Abia Governorship Tussle: The Politics Of Tax As Electoral Sword Of Damocles

By Ikenga Chronicles July 3, 2016

— Leo Sobechi

Consternation, confusion; that best describe the situation in Abia State Government House, Umuahia, last Thursday. As it was, the state made another history of having two governors, at least on paper. The first time the state made such grotesque history was in May 2007, when the sitting governor decided to abdicate his office and invest the privileges, particularly constitutional immunity of the office on his protégé, to escape the censure of the law against the governor-elect.

What happened in Umuahia last week, especially at the precincts of the Government House bore striking resemblance to the 2007 episode, because while the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was in Abuja handing over the certificate of return for the 2015 governorship election on Mr. Samson Uchechukwu Ogah, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, who was sworn into office on May 29, 2015 as the governor of Abia State, but pronounced sacked by Abuja High Court was insisting that he was not going anywhere.

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The similarity ended there. There was heavy presence of security personnel around the Government House. Citizens were aghast. Pedestrians, commuters in tricycles were aghast; some ecstatic, others confounded by the reports, added to the frenzy about town. As some government appointees hurried out of their offices, Dr. Ikpeazu, not knowing what may befall him outside the secure fortress of the Government House, put off a planned trip to Abia State University, Uturu; which was a pebble throw from the country home of the man the courts said should take over his job.

Given the enthusiastic support base he built while he aspired for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship flag in the state at the build up to the 2015 election, Ogah had readied his supporters to accompany him from the Sam Mbakwe Cargo Airport, Owerri for a triumphant entry to Umuahia.

While the ceremonials for Ogah were being perfected, the sacked governor hurried to an Abia State High Court, Osisioma, in Osisioma local council of the state, where his counsel obtained a restraining order, ordering INEC not to issue a certificate of return to Mr. Ogah.

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Tax In Politics
THE first time the issue of tax clearance and payment of taxes featured prominently in electoral contest was during the build up to the 1979 presidential election, when the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN), led by Chief Adisa Akinloye, moved against the candidate of the defunct Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP), Rt. Hon. Nnamdi Azikiwe, saying that Zik did not pay tax. That allegation elicited Zik’s popular saying that “I paid tax as and when due.”

Earlier in 1955 during the pre-independence politics, the same Zik had noted in a remark during the inauguration of Afikpo District Council that “it is a principle of local government that services enjoyed by the residents of an area must in large measure, be paid for by those residents. But nobody wants to put his hand in the pocket for nothing; if rates must be paid there must be value for money.”

As minister of Internal Affairs then, Zik knew that most citizens are not enthusiastic when it comes to paying taxes.

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Then in 1979, after the Imo State governorship election was won and lost, the victory of Dee Sam Mbakwe of the NPP was challenged by the NPN candidate, Nnanna Okoro. In the course of the election petition, it was discovered that Mbakwe’s running mate, Mr. Ben Amalaha, did not resign his appointment with the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, as it then was. His tax papers gave him out.

In August 2013, the former governor of Abia state, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu and the Lagos State Government tangled over the payment of annual land use charges. Kalu had complained that the sealing of his property was a political reprisal for his criticism of the deportation of some indigenous Igbo to Onitsha, Anambra state.

An aide to Kalu, Emenike Ojukwu, in a statement disclosed that the sealing of the property precipitated by a newspaper article written by his boss in the wake of the “deportation.” “That was the reason, because Mr. Kalu told Fashola not to deport people from Lagos State. He’s not the owner of Lagos State. Lagos does not belong to him.”

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But in its response, the Lagos State government explained that the sealing of the property located at Park View Estate, was for the former Abia governor’s failure to pay the statutory annual land use charge, stressing that Kalu defaulted despite three separate notices delivered to the said property.

Aderemi Ibirogba, the then Commissioner for Information stated: “As a government driven by law and process, the Lagos State Government will ordinarily expect all law abiding residents to discharge their responsibilities to the state. Mr. Orji Uzor Kalu, like every other citizen, must fulfill his obligation to the state.”

The present tax imbroglio in the election of Abia State governor, apart from revving up the current emphasis on the nexus between politics and economy, especially as it concerns the integrity of politicians; would open a new vista in electoral petitions.

The Abuja Federal High Court that annulled the election of Ikpeazu also ordered the Independent National Electoral Commission to issue a certificate of return to Samson Ogah. It held that Mr. Ikpeazu was on the basis of tax evasion, not qualified to participate in the 2015 governorship election in Abia state.

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Perhaps, it was on account of the gravity of the offence in the eyes of the law that the court ordered the governor to vacate office immediately, and hand over to Mr. Ogah, who was the runner up in the PDP governorship primary elections in Abia.

A lot of people were surprised that a matter, which began as a mere post-primary election bickering, should graduate to mandate threatening issue. The two PDP members, Obasi Eke and Chukwuemeka Mba, that took the matter to court alleged that Mr. Ikpeazu failed to pay per­sonal income tax promptly as and when due for 2010 and 2011 in line with Section 24(f) of the 1999 Constitution.

Already, lawyers have been divided by the High Court ruling. For instance, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa contended the fact that the tax papers were dated on a Saturday did not invalidate it. He noted that under the Public Act, “all days are working days except the ones specifically declared as public holiday. Indeed, section 1 of the same Act states public holidays as New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Workers’ Day, National Day, Christmas Day, Id el Fitr, Id el Kabir, Id el Maulud or any other day so declared by the president or governor. So, Saturday and Sunday are not public holidays, to nullify official acts done on those days.”

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Perhaps, Adegboruwa did not get the whole details of the matter, because he went on to raise other issues that do not fall in line with the processes envisaged by the Electoral Act. He said: “In any case, any mistake occurring upon a document issued by the Abia State government cannot be blamed on the beneficiary of the document itself. The issue of tax evasion or default is a matter to be resolved between the citizen and the government being one, affecting revenue.

“I cannot see how that can lead to the annulment of the votes lawfully cast by the people of Abia State for their choice of governor,” Adegboruwa stated, pointing out that being a policy statement, chapter II of the Constitution, especially section 24 (I) (f), is not justiciable.

However, the seriousness of the matter revolves around the fact that as the chief executive of the state, the governor should lead in the way in showing good citizenship, including payment of taxes and other civic obligations.

Implications For Abia
Should Ikpeazu be offloaded eventually after his suit at the appellate court, there is the possibility of a new cycle of litigations. Apart from prolonged arguments through the Appeal to the Apex Court, PDP may end up losing the seat eventually, in the light of apex court ruling that after Rotimi Amaechi governorship award, that whoever did not participate in an election should not enjoy the fruit of victory.

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Should such a development come up, the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), may begin fresh claim for the position, having come second in the actual election. The new legal challenge would then be between the first runner up of the PDP primary and the first runner up of the main governorship election, Ogah and Dr. Alex Otti, respectively.

Reacting to the confusion in the state over the governorship seat, a member of APGA Board of Trustees (BoT), Chief (Dr.) David Onuoha-Bourdex, described the political situation as the “painful throwback to the rule of man that triumphed over the rule of law in 2015 election in the state.”

He explained that the political crisis in Abia State chapter of PDP, over the 2015 governorship election should be likened to the tale of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, stressing that the quarrels have once again shown that PDP did not win the election.

His words: “We in APGA told the world that we won the election, because Abia people supported us and rejected PDP on account of its rule of man, impunity, brigandage and electoral heist. The Court of Appeal, Owerri Division, nullified the senatorial election and declared our governorship candidate as the actual winner of the election.

“Now somebody within PDP has come out to prove that a wrong candidate was imposed on the party. Do you see nemesis and spirit of our founding fathers, elderly people, women and youth that came out en masse to vote for APGA fighting back? That is the foundation of the confusion in Abia.”

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The APGA chieftain said that Abia residents who have been praying for divine intervention are in happy mood that signs of the end of the reign of impunity that started in 1999 are becoming evident, adding that until the last vestiges of that leadership in Abia are removed, both the godfathers and godsons would continue to run from pillar to post.

He said: “Don’t rule out the possibility that when the Appeal Court upholds the removal of Okezie Ikpeazu, the former governor would come out and confess to the underhand methods employed during the 2015 election. That would be the beginning of the end to the reign of political confusion in Abia.”

Given the mixed reactions from Abia people, it is like the last has not been heard about the governorship seat. Ikpeazu was first removed by the Court of Appeal and later restored by the apex court.

However, the embattled governor has cried out against the hurry in trying to enthrone Ogah by issuing him with a certificate of return, despite his pending appeal, stressing that it was not just him but democracy that was on trial in Abia State.

Meanwhile, perhaps on account of the confusion and resistance by Ikpeazu, the state Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Uzokwe, proved elusive so as to avoid a situation of being forced to swear Ogah in as the governor.

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In a remark to a gathering of Abia people that thronged the Government House to pay him a solidarity visit, Ikpeazu declared: “I am still the governor of Abia. I appeal to our people to remain calm until the final verdict of the Supreme Court. This illegality will not stand. I will test the judgment in the Appeal Court up to the Supreme Court. Even if it was a death sentence, I don’t think that I will be executed without right of appeal.”

He dismissed speculations in some quarters that the Federal Government was behind the plot to get him out of office, pointing out that a government that was involved in the fight against corruption could not take part in judicial corruption.

Since the governor has given indication of a prolonged legal pugilism, there is the possibility that governance would take the back seat in the state, despite the embattled governor’s claim that Abia remains the only Niger Delta state not involved in violent youth agitations.

But a lot depends on what happens after the public holidays declared by the state government in honour of the secretary of PDP Board of Trustees, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, who died recently. The main question is, given INEC’s position that Ikpeazu’s injunction did not contain a stay of execution, could Ogah procure another judge from the Owerri division to swear him into office as happened in Rivers State?

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