By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
IT was the end of an era at the Federal High Court on September 16, as curtain fell on the judicial career of Justice Ibrahim Auta who vacated his position as Chief Judge having attained the 65 years mandatory retirement age. Justice Auta who hails from Marama village in Hawul Local Government Area of Borno State, took over the leadership of the court in June 2011.
Called to Bar in 1977, Auta whose father was a police officer, started his journey in the judiciary as a Magistrate from 1978 to 1980 and rose to the position of Chief Magistrate. He was appointed the Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice in Borno State from 1988 to 1989 and subsequently elevated to the bench as a High Court Judge in 1990.
In line with tradition in the judiciary, Justice Auta, having clocked the retirement age, handed over the mantle of leadership to the most senior Judge at the FHC, Justice Abdul Kafarati. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, penultimate Saturday, administered oath of office on Kafarati as Acting CJ of the FHC, pending the transmission of his name to the Senate by President Muhammadu Buhari for confirmation.
Meanwhile, it was harvest of encomiums for Justice Auta last Tuesday, as legal luminaries converged on the FHC headquarters in Abuja to bid him farewell. Among dignitaries that extolled virtues of the retired CJ at the valedictory court session included the Attorney- General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN.
The AGF attributed Justice Auta’s steady progress in the judicial ladder to hardwork, intellectual capacity and administrative acumen. He said: “On behalf of the Nigerian Bar and the Federal Government of Nigeria, I congratulate you on this momentous occasion in your life. You have served our country well and to the best of your ability.
“Be rest assured that we have not gathered solely because we want to undertake a ritual, but more out of our desire to openly recognise and appreciate your contributions to the development of our dear country’s judiciary throughout your years of service. An occasion such as this offers us all the opportunity to reflect on the life, challenges and triumphs of our celebrant as he climbed the rungs of the ladder to the enviable height of the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.”
Similarly, National President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Abubakar Mamoud, SAN, in his speech, said Justice Auta was “a living testimony that hard work, diligence and integrity are values that are rewarding”. He said: “Going by the cases His Lordship handled as a judge, lawyers and judges alike could decipher that Honourable Justice Auta was erudite and he was also courageous. He retires at a time that men of courage and erudition are not in great supply. His exit will no doubt deplete the rank of thorough bred judges.
“Notwithstanding his departure from active judicial service for a deserved rest, I trust that his Lordship will still find time to answer the call for service, the kind normally given to trusted retired gentlemen who have a great deal to offer the legal profession and our country, Nigeria. He will be sorely missed.”
On his part, the Acting CJ, Justice Kafarati, stressed that Auta had during his time, made so many innovations and issued practice directions, as well as helped to shape the law in admiralty jurisdiction. “During his tenure, he established the e-filing centre being an IT-compliant Judge, improved the electronic cause list, successful migration to digital internet connection for research purposes, library enhancement projects, enhancement of security in the face of rising insecurity across the country.
“He issued practice direction with regard to trial of cases including rape, human trafficking, terrorism and kidnapping which were alien to Nigeria. He put together the only Aviation Jurisdiction Procedure Rules in the country, Asset Management Corporation Act Rules and many others. He is known amongst his colleagues at NJC as a warrior. He fought for the Court and the Judges. He fought for whatever and whoever he believed was right or oppressed, whether from the Court or outside the court.
“Hon. Justice Auta was no push over in all the organisations and bodies he served as member especially as the Chief Judge of the Court. The politics of administration are at his fingertips and was not afraid to apply them when and where necessary. Your lordship has played your part. Hon. Justice Ukeje handed over the court to Hon. Justice Mustapha in Gold, maintained by Justice Abutu, but you are handing the Court to me in ‘something greater than gold’. Congratulations.”
In his farewell speech, the retired CJ said he was “overwhelmed” by the presence of dignitaries at the valedictory court session, saying it was a testament of their support for him. “I must confess that the successes achieved during my tenure were because of the total cooperation and support of all judges of the court. There was never a dissenting voice because I put all my cards on the table with a very open policy. The judges are carried along before decisions were taken.
“It was because of the total support of judges that there was no paradoxical stance and therefore no permanent caution for me in my style and model of leadership. It is, therefore, evident that my administration was largely successful. I can, therefore, proudly say that I am handing over the court better than I met it which is the prayer of every successive Chief Judge of this court. My only regret was that I was unable to complete the edifice in Lagos which was not really my fault but because we did not get sufficient funds from government to complete the building which is now on the fifth floor.”
Reeling out some of his achievements, the retired CJ said: “I took it as a point of duty to complete all projects started by my predecessor as the leadership of this Court like in many civilized environments is a continuum. We have completed about nine residential buildings in Lagos alone being the Division where all aspects of our jurisdiction is practised. I introduced the use of Prado Jeeps for our Judges as well as the provision of Hilux Cars as back up for Judges.
“The welfare of our Judges was uppermost in my mind. Provisions were made from newspapers, to recharge cards for Judges. Funds were also made available for the maintenance of generators in the residences of Judges which are also furnished to taste by the Court. I took it as a point of duty to encourage Judges to undertake medical check-ups to know the state of their health and with this, we have been able to save lives. Electronic recording was introduced in some of the courts: while others will be so provided in the course of the new administration.
“We have been able, during my tenure, to transform all Judgments and Ruling of this Court into electronic discs and chips from 1973 -2016. We also have to our credit, the AMCON Rules as well as the Aviation Jurisdiction Procedure Rules, the first of its kind in the history of the Court.”
“We also introduced electronic filing system, desk scanners practitioners. Improvement on the electronic cause list. The training and retraining of Judges was vigorously pursued during my time. Our Judges were exposed to local and international seminars and workshops, thereby updating their knowledge with latest development in law and practice. The other members of the supporting staff were also carried along according to their levels.
“I tried to bring in certain innovations in the way we carry out our work in the Court in our bid to make the operations as seamless as possible. With the help of the United Nations office on Drug and Crime, the Federal High Court has the facility to conduct video trials.”
Among legal eggheads at the event were the immediate past CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, three serving Justices of the Supreme Court- Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Clara Ogunbiyi and Amina Augie, serving Judges of the FHC, Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Mr. Danladi Umar, members of the National Assembly, traditional rulers and legions of Senior Advocates of Nigeria and lawyers.