The court ordered INEC to receive names of candidates from the PDP to replace Messrs Umahi and Igwe as the governor and deputy governor of Ebonyi State, respectively. It also ordered the electoral body to conduct elections to fill the 15 legislative seats within 90 days.
The Federal High Court in Abuja, on Tuesday, sacked the Ebonyi State governor, David Umahi, his deputy, Kelechi Igwe, along with 15 lawmakers in the state over their defection from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Messrs Umahi and Igwe, in November last year, defected from the PDP on whose platform they were elected into office in the 2015 and 2019 to the APC.
The 15 lawmakers who were elected on the PDP platform had also joined them in dumping the party for the APC.
Determined to reclaim its mandates, the PDP had sued Messrs Umahi, and Igwe, in one suit, and the 15 lawmakers in another suit, with the APC and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also joined as defendants in the two suits.
The judge, Inyang Ekwo, declared the seats of the governor and his deputy, and those of the 15 lawmakers vacant in his judgment on the two suits on Tuesday.
Mr Ekwo ordered the governor, his deputy, and the affected lawmakers to vacate their offices immediately.
Mr Ekwo ordered INEC to receive names of candidates from the PDP to replace Messrs Umahi and Igwe.
“The votes in any election in Nigeria are to political parties, and not candidates,” the judge held.
The judge agreed with the PDP that by defecting from the party on which they were sponsored and elected, they had resigned or deemed to have resigned from office.
The 15 lawmakers whose seats the court declared vacant include Odefa Odefa, Victor Uchukwu, Kingsley Ikoro, Benjamin Jununu, Nkemka Okoro, Anthony Nwegede, and Chinwe Nwachukwu.
The rest are Onu Nwonye, Friday Nwuhuo, Moses Odunwa, Chinedu Awo, Chinedu Onah, Chukwuma Igwe, Chukwu Lucas and Francis Nwifuru.
The judgement is in sharp contrast to last month’s decision of the Gusau Division of the Federal High Court ratifying the defection of Governor Bello Matawalle, who similarly dumped PDP, on whose platform he became governor, for the APC, last year.
The Tuesday’s verdict with the potential of causing a major political change in Ebonyi State is, however, not likely to take immediate effect, as parties to the suits, still have the opportunity to exhaust their rights of appeal up to the Supreme Court level.
Mr Ekwo, in his judgement, held that the governor and his deputy failed to adequately defend the substantive issues concerning their defection.
“It would be constitutionally wrong for a person who was not sponsored by one political party, to defect and become a member of another political party before the expiration of the period he was elected,” the judge held.
The court noted that the “constitution does not treat the issue of defection lightly,” referencing Section 221 of the 1999 constitution.
Mr Ekwo pointed out that “the constitution is put in jeopardy when the will of the electorate who voted for a political party can be brazenly merchandised by candidates without consequence.”
“The APC cannot govern Ebonyi State through the 3rd and 4th defendants (Messrs Umahi and Igwe), when it did not win the election that produced them.”
Mr Ekwo further held that Mr Umahi and his deputy cannot claim to be unaware of the “consequences of their act of defection.”
“Having defected to another party, they cannot hold onto the votes of the plaintiff (PDP) to remain in office,” the court declared.
Declaring the continued occupation of office by Messrs Umahi and Igwe unconstitutional, the court said it is in “breach of the provisions of Section 179 (2) (a) and (b) of the 1999 constitution.”
While ordering the governor and his deputy to vacate office, the court said: “The PDP is entitled to submit to INEC, the names of candidates to replace” Messrs Umahi and Igwe, “for the purposes of utilising the lawful votes cast in favour of the PDP” at the March 9, 2019 governorship poll.
“An order is hereby made directing INEC to immediately declare the persons nominated to it by the PDP as governor and deputy governor of Ebonyi State. This is the judgement of the court,” Mr Ekwo declared.
In his judgement regarding the 15 lawmakers, Mr Ekwo ordered the electoral umpire to receive names of candidates from the PDP for a fresh election, which must be conducted within 90 days to fill vacancies occasioned by the 15 lawmakers’ defection.
The court further ordered the clerk of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly to “recover monies and other properties” in possession of the sacked lawmakers and remit same to the coffers of the parliament.
Orji Orji, the Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, described the verdict as a “travesty of justice,” assuring that they would appeal the decision.
Mr Orji faulted the Federal High Court’s reliance on provisions of the Electoral Act dealing with pre-election and election matters.
“The Court of Appeal decision in Amaechi Vs INEC shows that today’s judgement was a clear case of an error in law and we must challenge it at the appellate court.
He said a court of coordinate jurisdiction had pronounced on the matter, saying that the Constitution has no provision on defection for governors or has not made it an offence for a gorvernor to defect from one party to another.
“We can also test the veracity of the Federal High Court decision today at the Court of Appeal.
“I want to tell Ebonyi people that there is no cause for alarm,” Mr Orji said.