By Ise-Oluwa Ige
ABUJA—THE Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Dan Abutu, and a radical human rights activist, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, yesterday, exchanged words in open court over the handling, by Abutu, of a constitutional suit by one Christopher Onwuekwe which arguably rested the legal battle ignited by President Umaru Yar’Adua’s absence from his duty post for over 52 days now.

Justice Abutu, had, in his judgment, Wednesday, declared that Vice President Jonathan Goodluck was empowered under the law to exercise, in the absence of President Yar’Adua, all the powers vested in Yar’Adua, so far such powers were delegated to him.

Aturu who faced the judge in the open court to criticize the handling of the case is the lead counsel in another suit by Hon. Umar Farouk, seeking court order compelling President Yar’Adua to hand over power to Jonathan Goodluck as acting President. He had, in a satirical language, during hearing in the Farouk case, said that the handling of Onwuekwe’s case and the verdict entered by the judge on it would no doubt enter the Guinness Book of Records especially when judgment was delivered in the case on a day the matter was fixed for mention.

He also satirically commended the judge for deciding the case which was filed last week in less than seven days when hearing in three similar cases earlier filed since last year on the same issue of Yar’Adua’s absence was yet to kick off.

The Chief Judge who initially kept mute, later defended himself to the effect that the judgment in the case was not delivered on a day the case was meant for mention. The office of the Attorney-General of the Federation which was one of the two defendants in the case did not leave the chief judge alone to defend his handling of the case as it rose in defence to the effect that the chief judge did nothing funny in the matter and that the case ran its full course.

Although the Attorney-General of the Federation, Chief Mike Aondoakaa, SAN, was not present, in court, the Director of Civil Litigation, Mrs. Agartha Mbamali led the Federal Government’s team of lawyers to defend the judge over the case.

The controversial case which is generating furore was allegedly filed last Friday, January 8, by the Chambers of Mr. Amobi Nzelu on behalf of a lawyer, Mr. Christopher Onwuekwe but the originating processes in the case were not served on the office of the Attorney-General, the defendant in the case until 9:00 a.m on Monday, January 11, while judgment was delivered in the case at about 12:00 p.m on Wednesday, January 13.

Serving of originating processes

The altercation between Justice Abutu and rights activist, Aturu, took place on a day radical Lagos lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, asked the Chief Judge, Justice Abutu to hands off his suit seeking to compel ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua to hand over powers to his Vice, Jonathan Goodluck. Falana said he was afraid he would never get justice in his court, the judge, having already dabbled into the arena by implicitly expressing hostile opinion on the merits of his pending case while delivering judgment in the controversial Onwueke’s case.

He said that having expressed opinion in favour of the Attorney-General of the Federation which is the defendant in his case via his comments on section 145 of the 1999 constitution, the pillar upon which his case rested, though Onwueke’s case was not seeking pronouncement on that provision of the constitution, the judge must recluse himself, having made up his mind on his case.

Falana who cited judicial authorities in court to back up his position, however, told the judge that he also would appreciate it if he could give an order directing the new judge that would handle his case, de novo, to expeditiously determine his case with the speed of lightning as he did in Onwueke’s case as what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.

The Chief Judge, Justice Abutu, did not waste time before handing off and ordering the transfer of Falana’s case to Justice Adamu Bello. Justice Bello is the most senior judicial officer in the Abuja division of the Federal High Court with vast knowledge in both civil and criminal jurisprudence.

Justice Abutu had earlier fixed January 22 for judgment in the Farouk’s case handled by Mr. Aturu though the lawyer had said he expected he would get judgment in the case yesterday. He said he was not pained as an individual, but that his client, Hon. Farouk might think that he was an inferior citizen in view of the fact that judgment was not entered expeditiously in his case like the Onwueke’s.

The judge also adjourned hearing in the separate suit filed by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) seeking to compel Yar’Adua to hand over power to Vice President Jonathan. The adjournment though was at the instance of the NBA but it was caused by the attorney general who did not file his brief in the case until yesterday morning.

Meanwhile, Mr. Falana has said that the Federal Government might have hands in the filing of the Onwueke suit decided by the chief judge to achieve what it wanted. According to Falana, “the Attorney-General of the Federation had already hinted me a couple of weeks ago; Mr Bamidele Aturu was there, that if we had restricted ourselves to seeking reliefs that the vice president should be allowed to act, he wouldn’t have minded.

“I learnt after that he started making arrangements to have such a case in court. You also saw him on television, yesterday, saying that he was satisfied with the judgment; that the judgment was very okay and that he was not going to file any appeal even when all the reliefs sought by Onwueke to which he filed counter affidavit were granted by the court.

That tells us a lot of story of what that matter was all about. But as I said, I don’t mind the speed with which his lordship treated the matter. That is how it should be. Hence, we also pleaded with the court to also have our own matter treated expeditiously.”

Asked if he was insinuating that Aondoakaa was behind the filing of the suit, he said: “No no. I didn’t say that. I said the Attorney-General had said that they were going to try something like that. That is all,” he added.

Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, Falana said: “Well, there was a judgment delivered by this court yesterday in which the Chief Judge made very profound definitive pronouncement on the reliefs I am seeking in court. I, therefore, felt I needed to have another judicial opinion.

It is allowed by our laws. And as I did make clear in the court, I didn’t go out to embarrass or cast aspersion on his lordship for whom I have high respect.

But since he has decided the case as it were, that was why I requested him to transfer it to another judge. Under the law, once you already know the position of a court on a matter, it is only neat and proper to ask the judge to recluse himself so that another judge can take the matter.”

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