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The Enugu Court Judgment

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Patricia C. Edeh reckons that the sentencing  of Bright Ngene is wrong 

The legal community in Enugu State was on June 28, 2024, jolted by the seven-year sentence jail sentence imposed on a senior lawyer, Bright Ngene, by Magistrate Emmanuel Dominic Onwu without an option of fine. Ngene, 49, was jailed following a complaint by a faction of the Akwuke Town Union in Enugu South Local Government Area about the lodging of N15m belonging to the community into the bank account of Ngene’s law firm and the subsequent disburs ement of N11m from the funds to a contractor who constructed the community’s road. Ngene was the union’s secretary and legal adviser when a major crisis arose in the union’s leadership that resulted in an embargo on the account of the Town Union. A decision was taken to use the lawyer’s account for the union’s urgent matters until the matter was resolved.

“The magic of this trial is that the same townsmen who made the complaint requested the court to hands-off the case so that they could resolve it themselves, but the magistrate bluntly refused”, observed Chief Lucky Chukwu, a lawyer who was once a member of the Enugu State House of Assembly and later the state Commissioner for Science and Technology. “This is strange because our statute provides for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), a faster and a more amicable process of settling disputes”.

To exacerbate matters, according to Chief Chukwuemeka John Okereke, the lead counsel to Ngene, his client was jailed even without the trial magistrate allowing him to address the court. All five motions by him and the legal team he led were dismissed before they could finish entering them. “I have never seen anything so farcical in all the decades I have been standing at the Bar”, Okereke told fellow lawyers in the presence of journalists in the court. “Rather than being given a date for judgment, His Worship delivered a judgment right there and then.

“I never imagined Enugu State that has produced the likes of Justice Daddy Onyeama, one of the first Africans to sit at the World Court; the honorable Justice Augustine Nnamani of the Supreme Court, a former Federal Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice and the only Senior Advocate of Nigeria in the country’s history to serve on the Bench; Justice Anthony Aniagolu and Justice Nnaemeka Agu who left very high standards at the Supreme Court could ever have a magistrate that would give this kind of brazen judgment”.

As if to add to the mystery of the speedy trial and judgment, there was an unusually heavy presence of policemen armed to the teeth on Friday in Onwu’s magistrate court. The security men came in two Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), four Toyota Hilux pickups, five sedans, and four Toyota Sienna vans. Two of the Hilux pickups escorted Magistrate Onwu home after the judgment.

“It is only when an election petitions tribunal or the Court of Appeal is delivering a judgment on a gubernatorial election that you can see this kind of armada in court premises”, declared Chief Benjamin C. Nwobodo, the lead lawyer to Hon. John Ewoh of the Enugu Campus of the University of Nigeria and a former President General of the Akwuke Town Union who was jailed alongside Ngene without an option of fine.

Many in Enugu read political meaning into Friday’s judgment. Ngene is the target and Ewoh guilty by association, argues Chijioke Ogbodo, a famous Enugu-based broadcaster who hails from Nkanuland like both Ngene and Ewoh and is familiar with the area’s politics. Ogbodo believes Ewoh’s imprisonment is an attempt to use wool to cover the people’s eyes in this “politically motivated and unprecedented judicial action”.

Ngene was the Labour Party candidate for the Enugu South Urban Constituency in the Enugu State House of Assembly election held on March 18, 2023. In the result declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), he was leading his closest rival, Sam Ngene, of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).. Following a protest by the PDP candidate, the Court of Appeal ruled that a rerun election be held in eight polling units where there were irregularities. The units have a total of not more than 4,000 registered  votes which made most observers regard the election as a mere formality. In the elections in other State House of Assembly constituencies held on March 18, 2023, INEC declared the Labour Party winner in 14 and the PDP victorious in 10. LP had in the elections held three weeks earlier won two of the three senatorial seats and seven of the eight House of Representatives seats in the state.

Conducting the election in the eight units in the Enugu South Urban constituency has, however, been extremely controversial. The first rerun was scheduled for February 3, 2024, but it could not hold because INEC officials were accused of secretly writing the results the previous night in favour of the PDP candidate in cahoots with the PDP state administration. INEC officials failed to display the result sheets when observers like journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and political party representatives requested for a public display of the materials.

The INEC National Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, had to suspend the Enugu State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Dr Chukwuemeka Joseph Chukwuemeka, an Abia State indigene, and the Enugu South LGA Electoral Officer, Francis Chigbu, an indigene of Imo State. Dr Chukwuemeka was replaced by Mrs Elizabeth Agwu, the Anambra State REC, though an Ebonyi indigene. But the PDP boycotted the election at the 11th hour and instead resorted to smashing the election polling booths set up. It was then rescheduled to June 8, 2024, and surprisingly the Enugu State REC and the Enugu South LGA EO who were removed from conducting the February 14, 2024 vote because of the petitions of gross misconduct against them were mandated to conduct the third attempt at the rerun. INEC, however, cancelled it the night before without an explanation.

Questions are now being raised as to whether a valid election can still be conducted in the eight polling units in the Enugu South Urban Constituency for the state House of Assembly seat. “The 90 days given by the Election Petitions Tribunal for the rerun have long elapsed”, states Mrs Philomena Eze, a lawyer and director of the Social Justice Initiative. “Most lawyers in Enugu believe that INEC cancelled the election scheduled for June 8 when it realized that any election held now must be a nullity and an exercise in futility”.

Attorney Nwobodo told journalists at the weekend that Ngene’s “unprecedented farcical trial and imprisonment with no option of fine and even without the trial magistrate waiting to listen to addresses” were politically motivated. “Immediately the state PDP administration was informed that Ngene was involved in a community dispute, the office of the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Victor Udeh, also from Nkanuland, took over the case, and the magistrate refused all entreaties by the Akwuke community to settle the matter internally. They want Ngene in prison by all means so that they can approach INEC to request it to declare the PDP candidate the elected member of the Enugu State House of Assembly representing Enugu South Urban. They want Ngene declared a convict by all means, thus disqualifying him from further participation in the election and its outcome”.

Meanwhile, Okereke and his team are this week heading to a higher court to set aside the magistrate court judgment against Ngene. They are also approaching the National Judicial Council (NJC) with a strong petition against His Worship, Emmanuel Onwu. A few years ago when a legal practitioner wrote to the NJC against the then Enugu State Chief Judge, Mr Justice Innocent Umezulike, for misconduct, the council directed the CJ’s immediate retirement. Umezulike was struck by stroke immediately and died a few days later. A section of the Enugu State judiciary has been gravely ill for years and needs a surgical procedure. The NJC has to do the needful urgently.

Mrs Edeh writes from Enugu.

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