By Ise-Oluwa Ige
In this report, Vanguard’s Law and Human Rights scrutinizes two separate tweets by a lawyer, Sam Amadi, including a photograph of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola purportedly seated in a wheelchair at an airport on March 11, 2023; examines a news report on the subject-matter by an online platform, in its March 23, edition, alleging serious conspiracy and professional misconduct against the CJN and the President-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu; appraises the separate defence offered by the CJN on the issue on the one hand, and the President-elect, Tinubu, on the other hand, and argues that going by available facts, the news portal appears not only to have sacrificed the first duty of a professional news media—getting the story right— on the altar of breaking the news but also seems to have over-stretched its rights under section 22 and 39 (1) (2) of the 1999 Constitution even as the entire incident raises a fresh concern on whether or not serving judges should continue to hear pre and post-election matters in the country.
On March 23, 2023, social commentator, lawyer and former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, Dr Sam Amadi tweeted the photograph of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Ariwoola, seated in a wheelchair about to board an airplane at an airport.
Although the photograph bore no name of the traveller, the tweeter simply left three short questions as its caption: What is this? Who is this? Is it true?
Within minutes, the photograph went viral on social media, with all manner of speculations.
Before the controversial photograph surfaced on the social media that day, an online platform had a story about Justice Ariwoola explaining the circumstances surrounding his sitting on the purported wheelchair at the airport.
The newspaper claimed that the jurist was pushed in a wheelchair through the terminals to board a British Airways flight.
According to the report, Ariwoola J. (64) was wheeled into a hotel downtown upon getting to London where he has purportedly remained since March 11, 2023, pretending to be physically-challenged in a clandestine preparation for a meeting with the President-elect, Tinubu, even when the jurist was not known with any physical disability.
The story further alleged that Justice Ariwoola wanted to meet Tinubu to discuss issues that might arise from the budding legal challenge to his declaration as president-elect including whether or not he should be worried about the petitions recently filed by opposition parties to challenge his emergence.
The online platform further claimed that after Justice Ariwoola checked into the hotel, he abandoned his wheelchair and started moving around the facility unaided.
“He has been moving about in the hotel without any wheelchair. He was standing on his own in the elevator just yesterday (March 22, 2023),” The publication had quoted a source familiar with the CJN’s activities at the London accommodation.
It said the CJN deliberately left the country more than a week ahead of Tinubu to avoid any suspicion about why both of them disappeared at once even as it attributed the source of the story to a staff of the Supreme Court who did not want his name in print to avoid sanction.
The online platform said its source purportedly exposed the CJN’s itinerary after Tinubu arrived in London for what his team claimed was a relaxation trip after a hectic campaign that preceded his declaration as Nigeria’s president-elect last month.
The story added that with Mr. Tinubu now in Europe, he would be meeting Mr. Ariwoola in a secret arrangement to discuss issues unknown to Nigerians.
That was the account of the online platform on March 23, 2023.
The online platform said it had temporarily withheld the CJN’s photos and the specific hotel he stayed in order to protect a source central to the story.
The newspaper said all attempts to balance the story proved abortive as Festus Akande, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, abruptly hung up when it requested comment about Mr Ariwoola’s secret trip to London.
It added that the National Judicial Council, NJC declined comments on Mr. Ariwoola’s suspicious activity while Tinubu’s spokespersons also declined comments on Thursday afternoon (March 23, 2023).
Lie, Chief Justice Ariwoola is in Abuja contrary to publication —S’Court
But soon after the online platform published the story, both the Supreme Court and the President-elect, Tinubu, dismissed it as one of the many lies calculated to tarnish their image.
In a separate denial by the Supreme Court, Dr Akande said the entire story by the online platform was false.
According to Dr Akande, contrary to the claims by the report that Mr. Ariwoola travelled out of Nigeria on March 11, 2023 to the United Kingdom to meet with the President-elect, the CJN was actually in Nigeria and that he even presided over a meeting of the NJC which held on March 16 and 17, 2023.
Indeed, Vanguard reports that on March 17, the NJC at the end of its meeting chaired by Mr. Ariwoola issued a statement suspending the Chief Judge of Taraba State from office on account of misconduct.
Besides, Akande said that on March 23, 2023 when the newspaper published the allegation that the CJN was in London waiting to hold a purported clandestine meeting with Tinubu, he said that Justice Ariwoola was actually in his Chambers in Abuja and did not close until 8pm that day.
He said the following day, the CJN whom the online platform claimed was in UK on wheelchair, attended Friday Jumaat service in Abuja.
Dr Akande, however, disclosed that the CJN accompanied by NJC’s Secretary, Ahmed Gambo, only travelled out of Nigeria briefly to London on March 18, for medical care and returned early morning of March 23, 2023.
Mr. Akande said before the CJN’s London trip, Mr. Ariwoola notified President Muhammadu Buhari of the trip.
“The only time the CJN travelled earlier this year was on January 25, when he travelled for Lesser Hajj in Saudi Arabia. He returned on January 29, 2023,” the Supreme Court spokesperson explained.
Tinubu denies meeting CJN
Also reacting to the report, Mr. Tinubu’s presidential campaign team described the story as a mere salacious fiction meant to draw traffic to the discredited purveyor.
The spokesperson for the president-elect’s media team, Bayo Onanuga, in a statement on March 24, 2023, noted that Mr. Tinubu was still in Paris, France and was yet to move to London.
“We can confirm that the president-elect, who left Nigeria on March 21, has not been in London. He is right now in France to have a deserved rest after a hectic campaign that began in January 2022,” Mr. Onanuga said.
“We refute emphatically that there was a clandestine meeting between the President-elect and the respected Chief Justice of our country, anywhere. It’s pure fabricated news, groundless in fact and authenticity,” the statement read.
Mixed reactions trail the online platform ’s report on CJN, Tinubu
Following the denial of the newspaper’s report by camps of both the Supreme Court and the President-elect, a renowned lawyer and member of the inner bar, Mr. Jibrin Okutepa, SAN, on March 24, 2023, upbraided the lawyer, Amadi, who tweeted the photograph of the CJN in a wheelchair even as he chided members of the bar sharing the tweet.
He said the legal profession in Nigeria is presently sick and on oxygen.
“The ethics and etiquette of the profession are gone. No sanctions. Otherwise, how do we explain the news making the round even amongst lawyers that a whole CJN disguises himself to meet a named politician?
“And some Nigerian lawyers are posting it. What a shame. So, because CJN was seen on wheelchair means his lordship is disguising himself to meet a politician? What a sacrilege. Why did the legal profession deteriorate to this level?
“Nobody is feeling bad that the CJN may not be well and had to be on a wheelchair. No empathy but we can speculate on unfounded and unverified story. No reasonable person should promote falsehood. I think those promoting this news are sick. We must not destroy our judiciary,” Mr. Okutepa stated.
Dr Sam Amadi deletes photograph on CJN, apologizes
As mixed reactions greeted the emergence of the controversial CJN’s photograph on social media, Dr Amadi deleted it on his Tweeter handle, describing his action as unnecessary.
In a new tweet by him to explain the new development, Amadi stated that he did not post the photograph to embarrass the CJN or anyone else, but was simply responding to a report on the issue by an online platform.
“Yesterday I posted a picture of an elder man on wheelchair who happens to be the CJN. I have deleted the tweet because in retrospect, it is not necessary. The tweet was in reference to online platform story and not intended to embarrass. I apologise to all offended by the tweet,” the lawyer tweeted.
Fani Kayode blasts Amadi
Another lawyer and former Aviation Minister, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode also scolded Amadi for purportedly tweeting and sharing the viral report about Nigeria’s Chief Justice to the effect that he disguised at the airport on his way to London, UK to allegedly have a secret meeting with the ‘president-elect’, Bola Tinubu.
Amadi threatens to sue Fani-Kayode
But Amadi who took exception to the allegation by Fani Kayode demanded immediate withdrawal of the purported defamatory allegation and a public apology, threatening to sue him (Fani-Kayode) if he failed to so do.
That happened on March 27, 2023.
Amadi’s lawyer, Opatola Victor, gave the former aviation minister 72 hours to tender the apology in a letter addressed to him.
Opatola had alleged that Fani-Kayode lied against his client when he said it was Amadi who reported that the Chief Justice travelled to London to meet Tinubu.
“This statement is false in all material particulars. First, our client did not, at any time, state on any online or offline platform that the Chief Justice of the Federation or any Justice or Judge of any court in Nigeria travelled to London or anywhere in the world to meet the President-elect, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, or any other person.
“Our client never mentioned the Chief Justice of the Federation or any Justice of the Supreme Court and has never alleged anything against either the Chief Justice or any Justice in Nigeria.
“You know as a matter of fact that it was the online platform that reported the story of the Chief Justice travelling under a disguise to London to meet the President-elect.
“Our client never liked or retweeted the viral story of the online platform published by Mr. Samuel Ogundipe.
“The only post through which our client related to the event was a picture of a man in wheelchair passing through airport terminal. Our client posted the picture with this short note: “What is this? Who is this? Is it true?”
“Our client did not know who the person in the wheelchair was and asked these innocent questions.
“After hours, when several posts clarified that the picture was of the CJN using wheelchair through airport terminal as part of privileges for elderly passengers, our client deleted the post and tweeted to apologize to the CJN and other persons aggrieved by the photograph.
“He made the post in the light of the trending story by online platform, wondering the identity of the person in the picture.
“When several posts confirmed the identity of the traveller, our client deleted the post because it had become unnecessary.
“In the light of these facts, there was no reason or justification for your unprovoked attack against our client and your mischievous efforts to deflect the origin and source of the allegations from the online platform, owned by Mr. Samuel Ogundipe, and attribute it to our client.
“The obvious reason for this mischief is to damage his reputation and present him in bad light. Furthermore, your previous statements against Igbos show that your libellous statement is part of a continuing effort to mobilise state violence against our client.
“Therefore, we demand that you delete your offensive tweet, recant the libelous statement against our client in another tweet and give it the same publicity as you gave the offensive tweet.“
Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.