Ebonyi Assembly speaker, lawmakers challenge court’s jurisdiction

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The Speaker of the Ebonyi House of Assembly, Francis Nwifuru and 16 other lawmakers have challenged the hearing of their defection suit before the Federal High Court (FHC), Abuja.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that Justice Inyang Ekwo had fixed March 8 for judgment in a suit, praying the court to sack Governor David Umahi and lawmakers who defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state.

Nwifuru and his colleagues, in November 2020, defected from the PDP, alongside the governor, for APC.

Reacting, the PDP filed a suit before Justice Ekwo, urging the court to declare the lawmakers’ seats vacant on account of alleged violation of Nigeria’s constitutional provision that forbids defection without justifiable reasons.

The party also filed a separate suit to challenge Umahi’s defection.

Governor Umahi had attributed his defection to the “injustice” done by the PDP to the south-eastern region of the country.

NAN reports that, in an originating summons marked FHC/ABJ/CS/920/2021, the PDP is praying the court to make a declaration that by defecting from the party on which the speaker and his colleagues were sponsored and elected as members of the Ebonyi House of Assembly, they have resigned or deemed to have resigned from office.

But, in their preliminary objection, the lawmakers, through their lawyer, Chukwuma-Machukwu Ume, SAN, contested the jurisdiction of the court to hear the matter.

Ume argued that since the defendants, comprising the lawmakers and the APC as well as the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) “are desirous of this suit being transferred to the Federal High Court” in Abakiliki, Ebonyi, on the ground that “all the parties either work or reside” in the state.

According to him, the hearing of this suit in Abuja will cause great inconvenience as well as occasion great financial loss to the defendants.

Mr Ume had argued in court papers filed on Jan. 26.

Citing civil procedure rules in the application filed on Jan. 26, the lawyer said, “By virtue of Section 22(1) of the Federal High Court Act, this court has the power to transfer a suit to any other judge of the court.”

He further contended that, “By virtue of Order 2 Rule 1(3) of the Federal High Court (civil procedure) Rules 2019, a suit should be commenced and determined in the judicial division in which the defendant resides or carries on substantial part of his business or in which the cause of action arose.”

Also, a commissioner in Ebonyi, Joseph Ekumankama, in an affidavit in support of a motion on notice, questioning the court’s jurisdiction in Abuja to hear and determine the suit, said the defendants had filed several requests seeking the transfer of the suit to Abakiliki division of the FHC but to no avail.

Ekumankama referred to the Jan. 19 proceedings of the presiding judge, Ekwo, where he “lumped the hearing and determination of the applicants’ motion on notice and all their other applications questioning the various aspects of the jurisdiction of the Court.

He argued further that the defendants’ applications touched on both the “territorial, cause of action and constitutional jurisdiction of the court.”

Also, the deponent recalled the filing of a similar suit by the PDP and one Fred Udeogu on July 26, 2021, in which they challenged the defendants’ defection to the APC.

Ekumankama said the Chief Judge of the FHC, John Tsoho, in September 2021, transferred the said suit to the Abakiliki judicial division of the court.

According to him, the cumulative effect of the refusal and failure to have transferred this suit as was done in the plaintiff’s earlier suit no: FHC/ABJ/CS/729/2021, is an act of discrimination.

In the affidavit dated Jan. 25, the Ebonyi commissioner noted that “these founded lack of confidence” by the defendants in “this proceeding is certainly vitiating this Hon Court of its inherent and absolute authority jurisdiction over the 2nd to 20th defendants/applicants.”

He pointed out that it would “occasion a miscarriage of justice for the court to determine the issue of transfer of this suit as well as the judgment on the merit or otherwise of the suit simultaneously, instead the ruling should be on a different day well separated from the day for hearing in  the main suit.”

Similarly, the defendants’ lead counsel argued that Umahi was sworn-in by the Ebonyi cheif judge and not by the chief judge of the FHC, therefore, his removal from office could only be pursued through the state House of Assembly and High Court.

NAN reports that the governor and his deputy had approached the Court of Appeal in Abuja, seeking interpretation of some constitutional issues arising from the suit filed by the PDP.

The applicants in their motion urged the appellate court to restore the powers of the state high courts.

They argued that only courts clothed with the exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine the question as to whether the term of office of a member of the house of assembly of a state, a governor or deputy governor has ceased or become vacant.

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