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Furore over removal of Abia CJ

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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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$45m, N3.38bn loot: FG’s gain, Diezani’s loss

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AKEEM NAFIU writes that of the trillions of naira President Muhammadu Buhari at the weekend boasted to have recovered from alleged corrupt politicians, about $45 million and N3.38 billion was recovered from former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke

 

When President Muhammadu Buhari said three years ago that he would rid the nation of corruption and recover funds looted from the treasury, not many trusted his resolve to so do.

In his resolve, however, to tackle corruption head on, many powerful politicians accused of looting the nation’s treasury are facing charges in various courts.

Apart from their trial, many have forfeited property including cash running into billions of naira to the federal government.
Just last week, apparently expressing satisfaction on his administration’s war against corruption, President Buahri said “this is another milestone in our determined and collective fight against corruption.”

He went on: “Throughout my journey in national service and since 2015, I have made a very conscious decision to pursue a vigorous fight against corruption in public life.

“This is another milestone in our determined and collective fight against corruption.
“Since 2015, we have made significant progress in the fight against corruption. Everyone now knows that corrupt officials will be held to account, no matter how long it takes.

“We have recovered and are still recovering trillions of naira that were stolen in the past few years by people without conscience.
“We are pursuing recoveries everywhere and are making sure that anyone who has been found culpable is made to answer for his or her crime under the law.

“It is my hope and expectation that the judiciary, which is a critical stakeholder and partner in the war against corruption, would continue to collaborate with the executive to bring corrupt people to book.”

Of the trillions of naira already recovered from corrupt officials, N45million and N3.38billion had so far been recovered from a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), being led by Ibrahim Magu had instituted several cases against the former minister, occasioning court pronouncements leading to her forfeiture of several property worth billions of naira to the Federal Government.

The former minister, who was also the first female President of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has so far forfeited $45 million and N3.38 billion to the Federal Government.

Mrs. Diezani, who has been in London after leaving office, has however continued to deny any financial misdeed.
She accused the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of severely maligning and persecuting her.

Cases leading to the forfeiture of Diezani’s property began on August 7, 2017, when Justice Chuka Obiozor of a Federal High Court in Lagos ordered permanent forfeiture of her $37.5 million mansion in Banana Island.

The judge had earlier on July 19, 2017, while granting of an ex-parte motion filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) directed the temporary forfeiture of the property designated as Building 3, Block B, Bella Vista Plot 1, Zone N, Federal Government Layout, Banana Island Foreshore Estate to the Federal Government.

The property containing 24 apartments, 18 flats and 6 penthouses were allegedly paid for in cash by Mrs. Diezani in 2013.
In making the final forfeiture order on the property, Justice Obiozor held “in the face of the publication, which I find in Exhibit B of the affidavit of compliance before me and there being no responses from any interested party, I have no other option but to grant the orders as prayed.”

The court equally directed the permanent forfeiture of $2,740,197.96 and N84, 537,840.70 realized as rents on the property to the government.
Giving further insight into how the property was acquired, the anti-graft agency in a 41-paragraph affidavit deposed to by one of its investigative officers, Abdulrasheed Bawa, averred that a lawyer, Nwokedi in alleged connivance with Diezani purposely incorporated a company, Rusimpex Limited on September 11, 2013 to facilitate the alleged fraud scheme.

Bawa averred further that upon Nwokedi’s interrogation, he explained that he had approached Diezani for opportunities in the oil and gas industry with the ex-minister suggesting that owing to his profession, it would be better if he would delve into management of landed property.

Bawa added that after accepting the offer, Nwokedi later registered Rusimpex Limited at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).
A lawyer in his law firm, Adetula Ayokunle and a Russian, Vladmir Jourauleu, were listed as Directors of the company, while the address of Nwokedi’s law firm in Ikoyi, Lagos was registered as the business address of Rusimpex Limited.

The deponent added that when Ayokunle was questioned by the EFCC, he explained that he only appended his signature on the CAC documents at Nwokedi’s instruction, while Jourauleu denied knowledge of the company.

“Sometimes in 2013, the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, invited Nwokedi, the Principal Counsel of Stillwaters Law Firm, to her house in Abuja for a meeting where she informed him to incorporate a company and use same as a front to manage landed property on her behalf without using her name in any of the incorporation documents.

“She further directed Mr. Nwokedi to meet with Mr. Bisi Onasanya, the Group Managing Director of First Bank of Nigeria Plc., for that purpose.
“Mr. Stephen Onasanya was invited by the commission and he came and volunteered an extrajudicial statement wherein he stated that he marketed a property at Bella Vista, Banana Island, Ikoyi, Lagos, belong ing to Mr. Youseff Fattau of Ibatex Nigeria Limited to Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke and Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke later bought the property from Mr. Youseff Fattau, through her lawyer, Mr. Nwokedi, whom she introduced to him after which a payment for the said property was made through the Abuja office of First Bank of Nigeria Plc.

“First Bank of Nigeria Plc., through Mr. Barau Muazu, wrote to the commission and also volunteered an extrajudicial statement in writing that they made the payments totaling US37,500,000 to Ibatex Nigeria Limited & YF Construction Development and Real Estate Limited on behalf of Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke as they collected the entire cash from Alison-Madueke at her residence of No. 10, Fredrick Chiluba Close of Jose Marti Street, Asokoro, Abuja and paid into the First Bank of Nigeria Plc. accounts of Ibatex and YF Construction Development and Real Estate Limited on her instruction”, the deponent averred.

On October 11, 2017, another judge of Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul-Azeez Anka, also ordered the permanent forfeiture of 56 houses situated in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja valued at $21, 982, 224 (about N3.3 billion) allegedly linked to Mrs. Diezani to the Federal Government.
The houses were allegedly bought between 2011 and 2013 by the former minister from proceeds of suspected unlawful activity during her tenure in office

The forfeited property included 21 mixed housing units of 8 numbers of four bedroom penthouse apartment; six numbers of three bedroom apartments; two numbers of three bedroom apartment and one number of four bedroom apartment, all en suit and located at 7, Thurnburn Street and 5 Raymond Street, Yaba, valued at N937 million and bought through Chapel Properties Ltd.

Others are 16 numbers of four bedroom terrace, located at Heritage Court Estate, Omerelu Street, Diobu GRA, Port Harcourt, River States, valued at N928 million and bought through Blue Nile Estate Ltd; 13 numbers of 3 bedroom with one room maid’s quarter, situated at Mabushi Gardens Estate, Plot 1205, Cadastral Zone B06, Mabushi, Abuja, valued at N650 million and bought through Azinga Meadows Ltd and six flats of three bedroom and one boys quarter, located at Plot 808 (135) Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, valued at N805 million and bought through Vistapoint property Development Ltd.
The order followed a motion by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), seeking the permanent forfeiture of the property.

The motion was brought pursuant to Section 17 of the Advance Fee Fraud and other Fraud Related Offences Act No. 14, 2006, Section 44 (2) (B) of the Constitution and the inherent jurisdiction of the court.

The anti-graft agency while urging the court to grant the motion argued that the property sought to be attached were reasonably suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities.
Having listened to the submissions of EFCC’s lawyer, Anselem Ozioko, Justice Anka granted the motion as prayed.
In granting the motion, the judge noted that there was no response to the applicant’s motion on notice for final forfeiture by any of the respondents despite been served with the hearing notice.

“The only document seen in the court’s file is a motion filed by one, Nnamdi Ezewochi of the chambers of Babajide Koku (SAN) since September 7, 2017, seeking an order of court for the applicant to serve the 3rd to 6th respondents an earlier ex-parte motion already filed and granted by the court.
“The motion also seeks extension of time to hear the final forfeiture proceedings for the respondents to come and show cause. Their grouse was that the applicant failed to serve them the ex-parte motion.

“With due respect to the counsel, ex-parte motions by their nature, are not meant to be served, except when ordered by the court in line with the Federal High Court rules. The respondents’ applicants are however not before the court today to proceed with their application despite the service of hearing notice on them.
“The motion seems to have been abandoned by the respondents’ applicant and it is accordingly strike out.
“I have also read the affidavit of the 2nd respondent, Donald Chidi Amamgbo, explaining the role he played in the entire transaction and that he cannot stand in the way of the court to make any order it deemed fit to make in relation to the property.

“I have gone through the affidavit attached to motion for final forfeiture as well as the submissions of the EFCC’s counsel, A. B. C. Ozioko. The court has no option considering the incontrovertible evidence filed by the EFCC than to grant the application. The motion for final forfeiture is accordingly granted as prayed. All parties have a right of appeal”, Justice Anka held.

Joined as respondents in the suit are Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke (1st respondent), Donald Chidi Amamgbo (2nd respondent), Chapel Properties Limited (3rd respondent), Blue Nile Estate Limited (4th respondent), Azinga Meadows Limited (5th respondent) and Vistapoint Property Development Limited (6th respondent).
The last of such forfeitures happened on February 28 when Justice Mojisola Olatoregun of a Federal High Court in Lagos ordered permanent forfeiture of two penthouses valued at $4.764 million belonging to Alison-Madueke to the Federal Government.

The judge had earlier on December 5, 2017 after granting an ex-parte motion filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), ordered the temporary forfeiture of the two buildings described as Penthouse 21 building 5, Block C, 11 floor (Bella Vista Estate) Banana Island, Ikoyi and Penthouse 22, Block B (Admiralty Estate) also in Ikoyi, Lagos to the Federal Government.

In granting the final forfeiture of the houses, Justice Olatoregun said: “I have observed the facts and exhibits attached and I am also mindful that the second, third and fourth respondents have no objections to the application. I therefore, have no hesitation in ordering a final forfeiture of the property to the Federal Government.”

Joined as respondents in the suit marked, FHC/L/CS/1793c/17 are; Diezani Alison-Madueke, Donald Amamgbo, Schillenburg LLC and Sequoyah Property Limited.

In an affidavit in support of the motion deposed to by an investigative officer of the EFCC, Abdulrasheed Bawa, it was averred that during investigation into the ownership of the two property, one, Mr. Fadi Basbous, the Deputy Managing Director of YF Construction Development and Real Estate Limited, volunteered extra-judicial statement, wherein he stated that the two property which were sold at $3.570 million and $1.194 million respectively was owned by Sequoyah Property Limited and Schillenburg LLC.

The deponent also stated that the payments for the Penthouse 22, Block B, 8, Gerrard Road, Ikoyi and Penthouse 21, Building 5, Block C, 11 floor, Plot1, Zone N, FGN layout, Banana Island, Ikoyi, were made by one, Mrs. Angela Jide-Jones and Atlantic Energy Drilling Concept Limited.
It was further averred that the said Mrs. Angela Jide-Jones, was the wife of Jide Omokore, while the said Atlantic Energy Drilling Concept Limited, was registered and promoted by the said Jide Omokore.

The deponent also stated that Omokore paid for the property through his wife, Angela, and one of his companies and directed the developers of the property to sign agreements with Schillenburg LLC and Sequoyah Properties Limited, both of which were linked to Allison-Madueke.
According to the deponent, Schillenburg LLC was registered in Hong Kong, and was on March 30, 2012 transferred to Donald Chidi Amamgbo as the sole owner.

He further averred that Sequoyah Property Limited was registered in Nigeria on October 11, 2011 with fictitious names of Chukwudima Nwako and Olisa Eloka, as shareholders and directors.

The deponent added that Donald Chidi Amamgbo stated in his extra judicial statement that he incorporated Schillenburg LLC and submitted same to Allison-Madueke for a transaction.

The former minister was also named in some cases involving some politicians and officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
In one of such cases, an INEC official, Yisa Olanrewaju Adedoyin was on March 5, 2017, convicted by Justice Mohammed Idris of a Federal High Court in Lagos for receiving N70.05 million from the $115 million allegedly shared by Allison-Madueke to compromise the 2015 general election.
He was convicted based on a plea bargain arrangement he had with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

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Interview

Ofoke: How Ebonyi revived justice system

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Ebonyi State Justice Commissioner and Attorney-General, Chief Cletus Ofoke in this interview with UCHENNA INYA, speaks on justice delivery system, rule of law, police, prison reforms, among others

 

How has it been as Chief Law Officer in Ebonyi State?
Well, God has been faithful and government is a continuum. When I met activities in the ministry, I quickly adapted to them and started discharging my duties accordingly. So, it has been God all the way.

That ministry belongs to a lawyer and as a trained lawyer, nothing is strange to me. In terms of administration, I have the experience. I have run my law firm for seven years before I got the appointment. I have also held many positions of trust that had to do with administration. So, combining administration with practice of law to me is not a strange thing.

What is your assessment of justice system in the state?
In Ebonyi state judicial system, the spirit is very high. The justice sector to me, is living up to its expectations; it is not a one way traffic. There are stakeholders in the justice system; the judiciary, the prison and others. Those bodies brought together have been collaborating to ensure that justice is done to all manner of people in the state.

But as a ministry, we have been discharging that which the Constitution says we should do; we have been vetting files, filing information, ensuring that people who are not connected with any offence are discharged accordingly because that is our mandate and ensuring that people that has one case or the other in court are prosecuted accordingly.

Immediately I came in as Commissioner, I had a series of meeting with Heads of Departments of the ministry and in those meetings, we were able to marshal out points on how to deliver effectively on the issue of justice dispensation in the state and they all agreed that those points were apt and that they were going to abide by it.

I think the HODs are doing their best. One, no file from police stays more than a day in our ministry without being vetted. Immediately it is vetted, if we find out that there is a prima facie case established against the accused person, we charge that person accordingly. I have also made sure that the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) is unburdened. In other words, I met backlog of cases files that were not given attention but immediately I came on board, I ensured that that those files were given urgent attention.

Again, the Department of Public Prosecution is a life wire of this ministry in terms of justice sector dispensation. Because of this, we injected more people into that department so that it will not lack manpower and that has really paid off because the law officers in that very particular department has to do with justice sector we are talking about and they are up and doing.

So, we brought on board people that are seasoned, people that have done the job for years and people that know what it takes to prosecute and what it takes to counsel where necessary. It has not been without challenges anyway but we have been able to surmount them.

The problems we are having is that at times we don’t get case files from police as quickly as possible the way they are supposed to be doing and that hinders the operation of justice dispensation in the ministry. By and large, the ministry is doing very well.

In what way would you say the backlog of case files you inherited affected justice delivery system?
The effect although we have cleared them, innocent people were languishing in prison. People that were not connected to the offences they were charged with were languishing, praying that God should intervene on their behalf. But with the promptness and with the zeal the people we have deployed to the ministry have shown, we have been able to clear those backlogs and that is what gave rise to filing of information.

In fact, more than 60 informations have been filed since I came on board and I can assure that authoritatively that we have discharged not less than 20 people.

This has to some extent decongested our prisons. Like I told you, justice sector is not about ministry of justice alone; we have other critical stakeholders. So, in terms of prison decongestion, that has really helped. Situations up to 50 files have been given attention by way of filing information and more are still coming. As a matter of fact, last week, the Department of Public Prosecution filed eleven information awaiting assignment by the state Chief Judge.

For the other ones, we discharged them because we looked at the files, why they were brought to prisons and we saw that they were innocent of the offences they were charged. When I came on board, we had about 70 case files that were not given attention but we have cleared them.

What role is the state government playing in prison decongestion?
The governor has done a lot in the area of prison decongestion. He is constructing an ultra-modern building for the state federal prisons which is about 90% completion.

He has also charged the state Advisory Committee on prerogative of mercy to be up and doing and that committee is headed by myself the Honourable Attorney General. The Advisory Committee on prerogative of mercy has met with the Chief Judge of the state; we have met up to three times and part of it is the release from prisons about 26 inmates sometime in February this year.

You can agree with me that a situation whereby 26 inmates were release from prisons will go a long way to decongest the prisons. So, the government is doing quite a lot. The Advisory Committee on prerogative of mercy is currently looking at cases of inmates who deserve to be granted state pardon.

How cordial is the relationship between your ministry and the security agents in the state?
The relationship is very cordial. Of course, we are all partners in justice delivery and when I came on board, the first point of call was to meet with the state Commissioner of Police, Titus Lamorde and we had a robust discussion on how to be getting case files from police as when due so that we can vet them accordingly in line with the directive court. And I can assure you that that meeting has yielded positive result because the office of the officer in charge of legal gives us attention. Anytime my ministry staff goes there to get those files for vetting, he treats that as a priority.

In respect to the prison, we are very strong partners in progress; the relationship is very cordial. In fact, you cannot talk about prison decongestion without involving the prison officials. The Controller of prisons is a wonderful woman; Mrs. Oputa is a good woman. She came up with an idea of decongesting the prison and that position of her gave birth to a meeting with the Chief Judge of the state which resulted to releasing of 26 inmates like I told you. If the relationship is not there, that wouldn’t have been possible. Other security agencies; SSS,
Civil Defence are good partners and we have not had any challenge resulting from their various offices. We work hand in hand to make sure that our state remains number one in terms of prison decongestion.
Is rule of law on trial in the state?
Well, you already know the answer. In Ebonyi state, everything is done according to the rule of law and the dictates of the law.
Our governor believes in due process and let me inform you that he has not only been acknowledged in Ebonyi state, in the south east, but in Nigeria. He has won prestigious award of Ambassador of rule of law, good governance and anti-corruption.

That summarizes the state of rule of law in Ebonyi state. For somebody to have won the laurels among other states, tells you that in Ebonyi state law is supreme.

In terms of checks and balances, in terms of accountability, in terms of due process, our governor is number one. Whatever he does, he ensures that it is backed up by law. He is a man that listens to the wise counsel of not only jurists but also the ministry of justice which primary role is to advise government on law. And you can see that in the state, people can sleep with their eyes closed because of the attention he has given to security, because of the attention he has given to human empowerment.

In terms of the legislature, the Ebonyi state House of Assembly is an organ of government that does its own constitutional job the way it pleases the Honourable members. His Excellency, the governor does not interfere with the running of the House of Assembly.

They are free to legislate on any matter that has direct positive bearing on the people of the state and that is democracy and that is the rule of law we are talking about.

So, if our governor does not believe in rule of law, he would have been interfering with the functions of the legislative arm of government and that of the judiciary. Our Judges go about dispensing justice; our government does not interfere with how judgments are giving. In fact, some judgments are even given against government and government obeys them. We advise government and government to obey them. So, rule of law reigns supreme in Ebonyi state.

What role would the newly created Criminal Prosecution department play in justice system?
It is to monitor the inflow of criminal cases in all the courts in the state. I told you that we vet files and other things we do to ensure that there is justice delivery in the state.

The department is a very vital department in the ministry of justice and it has helped to a very large extent in ensuring that criminal prosecution go very well in the state.

The job of the Senior Special Adviser to the Governor on Criminal Prosecution, who is in charge of that department, does not stop at criminal prosecution. It looks at other cases that of interest to both government and individuals.

In other words, inferring with the police, the office of the O/C legal, the Nigerian prisons, the DSS because these are the agencies responsible for apprehension of criminals. He interfaces with those security agencies in respect to criminal matters that are to be given attention by both the agencies and the ministry of justice.

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Law

‘Why pupilage is sacrosanct’

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Emmanuel Oche Ochai attended Benue State University, Makurdi and was called to the Bar on November 13, 2007. He speaks on his career, judiciary, fond memories, among others. AKEEM NAFIU met him

 

Background
He was called to the Bar about a decade ago having obtained his LL.B degree from the Benue State University and a BL after one year compulsory training at the Nigeria Law School.

Emmanuel Oche Ochai, now an associate partner at the law firm of B. Aguegbodo & Co., attended Boys’ Secondary School, Gindiri, Plateau state for his secondary education.
He, however, shared his foray into the legal profession with New Telegraph this way:

“My name is Emmanuel Oche Ochai. I had my primary school at the National Veterinary Research Institute staff Nursery/Primary School, Vom, Plateau State between 1986 and1995. I proceeded from there to the Boys’ Secondary School, Gindiri, Plateau State between 1995 and 2001 and Benue State University, Makurdi, where I studied law from 2001 to 2006. Thereafter, I moved to the Nigerian Law School, Lagos Campus, between 2006 and 2007. I am presently pursuing my Masters at the University of Lagos, Akoka. I was called to the Nigerian Bar on November 13, 2007. I practice presently in Lagos with the law firm of B. AGUEGBODO & Co.”

Why law?
Growing up as a kid, I watched a lot of movies and was privileged to read a lot of novels as well. Whenever I came across a character in those books and movies who was a lawyer I really admired those characters especially the ones I saw in those movies. All I wanted was to be like those lawyers I watched and read about. I guess that was a major factor in my decision to be a lawyer today.

First day in court
My first day in court was at the High Court of Ondo State, in Akure, as a corps member. I was asked by my principal to move a motion ex-parte. I participated in moot court sessions in my university days and as such I was familiar with the procedure of moving a motion and being the most junior counsel in court that day, my matter was called last. By then, I had watched senior and experienced lawyers move different applications, so, I learnt a lot. When it got to my turn, it was a smooth ride.

Embarrassing moment
My most embarrassing moment in court was years back when I newly started practice. I was arguing an application and I relied heavily on a particular law. Unknown to me, the law had been repealed. The court drew my attention to the fact that the law has been repealed. People in court were all laughing at me. It was really embarrassing.

Fond memories
I have a lot of fond memories in this profession, like the first case I handled a case from beginning to the end and judgment was delivered in my favour. But one that will always stand out for me happened in my very early days in practice. I appeared before the High Court in Lagos and the matter was for hearing. The counsel on the other side was a very experienced and senior lawyer. I was appearing in the case for the first time that day. The other counsel noticed my inexperience and naivety, so he decided to take full advantage of the situation. The judge noticed what was going on and stylishly hinted me to take an adjournment so I can be better prepared. The experience really gave me faith in the system and the icing on the cake was that judgment was delivered in my favour in that case.

Pupilage
There are a lot of things that cannot be taught in the classroom as far as this profession is concerned and that is where pupillage comes into play. It is advisable that young counsel should find good law firms and attach themselves where they can learn a lot of things. Pupillage is very important and I support it.

Judiciary of my dream
Autonomous judiciary, an impartial judiciary, a judiciary that dispenses justice without fear or favour and without delay is my dream judiciary that will embrace the development and innovations in the I.T. world, where one will from the convenience of his office file a process in court. Also, my dream judiciary is the one that will be the last hope of the common man.

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