By Mark Upaa
Justice Okon Abang of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court has ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to immediately issue Certificate of Return to former governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reacted to the judgement with a statement. “In view of the import and directives of the said judgement, the Commission will meet as soon as practicable to do the needful,” INEC national commissioner on information and voter education Festus Okoye said.
The Electoral umpire had refused to acknowledge Okorocha’s victory in February by denying Okorocha a certificate of return. INEC refusal being hedged on claims that the returning officer was made to announce the result under duress. But early Friday, Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court ruled that INEC has no reason not to issue Okorocha certificate of return.
However, INEC reminded the court that while it ruled that Okorocha’s certificate of return be issued to him, there was a hearing for the same matter pending for June 26 at an Imo State High court. INEC pointed out that it was also in possession of a High Court Order from Imo State, signed by a Justice Njemanze which ordered that the certificate not be issued to any of the parties and said it would need to harmonise and take a position on both judgments.
On the returning officer that announced the election result under ‘duress’, Okoye said, “the Commission… is worried that if electoral impunity is allowed to flourish, any individual can harass, intimidate and put the Commission’s officers under duress, procure a favourable declaration and be rewarded with a Certificate of Return.”
INEC’s Director of Voters Education and Public Enlightenment, Wale Osaze Uzzi, said that the Commission had not been served the court order, adding, “Once the Commsion is served with any court order, it is referred to the legal department or the commission’s lawyers for study and advice. So, when we get the court order that says that INEC should issue him with the certificate of return, it shall be subjected to the same process.”
According to Justice Abang, the electoral body lacks the lawful authority to withhold the Certificate of Return to Okorocha, winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election. Having ruled in his judgment that INEC’s unilateral decision to withhold Okorocha’s certificate was unlawful ultra vires, null and void.
“INEC has no lawful authority under the Electoral Act or Constitution to withhold Certificate of Return, it is unlawful. No law that supports the unilateral decision of INEC. Assuming that its electoral Returning Officer claimed that he made the declaration under duress, INEC cannot be the prosecutor and judge in its own case”, he held.
Justice Abang further noted that INEC had taken sides in a matter he ought to be an umpire and as such ought not to act beyond the declaration of the results.
He further held that if the defendants in the suit were aggrieved about the outcome of the results, they were at liberty to approach the tribunal that would avail them the opportunity to ventilate their grievances and call witnesses to prove their claim that the Returning Officer announced the result under duress. Besides, Abang stated that INEC would have withheld the Certificate of Return, if it had declared the election inconclusive or if there was a rerun.
He held that by claiming that the Returning Officer announced the result under duress INEC breached the right of fair hearing of the plaintiff, as he was not allowed to tell his own side of the story, adding that INEC did even consider police report before taking the unilateral decision. Abang accordingly slammed a cost of N200k against INEC and N100k each against the other seven defendants in favour of Okorocha.