The suspension of Abia State Chief Judge, Justice Theresa Uzokwe, by the state House of Assembly has elicited differing reactions from senior lawyers, including the 2nd Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Monday Ubani, and human rights activist, Dr. Tunji Abayomi.
Abia state House of Assembly, 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 has 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.
But some lawyers have argued that the legislative arm of government does not have power under the Nigerian Constitution to make such decisions as to the suspension or removal of any erring judge. Some were however in support of the decision.
Ubani, 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).
“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, Abayomi noted that “I don’t think the Legislature have such power to suspend an erring judge. I think the disciplinary measure against any erring judge under the Constitution is controlled by the National Judicial Council. I believe 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”, the human rights activist added.
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 scenario 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.
“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,” she said.
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.
Citing Section 292 (1a)(ii) of the 1999 Constitution, 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.
“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,” Agbazuere added.
Nonetheless, a member of the National Judicial Commission (NJC) has described the suspension as a nullity.
The source, who said he had no authority to speak on the matter, said 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.
On 18th February 2012, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision held that under the 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.”
Ikpeazu, however, said the appointment became expedient following receipt of a resolution of the house suspending the chief judge. He said Orji, who is next to Uzokwe, was sworn in, in accordance with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.
The governor appeared not to know that Uzokwe was not constitutionally removed. Ikpeazu, who expressed worry over the recent developments in the state judiciary, urged Oji to take immediate steps to restore the confidence of the people in the judiciary.
Responding, Orji said he appreciated the enormous responsibility of his office and promised not to 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 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 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.