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Monday, 29 January 2018

Reverse The Illegal Suspension Of Abia Chief Judge, Senior Lawyers Warn Abia State Government

Reverse The Illegal Suspension Of Abia Chief Judge, Senior Lawyers Warn Abia State Government

Theresa Uzokwe

The news of the suspension of Abia State Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Uzokwe, by the state House of Assembly has elicited mixed reactions from lawyers, including the 2nd Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Monday Ubani, and human rights activist, Dr. Tunji Abayomi.

This is not just because it is a stain on the legal profession, but because it is believed to have threatened the principle of the rule of Law. Findings by TheNigerialawyer generally show that many senior advocates frown against the action of the Abia State House of Assembly as a gross violation of laid down rules.

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According to Funke Adekoya, SAN, every lawyer knows the act is unconstitutional, and so null and void. To her, the State should withdraw the appointment of an Acting Chief Judge and refer the case of the CJ case to NJC. And unless he can show that he properly advised the governor, the State Artorney-General should resign.

A prominent Human Rights Activist, Femi Falana SAN, on his part stated that the House of Assembly of a state cannot remove or suspend a Chief Judge witthout an indictment by the NJC. According to him, the case of Elelu-Habib v AGF is the locus classicus on the matter.

The real cause of the crisis is the fact that the CJ is from Anambra state. Citing the case of Jumbo-Offor JCA, Mr FALANA said that Gov. Ikepeazu should revert his decision because it is illegal in every material particular.

Monday Ubani, 2nd Vice President of the NBA, while speaking with our reporter, said:

“I don’t think the legislators have any power to suspend or remove any erring judge without the input of the National Judicial Council (NJC). That is the position in Law. Except the legislators have recourse to the NJC, it is impossible for them to take such decision against a judicial officer.

The Supreme Court of Nigeria has given their decision on this in the case of Hon. Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb & Anor v. Attorney General of the Federation & 2 Ors (2012).’ In that case, the Kwara State Governor wrote to the Kwara State House of Assembly, alleging corruption and acts of misconduct against the Kwara State Chief Judge.

The Legislators thereafter found the Chief Judge guilty of all the allegations and Chief Judge, Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb was removed. Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb then challenged her removal at the Federal High Court. She won both at the High Court and Appellate Court.

The matter went to the Supreme Court and the Apex Court upheld the decisions of the two lower courts. The Supreme Court held that the NJC is not only instrumental to the removal of a judicial officer, but also has to compulsorily be the body through whom the procedure to remove a judicial officer must mandatorily commence.”

On his part, Tunji Abayomi noted that he didn’t think the Legislature has such power to suspend an erring judge, noting that the disciplinary measure against any erring judge under the Constitution was controlled by the National Judicial Council. His words:

”If there is a court decision to that effect that it is only the NJC that can punish erring judges.The problem with allowing the legislative arm to take such decision is that it will damage the principle of fair hearing because there are tendencies for them to politicise such process.

So, you need a fair body like the NJC to take such decisions. And as a matter of fact, that is the essence for which the NJC as a body was established. So, the decision of the Abia State House of Assembly in suspending the Chief Judge is inconsistent with the Constitution”

A Constitutional lawyer and activist championing women empowerment, Ms. Carol Ajie, described the suspension of Justice Uzokwe by the Abia Assembly as improper and an act of connivance to victimise her.

Ajie, in response to the development yesterday, said the whole suspension process was shrouded in secrecy as the CJ is yet to receive a copy of the referenced petition dated 22nd January, 2018.

“Shouldn’t she be served so we could look at it and respond to it?” said Ajie who in her petition accused the Speaker of the state assembly of conniving with the Attorney General of the State to hoard information.

“They cite section 292(1)(ii) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999. Look, the State AG with intent to calumniate CJ’s office, trampled on her roles and responsibilities as Hon. CJ to the extent some of her official duties were corroded.

Otherwise she is efficient, performs her administrative duties efficaciously. They contradict themselves in terms; Allegans contraria non est audiendus.”, she said.

Speaking further, Ms Ajie revealed what could be considered to be state related politics. Her words:
“From the briefs we have received, this problem began brewing prior to and after the appointment of Hon Justice Theresa Uzokwe as the Chief Judge of Abia State.

She is an indigene of Anambra, not from Abia and they don’t like that. She is the Chair, Abia State Judicial Service Commission (JSC) by virtue of her office.”

“The Attorney General of the State, Chief Kalu Umeh SAN set up a parallel JSC that purported to terminate the appointment of the Chief Registrar (CR) of the High Court of Abia State, Elizabeth Akwiwu-Chukwu Esq (Ms) and Umeh and his JSC appointed another Mr. Ben Anyanwu.

The CJ and her CR protested against all of the flagrant disrespect to the office of the CJ.”

But another lawyer, Dr. Anthony Agbazuere said the lawmakers acted within their constitutional powers to suspend the CJ, adding that the suspension was in line with the doctrine of checks and balances among the three arms of government.

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Citing Section 292 (1) (a)(ii) of 1999 Constitution, as amended, Dr Agbazuere argued that just as CJ has a role to play if a governor was to be removed from office, the legislature equally has powers to act against the CJ if found wanting. Said he:

“Section 292 deals with the removal of other judicial officers and (1a)(ii) states that Chief Judge of a State, Grand Kahdi of a Sharia Court of Appeal or President of a Customary Court of Appeal of a State, can be removed from office ‘by the governor, acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly in the state, praying that he be so removed his inability to discharge the functions of his office or appointment (whether arising from infirmity of mind or of body) or for misconduct or contravention of the Code of conduct,”

A member of the National Judicial Council (NJC), who prefers to speak anonymously, as he does not have authority to speak for the NJC, has also described the suspension as a nullity, saying that the NJC would also not intervene in the crisis until the power of the council is invoked by any of the parties.

By extension, he claimed the purported appointment of Justice Orji as acting Chief Judge of Abia State by Governor Ikpeazu is also considered an act of illegality, because it was not based on NJC’s recommendation.

“It is the NJC that pays all judges’ salaries, the Chief Judge of Abia is not subject to the authority of the Abia State House of Assembly,” the source added.

It would be recalled that on 18th February 2012, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision, had held that under the 1999 Constitution, a state executive could not remove any judicial officer or a chief judge without the input of the NJC.

Justice Mahmud Mohammed who delivered the lead judgment then said:

“It is not difficult to see that for the effective exercise of the powers of removal of a chief judge of a state by the governor and the house of assembly, the first port of call by the governor shall be the NJC.”

However, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, Governor of Abia State, said during the swearing in of Justice Orji as Acting Chief Judge of the State, that the appointment became expedient following receipt of a resolution of the House of Assembly suspending the chief judge.

He said Hon Justice Orji, who is next to Uzokwe, was sworn in, in accordance with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.

The governor who appeared not to know that Uzokwe was not constitutionally removed, expressed worries over the recent developments in the state judiciary, and urged Oji to take immediate steps to restore the confidence of the people in the judiciary.

Responding, Justice Orji said he appreciated the enormous responsibility of his office and promised to not betray the confidence and trust reposed in him. He also promised to put the necessary machinery in place to restore the confidence of the people in the state’s judicial system.

Abia judiciary had been rocked by crisis following the dissolution and reconstitution of the State Judicial Service Commission by the governor in November 2017. It was, however, alleged that Hon Justice Uzokwe did not recognise the new body.

She was also alleged to have refused to recognise and work with the new Chief Registrar, Benson Anya, who was appointed by the new commission to replace Elizabeth Akwiwu-Chukwu, who was sacked in the heat of the dissolution of the commission.

But the crisis in the judiciary climaxed last Thursday when Hon Justice Uzokwe allegedly closed all the courts in the state and invited all the judiciary workers to a meeting in Umuahia.

The Assembly therefore suspended her over alleged acts of tyranny, infamy, gross misconduct and incompetence.

TheNigerialawyer recalls that Abia state House of Assembly, had last Friday suspended Uzokwe over allegations of acts of tyranny, infamy, gross misconduct and incompetence, following a public petition brought before the House against her by a civil society organisation, Global Centre for Peace and Justice.

Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of the state had purportedly appointed Justice Obisike Orji as the acting Chief Judge of the state barely three hours after the assembly suspended Uzokwe. Orji was sworn in at the Executive Council Chambers of the Governor’s office last Friday.

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