Report by Magnus Eze (Sun Newspaper)
Enugu State judiciary is currently in the eye of the storm following allegations of corruption and underhand dealings trailing it. The allegations range from bribery to issuance of frivolous orders and high-handedness.
For instance, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) had in February arraigned the Chief Magistrate of Enugu North Local Government Area, Enugu State, Mr. Fidelis Ugo Eze, before Justice K.I. Okpe of Court 7, Enugu State High Court, over allegations of bribery.
Ugo Eze was accused of receiving N20,000 from Mr. Christian Akpata, a plaintiff in a case before him at Magistrate Court 6 in Enugu North. The ICPC docked him for using his position to confer corrupt advantage upon himself, contrary to Section 19 of the Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000.
The charge sheet reads: “Mr. Fidelis Ugo Eze, in the month of July 2018, at Enugu North LGA, using your position as Chief Magistrate Grade 1, before whom suit MEN/95… between Chief Christian Akpata and Celestine Ukwuani and two others is pending before Court 6, Enugu North Local Government Area to confer corrupt advantage upon himself received via his First Bank account No. 3009398291 the sum of N20,000 from one Christian Akpata the plaintiff in the suit.”
He was also accused of “receiving monetary benefit for self on account of a favour by a public officer in the discharge of his official duties punishable under Section 10 (a) (I) and (II) of the Corrupt Practices and other Offences Act, 2000.”
However, he pleaded not guilty to all charges preferred against him and the case was adjourned to March 25, 2020, for hearing, but the trial has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
An Enugu-based legal practitioner, at the weekend, said the state judiciary could not be absolved in the recent show of shame that characterised the election of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) in the state.
The source, who pleaded anonymity, accused an Enugu magistrate’s court of having granted an ex parte order stopping an ongoing electoral process.
He said: “The recklessness of our judicial officers is increasing on a daily basis. Enugu State judiciary, of recent, has become notorious for granting ex parte applications on matters in which they clearly lack jurisdiction. Just a few days ago, we read with dismay the intrigues, violence and abuse of judicial office that marred the election of branch executives of Nigeria Medical Association, Enugu branch. A magistrate granted an ex parte injunction restraining the association from continuing with its ongoing election. It is elementary law that a magistrate’s court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear or determine any matter that touches on the internal affairs of an association, yet the court assumed jurisdiction.”
He concluded that “the result of His Worship’s action was the violence witnessed on the day of the election; and the rot continues.”
Another issue that has dogged the judiciary in Enugu State is the conviction of four pastors for forgery and conspiracy, December, last year. Magistrate Jude Umezulike of Enugu North Magisterial District, on December 11, 2019, delivered the judgment on the case of Pastor Sabinus Onuigbo and four others, but little did he know that the exercise of his judicial function would amount to stepping on big toes. That action, Daily Sun found, has allegedly fetched him indefinite suspension from office without pay, while his job is also at stake.
Jailing of four pastors
The general overseer of Christian Charismatics Movement (CCM), Enugu State, Pastor Sabinus Onuigbo, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment by an Enugu magistrate’s court, presided by J.O. Umezulike, for forgery and conspiracy on December 11, 2029.
Convicted along with him for the same offence were three other pastors of the church, namely, Tony Chukwu, Chukwuma Orji Victor and Nick Nwoye.
However, the magistrate proclaimed their own jail sentence to last for three years or an option of fine of N20,000 each.
Delivering judgment on the suit, CME/56C/2017, Commissioner of Police vs Pastor (Dr.) Sabinus Onuigbo, Tony Chukwu, Chukwuma Orji Victor, Nick Nwoye and Tony Ike, Magistrate Umezulike stated that the evidence before the court showed that the prosecution had proved the allegation of forgery of the signature of one Pastor Sunny Ndolo beyond every reasonable doubt.
The culprits had forged the signature of Ndolo, who resigned from the church since 2011, in the minutes of the church’s meeting purportedly held on July 14, 2014, as brought to the court by the complainant, one Innocent Ngwu.
Umezulike’s judgement read in part: “The sole issue for determination was the forgery of Rev. Sunny Ndolo’s signature. The defence did not debunk or contradict it all through with their defence. As Lord Denning would say, you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand. Prosecution proved their case beyond reasonable doubt.”
The court said the fifth defendant was not a party per se in the entire transaction because “he is an innocent passer-by, in accordance with S.386 of ACJL, discharge and acquit him.”
While trial proceedings were on, Umezulike got a transfer letter, in September 2019, sending him to his village, Mgbidi/Ezere Magisterial District, in Awgu LGA of the state. Regardless of his protest that the punitive transfer exposed him to sitting on matters he would likely have prejudice upon, as a native of the community, he reported at the duty post in his village until he was finally issued a suspension letter, dated December 13, 2019, for not reporting to duty, even when he insisted that, evidently, he was on duty.
While he was at his village’s posting, he was allowed by law to conclude matters he was handling at the Enugu court and the case of the CCM, involving Pastor Onuigbo and four others was one of them.
Daily Sun gathered that some drama ensued as the court was in session while the magistrate delivered the judgment. Telephone calls were coming in, some court workers were reportedly interjecting on the judgment delivery, urging him to pick the calls in an open court where the judgment was in motion. Umezulike refused to take the calls and, in the end, he sentenced Pastor Onuigbo and other defendants to the correctional centre.
A day after the judgment, the Chief Registrar of Enugu State High Court wrote a petition to the state’s Judicial Service Commission (JSC), alleging that Magistrate Umezulike refused to obey the transfer order of the Chief Judge of the state. With the speed of lightning, the commission sat a day after the petition, on December 13, and suspended the magistrate indefinitely from duty without pay.
The letter of suspension signed by the secretary of JSC, Frank Enuma Chukwu, obtained by Daily Sun, stated that Umezulike was suspended for “insubordination and serious misconduct,” noting that further disciplinary proceedings would be instantiated against him.
According to the letter, “The commission, after a careful and critical consideration of the honourable chief registrar’s report, resolved that your action amounted to insubordination and serious misconduct in contravention of Regulation 56 (g) of Enugu State Judicial Service Commission Regulations, Revised Laws of Enugu State of Nigeria, 2014.”
The magistrate was also asked to report to the office of the chief registrar of the state high court every Monday and should not leave the state without express permission of the Chief Judge, Hon. Justice Priscilla Ngozi Emehelu, who doubles as the chairman of the commission.
Surprisingly, findings showed that Umezulike was not issued any valid query on why he purportedly failed to report to his new duty post, which was the reason given by the judicial commission for his summary suspension from duty without salary.
Another shocker, on December 14, even when the magistrate had not been officially informed of his suspension, some members of the church whom the sentence of Onuigbo went against had gone on the social media celebrating the magistrate’s suspension, accusing him of disobedience in delivering the judgment “against the advice of his superiors to stay action on the case till the litigations levelled against him are determined.”
In fact, the church sponsored a newspaper advertorial in a national newspaper on January 21, 2020, to congratulate the state service judicial commission for suspending the magistrate indefinitely. The church, in the advertorial, captioned “Anglican priest in conspiracy to dethrone bishop,” said: “We are most grateful to God-fearing men and women in authority for their proficiency and their quick intervention by handing down an indefinite suspension to the young and arrogant Magistrate Jude O. Umezulike for his gross misconduct.”
However, a month after his suspension, on January 13, 2020, the magistrate wrote a clarification letter to the Chief Judge of the state, alluding that his suspension was not unconnected with the Onuigbo judgment, but the CJ, in a reply to him on February 20, 2020, reiterated that the reason for his suspension was clearly stated in his suspension letter, adding that the matter had been referred to a JSC panel, which would contact him. The Chief Judge advised Umezulike to make whatever response he had through the panel.
Investigation further showed that it was at the prompting of Umezulike’s letter to the Chief Judge that the JSC discovered that it had goofed and then officially served him with a query for alleged absenteeism from duty that brought about his suspension, an action Umezulike said was like an afterthought, amounting to putting the cart before the horse.
Curiously, Umezulike received the query and reply to his letter of clarification on the same day, February 20, 2020, two months after his suspension.
Armed with the belated query, the magistrate then replied accordingly. In his reply, dated February 24, 2020, Umezulike said: “My having gone to report at Mgbidi Chief Magistrate’s Court on 30/9/2019, has been consistently and wilfully ignored, because I happened to be marked. My Lord, is my own “report to work” different from the one that was written on the indefinite suspension letter handed to me on 17/12/2019? It bears eloquent testimony that the case of Pst. Dr. Sabinus Onuigbo and 4ors was cardinal and primal reason behind my suspension indefinitely. I make bold to challenge anybody with contrary view to prove otherwise. Reporting to a place of transfer or posting is different from sitting in court.
“It is pertinent to note here that issuing query to me on 20/2/2020 after I have been summarily dismissed by Enugu State Judicial Service Commission on 13/12/2019, amounts to putting the cart before the horse. This query is belated, to say the least.
“The consistency in breaking laid down rules and procedures in this my case leaves serious dark ash in my mouth and that of the watching public. If judiciary cannot observe simple procedures in dealing with staff, especially a magistrate, that shows deep-rooted decadence. I did not deserve this shabby treatment as ably superintended by the Judicial Service Commission. I am also aware that this query came about as a result of promptings from the panel I heard had been set up against me; although I have not been contacted by the said panel officially.
“It is strange that a whole judiciary will first dish out punishment to a magistrate, then set up a panel to investigate the said magistrate, then the same panel will remind the JSC to issue a query on me. Where is the justice in all these? God save Nigeria. The entire episode is a mockery of time-honoured principles of fair hearing and justice.”
Daily Sun learnt that the Attorney-General Milletus Eze-led panel of the JSC that was supposed to investigate the allegations and apply disciplinary measure berated the commission for meting out punishment before issuing a query to Magistrate Umezulike, and washed its hands off of the matter. Since then, the matter has been pending without any further action, while people count it as another sore point in the annals of the Enugu State judiciary.
In addition, Umezuilke, again, in his last remark to the JSC, insisted that the Pastor Onuigbo sentence was his albatross and gave justification for the allegation: “My Lord, it is of utmost interest to me that, on December 13, 2019, the day I was suspended indefinitely, F.C. Ugwuama Esq, the defence counsel in this case, called two of my friends, J.U. Ugwuoke Esq. and Emma Ajogwu, while the JSC proceeding was ongoing and told them that he had succeeded in suspending me via his petition in this matter.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Onuigbo, the man allegedly at the centre of the entire issue, has been granted bail from sentence via a motion ex parte presided over by Justice C.C. Ani of the state high court. The judge was alleged to be a relation of one of the convicted clerics.
The release of Onuigbo from prison, through ex parte application, is said to have led to a petition to the National Judicial Council (NJC), which made the presiding judge return the case file to the Chief Judge, who was not known to have reassigned the matter to any other judge of the state high court as at press time.
Every effort made by Daily Sun to get the response of chairman of the JSC and Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Emehelu, to the allegations surrounding Umezulike’s suspension, was fruitless.
When our reporter confronted the secretary of the JSC, Frank Enuma Chukwu, with the issues, including whether the suspension of the magistrate followed due process, he declined to speak, but asked that the request be put in writing and addressed to the chairman of the JSC.
The letter was written, submitted and duly acknowledged on July 21, 2020, and he said that a written response would be given to this newspaper in a week. Unfortunately, subsequent visits and phone calls for the response were futile until he said via telephone that we could go on with our publication, since the JSC chairman’s reaction was not forthcoming.
Regardless, Daily Sun sought the opinions of senior lawyers on the propriety or otherwise of a higher court granting bail ex parte to a convict who had been sentenced without recourse to bail pending appeal procedure.
All the legal practitioners who commented were united that it was procedurally wrong in law.
Former Attorney-General of Ebonyi State and associate professor of Law in Ebonyi State University (EBSU), Abakaliki, Dr. Benjamin Igwenyi, said: “It ought to have been on notice for the prosecution to put up argument against, to enable well-considered judgment to be entered one way or the other.”
Two Abuja-based legal practitioners, Chief Alex Akunebu and Ugochukwu Hanks-Ezekiel, said that granting an ex parte order in this instance amounted to judicial recklessness.
“This is actually strange because a convict is not ordinarily granted bail except on exceptional grounds. This is because he no longer enjoys the constitutional presumption of innocence. Bail in such circumstances cannot be granted at the back of the state. The convict needs to show exceptional circumstances that warrants the suspension of his jail term in the interim. The state should also be given the opportunity to disprove such reasons adduced by the convict.
“My take is that granting bail ex parte to a convict is not a judicious exercise of discretion. It is, indeed, reckless on the part of the judge(s),” Hanks-Ezekiel said.
For Akunebu, bail is a fundamental right, and until the entire judicial process is exhausted, the person is assumed innocent until ultimately convicted. He said the moment there is a pending appeal, a superior court can grant bail, pending the appeal on the conviction. He further explained that bail could be granted ex parte in exceptional cases, “but it is only ideal for the parties to be put on notice, so that the prosecution on whom the onus lies could prove why the convict should not be granted bail pending his appeal.
“Prosecution must be put on notice because there must be some controversial issues of fact deposed to in the affidavit, which the parties must be given the opportunity to traverse, if not, the principle of fair hearing which ensures to all the parties would be gravely violated.
“So, it’s an act of judicial recklessness, the decision is infested with multiple viruses, and must not be condoned.”
The Enugu State judiciary is not new to scandals. In 2014, the registrar of a magistrate’s court in Enugu State, Anikwu Ambrose Ifesinachi, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment without fine for demanding bribe in the course of discharging his official duty.
Ifesinachi was accused of demanding N80,000 from the relation of a suspect who had been in custody for two years, before processing his warrant of release.
After persistent demands, the relation approached the ICPC, who gave him marked money. As soon as the accused collected the money, operatives of the commission arrested him and he was charged on two counts under the ICPC Act.
The case, which commenced in 2010, suffered numerous adjournments at the instance of the defence.
Delivering judgment, Justice A.A. Nwobodo of the Enugu High Court, convicted the accused for contravening Section 10 (a) (ii) of the ICPC Act of 2000.
In a related circumstance, a magistrate in the state, Mr. Joseph Sunday Edeh, was, a few years ago, arrested and prosecuted by the ICPC for demanding and allegedly receiving N500,000 bribe from an accused person facing trial in his court.
The magistrate, who was apprehended by operatives of the anti-graft agency after he pocketed marked N50,000 notes from a surety to the accused person, was promptly whisked to the ICPC headquarters in Abuja and later prosecuted.
A statement by then head of the Public Enlightenment Department, ICPC, Mr. Mike Sowe, said: “The sting operation was carried out following a petition from a citizen who is standing as a surety for two suspects in the magistrate’s jurisdiction.”
The petitioner alleged that after granting bail to the two suspects, the magistrate demanded for the sum of N500,000 as ‘settlement.’ He said an initial sum of N100,000, was paid to the magistrate’s account, in addition to another payment of N50,000, which he allegedly collected from the surety.
“In his determination to collect more money, the magistrate was alleged to have continued to pester, harass and intimidate the surety, who finally decided to report the matter to the ICPC.
“The commission then dispatched some operatives with N50,000 marked notes, which the magistrate received, and was promptly arrested.”