People Democratic Party (PDP). But in spite of the lamentations and outrage against his decisions, including petitions to the National Judicial Council (NJC), he remains unperturbed.
Allegations of corruption against judicial officers have always been mooted with no one coming out with clear evidence. It got to a point where president Muhammadu Buhari had to lament that his major challenge in the war against graft is the judiciary. Perhaps, determined to lighten the burden of the president, officials of the Department of Security Services (DSS) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) beamed their searchlight on the sector.
Their efforts resulted in the raid of the residences of judicial officers and the discovery of several incriminating materials such as cash in different currencies and international passports among other documents. Just yesterday, one of the judicial officers, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta took a not guilty plea to a 16 count charge of money laundering, breach of professional ethics and forgery filed against him by the DSS at the federal high court, Abuja.
Lately, however, Abang sacked two members of the House of Representatives from Enugu State for alleged wrongful emergence as flagbearers of PDP in the 2015 general elections. The affected lawmakers are Stella Ngwu from Igbo-Etiti and Uzo-Uwani Federal Constituency, and Dennis Agbo from Igbo-Eze North and Udenu Federal Constituency.
Two other members of the party, Gabriel Okafor and Chijioke Ugwu, had approached the court after PDP conducted its primaries in December 2014, ahead of the 2015 general elections. They argued in separate suits, which were later merged by the court that Ngwu and Agbo’s emergence as flagbearers of the party was wrong, since they were not elected delegates to represent the party at the November 1, 2014 congress.
The PDP and its National Working Committee were the 1st and 2nd defendants in the suits, while the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was the 3rd defendant. Ngwu and Agbo were the 4th defendants in the two separate suits. The plaintiffs prayed the court to declare the election of the fourth defendants null and void.
The trial judge, Abang, held that the emergence of Ms. Ngwu and Mr. Agbo was unlawful and therefore, ordered them to vacate their offices and return to the treasury of the National Assembly all monies they had collected by way of salaries and allowances since they resumed office in the House.
The judge said the PDP and its National Working Committee had no right nor authority to use any delegate list for the election of its candidate for Igbo-Etiti/Uzo-Uwani and Igbo-Eze North/Udenu Federal Constituencies, respectively, other than the list of delegates that emerged at congresses held on November 1, 2014.
The judge also ruled that Ugwu won the Egbo-Eze North/Udenu Federal Constituency of Enugu State and ordered INEC to immediately issue certificates of return to Messrs. Okafor and Ugwu respectively. He also awarded the sum of N100, 000 as cost against the defendants in favour of the plaintiff.
The sacked lawmakers are expected to appeal the ruling and the House of Representatives may not enforce the judgment until appeals are exhausted.
That ruling happened barely a week after Justice Abang on October 14 declared controversial businessman, Jimoh Ibrahim as the rightful governorship candidate of the PDP for the forthcoming Ondo gubernatorial election. He ordered INEC to replace the name of Eyitayo Jegede with that of Ibrahim and INEC complied. Abang had in an earlier decision declared former Borno state governor Ali Modu-Sheriff as PDP’s authentic candidate for the national chairman and therefore aligned all of his subsequent rulings with this decision.
On October 27, the same judge dismissed Jegede’s appeal against his ruling. Abang in his ruling said the appellant lacked the ground to appeal the court’s judgment. PDP’s candidate Jegede had written the court to grant him the permission to appeal its judgment. But Abang said: “The only case where the applicant would have been considered as having a locus standi to contest the October 14 judgment of this court is if he had taken part in the August 29 primaries conducted by Sheriff’s faction. The judge said, Section 31 of Nigeria’s Electoral Act only allows a party to the suit to be the one contesting the said judgment and not its candidate.”
As stated earlier, Abang’s ruling was based on his June judgment, where he barred the PDP from holding its national convention in Port Harcourt after he recognised a faction of the party led by Sheriff. Ibrahim is of the Sheriff’s faction recognised by the judge. That decision botched the August 17 National Convention of the PDP. Curiously, the judge made the decision after a sister court of concurrent jurisdiction had earlier authenticated the convention.
In fact, Abang’s decision to invalidate the convention provoked the PDP National Youth Frontiers (PDPNYF), a frontline youth group within the opposition PDP such that they called on the National Judicial Commission (NJC) to investigate and address ‘the inglorious acts of High Court judges issuing conflicting judgments’. PDPNYF in a statement by its Coordinator, Austin Okai, said the silence of the National Judicial Council, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, and the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court could only mean a confirmation of “our suspicion that Justice Okon is not acting alone, and our judiciary is no longer an unbiased institution.”
Abang was also berated by the Court of Appeal for sacking the Abia State Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, and replacing him with Samson Ogah after he ruled that Mr. Ikpeazu submitted false tax information to his party in a pre-election matter.
The judge had four months ago sacked the governor and ordered him to vacate office immediately.
Ogah had prayed the court to disqualify Ikpeazu over allegation of forging his Tax clearance receipts, the Tax Clearance Certificate in Form IT 70, reference No. SPA/HQ/2437 with serial number 095827 and dated 04/07/2014, which was submitted by Ikpeazu to both INEC and the PDP, showing payment of his Income Tax for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013, on the ground that they were forged or false.
In a unanimous decision, a five-man panel of Justices of the appellate court, led by Justice Morenike Ogunwumiju, vacated the June 27 verdict and returned Ikpeazu as governor. The appellate court did not just return Ikpeazu, they berated Abang for ‘standing the law on its head’.
The appellate court further criticised Justice Abang for adopting a “hostile proceeding” against Ikpeazu and the PDP. The appellate court noted that allegation of forgery and tax evasion levelled against Ikpeazu by Ogah were “very contentious”, saying Justice Abang was wrong to have determined the case on the basis of an Originating Process instead of Writ of Summons.
They accused Justice Abang of “speaking from two sides of his mouth”, when in one breadth, he said that the case before him bordered on Ikpeazu’s submission of forged tax certificate, and on another breadth, insisted that he was invited to try a forgery case.
“You cannot say that a document is forged and still say that the matter is different from making a forged document under the criminal code,” the appellate court held. The court further stressed that though Justice Abang said the case was not about forgery but submission of false information in Form CF001, he still went ahead and found Ikpeazu guilty of perjury, adding that in perjury, being a criminal offence, requires to be proved beyond every reasonable doubt.
Justice Ogunwumiju, who delivered the lead judgement, held that the burden was on Ogah to substantiate his allegation against Ikpeazu. The court observed that Ogah’s contention was not that Ikpeazu did not pay his tax, but that the tax papers given to him by the tax office in Abia State were forged.
It was also the same judge who declined to hear the case filed by suspended member of the House of Representatives, Abdulmumini Jibrin, seeking to stop his planned suspension by the Speaker of House of representative Yakubu Dogara.
Because the matter was brought before him during the court vacation, Justice Abang held that due to the limited time, the court would not be able to hear and deliver ruling in the matter before the expiration of the vacation.
Mr. Abang said it was proper for the court to return the case file to the Chief Judge of the Court to reassign the case to another judge after vacation. Some speculate that the judge would have heard the matter, had it been against the PDP or not involving the ruling party.
Interestingly, the NJC on November 9, cleared Justice Abang of wrongdoing in his judgment, which sacked Ikpeazu. The NJC also cleared him in the judgment he delivered in favour of the factional leader of the PDP, Ali Modu-Sheriff.
In separate letters to the petitioners, Oyedele M. Ibini, Charles Esonu, Emeka Eze and Henry Balogun, dated October 18, the council stated that no proof of misconduct was found against the judge in the judgments.