APGA: Between Enugu Court And Democracy

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

The Court of law is constitutionally clothed with the judicial powers of the state to adjudicate matters between parties with a view to interpreting the provisions of the law and by so doing to promote the respect for the principle of rule of law. In the exercise of these powers, the judges as ministers in the temple of justices are obliged to live above board and to dispense justice creditably, without allowing any sort of compromise or influence to make them reach a pre-determined end.

Since the inception of the ongoing democratic experiments in the country, the role of the judiciary has come under constant scrutiny even as several serving judges of the various court system in the country have been dismissed and/or sanctioned by the National Judicial Council (NJC) for offences bordering on bribery and frivolous granting of injunctions to applicants which have in the past operationally crippled the smooth conduct of elections by the independent National electoral commission.

Some of these ex parte injunctions which were awarded indiscriminately by some judges have also prevented political parties and other institutions of democracy from functioning optimally thereby making observers to question whether some of these judges who issue these nebulous injunctions are actually using their high offices to undermine democracy in Nigeria.

The National Judicial Council has also faced criticism in the past for not responding quickly to allegations of impropriety against certain judges in the High Courts of the various states and the Federal Capital Territory and the Federal High Court of diverse divisions in the country.

Observers are of the opinion that if the hierarchy of the National Judicial Council are always ready to effectively bring heavy sanctions and other disciplinary measures to bare on the indicted judges, then other judges who may be tempted to compromise their high office and misbehave will be effectively deterred since they are aware of the serious consequences of their actions and inactions.

With the exception of the periods that Justices Muhammadu Lawal Uwais and Alfa Belgore served as the Chief Justices of Nigeria and the chairmen of the National Judicial Council (NJC) respectively whereby a good number of indicted judges dragged before the disciplinary forum[NJC] were severely sanctioned, the National Judicial council has come under increasing criticism as not actively enforcing its constitutionally guaranteed mandate to ensure that Judges adhere to professional ethics and exercise their powers enshrined in the section 6 of the constitution with the highest display of maturity, wisdom and patriotism.

Most observers therefore remember Justices Uwais and Belgore for bringing high sense of discipline in the administration of the nation’s courts when they each served as the Chief Justice of the Federation. In the past few years, all eyes have seriously being directed toward the hierarchy of the National Judicial Council hoping that the unprecedented indiscipline and unprofessional conducts of some judges all across the country are checked.

When therefore, for the first time in the history of Nigeria, a woman by name Justice Maryam Alooma Muktar emerged as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, most Nigerians expressed optimism that she will carry out a clean sweep and restore credibility, respect and integrity to the institution of the judiciary and importantly that she will ensure that the National Judicial Council stops the business-as-usual tendency and rise up to the challenge of enforcing strict professional ethical codes of conduct among serving judicial officers.

The demand for the strict enforcement of discipline among judges is so that litigants and the members of the general public are not made by the gross indiscipline and apparent disposition of some judges to bribery and other monetary inducements, to lose faith in the impartiality of the court as the last hope of the common man.

The new Chief Justice of Nigeria, who is the first woman to become the leader of the court system in Nigeria since independence, is expected to carry out a moral revolution to once more convince Nigerians that those judges, who have constituted themselves into formidable cogs in the wheel of Justice, are effectively sanctioned and dismissed.

The current leadership of the National Judicial Council is facing a litmus test as a result of a troubling allegation of compromise made against the person of the Chief Judge of Enugu state Justice Innocent Umezulike by the National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) Chief Victor Umeh.

Specifically, Chief. Umeh has come under intense pressure by some of his estrange party members who have resorted to the adoption of series of antics, manipulations and other strategies to compel him to relinquish the office of the National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) which produced the Governors of Anambra (Peter Obi) and Imo States (Rochas Okorocha).

Chief Umeh has similarly been told by the governor of Enugu State Mr. Sullivan Iheanacho Chime of the People Democratic Party (PDP) to prepare for the demolition of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) since the ruling political party at the center (PDP) has set machinery in motion to defeat and uproot the All Progressives Grand Alliance from its traditional South East zone.

Soon after the Governor of Enugu State made the declaration, Chief Umeh was dragged in his personal capacity before the chief Judge of Enugu state by whom he (Umeh) described as an expelled member of the party form Udi local government which happens to be the home local council of the governor of Enugu state who had earlier served media notice of the impending ‘demise’ of the All progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).

Not long ago, the Chief Justice of Nigeria acknowledged publicly that state governors in most states of the federation are starving their state judiciary of funds. What this statement implies is that because state judiciary is not financially independent, it is possible that some governors may resort to blackmail to compel their state courts to play by their own game. If this is the case, then democracy is imperiled.

The petition instituted against the Chief Judge of Enugu state by the National Chairman of APGA Chief Victor Umeh has alleged that the Enugu Chief Judge failed to disqualify himself from hearing a matter seeking his ouster by an allegedly suspended party member from Udi local government even as the Chief Judge granted unnecessarily prolonged ex parte injunction against Chief Umeh which in effect crippled the administration of All Progressive Grand Alliance.

Chief Umeh had reduced his grouse with the chief Judge of Enugu state in the following issues he has raised before the Justice Muktar-led National Judicial Council.

Umeh stated; “Recall, Sir, that by letter dated 19th September 2012, I prayed the Chief Judge of Enugu State to transfer/re-assign the Case to another Judge of the Enugu State High Court as I have no confidence of obtaining justice in his Court given the attitude and antecedents in the Case. This request was ignored and not responded to”.

Chief Umeh also disclosed that; “By Motion on Notice, through my Counsel, I prayed the Hon. Chief Judge of Enugu State for “an Order that the Honourable Chief Judge of Enugu State, Hon. Justice I. A. Umezulike, OFR the Presiding Judge in Suit No. E/270/2012 Ichie Okuli Jude Ejike V. Chif Sir Victor Umeh disqualifies himself and decline from continuing the hearing of Suit No. E/270/2012 pending before the Enugu State High Court”.

According to Chief Umeh; “The Motion was filed on 5 October 2012. One would have expected that the Hon. Chief Judge would, as a Court of Law, hear my said Motion on Notice and determine same one way or the other before proceeding further in the Case”.

He continued thus;

“The Case came up before the Hon. Chief Judge of Enugu State on 8 October 2012. I was perplexed that, not only did Hon. Chief Judge refuse to hear/entertain the Motion filed on 5 October 2012 seeking to disqualify him from hearing the Case, but the Chief Judge proceeded to the hearing of the Case even when Counsel representing me in Court urged him to hear the Motion.”

The National Judicial Council needs to find out why the Chief Judge failed to transfer the matter to another judge because the moment a party in a case before you raises such fundamental doubt regarding the impartiality or otherwise of a presiding Judge, it is better for another judge to hear the matter so that Justice will not only be one but will be seen to have being done.

To even imagine that very senior members of the bar were part of the legal team that prayed the Chief Judge to hands off the matter, it is shocking that the Enugu state Chief Judge proceeded with hearing the substantive issue brought by a plaintiff even when the respondent shouted ‘blue murder’ severally and doubted the credibility of the presiding judge.

What then is the interest of the Enugu State Chief Judge in this matter? Is he playing the game prepared by some powerful politicians who vowed to ensure that the APGA is destroyed before the 2015 election? How is a judge to adjudicate a politically charged litigation to escape accusations of being bias and compromised?

These are the knotty issues that needed to be untied by the Justice Maryam Alooma Muktar’s-led National Judicial Council in the petition brought by Chief Victor Umeh of APGA against the Chief Judge of Enugu state who is also a holder of the national honour of officer of the Federal Republic.

* Emmanuel Onwubiko, Head, HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA blogs@www.huriwa.blogspot.com.

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