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Defection: Judiciary again axes 20 Cross River lawmakers

By Joseph Onyekwere (Deputy Editor), Azimazi Momoh Jimoh, Ameh Ochojila (Abuja), Anietie Akpan (Calabar) and Nnamdi Akpa (Abakaliki)
22 March 2022   |   4:30 am
Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja yesterday sacked 20 Cross River State lawmakers for defecting from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Federal High Court, Abuja

• Battle shifts to A‘Court as Umahi withdraws stay of execution application
• Lawmakers’ removal in line with spirit of law – Sen Imoke
• Withdrawal complicates Umahi’s matter, says Oyebode
• Issue certificate of returns to our nominees, PDP prays INEC
• No cause for alarm, APC declares

Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja yesterday sacked 20 Cross River State lawmakers for defecting from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC).

In his ruling, Justice Taiwo held that there was no justification for the defection of the lawmakers. The defected lawmakers include two House of Representatives members and 18 members of state House of Assembly. Justice Taiwo specifically said the lawmakers needed to vacate their seats, since they had abandoned the party, which brought them to power.

The judgment followed a suit filed by the PDP marked FHC/ABJ/CS/975/2021 against the lawmakers over their defection. The affected lawmakers are Michael Etaba, Legor Idagbor, Eteng Jonah William, Joseph A. Bassey, Odey Peter Agbe, Okon E. Ephraim, Regina L. Anyogo, Matthew S. Olory, Ekpo Ekpo Bassey, Ogbor Ogbor Udop and Ekpe Charles Okon.

Others are Hillary Ekpang Bisong, Francis B. Asuquo, Elvert Ayambem, Davis Etta, Sunday U. Achunekan, Cynthia Nkasi, Edward Ajang, Chris Nja-Mbu Ogar and Maria Akwaji.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), speaker of the House of Representatives, National Assembly, clerk of the National Assembly, Cross River State House of Assembly, clerk of the State Assembly and the APC were also joined as defendants in the suit.

In opposition to the suit, Mike Ozekhome (SAN), counsel to the 4th-25th defendants, had challenged the court’s jurisdiction to hear the suit. He had submitted that the cause of action arose in Calabar and that the matter should be transferred to the high court in Calabar.

However, Justice Taiwo held that “there is nothing against the law that the suit be heard by this court.” He said the 4-25th defendants are joined with other defendants who have their offices in Abuja.

“Where there are more than one defendant, the suit can be established anywhere subject to the discretion of the court. I find no merit in the application for transfer,” he declared.

In their defence, the lawmakers had further argued that there was a rancour in the PDP, which led to their expulsion from the party.On its part, the APC had in its submissions, told the court that the lawmakers are not its registered members.

But the trial judge held that the defendants had intentions to mislead the court. He said he found gaps and loopholes in their defence as they tried to twist events to suit their own narratives and axed them for defecting unjustifiably.

ALSO yesterday, the legal battle surrounding the sacking of Governor Dave Umahi, his deputy Dr. Kelechi Igwe and the 16 lawmakers moved to the Abuja division of the Appeal Court.

This followed the withdrawal of their separate motions for a stay of execution of the judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja, which ordered them to vacate their respective offices for defecting from the PDP to the APC.

Justice Inyang Ekwo, who granted the withdrawal of the motions for stay of execution, consequently struck out the motions. Their counsel, Chukwuma Machukwu Ume (SAN) who applied for the withdrawal of the motions, informed the court that his clients’ appeals against the court’s judgment had been properly entered before the Abuja division of the Court of Appeal.

He added that his clients have met all necessary requirements of the law with respect to a proper filing of an appeal. Ume, who tendered Certified True Copies (CTC) of documents from the Court of Appeal evidencing the proper filing of the two appeals, stated that the appeals have been entered with numbers attached to them.

“My Lord, the record of appeal against the judgment of this court has been transmitted to the Court of Appeal and proper before the Court of Appeal. This is in line with order 8 of the Court of Appeal rules and order 4 rule 11 of the Federal High Court rules.

“My lord, in line with order 59 of the Federal High Court rules, we apply for the withdrawal of the motion for stay of execution filed on March 9, 2022,” Ume submitted.

Lead counsel for the PDP, Emmanuel Ukala (SAN) did not oppose the withdrawal of the two motions. As a result, Justice Ekwo struck them out.

“Upon being informed that a proper appeal have been entered at the Court of Appeal and having seen the CTC of records tendered from the bar, I make an order striking out the motions for stay of execution filed on March 9, 2022,” Justice Ekwo ruled.

In the case of Governor Umahi and his deputy, Ume had in a motion on notice prayed the court for an order staying the execution of the orders made in the judgment of the court delivered on March 8, 2022.

SIMILARLY, the 16 lawmakers of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly, who were ordered to vacate their seats, equally filed a motion of stay of execution of the judgment.

Ume (SAN), who is also representing them, in a motion on notice dated March 9, 2022, prayed the court for an order staying the execution of the judgment as it affects the lawmakers.

The lawmakers have equally filed an appeal against the judgment. Their motion for stay of execution, which are rooted on eight grounds sought to restrain the PDP from submitting names to the INEC for the purpose of declaring them as members of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly as their replacement, and if already submitted and accepted, an order of injunction restraining INEC from using or putting same into effect until the determination of the appeal they filed.

REACTING to the development, Professor of law, Akin Oyebode explained that had the stay of execution succeeded, the applicants would have no need to vacate their offices. He, however, added that by withdrawing the application, it complicates the applicants’ matter, as they have to battle it out at the Appeal Court.

Human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, explained that the motion for stay of execution was struck out because the record of appeal has been compiled and transmitted to the Court of Appeal.

The implication in law, he said, is that the High Court can no longer entertain any application relating to the case as such applications must now be litigated at the Court of Appeal.

“It should be noted that ordinarily, by Section 17 of the Court of Appeal Act, an appeal does not operate as a stay of execution. In other words, the mere fact that appeal has been filed will not stall the enforcement of a subsisting judgment.

“My expectation is that the appellants have sought a stay of execution from the Court of Appeal. In any event, the law is that elected persons removed by a court or tribunal shall remain in office until the appeal process is exhausted.

“The governor and his deputy will therefore remain in office pending final judicial pronouncement on the matter, which will likely terminate at the Supreme Court,” he said.

Also, Bar. Jerry Aondo explained that as it stands, all parties to the action must wait for the outcome of the Court of appeal’s decision and its order as to whether Governor Umahi will vacate office or continue.

Maliki Ikueyelegbe, also a lawyer said the trial court is divested of the jurisdiction to entertain that application for stay of execution since it has delivered its judgment.

The application for stay of execution, he said, shall be filed before the court of appeal.

“The Governor shall be in office throughout the duration he is ventilating his constitutional right of appeal. His lawyers know what to do,” he pointed out.

Toeing the same line of thought, Bar. Abel Onoja said the dismissal of stay execution would not affect the governor’s stay in office, since his appeal been entered in the Court of Appeal.

But another lawyer, Festus Ogun suggested that the governor and his deputy must step down, as ordered by the trial court, pending the outcome of their Appeal.

“Court judgments are meant to be completely respected and obeyed in the absence of stay of execution or a contrary judgment from an appellate court,” he stated.

FOLLOWING the striking out of the stay of execution application, the PDP yesterday charged the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to immediately and without any further delay, issue Certificates of Return to its candidates Hon. Iduma Igariwe and Fred Udogwu as Governor and Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State respectively.

The party, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Debo Ologunagba, said its call is in furtherance of the ruling of Justice Ekwo striking out the stay of execution applications.

The PDP stated: “INEC, pursuant to the provision of Section 287(3) of the Constitution of Nigeria, which provides that “the decisions of the Federal High Court, National Industrial Court, a High Court and of all other courts established by the Constitution shall be enforced in any part of the Federation by all authorities and persons, and by other courts of law with subordinate jurisdiction to that of the Federal High Court, National Industrial Court, a High Court and those other courts, respectively” is bound to issue Certificates of Return immediately to Hon. Iduma Igariwe and Fred Udogwu as Governor and Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State respectively.”

The PDP also demanded that the Chief Judge of Ebonyi State, upon the issuance of Certificates of Return should proceed to swear its nominees.

The PDP commended the judiciary for its courage in defending the Constitution as well as the will of the people of Ebonyi State as expressed in their votes for the PDP in the 2019 governorship election.

Despite striking out the stay of execution, Gov. Umahi yesterday inaugurated the APC zoning committee headed by his brother, Deacon Austin Umahi.

The governor also swore in a newly appointed Special Assistant, Mr. Chika Nwangele.

MEANWHILE, the APC Cross River State chapter has said there is no cause for alarm. A statement by the Party’s Publicity Secretary, Mr. Erasmus Ekpang and the State Chairman, Alphonsus Ogar Eba, said the judgment against “our lawmakers is nothing to worry about…we trust that the appellate Court will do justice as we file our appeal.” The Party’s leadership therefore, urged APC members to stay calm and not be distracted.

However, there was anxiety in the state as news of the sacking of the 20 lawmakers hit town, especially as the state governor is facing a similar situation and judgment in his matter is expected to come up on March 28.

While APC calls for calm, former Governor of Cross River State and leader of the PDP, Sen. Liyel Imoke, has described the sacking of 20 lawmakers as pure restoration of the democratic mandates given to the PDP by citizens of the state.

According to Imoke, the painstaking judgment by the judge is in line with the spirit of the law and the 1999 Constitution, considering the heated debate on defection of elected officials.

“For Cross River PDP, this judgment is a clear testimony that as a party, our resolve to adhere to the extant laws and the 1999 Constitution has been fruitful and beneficial to our pursuit of truth, and this will continue to guide our activities and operations as party faithful,” Imoke stated.