Although the National Judicial Council (NJC) has intervened in the removal of the Chief Judge of Abia State, Justice Theresa Uzokwe and declared the removal by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu as directed by the House of Assembly unconstitutional, the dust generated by the removal is yet to abate as lawyers yesterday rose in defence of the sacked Chief Judge. FOLUSO OGUNMODEDE reports
Barely nine years after a constitutional breach occurred in Kwara state following sack of a former Chief Judge, Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb by the Bukola Saraki-led administration, another constitutional crisis has again played out in Abia state.
Although Elelu-Habeeb challenged her removal by the Saraki government up to the Supreme Court and was vindicated as the apex court declared her removal null and void, the Abia state government without recourse to the Judiciary highest hierarchy, the National Judicial Council (NJC) last week breached enabling laws when its House of Assembly announced the removal of the Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Uzokwe while directing Governor Okezie Ikpeazu to inaugurate another judge in acting capacity.
Governor Ikpeazu had on January 26 ratified the removal of the Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Uzokwe by the House of Assembly over allegations of tyranny and gross misconduct.
The Chief Judge’s suspension followed a petition presented on the floor of the House on matter of urgent public importance by a member representing Ukwa West Constituency, Mr. Mezie Nwubani.
The petition dated January 22, entitled “Justice Theresa Uzokwe’s unending acts of tyranny, infamy, gross misconduct and incompetence: urgent need to save the administration of justice in Abia,” was jointly signed by Dr Anthony Agbazuere and Mr. Obinna Nkume, the Executive Director and Director, Legal Services of Global Centre for Peace and Justice, an Umuahia-based non-governmental organisation.
Besides, the petitioners accused the Chief Judge of acts of lawlessness and disrespect to state authorities and denigration of the office of the Chief Judge.
Other allegations included financial malfeasance and embezzlement of funds and “morbid hatred for Abia and her citizens,” among others.
Nwubani , however, cited provision of Section 292 of the 1999 Constitution as amended, which had empowered the House to investigate the allegations against the Chief Judge.
But another member representing Isiala-Ngwa North, Chief Martins Azubuike, urged the House to be properly guided by Section 36 of the Constitution, which provided for fair hearing in handling the petition.
After investigation on the allegations, the House moved for the Chief Judge’s suspension and appointment of an Acting Chief Judge in her stead.
Do the Assemblymen have the power to sack or remove a sitting Chief Judge without recourse to the National Judicial Council (NJC)? Can they carry out investigation of the Chief Judge without inputs from a body with powers to recommend sack of judges including Chief Judges indicted for any misconduct?
Also, can Chief Judges or judges of the High Court be removed from office without recourse to Sections 292(1)(a)(ii) of the 1999 Constitution as amended?
This, NJC and lawyers say no.
Sections 292(1)(a)(ii) of the 1999 Constitution as amended detailed how a judge of the state High Court or the Chief Judge can be removed from office.
It says: “Chief Judge of a State, Grand Kadi of a Sharia Court of Appeal or President of a Customary Court of Appeal of a State, by the Governor acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly of the State, praying that he be removed for 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, in any case, other than those to which paragraph (a) of this subsection applies, by the President or, as the case may be, the Governor acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council that the judicial officer be so removed for 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.”
These provisions, according to NJC’s intervention was not followed by the Abia state government.
It, however, declared Justice Ozokwe’s suspension not only illegal and unconstitutional but null and void and of no effect.
Besides, it also came hard on Justice Obisike Orji, who, following the House’s recommendations appointed as Acting Chief Judge of Abia State, describing his appointment as gross misconduct.
NJC said: “The National Judicial Council under the Chairmanship of the Honourable Mr. Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, at its emergency meeting which held today, 31st January, 2018, considered the recent suspension of the Abia State Chief Judge, Hon. Justice T. U. Uzokwe and the swearing-in of Hon. Mr. Justice Obisike Orji as the Acting Chief Judge of the State by Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu and agreed that the decision to suspend the Chief Judge and the swearing-in of an Acting Chief Judge without the input of the National Judicial Council is unconstitutional, null and void.
“It noted that its attention had been drawn to the crisis in Abia State Judiciary by petitions written against Hon. Justice T.U. Uzokwe and the one written by the Chief Judge against Hon. Mr. Justice C. U. Okoroafor, but in the course of the investigation by the Committee set up by Council, some elderly Judicial Officers of Abia State Judiciary waded in and pleaded with the Committee to allow the matter to be resolved amicably by them, which was granted by Council at its plenary.
“At the last meeting of council which was held on 6th December, 2017, Council directed the Committee to continue and conclude with the petitions before them if there were no reports of the settlement by the peacemakers. While this was going on, the problem escalated and Council was informed of the suspension of
Hon. Justice Uzokwe and the swearing-in of Hon. Mr. Justice Obisike Orji as the Acting Chief Judge.
“In view of the foregoing, Council resolved as follows:
1) The suspension of the Chief Judge of Abia State by the State House of Assembly without a prior recommendation by the National Judicial Council violates the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
2) Consequently, the subsequent act of appointing and swearing-in of Hon. Mr. Justice Obisike Orji as the Acting Chief Judge is invalid for being unconstitutional.
3) Furthermore, the conduct of Hon. Mr. Justice Obisike Orji in presenting himself to be sworn-in raises potential questions of misconduct that Council is now looking into.
4) Council therefore resolved to query and suspend the Hon. Mr. Justice Obisike Orji pending the outcome of its investigation.
5) In view of the recent escalation, Council, in the interest of the smooth administration of justice in Abia State, resolved to direct the Chief Judge, Hon. Mr. Justice T. U. Uzokwe, to stay away from duties pending Council’s final decision after consideration of the report of its panels.
6) In the prevailing circumstance, whereby the National Judicial Council has directed the Chief Judge not to perform his duties, and the next most senior Judge is suspended, the Governor of Abia State shall appoint Hon. Mr. Justice Onuoha Arisa Kalu Ogwe, the next most senior Judge to act as the Chief Judge of Abia State pending Council’s final resolution of the matter.”
Lawyers were not left out. They spoke against the constitutional breach in the state, describing as an embarrassment rules guiding appointment of judicial officers.
Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN said “it is a scenario of kiosk when authority can just assume power it does not have under the law; this automatically leads to anarchy. Before you can remove a Judge, a petition must be written against the Judge to the National Judicial Council, NJC and they will determine to hear it. It is after they have heard it; they can decide to clear him or suspend him and recommend to the governor to remove him.
“Technically, the suspended judge is still the Chief Judge of the state. But what disturbed me most in the whole event is that another judge knowing that the exercise was absolutely illegal and accepted to be Acting Chief Judge. It just shows that some Nigerians are so ambitious that they will close their eyes to any illegality just to attain a position. I think, it’s unfortunate and a shame on the legal profession.
“Unless NJC recommends to the governor to remove the Chief Judge, the governor cannot act. The House of Assembly has nothing to do with it. It is the NJC that will first recommend her removal. This will create disillusionment in the minds of ordinary Nigerians.
A rights organization, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) while describing the action of the lawmakers as unlawful called for the immediate re-instatement of the suspended chief judge, failure which it would institute legal action.
In a statement signed by its Deputy Director, Timothy Adewale, SERAP said the action of the lawmakers contravened Sections 292(1) (a) (ii) and 21(d) Part 11 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended).
The statement reads: “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 denigrating the judiciary and displaying contempt for the rule of law.
“The purported suspension of Justice Uzokwe violates Sections 292(1)(a)(ii) and 21(d) Part 11 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended), and amounts to a blatant attack on the integrity and independence of the judiciary. No judge anywhere in Nigeria can be removed without the involvement of the National Judicial Council (NJC), no matter the level of allegations of misconduct against that judge.
“The suspension also infringes the constitutional principle of the separation of governmental powers. Constitutional guarantees are meant to protect the judiciary from the political caviling that 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.
“Governor Ikpeazu must rescind his illegal appointment of a new chief judge, and the Abia State House of Assembly must withdraw the apparently politically motivated suspension of Justice Uzokwe without further delay. Doing so will be entirely consistent with the decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the case of Raliat Elelu-Habeed & anor v Attorney General of the Federation and Attorney General of Kwara State (2012).
“If allowed to stand, the suspension of Justice Uzokwe would set a bad example to other state governments, and dangerously move them toward executive and legislative dominance and control over the judiciary.
“Should Ikpeazu and the House fail to restore Justice Uzokwe back to her position, SERAP will undertake appropriate legal action including before the NJC and the UN special procedure mechanisms, to seek justice and effective remedies in this matter.”
“So, for the Abia lawmakers to do what they did without the recommendation of the NJC, it
A Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani, said: “It is after disciplinary measures are taken by the NJC that the executive and the legislature come in to complete the process. For an ordinary judge who is not a chief judge, the legislative arm’s input is not required for his or her removal except the person is a Chief Judge or a Chief Justice of the Federation.
“There was a ‘locus classicus’ from the judiciary in Kwara State which is in all fours with the present Abia case where the Supreme Court nullified the entire process of removal as the NJC was never involved in the process.
“This Abia matter if tested in our courts may likely go the way of Kwara case as our courts are bound by judicial precedents. I do not think that Abia state House of Assembly received quality legal advice before they took this decision.
“We desire peace in Abia State including the judiciary. We advise that due process must be employed in order to remove the chief judge whom we heard was overbearing and unfriendly with everyone including her fellow judges. Even those grounds are not grounds for disciplinary measures except professional misconduct contrary to oath of her office. “
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