Certificate of Return: Court halts proceedings on Okorocha’s suit

Certificate of Return: Court halts proceedings on Okorocha’s suit

… .to await outcome of Izunaso’s appeal

By Ikechukwu Nnochiri

ABUJA – Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, on Wednesday, suffered set-back in his bid to compel the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to issue him a Certificate of Return as the Senator- elect for Imo West Senatorial District, before the expiration of his tenure on May 29.

The Federal High Court in Abuja, suspended further proceedings on the suit he lodged against the electoral body, to await the outcome of an appeal that was filed by the senatorial candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, in the election, Chief Osita Izunaso.

Justice Okon Abang who adjourned further proceedings in the matter before him said he received affidavit of fact dated May 20, which Izunaso who is the 3rd Defendant in the matter, filed to notify the court of the pendency of his appeal.

Izunaso had gone before the appellate court to challenge the decision of the high court to assume jurisdiction over the case Okorocha brought before it.

In his six grounds of appeal, Izunaso, contended that the high court was wrong when it exercised jurisdiction to join the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, as a defendant in the suit.

He argued that the court ought to have firstly determined whether or not it had any jurisdiction to entertain Okorocha’s case, before it proceeded to join other interested parties to the suit.

Besides, it is the case of the appellant that the trial court misdirected itself on law by assuming jurisdiction after the same court made a finding that a court cannot proceed in the face of preliminary objections challenging its jurisdiction.

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He argued that Justice Abang erred in law and misapplied the principles in the decision of Inakoju V Adeleke (2007) LPELR-1510 (SC) and order 29 (1)(a) of the Federal High Court Civil Procedure rules 2009, which dealt with a situation where a court is faced with the issue of determining a challenge of its jurisdiction and the hearing of the substantive suit.

Izunaso contended that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to continue with the hearing and determination of any matter relating to the suit, including the application filed by the PDP, without hearing applications challenging its jurisdiction.

Consequently, he urged the appellant court to hold that allowing the PDP to proceed to move its application for joinder by the trial court was against the weight of evidence.

The appellant accordingly urged the Court of Appeal to allow his appeal and set aside the ruling of the trial court made on May 8, 2019.

Before his appeal, Senator Izunaso had petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC), the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court over what he termed as an act of misconduct by the trial Judge.

Meantime, before further proceedings was suspended in the matter, Okorocha through his lawyer, Mr. Kehinde Ogunwumiju, SAN, alleged a deliberate attempt by Izunaso and others to frustrate his case.

Though he urged the court to ignore Izunaso’s appeal and proceed with hearing of the substantive suit, Justice Abang, held that he was minded to respect the judicial hierarchy.

Justice Abang who initially threatened to commit Izunaso to prison for what he termed as his unruly behaviour, said he would adjourn the matter to May 30 for mention.

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It will be recalled that the first Judge that was assigned the case, Justice Taiwo O. Taiwo, disqualified himself from the matter following a petition that was lodged against him by candidates of the PDP and APGA who accused him of bias.

Okorocha who vied for Senate on the banner of the All Progressives Congress, APC, had in his suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/296/2019, maintained that INEC lacked the statutory powers to withhold his Certificate of Return, saying he was validly elected to occupy the senatorial seat.

He is praying the court to declare that the electoral body acted in error when it refused to recognise him, even after the returning officer had declared him winner.

The Plaintiff’s bid to secure an interim order against INEC suffered setback due to multiple applications by candidates that participated in the election.

Those the court earlier joined in the suit were Mr. Nwachukwu Clement of KOWA party, Precious Nwadike of United Progressive Party, UPP, Dr. Uche Ibeh of Labour Party, and APGA.

They all notified the court of their intentions to file preliminary objections to challenge the competence of suit.

The Defendants said they were opposed to the issuance of Certificate of Return to the plaintiff.

INEC had declined to issue Certificate of Return to Okorocha who was the senatorial candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, after the returning officer alleged that he was forced to declare him winner under duress.

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The Returning Officer for the election, Prof Francis Ibeawuchi, declared Okorocha as the winner of the poll, having polled 97,762 votes ahead of his closest rival, Mr Jones Onyereri of the Peoples Democratic Party, who had 68,117 votes.

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Ibeawuchi claimed that he announced Okorocha as the winner to save his life and that of his household, insisting however that the election ought to have been declared inconclusive.

Okorocha had prayed the court to order INEC to in the interim, issue him Certificate of Return, pending the determination of the suit.

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