Godwin Tsa, Abuja
A mild drama played out, on Tuesday, at the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, where a vacation Judge, Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu, refused to hear a suit challenging the closure of a private school by First Bank plc.
All entreaties by counsel to the school, WhitePlains British School, Mr. Chukwuma-Machukwu Ume (SAN), for the court to hear the matter, giving that the summer activities of the school has been disrupted by the closure, failed.
Meanwhile, teachers, workers, students and parents from the school who besieged the courtroom were dejected as Justice Ojukwu ruled no amount of pressure would change her position.
Justice Ojukwu refused to hear the case on the ground that another judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Babatunde Quadri, has started hearing the matter and it was only proper for him to continue.
“The case is not on my cause list and I am not going to hear it. We have met and decided that once somebody has started hearing a case, he will continue to the end. Another Judge has started hearing this case and he will conclude it.
While pleading with the judge to hear the case as a matter of urgency, Ume submitted that the summer activities of the school are currently disrupted as a result of the closure.
According to Ume, “My lord, because of the curious development on Sunday, July 8, 2018, when a school was closed against the order of the court, the court has on July 16, 2018 ordered that this matter be heard during vacation.
“Justice Quadri who made the order equally adjourned the case for today, Tuesday, July 24 for hearing. All these orders and other processes have been served on the respondents, who have filed their counter affidavits, so the case is ready for hearing today.
“Although Justice Quadri did not seat today, since your court is equally sitting as a vacation court, it is only proper that the matter be heard my lord, giving that all the parties have filed their processes and are present in court,” Ume submitted.
At this point, counsel to First Bank Plc, Soji Toki, informed the court that Justice Quadri, who had adjourned the case for today (Tuesday) did not seat and it was further adjourned to August 8, for hearing.
The lawyer wondered why counsel to the applicants decided to come before another Judge to hear the case.
Ruling on the issue, Justice Ojukwu said “I am not giving to too much talking. I have made my mind and there is nothing anybody can say that would make me to change my mind. I will not hear it. Somebody has started it and I can’t do anything here.”
Her decision did not go down well with teachers, workers, students and parents from the school as they walked out of the courtroom dejected.
In the suit before the court, WhitePlains British School and France Lee had asked the Federal High Court to stop the First Bank Plc from taking over the administration of the school.
In addition, the school was pressing for an order directing the bank to remove all the fences it has raised blocking all the gates and foot entrances to the school premises.
In the suit filed through their counsel Chukwuma-Machukwu Ume (SAN), further prayed the court to restrained the bank and Mr. Bola Olotu from obstructing or showing physical presence in the school pending the determination of the appeal process pending at the Court of Appeal.
The suit was brought pursuant to order 26, rules 19 and 21, order 40, rule 2(1) of the High Court (civil procedure) rules 2009.
In a further and better affidavit of urgency filed in support of the motion, the dependent, Genevieve Okereke, averred that the respondents embarked on the illegal action two weeks ago while forcefully attempting to take over the school under the guise of staged loan default.
She told the court that First bank officials , Mr. Bola Olotu ( Receiver), some armed police officers and masons on Sunday , July 8, 2018 chased out staff of the elites school worth over N6bn from the school premises in Jabi district of Abuja.
According to the affidavit, the respondents went to work and sealed the two entrances and two foot paths with blocks while trying to enforce a N630m loan default judgment which the school claimed was obtained through a forged document.
The school told the court that the Tripartite Legal Mortgage which the bank used in misleading the court to grant their prayers was forged as the school never entered a tripartite agreement with the bank.
The school which won the prize for national and the United Nations awards in 2012 as the best private school in Nigeria and Africa respectively, also stated that the bank never served them with any court processes.
That the bank came to the school premises on Sunday illegally with unapproved armed police officers and side tracked a court order and forcefully sealed the school.
They further stated that the bank breached the court orders made by Hon. Justice B.F.M Nyako on November 18, 2016 to the effect that Mr. Bola Olotu who is duly appointed Receiver “can perform all the duties stated therein without being visible in the administration of the school so as not to traumatize the students.”
They also averred that the court order only allowed Mr. Olotu (Receiver) to take over finance activity of the school and work out a “sharing formula so that the school remains open and operational with teachers and staff salaries paid,” and that only monies relating to the facility should be lodged with the First bank account.
In addition that the First bank should enable the school access to the properties used as collateral for Guaranty Trust Bank loan so that they can sell same off to enable them repay the loan with them.
The school alleged ulterior motive on the part of bank officials, wondering why Mr. Olotu “(Receiver) of 2nd applicant ( France Lee ), unlawfully went to 1st applicant (White Plains British School) to take over.”
According to documents in court, the school authority stated that some time in 2013 First bank wrote and asked the school to open banking relationship with it so that the bank can grant it N390m loan facility to off set a loan which Guaranty Trust Bank granted the school earlier.
The school accepted the offer and the sum was given to the school. After some months the bank wrote another letter advancing N100m loan for the completion of the School blocks. It later gave the School another loan of N200m to meet its running cost but as soon as the account was credited the bank instantly deducted N188.6 million “as larger than life perfection charge.”
The school authority claimed that the unlawful N188.6m was a designs trap by the bank to stifle its operation as there was no fund to pay salaries and buy essential needs of the school and thus put the school in position of inability to service the loan.
They said that the First bank suddenly went to court and, introduced and used forged document to obtain judgment in the suit they filed against the school.
“The forged document is the so- called Tripartite Legal Mortgage, purportedly executed several months after the loan was granted and by party long dead before the date of the purported signing.”
The school averred that it has lodged an appeal marked CA/ A/ 239/ M/ 2017 at the Court of Appeal against the judgment and It has also petition the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate the forgery since 2017 but no response.
Beside, the school further claimed that the First bank filed its action in court without claiming any specific amount owned by it but targeted grabbing the school. According to the school “the respondents are eager, more interested and bent on covetously selling the school to themselves through their cronies.”