Abia Judiciary Crisis and Duplicity of Njc

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By Chinedu Ezeobi

It is no longer news that the National Judicial Council (NJC) has recommended the compulsory retirement of the Chief Judge of Abia State, Hon. Justice Theresa Uzokwe, allegedly for misconduct. What the public probably does not know are the intrigues, conspiracy, connivance, and sheer miscarriage of justice in the entire episode. For institutions whose reason for existence is dispensation of justice, what has played out in the NJC and the Abia Judiciary is a most embarrassing witch-hunt in which very top respected officials of revered the judicial institutions have either been compromised or are cowards and so cowered that they have adopted a see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing stance to the shame of the judiciary.

It may be apt to start with the dramatic events which played out in the Executive Council (Exco) Chambers of Government House Umuahia on January 26, 2018. By10am on that day, a group of judges led by Hon. Justice Obisike Oji of the Abia State judiciary arrived Government House, Umuahia and were ushered into the Governor’s Exco Chambers to await the “good news”’ expected from the Abia State House of Assembly (ABHA). Some of the judges in that group had left their residences outside Umuahia as early as 7am in order to be present at the well-plotted and coordinated event. Of the latter, Hon. Justices Lilian Abai and Chinwe Onyeabo stood out; they came from Aba.

Top staff of the Ministry of Justice were also present having had two days, prior notice. The governor was seated in his office waiting for the expected signal upon which he will appoint and immediately swear in an Acting Chief Judge. The Shocker?: The ABHA expected to debate a petition written to them against the Chief Judge, had not even started sitting in plenary to consider the petition and reach a decision on it as at the time the delegation from the Abia Judiciary arrived Government House, Umuahia. Indeed, whereas the judges had been pre-informed by co-conspirators in the Executive branch on Wednesday the 24th day of January 2018 that Justice Uzokwe would be suspended by the ABHA on Friday the 26th day of January 2018, a majority of the ABHA members were blissfully unaware of any petition against the Chief Judge.

The coordination and orchestration of the Coup was among the leadership of the Judiciary cabal, the ABHA and the Executive branch. From information available to this writer, it was in the evening of Thursday the 25th day of January 2018, that some members of the ABHA received sms text alerts summoning them to reconvene the next morning. On arrival at the ABHA, the members went into Executive Session in the office of the Speaker where a Petition against the Chief Judge purportedly written by an “NGO” was read out and the accompanying “logistics” disbursed. Around 11am, the Executive Session ended and the members of the ABHA proceeded from the office of their Speaker to the Floor of the House for plenary where the purported petition was read out and a resolution suspending the Chief Judge was promptly “passed”.

Around noon, the expected call came from the ABHA to the Governor who quickly proceeded from his office into his Executive Council Chambers where Justice Obisike Oji and others of his group were already seated for the former’s swearing in as Acting Chief Judge. By 12.30pm, the first announcements were already being made in the State Broadcasting media and as the date and timestamps show, news and pictures of the swearing in was awash by 12.45pm on social media. The Chief Judge who was not aware that any petition had been written against her to the ABHA was shocked when she started receiving calls informing her of her suspension from office and swearing in of an Acting Chief Judge. But the drama and judicial abracadabra was only just beginning.

The leadership of the NJC very reluctantly condemned the action of the ABHA as unconstitutional, a nullity and suspended Hon. Obisike Oji for accepting to be sworn in as Acting Chief Judge. However the leadership of the NJC having made that tokenism turned a blind eye to the other coterie of Judges who connived with Obisike Oji to descend into crass politics by coordinating and plotting with politicians against their Chief Judge. In a bizarre move, the NJC instead of immediately reinstating Hon. Justice Uzokwe to her office as Chief Judge, shockingly directed her to “step aside” while it looks into the matter and further directed that the next Senior Judge to Justice Obisike Oji be sworn in as Acting Chief Judge.

Hon. Justice Uzokwe had been suspended by the ABHA on the basis of a petition written by a fake NGO sponsored by the executive branch. The basis of the NJC’s decision to nullify the actions of the ABHA was that it did not follow due process as the input of the NJC was not obtained in investigating the allegations. But there was one problem: the Petition to the ABHA on which the entire brouhaha was founded was so ridiculous and without merit that the NJC could not act on it as it was aware that the public were watching its next move. So the NJC leadership quickly resorted to digging up old long forgotten petitions. Thus when the NJC on the March 14, 2018 arrived at the decision compulsorily retiring Hon. Justice Uzokwe, it was not on the basis of the petition to the ABHA which led to her being asked to step aside, but rather it acted on a different petition written by Chief Umeh Kalu, SAN, the attorney general of Abia State and Commissioner in the Executive Branch of Abia Government.

The Attorney-General’s petition was dated and received by the NJC on the 31st of March 2017. Meanwhile, the cabal in the Abia State judiciary who had thrown away dignity and respect for the high judicial office they occupy sought to outdo themselves in acts of perfidy for which no precedence exists in the history of the Nigerian judiciary. While, the proceedings at the NJC against Hon. Justice Uzokwe were still ongoing, the leadership of the Abia Judiciary now headed by Hon. Justice Ogwe, as Acting Chief Judge, continued their unrelenting psychological and mental assault against Justice Uzokwe. Thus in the “THE ABIA STATE JUDICIARY 2016/2017 SENIOR STAFF PROMOTION EXAMINATIONS which held on March 14, 2018, question No. 2 was as follows:

“Your friend who is a staff of the Lagos State Judiciary has requested to know from the horse’s mouth about the abuses by, and the negative activities of, the Hon. Chief Judge of Abia State that resulted to her eventual suspension from office. Write a letter explaining to him or her all that you know concerning the matter, from the beginning to the time of the said suspension. Tell him or her, the mood of the staff of the Abia State Judiciary at the time the news of the suspension was received by them. Let him or her also know about the atmosphere that now pervades the Abia State Judiciary (High Court) in comparison or contrast with when the same suspended Chief Judge was in charge of the same office.”

This was the same day the NJC passed a verdict recommending Justice Uzokwe for compulsory retirement. The public is invited to be the judge as to whether there were elements of coordination in these unrelenting assaults on Justice Uzokwe. By the evening of that day Uzokwe’s attention was drawn to the verdict of the NJC and her ridicule and disparagement in the said question papers set by the leadership of the Abia judiciary. Her solicitors wrote to the NJC: (1) requesting for a review and setting aside of their verdict which was clearly tainted with procedural irregularities, and (2) bringing to their attention for appropriate disciplinary action, the atrocious, shameful, contemptible and malicious actions against her by the current leadership of the Abia State judiciary as displayed in the said examination question paper. The application for review/setting aside of the said NJC verdict of March 14, 2018 was received by the office of the CJN on April 4, 2018 while that relating to the examination questions was received on April 18, 2018.

For three months, the NJC never replied or responded to the Application for review/setting aside of its 14th March 2018 verdict until a letter was received by Justice Uzokwe’s solicitors, on June 12, 2018, after the NJC was served with and received court processes in a suit filed by Justice Uzokwe challenging her Compulsory retirement. The NJC convened and met on May 8 and 9, 2018. At the end of its meetings where all extant petitions and matters before it were considered, it issued a press release where the matters considered by it and their decision on them were made public but no mention was made of the application by Hon. Justice Uzokwe submitted to it for consideration a month before their meeting. Instead, to the utter shock and consternation of Uzokwe, all media outlets in Abia State on May 15, 2018 announced that the ABHA had received communication from the NJC recommending her compulsory retirement.

While the NJC quietly swept the application by Hon. Justice Uzokwe for a review/setting aside of its 14th March 2018 verdict under the carpet, it responded to the complaint about the despicable and dishonourable conduct of the leadership of the Abia judiciary in theMarch 14 examination questions. On May 22, 2018, Hon. Justice Uzokwe’s solicitors received a letter dated the May 16, 2018, signed by the NJC Secretary on behalf of the CJN. The contents were unbelievable and is best appreciated if set out in full:

“Reference your petition dated 17th April, 2018 to the Honourable , the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman, National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice W.S.N. Onnoghen, GCON on the above subject matter, I have been directed to inform you that Hon. Justice T.U. Uzokwe, the former Chief Judge of Abia State, is no longer under the jurisdiction of the National Judicial Council and that the Council conducts investigations on allegations of misconduct levelled against only serving Judicial Officers, please”.

Any doubts as to the partisan and biased position of the NJC against Justice Uzokwe in this entire matter is thus laid to rest. The allegations of misconduct were not levelled against Justice Uzokwe and so whether she is serving or retired is immaterial. On the contrary, she was the complainant and the allegations were against the demeaning and scandalous actions of the current leadership of the Abia Judiciary who are serving judicial officers.

It is a sad day for the Nigerian judicial system. A once highly respected and dignified judiciary has become utterly compromised, crass and made itself the object of ridicule.

–Chinedu Ezeobi wrote from Umuahia