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Abia and the sack of Chief Judge

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Abia and the sack of Chief Judge

The recurrent spectacle of assault on the judiciary, in recent time, is not only an embarrassment to administration of justice in the country, but a cause to worry, especially not only at a time a series of reforms introduced by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, are beginning to yield result.
First, like never before in history has agents of government intruded into the privacy of judicial officers in the dead of the night in the name of fighting corruption as witnessed on October 8 and 9, 2016 when no fewer than eight judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court, were hauled into detention over allegations of bribery and corruption.
With the raid on the judges’ homes by government’s agents in 2016 and the subsequent detention of the judges under whatever guise brought the hallowed temple into disrepute.
The law is supreme and no one should be seen as above the law including its interpreter – the judiciary and, by extension, its officers. But due process under a transparent procedure must be followed.
As the judiciary is yet to recover from this onslaught by the executive, the worse has again happened in Abia State, where a group of lawmakers in tandem with the state executive, arrogated powers they do not possess and removed a sitting Chief Judge.
It is still ridiculous to again hear the lawmakers boasting that their decision to sack the Chief Judge is irreversible as if they have enormous power under the Constitution to wield such big stick on the Chief Judge or any judge without recourse to the judiciary’s highest hierarchy – the National Judicial Council (NJC), especially when its officers are involved.
NJC is the only body saddled with the responsibility of disciplining judicial officers found culpable of any misconduct.
For the lawmakers to sack the Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Nzokwe, while acting on a petition accusing her of misconduct, smacks of executive lawlessness and legislative recklessness.
The Abia State House of Assembly had, on January 26, passed a resolution suspending Justice Uzokwe following a petition allegedly submitted by a group, the Global Centre for Peace and Justice.
In the petition, the group accused Justice Uzokwe of tyranny and obstruction of administration of justice, gross misconduct, denigration of the Office of the Chief Judge and embezzlement, amongst others.
These, however, snowballed into the removal of the Chief Judge without any input from the NJC.
The removal of the Chief Judge has, again, raised the dust on how not to remove a Chief Judge. The Supreme Court had, in a unanimous judgement in 2012, ordered Kwara State to reinstate the Chief Judge, Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb, who was sacked in 2009 by former Governor Bukola Saraki.
The apex court said no governor was empowered under the 1999 Constitution to sack any judge, including Chief Judges, without the approval of the NJC.
Sections 292(1)(a)(ii) of the 1999 Constitution as amended explains how a judge of the state High Court or the Chief Judge can be removed from office.
It is unfortunate that the lawmakers who are supposed to know the nitty-gritty of the law are the ones breaking the law and that is why it looked bizarre for the Abia State House of Assembly to still declare that its decision to remove Chief Judge Uzokwe remains sacrosanct.
Its deputy speaker, Cosmos Ndukwe, said the decision was “in line with the constitutional responsibility bestowed on them by the 1999 Constitution,” even when the National Judicial Council had declared the Chief Judge’s removal unconstitutional.
We believe that rather than using their executive and legislative powers to promote good governance and abolish laws granting double emoluments and large severance benefits to former governors, the Abia State government is still boasting on its illegal act, denigrating the judiciary and displaying contempt for the rule of law.
We say that the National Judicial Council’s recommendations and verdict in the instance case must be complied with as its decision on the Chief Judge was a clear violation of Sections 292(1)(a)(ii) and 21(d) Part 11 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended), and a blatant attack on the integrity and independence of the judiciary.
It is crystal clear that no judge anywhere in the country can be removed without the involvement of the NJC regardless of the level of allegations of misconduct against the judge.
We believe that the House’s decision had infringed on the constitutional principle of separation of powers as constitutional provisions are to protect the judiciary from the political intrigues which such removal power often engenders.
The benefits of the integrity of the judiciary should never be supplanted by the temerity and excessiveness which political powers often breed.
And now that Governor Okezie Ikpeazu had complied partially with the National Judicial Council’s directive by swearing-in the second most senior judge in acting capacity, sanity should return to the state’s judiciary while we insist that a transparent mechanism also must be put in place to get to the root of the allegations against Justice Theresa Uzokwe.

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