By Abdulwahab Abdulah & Bartholomew Madukwe
High and Magistrate Courts in Umuahia, Abia State, were shut down on January 25 as the long standing tussle between the executive and judiciary over which of the two arms control the courts in the state, reached the peak. The tussle eventually snowballed and led to the purported removal of the State Chief Judge, CJ, Justice Theresa Uzokwe, for alleged misconduct and high-handedness by the resolution of the State Assembly on January 26.
The suspension of the CJ has again raised the dust on how a Chief Judge or a Judge of the High Court can be removed from office in line with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
Specifically, Sections 292(1)(a)(ii) of the 1999 Constitution as amended explains how a judge of the state High Court or the Chief Judge can be removed from office.
The Constitution states: “Chief Judge of a State, Grand Kadi of a Sharia Court of Appeal or President of a Customary Court of Appeal of a State, by the Governor acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly of the State, praying that he be removed for 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, in any case, other than those to which paragraph (a) of this subsection applies, by the President or, as the case may be, the Governor acting on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council that the judicial officer be so removed for 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.
Any person who has held office as a judicial officer shall not on ceasing to be a judicial officer for any reason whatsoever, thereafter appear or act as a legal practitioner before any court of law or tribunal in Nigeria.”
Reacting to the suspension order, senior lawyers, civil society groups and some concerned members of the Bar bared their minds on the issue.
Unless NJC recommend to the governor, he cannot act- Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN
“It is a scenario of kiosk when authority can just assume power it does not have under the law; this automatically leads to anarchy. Before you can remove a Judge, a petition must be written against the Judge to the National Judicial Council, NJC and they will determine to hear it. It is after they have heard it; they can decide to clear him or suspend him and recommend to the governor to remove him. Unless NJC recommends to the governor to remove the Chief Judge, the governor cannot act. The House of Assembly has nothing to do with it. It is the NJC that will first recommend her removal. This will create disillusionment in the minds of ordinary Nigerians.
What the governor has done is null and void – Mr. Lanre Ogunlesi, SAN
“It is wrong for the Governor or the House of Assembly to remove her because there is a Supreme Court decision on it already. You cannot just remove a judicial officer, or a Chief Judge like that; there must be recommendation from the National Judicial Council, NJC. What the governor has done is null and void. When something is null and void, it is as if what happened never existed.”
Legislature can remove a Chief Judge, but not as a Judge—Chief Goddy Uwazurike
“I think the answer must be put in proper perspective. One, I am not aware that the Chief Judge has been sacked. All I read was that she has been suspended by the House. It is the NJC, that will make a judge and that can sack you as a judge. To be the Chief Judge, you have a special provision, approval of the NJC or recommendation to the governor who then sends same to the House for confirmation. So, if they say they want to probe what she has done, they are still within their right and that should be done according to the law.
“They should not allow what happened in Kwara State to repeat itself. In other words, a Chief Judge goes through constitutional provision, so anything that should be done must go through the constitution strictly. The House cannot remove her as Judge; the House can only remove her as a Chief Judge or suspend her as a Chief Judge but has no power to appoint a new Chief Judge. So, she has not been removed but suspended.
“Most people do not know how powerful the legislature is. Let us start with the National Assembly. The National Assembly has the power to receive a petition against the Chief Justice of Nigeria and set up a committee to probe him. The National Assembly also has power to probe the Chief Judge. The state legislature has the same power. The only thing is for them to follow the Constitution. The legislature can remove someone as a Chief Judge but not as a sitting judge of the court.”
It is grievous assault on the independence of the Judiciary—Joseph Otteh, Access to Justice
“The purported suspension of Hon. Justice Uzokwe and appointment of Justice Obisike Orji as acting Chief Judge of the state is a brutal violation of the Constitution, and a deliberate affront to the independence of the Judiciary guaranteed by the Constitution.
“First, the legislature of Abia State has no powers to suspend the Chief Judge or any Judge of the Abia State Judiciary. In purporting to do so, the executive and legislative branches have overreached their powers, as well as usurped the role and jurisdiction of the NJC.
“Neither the legislature nor the Executive Governor can appoint an acting Chief Judge without the recommendation of the NJC. As the Supreme Court has insisted, the NJC must be involved in any process to remove a Chief Judge of a state. The NJC as far as we know, has not itself suspended or authorised the Governor to either suspend Hon. Justice Uzokwe as Chief Judge of Abia State, or appoint an acting Chief Judge during the period of that suspension.”
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 State, 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, (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.
Furthermore, posting of magistrates from one jurisdiction to another within the state by CJ was resisted and unlawfully countermanded by AG on state television on the ‘authority’ of his parallel JSC in Nov-Dec 2017. CR Elizabeth confronted AG Umeh that he lacks the legal backing to countermand Hon. CJ through Abia State media tool on TV.
Worse still, attacks on the finances of Abia State Judiciary; AG Umeh’s Judicial Service Commission, JSC, wrote to Zenith Bank Plc to change the signatories of Abia State Judiciary account from CR Elizabeth to illegally appointed CR Ben. Again Her Lordship objected on grounds that AG is not to appoint a CR for the CJ. And now, the entire Abia State executive hand-in-glove with the Abia State House of Assembly, staged that atrocious act of “suspension.”
Suspended CJ yet to receive petition—Carol Ajie
“Justice Theresa Uzokwe is yet to receive a copy of the referenced petition dated January 22, 2018. Whoever has it should publish it. They didn’t send a copy to anyone. Shouldn’t she be served so she could look at it and respond to it? The Speaker, in connivance with Attorney-General of the state, are hoarding information.
They cited section 292(1)(ii) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999. The suspended CJ is efficient, performs her administrative duties efficaciously. They contradict themselves in terms; ‘Allegans contraria non est audiendus.”