Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja has withdrawn from a suit filed by Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State seeking an order compelling the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue to him a certificate of return as the senator-elect for the Imo West Senatorial District.
The judge said his decision followed allegation of bias levelled against him by the two parties to the suit.
INEC had refused to issue him the certificate of return on the basis that the Returning Officer for the February 23 election, Prof Francis Ibeawuchi, said he had announced the outgoing governor as winner of the senatorial election under duress.
Okorocha had subsequently filed his suit challenging INEC’s decision to withhold the certificate of return due to him as the winner of the election.
But Justice Taiwo, who had been presiding over the matter, announced his decision to withdraw from the case on Wednesday and ordered that the case file be returned to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Adamu Abdul-Kafarati, for re-assignment to another judge.
The judge said he took the decision following the allegations of bias levelled against him by Okorocha’s opponents in the February 23, 2019 election – Jones Onyeriri of the Peoples Democratic Party and Senator Osita Izunaso of the All Progressives Grand Alliance.
Onyeriri sent a petition dated April 8, 2019, to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul Kafarati, demanding that the case file should be retrieved from Justice Taiwo and re-assigned to another judge of the court.
In the affidavit deposed to on his behalf by a lawyer, Chijioke Nzekwe, Onyeriri stated that Justice Taiwo on April 5, 2019, had made a bias comment in favour of the plaintiff, Okorocha, when the judge allegedly told INEC’s lawyer, Wendy Kuku, that the commission was responsible for the problems arising from the election.
The affidavit added that Justice Taiwo had pre-judged the notices of preliminary objection filed by the 2nd and 3rd defendants (INEC and Onyeriri) when he allegedly said he had read through the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) and found nothing therein that robbed him of the jurisdiction to hear his suit.
Izunaso also filed an application dated April 8, 2019 before the same judge dated April 8, 2019 asking Justice Taiwo to disqualify himself from further handling the matter and return it to the Chief Judge for re-assignment to another judge.
The application filed on his behalf by his lawyer, Orji Nwafor-Orizu, stated 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.”
The applicant stated that Justice Taiwo made the said utterances on April 5, 2019 allegedly showing that the judge had “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.”
Justice Taiwo announced his withdrawal from the case shortly after the matter was called in court on Wednesday.