The Federal High Court in Abuja sent shockwaves through Ebonyi State politics yesterday with a judgment sacking Governor David Umahi and his deputy Eric Igwe “with immediate effect”.
Justice Inyang Ekwo said they unlawfully defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The judge held that having defected from the party on which platform they won an election and became members of a party that lost, Umahi and Igwe were deemed to have resigned.
In another judgment, Justice Ekwo ordered 16 lawmakers in the Ebonyi State House of Assembly, who defected from the PDP to the APC, to vacate their seats.
The first judgment was on the suit numbered FHC/ABJ/CS/920/2021 filed by the PDP.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), APC, Umahi and Igwe were the defendants.
The second judgment was on the suit filed by the PDP.
INEC, Ebonyi House of Assembly Speaker; the House of Assembly, the Clerk of the House of Assembly, the APC and the 16 defected lawmakers, including the Speaker, Francis Ogbonnaya Nwifuru, were the defendants.
The other affected lawmakers are Odefa Obasi Odefa, Victor Uzoma Chukwu, Kigbsley Ikoro, Benjamin (surname not provided), Joseph Unuhu, Nkemka Okoro, Anthony Nwegede, Chinwe Nwachukwu, Onu Nwonye, Friday L. Nwuhuo, Moses Odunwa, Chinedu Awo, Chinedu Onah, Chukwuma Igwe and Chukwu Arinze Lucas.
Justice Ekwo added that the PDP, which won the majority votes at the last governorship and the state legislative elections, is entitled to submit the names of candidates to replace Umahi, Igwe and the lawmakers to serve out the remainder of the four-year term it secured by virtue of its victory in the elections.
He ordered INEC to receive from the PDP the names of its members with which it sought to replace Umahi, Igwe and others or in the alternative, it should organise fresh elections within 90 days to fill the vacancy resulting from their defection to the APC.
The PDP swiftly named a House of Representatives member, Iduma Igariwey, as governor-nominee, with a former commissioner Fred Udeogu as his deputy.
But, Umahi said he remained the governor and vowed to appeal the judgment.
Justice Ekwo said Umahi, Igwe and the lawmakers should be excluded from participating in the fresh election, having been disqualified by the defection, which amounted to a rejection of the majority votes earlier secured by their former party.
The judge ordered Umahi, Igwe and the lawmakers to desist from parading themselves as governor, deputy governor and members of the Ebonyi Assembly.
He issued an order of perpetual injunction restraining INEC from further recognising them.
The judge declared that by Section 221 of the Constitution and the democratic system of governance operated in Nigeria, votes are won by political parties and not their candidates.
He declared that the votes won or scored by a political party at an election are retained by the political party irrespective of the death or exit of the candidate from the political party.
Justice Ekwo declared that under the democratic system of governance operated in Nigeria, the votes won at an election by a political party cannot be transferred to or utilised for the benefit of another political party or member of another political party.
The judge rejected the defendant’s argument that Section 308 of the Constitution prohibits the filing of both civil and criminal cases against a governor and a deputy, noting that the provision cannot apply to this case.
He said: “The civil or criminal proceedings envisaged in Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) are those cases where causes of action are such that can still be enforceable after the tenure of the persons mentioned therein.
“In this case, the cause of action and the remedy thereof cannot wait till the third and fourth defendants leave office.
“Therefore, the immunity in Section 308 cannot be said to be absolute. To propound otherwise will be tantamount to creating monsters who will neither bow to the supremacy of the constitution nor observe any law passed by the legislature.”
He added that Section 308 of the constitution was intended by the legislature as a “veritable constitutional shield and not a political sword that is to be swung frivolously and recklessly.”
Justice Ekwo added: “In conclusion, let me put it this way, the third and fourth defendants (Umahi and Igwe) did not on their own win the election of 9th March 2019 to become governor and deputy governor of the Ebonyi State respectively.
“They were sponsored by the plaintiff (PDP) in compliance with the provision of Section 221 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“Therefore, it was the plaintiff (PDP) that the electorate voted for. They cannot remain in office as governor and deputy governor respectively of Ebonyi State after their defection without the plaintiff (PDP) that the electorate voted for.
“On the other hand, the second defendant (APC) was not the party elected by the electorate in the election of 9 March 2019 to govern Ebonyi State.
“Therefore, the second defendant (APC) cannot govern Ebonyi State through the third and fourth defendants when it did not win the election that produced the governor and deputy governor.
“The Constitution is put in jeopardy where the will of the electorate can be brazenly merchandised by candidates without consequences.
“The act of the second, third and fourth defendants and the position of their respective counsel, in this case, are directed at the political dismantling of the 1999 Constitution. It must be stopped forthwith.”
The judge said two decisions by the Ebonyi State High Court, Abakaliki in the suit marked HAB/13/2022 between Senator Soni Ogbuoji and two others v. Engr. David Nweze Umahi and another; and the other by the Federal High Court (Gusau) in the suit FHC/GS/CS/24/2021 between Bashir Saleh & 2 others v. Alhaji Bello Mohammed Matawalle & four others, were not binding on him.
Lawyers to the defendants had tendered copies of the judgments which upheld the defection Matawalle and Umahi.
Umahi: I remain governor
Umahi has said that he remains the governor despite the judgment ordering his sack.
He urged Ebonyi people to remain calm as he was sure of quashing the ruling at the appeal court.
The governor, who described the verdict as “jungle justice”, said he has forwarded a petition against the judge to Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC).
Umahi claimed that the judgment was “purchased” and that the judge was out to “embarrass” his party, but he did not immediately provide any evidence to back his allegations against the judge.
The governor believes the court lacked the powers to remove him as governor as he was covered by the immunity clause.
He said: “The constitution stipulates that the only way whereby a governor can vacate his seat is either by death, resignation or impeachment by the House of Assembly.
“There is no other provision that empowers a hatchet man to turn the Constitution upside down.
“I have listened to the judgment of Ekwo and it is very obvious that he was on a mission.
“He was making all efforts to upturn the rulings of the Appeal and Supreme courts on issues like this.
“We have heard the rumours before now that he was determined to give judgment against all known laws and the constitution to embarrass the APC and the Federal government.
“I do not feel worried but I feel so sorry for the judiciary. The executive may have a problem, the legislature may have a problem but the moment justice could be purchased then we are in trouble in this country. And the ruling this afternoon is clear evidence that this country is in trouble.
“And let me tell you that this same judge has over 10 cases against Ebonyi government with him and you can imagine what he is going to rule.
“We have petitioned him to NJC and we will follow it up to ensure that this man is brought to justice.
“I want you to disregard the judgment; it is null and void there is a subsisting judgement in Ebonyi and Zamfara states.
“So, we have chosen the one to obey, we will not obey his ruling, we will obey the ruling of a competent court of coordinate jurisdiction that says you cannot sue a governor.
“The sections of the constitution are very clear; no civil or criminal proceedings could be brought against a sitting governor. This is not a pre-election matter, this is not a tribunal matter.
“So, he has murdered justice in this country and he and his generation will be remembered for this jungle justice which has no leg to stand.
“I am still the governor of Ebonyi State and he has no powers to remove me.”
Umahi also argued that the judge lacked the powers to declare the seats of the House of Assembly members vacant.
The Ebonyi State Chapter of the APC also rejected the judgment.
Its Chairman, Stanley Okoro-Emegha, accused the judge of acting the script of political detractors.
“The judgment was clearly biased and it’s unacceptable…There is no need to panic as the judgment will surely be appealed.
“All members of the APC and supporters of the governor are advised to remain calm and law-abiding.”
PDP picks Igariwey, Udeogu as governor, deputy
The PDP national leadership picked Igariwey as the party’s nominee for governor and Udeogu as deputy to replace Umahi and Igwe.
National Chairman, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, said the party had already forwarded the names of Igariwey and Udeogu to INEC to be issued with certificates of return.
Ayu called on the Chief Judge of Ebonyi to swear them in without delay.
He urged INEC to put the necessary machinery in motion to conduct fresh election into the 17 Ebonyi State House of Assembly seats.
Ayu hailed Justice Ekwo for the verdict, saying he demonstrated courage.
He said: “We want to appreciate the Nigerian judiciary for this landmark judgment.
“The ruling will bring order in the political space and check the issue of political rascality and stolen mandates. The judiciary is indeed the backbone of this democracy.
“We also want to single out Justice Inyang Ekwo for special recognition, particularly for being courageous and forthright in going for the substance of the law rather than the technicalities.
“And lastly, we call on INEC to immediately withdraw the Certificates of Return from the 17 lawmakers and commence the process of conducting bye-elections to replace them.”
CNPP hails judgment
The Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP) hailed the judgment, saying it would end the era of defections.
In a statement by its Secretary General, Chief Willy Ezugwu, the group said: “The verdict of the court has vindicated the CNPP, which has been at the forefront of advocacy that it was immoral and illegal for any elected officeholder to defect to another party with the mandate of the people given to his or her former party.
“We, therefore, commend the judiciary for taking the bull by the horn and moving to end the defection impunity which is destroying democracy in Nigeria.
“For us, the court judgment corresponds with the ruling by the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the Omeha vs Amaechi, which averred that it was the party that was voted, note the individual fielded by the party.”
Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) Abubakar Malami (SAN) could not be reached for comments on the verdict.
His spokesman, Dr. Umar Gwandu, did not pick up his calls or respond to messages on his WhatsApp as of press time.