An Abuja Division of the Federal High Court on Friday ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to pay N200,000 to a former Imo State, governor, Rochas Okorocha, for failing to recognise him as the winner of the 2019 senatorial election in the state.
The court, in a judgement that lasted over four hours, chided INEC for its failure to issue a certificate of return to Mr Okorocha on allegations he compelled the returning officer of his electoral district, Innocent Ibeabuchi, to declare him the winner of the elections, ‘under duress’.
The court presided over by Okon Abang also awarded a fine of N100, 000 each against the second to the eighth defendant in the matter, in favour of Mr Okorocha.
According to the judge, INEC acted illegally when it decided to exclude Mr Okorocha from the list of elected senators despite a declaration by the commission’s returning officer that Mr Okorocha had won the election.
After declaring Mr Okorocha winner of the February, 23 senatorial elections in the state, Mr Ibeabuchi later alleged that he was forced to do so.
Following the allegation, INEC excluded the name of Mr Okorocha from its list of newly elected senators and announced its resolve to deprive Mr Okorocha of the certificate of return.
Subsequently, the former governor approached the court with several requests aimed at clarifying the validity of INEC’s decision.
On Friday, Mr Abang ruled that his court had jurisdiction to determine the validity or otherwise of the decision reached by INEC and nullified the said decision, with consequential orders against INEC and the defendants.
“Since the reliefs of the plaintiff touch on the validity of INEC in refusing to release the results, this court has explicit jurisdiction to determine whether that decision by INEC is valid or not,” Mr Abang ruled.
“After the issuance of form EC8E1 and the declaration of the winner made, that declaration is conclusive, pending the determination of an election tribunal,” he added.
Mr Abang said INEC had no power to act as it did, adding that such an action implied the creation of new laws by INEC.
“It is not fair that INEC behaved the way that it did. The report of the returning officer that he declared the result under duress is in the realm of an allegation,” said Mr Abang, who added that the allegation could be false.
According to Mr Abang, the decision by INEC to acknowledge the allegation of its returning officer against other factors which suggested peaceful conduct of the election was detrimental to Nigeria’s democracy.
“INEC cannot introduce dangerous precedence in our electoral jurisprudence. If it’s not checked, returning officers in future can decide to allege duress, knowing that the certificate will not be issued.
“INEC cannot hide under section 75 (2) of the electoral act to refuse to issue a certificate if a return to the plaintiff.
“INEC did not declare that the election in issue was inconclusive. INEC did not declare another person winner,” Mr Abang said.
Okorocha remains winner-Judge
The judge ruled that Mr Okorocha remains the winner of the election and his recognition by the commission, “cannot be delayed one minute longer.”
“It is at this moment declared that the returning officer, having declared the plaintiff winner of the election, the plaintiff remains returned as winner of the February 23 election.
“Given Section 68 (c) of the electoral act, having scored the highest number of valid votes cast at the election; the declaration is final.
“The refusal of the first defendant to include the name of the plaintiff in the list of elected candidates published on its website is ultra vias, unlawful null and void,” Mr Abang ruled.
Mr Abang ordered INEC to immediately recognise Mr Okorocha as the winner ”and publish his name among the list of winners, till any further decision by the election tribunal.”
“INEC shall forthwith publish and circulate the name of the plaintiff as senator-elect representing Orlu senatorial district.
“INEC shall issue the plaintiff certificate of return as the senator-elect representing the district.”
Before making the consequential order, Mr Abang reiterated what he described as the level of professional misconduct demonstrated by INEC.
The judge blamed INEC for the petitions written against him by parties in the matter, describing judges as victims of professional recklessness.
“There was no legally justifiable reason for INEC to refuse to issue the plaintiff certificate of return.
“INEC believed its agent, constituted itself a court of law and assumed judicial powers where there was none.
“INEC is the cause of the problems faced by the court. The many provocations against this court were caused by INEC. Look at the problems we face as judges. It is God that will judge everybody in this matter. It is deserving of awarding a cost against INEC in this matter.
“A cost of N200, 000 is at this moment awarded in favour of the plaintiff payable by INEC, which must be paid before any further steps in the proceedings. A cost of N100, 000 is awarded to the second to the eighth defendants in favour of the plaintiff, which must be paid before taking any steps in the matter.”
Mr Abang advised the commission to propose a bill to the National Assembly to address the issue of elections declared under duress, but added that INEC ”must wait for the outcome of such a proposal.”