Courts are by nature meant to resolve disputes through unbiased interpretation and application of the law. But when by their acts and decisions, they transform into agents of discord, the society becomes agitated. ERIC IKHILAE reports.
The justice administration system in any society is expected to always be just in interpretation and application of the law. Its administrators are equally expected to always be driven by the sole purpose: – to do justice at all time, with the aim of fostering societal peace. But, with happenings in some courts across the country, in recent times, it is not out of place that many have begun to query the credentials of the nation’s justice administration system.
On June 22, this year, a Federal High Court in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, presided over by Justice E. A. Obile, issued an interim order restraining the Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, from participating in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship primary election held on June 25, 2020.
Justice Obile reportedly gave the o r d e r i n a s u i t m a r k e d : FHC/PH/CS/69/2020, filed by a PDP member and an aggrieved governorship aspirant, Omoregie Ogbeide-Ihama.
But, before Obaseki could digest the order made against him, a High Court of Edo State in Ekpoma made a contrary order restraining the PDP from excluding Obaseki from its governorship primary.
The second order was issued by Justice J. O. Okeaya-Inneh in a suit by one Felix Irioh. The conflicting orders by the courts, on the same issue, created confusion with the capacity to exacerbate an existing dispute, but for the maturity exhibited by parties, who
On June 4, this year, Justice Danlami Senchi of the High Court of the FCT issued an interim order, restraining the immediate past National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, from further acting in that capacity on account of his suspension on November 2, 2019 by the Ward 10, Etsako Local Government Area chapter of the party.
The following day another judge in far away Kano State, Justice Lewis Allagoa of the Federal High Court in Kano, issued a contrary interim order, halting Oshiomhole’s suspension.
However, on June 16, the Court of Appeal in Abuja heard Oshiomhole’s appeal against the March 4, 2020 order. The court heard the appeal around mid-day on June 16 and delivered judgment in the evening of the same day, upholding Oshiomhole’s suspension.
The following day, a member of the APC, Victor Giadom, claimed to have been issued an order by Justice S. U. Bature (also of the High Court of the FCT) to the effect that he should act as the party’s National Chairman for the next 14 days.
A copy of the enrol order showed that it was issued on June16, 2020, the same day the Court of Appeal gave a judgment in the evening, upholding Oshiomhole’s suspension.
What still seems unclear is how Justice Bature knew that the Court of Appeal was going to uphold Oshiomhole’s suspension on the same day he purportedly empowered Giadom to assume Oshiomhole’s role.
Allegations of fraud, forgery, manipulation of court documents
There have also been instances where court officials, acting in concert with lawyers, have engaged in fraud, forgery and outright manipulation of court’s documents and proceedings to meet the bidding of a politician.
Sometime in October 2019, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) got a notification about a judgment, directing it to, among others, issue a certificate of return to one Obinna Uzoh for the Anambra South Senatorial seat, in respect of which Ifeanyi Ubah was inaugurated, along with other members of the Ninth Senate on June 11, 2019.
On learning about the development, Ubah, through his team of lawyers, led by Onyechi Ikpeazu (SAN), applied to the court that purportedly gave the judgment for it to be set aside on the grounds that it was given without jurisdiction and in breach of his right to fair hearing.
In a ruling on January 17, 2020, Justice Bello Kawu of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Kubwa, Abuja (who gave the judgment dated April 11, 2019 in a suit marked: FCT/HC/CV/3044/2018), dismissed Ubah’s application to set aside the judgment.
Ubah appealed to the Court of Appeal, Abuja. He said he later discovered, in the course of compiling records of appeal, that the judgment was a product of fraud.
The Anambra South Senator, who ran on the platform of the Young Progressive Party (YPP) petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Chief Judge of the High Court of the FCT, requesting that the roles of the judge and other court’s officials in the alleged fraud be ascertained.
The petitioner stated, in the petition to the NJC, signed by YPP’s National Secretary, Vidiyeno Bamaiyi, that from the documents received from the Registry of the High Court of the FCT, he found that all processes (documents) filed in the suit were backdated by the plaintiff, with the alleged connivance of the judge, who also allegedly backdated his judgment to a time when the suit had not been filed.
“The purport of the entire scheme was to make an already statute-barred post-election suit a pre-election matter, with a view to unseat a duly elected Senator.
“The essence was to first create the impression that the suit was filed within 14 days from the date of the actual of the cause of action, as provided by the Constitution, and secondly, to make it impossible for Senator Ifeanyi Ubah to appeal against the judgement as the time within which to do so would have elapsed,” the petitioner said.
Although the NJC is yet to make public the findings of its investigation, a committee set up by the High Court of the FCT to probe the role of other court’s staff on the issue has since submitted its report.
The committee, in its report signed by its Chairman, Madugu Mohammed Alhaji and Secretary Aminu Nash Audu, said it found that officials of the court connived with the plaintiff, Mr. Uzoh and his lawyers, to perpetrate fraud and forgery of court documents to obtain the judgment with which he had sought to unseat Senator Ubah
Of the court’s seven staff members investigated, the committee exonerated one, recommended three for dismissal and the other three for demotion.
The committee found Kingsley Okoroh Ebibrah, a Registrar, allegedly involved in the alteration of the date on the suit, guilty of gross misconduct, which is inimical to the service, and recommended him for dismissal from the service of the FCT High Court.
Micheal Enuenwosu, an Assistant Executive Officer, was found guilty of gross misconduct and was recommended for dismissal from service, while Maku Felix, a Senior Executive Officer, was also found guilty of gross misconduct and recommended for dismissal from service.
Ibrahim Yau, an Assistant Chief on Grade Level 14, was demoted and relieved of his appointment as Commissioner of Oaths.
The committee recommended that Abiodun Kolawole, a Chief Clerical Officer, be demoted in rank; Iraq Umar, a Principal Registrar 11, was recommended for demotion in rank; while Shaibu Alhassan, an Appeal Unit Staff, was exonerated of all the charges against him.
Part of the report reads: “The committee, after investigation and careful study of evidence adduced and all the exhibits tendered, discovered that the entire suit contracted in CV/3044/18 was a fraud and does not exist in the record of the FCT High Court.
“The purported suit was not assigned by the Chief Judge and not found on any court register except the mutilated register in the process unit.
“The Chief Judge’s signature was forged and dates on the receipt of payment, processes were all altered to October 2018 to make the purported suit filed on September 25th 2029 look like a pre-election matter.”
The committee added that it discovered that, out of the six receipts cross-checked by the Head of Revenue, four were not allocated to the FCT High Court.
In its judgment on the appeal by Ubah, a three-man panel of the Court of Appeal, Abuja was unanimous in holding that the April 11, 2019 judgment, given by Justice Kawu, was a nullity, having been based ”on incompetent court processes.”
Justice Stephen Adah, who read the lead judgment, wondered why a court in Abuja would assume jurisdiction over a case over a dispute relating to an election conducted in Anambra South Senatorial District.
For his alleged role in the case, a lawyer, who allegedly acted for Uzoh, Eziafa Samuel Enwedo, is currently on trial before Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Abuja.
Curiously, incidents of conflicting decisions and wrongful assumption of jurisdiction on cases are common with political cases. This has led many to suggest that the tempting material compensation often dangled by desperate politicians, motivated solely by the quest to capture state’s coffers, may have informed why some judges and court officials readily blunt their conscience and discard their sense of justice when confronted with such cases.
INEC seeks NBA’s intervention
Worried by the negative impact of conflicting and dubious court decisions on its activities, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has sought the intervention of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).
INEC is urging the NBA “to impress it on senior members of the Bar to put the country’s interest and the Judiciary above every other interest and not allow personal considerations to outweigh their commitment to the profession, the rule of law and due process.”
In a letter signed by its National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, INEC said: “It is in the best interest of the Bar and the Bench not to do anything that would bring them into disrepute”.
“These calls have become necessary to draw attention to the uncertainties and threats posed by conflicting orders on, not only preparations for elections, but also to the growth and development of our democracy
“The commission is worried about the spate and rapidity of conflicting Court Orders mostly obtained ex-parte involving substantially the same parties, on the same or similar grounds and from courts of coordinate jurisdiction on issues and challenges around the administration of political parties and conduct of party primaries.”
Noting instances where courts assumed jurisdiction in questionable circumstances, INEC observed that “some of the orders were obtained from courts completely removed from the geographical area where the cause of action arose.”
Assuring that it is committed to obeying all court orders, INEC noted that “the speed, frequency and conflicting nature of the orders leave it in an awkward and impossible position.”
Past efforts to curb judicial recklessness
The issuance of conflicting decisions and other funny practices by courts and their officials are not novel. It only became rampant with the heightening competition in the political space. Some major steps directed at addressing these challenges were taken shortly before the 2015 general elections.
Unsure of what damages judges could cause to the political process with their discretionary powers to grant ex-parte or associated injunctions, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, issued a directive to all heads of courts to outlaw the grant of ex-parte orders in political cases.
Justice Mohammed also directed heads of courts to impress it on their judges not to disqualify any candidate under any guise. The principle then was that courts should not incapacitate any candidate. They were to let all the candidates go to the field and have the electorate determine their fate.
It was that intervention by the CJN that saved many candidates of the opposition parties, particularly, President Muhammadu Buhari, who was a candidate of the APC.
This was because, in the run up to the 2015 general elections, many cases were filed by various groups and individuals, querying Buhari’s qualification and seeking his disqualification.
The directives were all abandoned shortly after the elections, leaving reckless judges and court’s officials to return to their old ways.
The way to go
Many law experts have suggested the need for strict disciplinary measures against erring judges and other court officials found to be involved in such troubling misconduct.
They tasked courts’ heads and the NJC to be swift in considering petitions so that cases could be summarily dealt with.
Dr. Taofik Adams said it ridicules the legal profession and the nation’s judicial system to watch how courts of coordinate jurisdiction fall over each other in their struggle to dish out conflicting orders just to satisfy the whims and caprices of politicians.
“Politicians know to how to resolve their disputes. We should stop disgracing our selves, profession and the Judiciary just because of the crumbs from these morally depraved and desperate politicians,” he said.
Taking the needed steps
In what seems as their responses to the growing concern about the danger posed by conflicting decisions and other reckless acts by some judges and other court’s officials, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho and his counterpart at the High Court of the FCT, Justice Ishaq Bello have devised ways to address these challenges.
In a circular issued on June 24 this year, titled: “Grant of ex-parte orders” and hearing of cases from outside immediate territorial jurisdiction,” Justice Tsoho “strongly advised” all judges of the court to desist from granting ex-parte orders in political matters.
Justice Tsoho also advised the judges not to entertain case whose substance arose from outside their judicial divisions.
He referred the judges to a similar circular issued on August 6, 2018 by his predecessor, Justice Abdul Kafarati, which, Justice Tsoho noted, still applies.
Justice Tsoho warned the judges to beware of “political manoeuvring,” which he noted, was on the rise as a prelude to party conventions, primaries and elections in some states.
On his part, Justice Bello has issued a practice direction, advising judges of his court in similar manner.
Justice Bello said his decision to outlaw the hearing of political cases from other states by the High Court of the FCT was intended to “sanitise the situation.”
He said: “Political cases that originate from other component states of the federation that, for whatever reason, are brought here (the High Court of the FCT) shall no longer be heard here.”
The judge added that the measure was meant to foreclose the window for forum shopping and to address the challenge of conflicting decisions on the same case by different courts.
He said it was also to address the observation by the Court of Appeal that such cases pose difficulties to it administratively because divisions of the appellate court exist in the areas where such cases are brought to Abuja.
Justice Bello noted: “Cases will come from Kaduna, which ordinarily, the High Court of Kaduna State should be able to handle, or from Ondo, Anambra, Sokoto.
“And, not only that, even when they come here, they keep on jumping from one court to another.
“And, when they see the writing on the wall, they start bringing up stories, either pinning it to the judge presiding or any other anomaly they can conceive from the figment of their imagination.” (The Nation)