Judges and lawyers are increasingly becoming endangered species, writes Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
To survive in Nigeria’s legal profession these days, practitioners and judges require skills in the martial arts; nimbleness of feet on an Olympian scale; weapons handling; not to mention advanced training in subterfuge. Sadly, these are not offered on the curriculum of the Nigerian Law School nor in judicial orientation. Even with these skills reinforced by a wing and a prayer, being connected with the business of the legal process in Nigeria today is often life endangering.
In August 2015, Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) announced that they had arrested members of a kidnapping syndicate who were about to abduct judges sitting on election petitions in Owerri, capital of Imo State. They named the leader of that syndicate as one Chibueze Henry, who went by the operational alias, Vampire. Charges followed against Vampire and his gang whose trial began in Owerri, the following year.
Now, the High Court in Owerri occupies a prominent piece of real estate, a shouting distance between the office of the State Governor and the headquarters of the Imo State Police Command. Entrance into the premises is controlled by gates, managed by security people who are public officials. In one of the court halls on this premises, the trial of Vampire and his gang was scheduled to continue on the morning of 27 January, 2017.
As officials of the Nigeria Prison Service (as it was then called) drove into the court premises, a black Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) at the back of the convoy, sped past them, stopping suddenly. A horde of men armed with assault rifles jumped down from the SUV and started shooting indiscriminately. As judges, court personnel, lawyers, and court users scampered, the attackers liberated Vampire who fled along with up to 29 other detainees. The attack killed at least two persons, leaving many others injured.
Imo State, where this incident occurred, had been a site of targeted violence against judges and lawyers for over a decade. In March 2011, high court judges in the state embarked on a strike to protest the abduction of one their colleagues, Theophilus Nzekwe. He was not the first.
One year earlier, the judge-president of the state’s Customary Court of Appeal, Ambrose Egu; and senior Magistrate, Pauline Njemanze, were abducted near the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport near Owerri on official duties.
In 2009, Florence Duroha-Igwe, another judge of the Imo State High Court, suffered an attack in which both her driver and police orderly sustained severe gunshot injuries.
Emboldened by the absence of accountability, these attacks would grow in both frequency and brazenness. In October 2019, a senior Justice of Appeal from the state, Chioma Nwosu-Iheme, was abducted in Benin City, while on duty presiding over election disputes. She spent a fortnight in captivity.
In September, 2021, former Chief Judge of Abia State, Nnenna Oti, was abducted in Orlu, Imo State. Seven months earlier, Presiding Justice of Appeal in Owerri, Rita Pemu, navigated the perils of abduction and possible assassination with an extra supply of native wiles.
Magistrate and court inspector, Oderachukwu Onumajulu, was not so lucky. As a child, Odera always desired to be a judge. In 2016, she climbed the first rung in her ambition when she was admitted to the Nigerian Bar. Three years later, she became a Magistrate in Imo State. On 22 May, 2021, unidentified men shot and abducted Odera at the Customary Court of Appeal in Owerri, where she worked as courts inspector. One month later, in June 2022, she died from her injuries.
Odera was the second judicial figure to be killed in line of duty in the state in as many years. On 23 November, 2018, a body found dumped along Amucha Road in Njaba Local Government Area (LGA) in Orlu Zone, Imo State, was identified as the remains of Remi Ogu, a Chief Magistrate in the neighbouring Oru LGA. Remi and his court registrar, Uju Nwanne, were abducted the previous day from their duty post. In March 2019, the police in the state paraded one Friday Nnaekezie, who claimed that he masterminded the abduction and killing of the Chief Magistrate.
Orlu zone, where Remi was killed, has become the epicentre of mass atrocities committed in the name of agitation. Three months before Remi’s murder, in August 2018, unidentified men incinerated the High Court and Magistrate’s court buildings in the city with all their records and archives. Four years later, on 17 December, 2022, they returned to finish the job.
One of the more vocal voices at the Bar in Orlu was Darlington Odume, who became a lawyer in 2016. The community admired him for his fighting qualities, comparing him to the lion. So, they called him “Omekagu”. In mid-September 2021, while out to procure groceries for his household in Orlu, unidentified gunmen assassinated Omekagu. He was married to a police woman in a location where it had become dangerous to be associated with one.
2021 was a particularly bad year for lawyers around the country. The month after Omekagu’s murder in Orlu, Ajah Ogbonna Ajah and another of his colleagues, both lawyers, were killed on the road by unidentified gunmen while on their way to court in Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State in south-east Nigeria.
They were by no means the only victims in the region or in the year. In May, former High Court judge, Stanley Nnaji, died, assassinated by unknown persons on the streets of Enugu State.
In November, 2021, seven unidentified men macheted to death Kenechukwu Okeke, in Nkpor, in Anambra State. They killed him in the presence of his wife and young daughter. Okeke, a lawyer, had been outspoken in his support of Nigeria’s ban on Twitter.
These killings of lawyers, magistrates, and judges were not limited to south-east Nigeria. On 17 February, 2021, gunmen shot and killed Nkiru Agbasu, a pregnant lawyer, along the Warri-Sapele Road in Delta State.
As in Imo State, Nkiru died in a state with a record of no consequences for the killing of lawyers. In March 2014, unidentified gunmen reportedly dressed in police uniforms assassinated two lawyers, Eguno Dafiaghor and Samuel Ekuwangi on the Ozoro-Asaba motorway in Delta State. It was widely suspected that they “were murdered as a result of the high profile case they were handling at the High Court, Ozoro.”
A little over one year later, in April 2015, unidentified men executed the chair of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Ughelli, Austin Icheghe, in his residence in front of his family and without consequences.
Impunity also explains insecurity among lawyers in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital. In October 2013, the police found the mutilated remains of Ijeoma Micah in her law office in upmarket Maitama, in Abuja. She had been missing for three days.
Seven years later, Ben Okpe, another lawyer, was killed near his home in Karu, near Abuja. In March, 2022, terrorists who hijacked the Abuja-Kaduna train, killed Farida Sule Mohammed, a young Abuja lawyer. She was 29. Suleiman Zailani, was killed in August; Sadiq Gaya in September. At the end of November, unidentified gunmen in the Federal Capital assassinated senior lawyer, Steven Eke, in the presence of his wife and son.
Feyitayo Obot was killed in her hotel room when she travelled to Lagos on professional business at the end of January 2019; nearly two months after the killing of Adeshina Adeola, who was killed on the outskirts of Abuja in the week of his admission to the Nigerian Bar in November 2018.
The killings and abductions of lawyers and judges recounted here are only a fraction of the story. Three things are clear about them. First, the perpetrators nearly always get away with it. Second, any society that tolerates these kinds of attacks on its courts, judges, and lawyers is lawless. Third, the NBA does not yet have a focused program for ensuring accountability for these attacks on lawyers and judges. That is the first thing that needs to change.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at email@example.com