In this report, Vanguard Law and Human Rights examines the law of contempt as enshrined in the nation’s statute books and a popular dictum on the thin-line between contempt of the court and discourtesy in order to properly dissect the body of facts surrounding last week’s three-minute trial, conviction and imprisonment of a human rights lawyer, Mr. Inibehe Effiong by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Obot, over contempt, for the purpose of establishing whether or not what happened between the latter and the former was a proper case for a judge to resort to the use of the judicial weapon of contempt.
Notwithstanding the initial uproar and subsequent interventions by the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA and some of its members, a Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Mr InibeheEffiong who was jailed last Wednesday for one month by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice EkaetteObotfor contempt in facia curia (in the face of the court), is still in prison.
Mr. Effiong had flown from Lagos to Akwa Ibom early morning on July 27, 2022, to handle a libel case for his client and colleague, Leo Ekpenyong before a state high court in Uyo during which he ran into trouble with the trial Chief Judge.
Specifically, he was on the matter for his client when the judge took exception to his style of advocacy and preferred a charge of contempt in facia curia against him, ordered him to derobe, informed him he was on trial and in less than five minutes, pronounced him guilty and jailed him for one month to purge himself.
Although his plan was to check into an hotel after the proceedings to enable him attend the same court on July 29, he ended up in a dingy cell with criminals at the Ikot Ekpene Prisons.
He is expected to be there for 30 full days except there is an intervention from a higher court.
Although the human rights lawyer is presently serving his jail term, the circumstances surrounding how the lawyer was cited for contempt by Justice Obot, tried without entering the dock and while still adorning his wig and gown, and subsequently sentenced to one month jail term in less than five minutes, still remain a subject of debate in the legal circle.
By her style, Justice Obot has divided the bar into two opposing camps with a group castigating her for losing her temper hastily and urging the National Judicial Council, NJC, to re-evaluate her emotional suitability for her top job on the bench while the other group applauded her approach on the account that the sanctity of the court must be maintained at all times.
How Effiong’s case started
The genesis of the case that led to the imprisonment of Effiong started sometime in August 2019, when a human rights lawyer, Mr. Leo Ekpenyong, (now client of Inibehe Effiong) alleged in a newspaper interview that the incumbent state Governor, Emmanuel Udom, had purportedly doled out $1.5m to the Chairman of Akwa Ibom State Governorship and National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal, Justice W. O. Akanbi, to secure judgment in favour of the Peoples Democratic Party in a petition by Mr. Godswill Akpabio challenging the election of Chris Ekpeyong.
He had accused the governor of trying to bend the course of justice in favour of Ekpenyong and the PDP. In reaction, Governor Emmanuel denied the allegation, dared his accuser to substantiate the allegation or face legal action.
Indeed, on September 2, 2019, both Governor Emmanuel Udom and Senator Dickson Effiong Bob sued the human rights lawyer, Leo Ekpeyong for defamation of character before an Akwa Ibom State high court. The Chief Judge of the state, Justice Ekaette Obot assigned the cases to herself and had since been on them.
Both claimants (Udom Emmanuel and Effiong Bob) hired Samuel Ikpo to prosecute the separate libel cases for them while the rights lawyer hired Dr. PatrickUmoh to defend him in court.
In compliance with the practice direction, both parties in the separate cases filed and exchanged all material pleadings in the case including Pre-Trial Information Sheet.
According to a lawyer who is familiar with the case, Mr Augustine Asuquo, he said the Pre-Trial Conference was fixed for November 12, 2020, but off records.
However, on the day fixed for the case, the trial judge did not sit on the ground of ill health while the defence counsel was also absent and the matter had to be adjourned till November 26, 2020 but also off records.
Asuquo who claimed that the information he is releasing on the matter, were affidavit evidence, said that when the matter was fixed for November 26, 2020, the new date was allegedly not communicated to the defence counsel.
A’Ibom Chief Judge gives default judgment to Udom, Effiong
He narrated that when the court eventually sat on the case on November 26, 2020, the defence counsel representing Ekpeyong was also absent because he allegedly had no information about the new date while the court sat with an appeal to the judge by the counsel to the claimants to enter default judgment in accordance with Order 25 Rule 6(b) of the Rules of Court, a request that was granted.
Following the default judgment, the embattled judgment-debtor, human rights lawyer, Ekpeyong hired the chambers of Inibehe Effiong to take over the case for the purpose of setting aside the default judgments for want of fair hearing.
Swinging into action, Mr. Effiong filed a motion on notice in the two suits – Hu/Misc. 175/2021 & Hu/Misc. 174/2021 respectively urging the court to set aside the default judgment on grounds of violation of the Defendant’s/Applicant’s right to fair hearing among other things, but counsel to Emmanuel Udom and Effiong Bob reacted with a preliminary objection to stop the court from reopening the case on the account that the application by Ekpeyong’s new lawyer was filed out of time allowed by law.
During proceedings on the application, Asuquo narrated that the trial judge on her own raised sundry issues on why the application would not be heard but that Effiong openly disagreed with the judge by citing persuasive authorities to move her in his favour.
“My Lord became agitated, reprimanding Effiong for his audacity to argue with His lordship on issues of law (obviously my Lord had expected Effiong to always reply in the traditional remarks of “as the court pleases” “Yes my Lord” etc.
“Unfortunately, Inibehe is not that type of lawyer. So my Lord, in anger, descended on my colleague with unpredictable comments like: “You don’t stand before me and talk nonsense,” “ I have been on this side of the law for over 30 years and you don’t come and teach me law from there,” “Is anything the matter with you?” “You’re not on Channels Television, neither are you on Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Television,” he added.
Although the trial judge later reversed herself on the cases and set aside the default judgements on February 16, 2022, the encounter between the judge and the lawyer appears to have set the tone for the imprisonment of Effiong five months after.
The implication of the ruling of the court is that both parties will now appear before the court afresh to litigate on the issues raised on merit.
The trial judge was said to have adjourned the matter for continuation of the Pre-Trial Conference and directed counsel to bring an application for extension of time to regularise the court process.
Inibehe gets order setting aside judgment, trial begins afresh
But before the new date for the Pre-Trial Conference, Inibehe Effiong, on May 18, 2022, wrote the Chief Judge to reassign the case to another judge, upon instruction from his client, citing likelihood of bias as reason.
But when the case came up for mention on June 21, 2022, the trial Chief Judge did not indicate whether she would hands off the matter or not, a development that made Asuquo who represented Effiong in court on the day to draw the attention of the Chief Judge to the May 18, 2022 letter requesting her to hands off the matter.
According to Asuquo, upon referring to the letter, the trial Chief Judge interjected thus: “I saw the letter and I did order that you should make a formal application so that the other party can respond but you evaded service of that process.
“What about that lousy boy, what’s his name again,…the claimants’ counsel responded; that rude boy was found running in the street of Uyo, evading service and was chased after by the bailiff…, You people want to frustrate this case with this your application.., you will not. The other day, that’s how you people brought a herbalist to this court (referring to a journalist with Premium Times who was in court to observe proceedings that very day),” he added.
Asuquo said he had to promptly tell the judge that Inibehe was not based in Uyo but in Lagos and that at no time did he evade service of court process, adding that his explanation irked the judge who quickly ordered the clerk of the court to seize his phone to check if he was recording.
Judge moves to jail Asuquo for contempt
“When it was discovered that I wasn’t recording, my Lord asked that my phone be switched off and seized from me. As I stammered to utter another word, my Lord yelled at me to step out of the court and derobe myself that she’s sending me to prison for contempt.
“I was shocked to my marrow. While I stepped out, my Lord continued to denigrate my colleague, Inibehe for his unruly behaviour, that he has influenced me and that I had better find a Senior lawyer and attach myself and learn proper principles of law and conduct.
“Regarding my committal, I was helplessly miserable because I had done nothing to warrant such unthinkable attack. So I managed to utter some words of apologies to the court if my comment had ever offended the court. Another learned Senior from the bar, equally stood up and appealed for my pardon. That was how I escaped the sentencing hammer,” he recounted.
Although the case was adjourned for mention, Asuquo said the trial judge asked the claimants’ counsel to call his witness to mount the witness box to give evidence, but he said he did not bring any witness to court since the case was not adjourned for hearing, a development that made the judge to adjourn the case till June 24, 2022, even though he protested that the date was not convenient for him.
“On June 24, we had already prepared and filed a formal application for my Lord to recuse himself from handling the case on grounds of bias and or likelihood of bias.
“In the affidavit in support of the application, we stated emphatically how my Lord attended the wedding ceremony of the daughter of Senator Effiong Bob on June 11, alongside Governor Emmanuel during the pendency of the suit before my Lord by the said Senator.
“Owing to the fact that my colleague, Inibehe, could not come for that case after he missed his flight, and I was also engaged in a pressing matter, we quickly contacted our learned friend, Samuel Udoh, to hold brief for us in the case which he did.
“During the proceedings, Samuel promptly informed the court of our pending motion for recusal, and that same has been served on the claimants’ counsel in court. He pleaded for an adjournment to enable the claimants’ counsel respond to the said Motion.
“My Lord bluntly refused the application for adjournment, stating that the pendency of the motion cannot frustrate the hearing of the case. The court then ordered the claimant’s counsel to call his witness.
“Despite sustained objection by Samuel to that effect, my Lord adamantly went on with the case. After the evidence of the 1st witness, my Lord ordered Mr. Samuel to cross examine the witness, but Samuel explained his health predicament to the court and also informed the court that he was only holding brief for Effiong and that it will be tantamount to infraction of the defendant’s rights to fair hearing to continue with the case after a motion challenging my Lord’s power to hear the case has been filed.
“My Lord in anger, foreclosed the defendant from cross examining and ordered the claimants’ counsel to call his second and third witnesses while the defendant remained foreclosed from cross examining.
“After the proceedings, my Lord then imposed another date, adjourning the matter to the 29th of June, 2022 wherein we further prepared and filed another motion on notice to set aside the proceedings conducted on the said June 24, 2022, on grounds of breach of fair hearing.
“On June 29, 2022, when the matter came up, the court’s hostility continued in another dimension. My Lord demanded that everyone’s phone be seized and switched off by the police.
“Court further cautioned Effiong to be very careful before he’s sent to prison for contempt. Despite compelling appeal by Inibehe Effiong that the court should take our motion for recusal, my Lord bluntly refused and proceeded with the trial of the case.
“After the proceedings, the court further imposed two dates: July 27, and 29, 2022, on parties which according to the court, was to enable the claimants’ counsel conclude his case,” he added.
According to Asuquo: ”Now, on July 27, 2022, my Lord came inside the court at 10am with so much aggressiveness. My Lord instructed his orderly to bring in two armed policemen inside the court room.
“Soon after that, my Lord yelled at his orderly why it was taking so long for the armed officers to be brought in. Immediately, the officers, well armed with rifles, gained entrance into the court, my Lord then declared: ‘Gentlemen, I want to say that I will not tolerate any nonsense today from anybody….’
“The case was called and while the court directed the claimants’ counsel to put in his witness for cross examination, Inibehe Effiong promptly rose and reminded the court of the two pending applications.
“My Lord said in reply, that the motion will be taken on a different date so the case proceeded.
“While Inibehe was cross-examining the witness, my Lord interjected and demanded to know the person in a red shirt. The person responded that his name is Saviour Imukudo from Premium Times, my Lord quickly directed him to leave the courtroom and also ordered his phone to be seized from him by the armed policemen.
“It was then my colleague informed the court that the defendant trial is in open court, and that members of the public be allowed to observe proceedings. However, my Lord insisted that nobody can come inside the court to record proceedings without being permitted by the court.
“It was at this juncture that Inibehe Effiong made another observation to the court that he has seen two armed police officers with AK-47 behind him in the court room, that my Lord should please direct them to step out of the court as their presence was creating fear and hostility to him.
“My Lord in response said that the armed officers are protecting her. It was then Inibehe made a formal application asking the court to either direct the officers out of court or overrule him.
“While Inibehe was still addressing the court, the court was writing and none of us knew that my Lord was writing on my colleague’s committal to prison.
“Soon after the writing, my Lord raised his head and yelled at Inibehe to step out of the court and derobe himself.
Court jails Inibehe over contempt in-facie curia
“Surprisingly, Inibehe asked my Lord why, and my Lord said ‘I’m sending you to prison.’ Inibehe in obedience, stepped aside but refused to derobe stating that if he derobes, he won’t be able to address the court.
“That’s when my Lord pronounced his sentence on my colleague in the most regrettable manner and my colleague was taken to Ikot Ekpene Correctional facility like a common criminal for no just cause,” he added.
Claimant’s lawyer defends judge, says she was over-patient
But counsel to Governor Emmanuel, Samuel Ikpo said the trial judge had no blame, saying he witnessed what transpired between Inibehe and the judge from day one till July 27, 2022, when he was jailed.
He said Justice Obot who is the Chief Judge of AkwaIbom State had repeatedly warned Effiong who himself had consistently accused the CJ of being biased in the case.
Ikpo said on the D-day, he was shocked when the drama started in the sense that he never believed a lawyer could utter damning and profane utterances against a judge.
He had wondered why Inibehe would disobey an order given to him by the judge, who asked him to take off his wig and step aside from the bar and he chose to remain obstinate.
“A lawyer should not allow himself to use one client to destroy his reputation before all the judges.
“I think Justice Obot has really been patient with him all the while, even as a lawyer, I could not tolerate the young lawyer’s conduct,” Barr Ikpo stated.
Moments after he was jailed, Inibehe posted a message on his WhatsApp status around 10:40 am on July 27, 2022, regarding his predicament. He later posted details of the incident on his Twitter page and expectedly, there were reactions.
For instance, Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Public Interest and Development Litigation, NBA-SPIDEL, Dr.Ubani said he was not surprised because the chief judge had earlier threatened to jail him even before now and that the threat for the jail was because Effiong had sought to defend the cause of his client in a way that the Chief Judge considered an affront to her authority as a judge.
“I must tell you that I am eager to hear the side of the Court on this matter. Everyone is entitled to a fair hearing including the Chief Judge,” he added.
President of NBA, Olumide Akpata, has also assured that Effiong would be released “shortly,” saying he is concerned about Effiong’s detention in prison.
“While not going into the merits of this particular matter yet, suffice it to say that the Nigerian Bar Association is strongly opposed to, and will continue to resist all attempts to intimidate, threaten or harass our members while properly carrying out their professional responsibilities.
“The Nigerian Bar Association will also not condone acts of indiscipline and insubordination against judicial officers from our members no matter the provocation. Ours is a rule-based profession and there is a procedure for airing grievances,” the NBA president added.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, said it will sue Governor Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State and President
Muhammadu Buhari-led FG over the sentence of human rights lawyer, Effiong.
A senior member of the Nigerian Bar and human rights lawyer-activist, Debo Adeleke has described the imprisonment of Effiong as a glaring case of abuse of power.
According to him, Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates that no person is to be sentenced without being given the option of fair hearing. It is the principle of law universally. The action of the CJ of Akwa Ibom is a glaring case of abuse of power and judicial rascality which denigrates the sanctity of the Constitution of the FRN.
“Besides, Effiong is perfectly in order to call the attention of the court to the presence of the two fully armed policemen in the courtroom.
“Secondly, I support hundred per cent that the NJC and NBA should look into the matter dispassionately and immediately place the CJ on suspension pending their thorough investigation of the matter.
From the stories told by proponents and opponents of the controversy, that trial was not conducted. Effiong was not put in the dock to show cause. That is wrong.
It appears that the learned Chief Judge wanted to settle scores and came prepared for that very outcome, going by the unusual presence of armed policemen inside the court room.
The saddest part of the encounter is that a judge whose impartiality is under challenge, ought not to have taken any other step in the proceedings, till that application challenging her continuance as the trial judge is determined.
It appears that the Chief Judge came to punish counsel for filing that application, asking that the learned Chief Judge recuse herself. That is abuse of judicial power, which ought to be punished by National Judicial Council.
The NBA on its own too owes Effiong a duty of care just as every lawyer that is under the umbrella of NBA.
Another lawyer, Daniel Alagor described the imprisonment of the human rights lawyer as “Impunity and judicial rascality taken too far. This single act of His Lordship, calls my Lord’s judicial integrity into question.
“Besides, contempt is not committed unless there is real and substantial prejudice to justice delivery. A distinction must be drawn between what may annoy a Judge and what amounts to contempt. A judge must be endowed with patience, coupled with judicial dignity and tolerance. A Judge must display dignity, maturity and kindness.
“An impatient Judge is no judge. He can never be in control of his court. Impatience can lead to precipitate action. It is always better and safer to ignore little details, discourtesies, in the words of Justice S. O. Uwaifo JSC: Small matters.
On no account should a Judicial Officer lose his temper, never.
“Failure to properly disqualify when the judge has a conflict of interest is a Judicial misconduct. My Lord CJ should be called to order because “No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.
Obedience to the law is demanded as a right, not asked as a favour.”
All said, the case appears a proper case that the NBA should take up with the NJC, when it is done with its preliminary investigation for proper documentation, review of the facts of the case to determine whether Inibehe’s conduct was mere act of discourtesy and one that has gone over and beyond that thin line that divides discourtesy and contempt of Court so that further and appropriate step can be taken to guide future conducts of judges.