Although he died a week today, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, had actually gradually died many times as a result of the humiliating treatment he received from a country he served meritoriously, writes Davidson Iriekpen
Nigerians woke up last Sunday to the sad news of the death of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court. The jurist, who died just 23 days to his March 30th retirement, having turned 70 years, a statement by the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Hadiza Mustapha, stated, died after a brief illness.
“The Supreme Court of Nigeria regrets to announce the death of the Hon. Mr. Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, JSC, CFR, by 2.30 a.m. of Sunday, March 7, 2021. He felt sick and was admitted in the last one week in the National Hospital, Abuja but before he was moved to the intensive care unit (ICU) of the hospital on Friday, March 5, he tested negative to COVID-19 investigative test conducted on him,” the statement explained.
Born in 1951 in Amofia-Ukawu, Onicha Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Law from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) lle-Ife and graduated in 1977, bagging his BL at the Nigerian Law School in 1978.
The jurist began his law career in 1978 as a state counsel in the Benue State Ministry of Justice. He started his private legal practice at Abakaliki in July 1978 to October 1995, from where he was appointed a judge of the High Court, Abia, in October 1995 and from there, promoted to the Court of Appeal on May 22, 2003, before he was finally sworn-in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in May 2011.
Justice Ngwuta was the chairman of judicial panel of inquiry into the Obegu Enyibichirikwo Disturbance between 1997 and 1998 and had been a member of several Governorship and Legislative House Election Petitions Tribunals.
Both at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, he was on the panels that heard so many important cases. At the Supreme Court, specifically, he presided over the ruling that affirmed Dr. Olusegun Mimiko as the governor-elect of Ondo State in the May 2013 governorship election.
He also presided over the ruling of the Supreme Court that affirmed Dr. Kayode Fayemi as the governor-elect of Ekiti State in the June 2013 governorship election and was supported by Justices Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad and Suleiman Galadima, amongst many others.
For those who knew the jurist, before his final departure on March 7, his spirit had long died – killed by the Nigerian State. He was a victim of a country that treats its bests shabbily; a country that runs down its own and rejects them.
After many years of meritorious career, sadly, on October 7, 2016, operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) under its former Director General, Lawal Daura, and on the orders of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, in an ungodly hour raid, invaded the residences of eight judges for inexplicable reasons and subjected them to serious harassments, intimidations and molestations.
In his pyjamas, when the invaders stormed his apartment, Ngwuta was made to sit for several hours as they ransacked his official house. Thereafter, they took him away, and kept him with them until dawn.
He was later accused of money laundering. He was swiftly arraigned before a Federal High Court on the money laundering charges and suspended from office by the National Judicial Council (NJC). And shortly after, he was arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for failure to declare his assets.
Like his colleague, Justice Inyang Okoro, Ngwuta knew where his travail came from and didn’t dance around it. In his letter to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, he accused the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi of being behind his travails.
He said Amaechi had approached him in 2013, where he asked him to set aside the election that produced Mr. Ayo Fayose as governor of Ekiti State and replace him with Dr. Kayode Fayemi. He also said in the letter that Amaechi had also attempted to influence other justices on the Rivers State election panel.
He said: “My present plight started sometime between 2013 and 2014. I represented the then Chief Justice of Nigeria in an event organised in the International Conference Centre. Amaechi came in late and sat next to me at the high table. He introduced himself to me and we exchanged contacts. A few weeks after, Fayose’s case was determined in the Court of Appeal.
“Amaechi called me by 6.45a.m. He said he had come to see me but was told I had left for my office. When he said he would return in the evening, I demanded to know what he wanted but he would not tell me. He did not come that evening but came the following morning, when I was already prepared to go to work.
“He begged me to ensure that Fayose’s election was set aside and another election ordered for his friend, Fayemi to contest. I told him I would not help him and that even if I am on the panel, I have only my one vote.
“After the Rivers State governorship election was determined by the Court of Appeal, he called to tell me his ears were full and he would like to tell me what he heard. I told him I was out of Abuja at the time. On my return, he came in the evening and even before he sat down he barked: ‘You have seen Wike.’
“I asked him whether that was a question or a statement. Then he made a call and asked me to speak with someone. The man he called said he was an operative of the DSS. We exchanged greetings and I handed the phone to him. Next, he said ‘Oga is not happy’. I asked him who is the unhappy ‘Oga’ and he answered: ‘Buhari’. I retorted: ‘go and talk to his wife.’ He got very angry and left, remarking: ‘we shall see’ several times.”
Justice Ngwuta reminded the then CJN that he had brought the pressures by Amaechi before him and that he was assured that he was not alone.
“Your lordship may recall one morning, when I pleaded not be on the panel for Rivers Appeal. Your Lordship said I was already on the panel and asked me to explain why I made the request to be excluded. When I explained what transpired the previous night, your lordship told me Amaechi had also attempted to influence other justices.”
Amaechi denied the allegations, and accused some state governors such as Nyesom Wike and Ifeanyi Okowa as responsible for the allegations. But no investigation was done as he was asked to carry his cross himself.
Luckily for him, both charges were subsequently struck out in 2018 on account of a decision by the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division that an erring serving judicial officer must first be taken through NJC’s disciplinary mechanism before being subjected to trial in the conventional courts.
But that didn’t end his travails. Just when everyone thought he had been cleared, he was in the doldrums for close to at least another one year, where he was left idle at the Supreme Court. No cases were assigned to him. No communication with him. No files were passed to him. He would go to work, and just sit in the office, do nothing, except read some books, and newspapers. He was finally recalled to resume sitting on September 23, 2019.
What further demoralised Justice Nwguta was that his other colleague on the Supreme Court bench, who was subjected to the same humiliation, Justice Inyang John Okoro, resumed work almost immediately after the raid.
Like the Publisher of The Source Magazine, Madam Comfort Obi succinctly put it: “Until his final death, Ngwuta was bottled up. He was an angry man. He was angry at a country that humiliated him before the world. He was angry at a country that stripped him of his dignity. He was angry at his people, who never stood by him.
“All through his ordeal, nobody publicly spoke up for him. All through the time he sat idle in his office, with no case allocated to him, nobody spoke up for him. He bore his pain in silence. Nobody intervened. Not his Governor, Dave Umahi. Not the Southeast Governors’ Forum. Not even Ohanaeze Ndigbo. Nobody.”
When the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, was subjected to another worst humiliation in 2018, the South-south Governors’ Forum headed by the then Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State, rose in anger. The governors issued a strongly worded communiqué condemning the action and alleging persecution.
The Cross River State Government took their anger and frustration further by dragging the federal government and got a split judgment. And even though Onnoghen was still retired, his people gave him a sense of belonging. Perhaps, but for his people, it could have been worse. Even lawyers and civil society organisations in the country protested.
But this was not the case for Ngwuta, whose people and governor/governors abandoned to his fate.
Ironically, those who could not make any case for him or defend the allegations against him were the first to express sadness when the news of his death broke.
For the jurist, Nigeria simply failed him. After serving the country meritoriously for so many years, he expected commensurate treatment not humiliation and embarrassment.