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Certificate of Return: Judge hands-off Okorocha’s Case

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Justice Taiwo O. Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, has handed-off the suit filed by the Imo state governor, Rochas Okorocha, urging the court to grant an order compelling the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue him Certificate of Return as the Senator- elect for Imo West Senatorial District. The judge has however, returned the case file to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul Kafarati, for re-assignment to another judge. The decision of the judge followed allegations of bias made against him by the candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 23 National Assembly elections, Jones Onyeriri and that of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), Senator Osita Izunaso. In his petition, Onyeriri asked the judge to disqualify himself from the suit. Onyeriri, who signed the petition demanded that the judge should withdraw from the matter because of his utterances in which he “clearly prejudged the substantive issues that will be resolved in this matter and clearly showed he has taken sides with the plaintiff (Okorocha).” In an affidavit deposed to, on his behalf by a lawyer, Chijioke Nzekwe, he stated that Justice Taiwo told counsel to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Wendy Kuku that the commission was responsible for the problems in the election. Nzekwe further averred that “’the Honourable Judge went further to say that he has read through the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) and found nothing therein that robs him of the jurisdiction to hear his suit.’ “’That this pronouncement shocked all the counsel who were present in court and even members of the public and pressmen who were in the gallery because 2nd and 3rd defendant (INEC and Onyeriri) have Notices of Preliminary Objection challenging the jurisdiction of the Honourable Court to hear this matter,” he averred. In his motion on notice dated April 8, 2019 and  brought pursuant to section 22(1) of Federal High Court, 2004, and section 36(1) of the 1999 constitution, Senator Izunaso asked for an order transferring the suit to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court for reassignment to any other judge of the court. The motion which was filed by his counsel, Prince Orji Nwafor- Orizu, also sought for an order of the court, disqualifying itself from further hearing of the suit, on the grounds that “there is likelihood of bias on the part of this honourable court to continue to hear the suit as the honourable presiding Judge has expressed an opinion favourable to the plaintiff even without the hearing of the  substantive suit. “That the said utterances were made on April 5, 2019 which utterances clearly pre-judged the substantive issues that will be resolved in this matter and clearly showed that the honourable presiding judge has taken sides with the plaintiff. “ When the matter was called yesterday, Justice Taiwo announced his decision to rescue himself from adjudicating on the matter based on allegations of bias against him. He further announced that the case file will be returned to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul Kafarati for re-assignment to another judge. Okorocha won in the  February 23 Imo West senatorial election  on the platform of the All Progressives Congress. He was however not presented with a Certificate of return by the electoral body as his name was not listed by the  Independent National Electoral Commission among the senators-elect who were presented with their certificates of return by INEC.   The commission claimed the winner of the Imo West Senatorial District election was announced under duress.   It, therefore, did not list anyone as the winner.   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.   However, both the PDP and the All Progressives Grand  Alliance protested against  the declaration of Okorocha as the winner of the election.   Ibeawuchi later claimed he was forced to declare Okorocha as the winner to save his life.   He said that he feared for his life and he was forced to announce the result of the poll, which he said was inconclusive, in favour of the governor.   But determined to claim his mandate, Okorocha had in a suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/296/2019, filed by his counsel, Kehinde Ogunwumiju (SAN) seeks the court order compelling the INEC to issue him a Certificate of Return as the validly elected senator for Imo West Senatorial District.

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