George Onyejiuwa, Owerri
The step by the Imo state governor, Senator Hope Uzodinma, to dismantle a cabal that has held the state judiciary on the jugular for years is getting a stiff resistance. Uzodinma’s choice of an Acting Chief Judge of the state is not going down well with the cartel said to have emerged, albeit by default, during the era of one of his predecessors, Chief Achike Udenwa. The cabal, investigations revealed, has over the years determined who becomes the Chief Judge of the state. This cabal had, for the past twenty one years, thrown overboard due process and order of seniority in making its choice of the state’s Chief Judge. It is said to exercise enormous control over the state’s Judicial Service Commission which oversees the processing of appointing both the Chief Judge and the judges.
But on March 13, 2020, Governor Uzodinma swore in Hon. Justice Ijeoma Agugua as the Acting Chief Judge of the state, following the retirement of Justice Paschal Nnadi, the immediate past Chief Judge. In going for Agugua, Uzodimma is said to have been guided by the fact that she was the next most senior judge in the bench. The governor’s move, however, surprised many observers who had initially feared that he might be unable to summon the courage to go against the interest of the cartel said to have its root from the governor’s own part of the state.
Sources reveal that the origin of the cabal is traceable to the early days in office of Chief Udenwa who was advised to choose a Chief Judge from among his own kinsmen to enable him have a good grip of the courts and also a smooth run over his political adversaries. It was revealed, however, that Udenwa later discovered, rather belatedly, that he really did not need a compromised judiciary and being “a man with conscience”, a source further said, saw to the elevation of Hon. Justice Ifunanya Udom, who was supposed to be the chief judge in order of seniority, to the Court of Appeal. But it probably came too late. Justice Udom was said to have been traumatised by that incident, coupled with allegations of embezzlement and sundry character assassinations, all of which were said to have led to her untimely death.
However, the cabal has remained in control and all but one previous Chief Judge since 2007, have been handpicked by it without regard to the order of seniority. It was Nnadi’s immediate predecessor, Justice B.A Njemanze, who temporarily broke the chain, being the most senior officer in the bench before his appointment by Governor Ikedi Ohakim in 2007. Sources disclosed that every effort was made to prevent Hon. Justice Njemanze from succeeding Justice P.C. Onumajulu but Ohakim was determined to uphold seniority, hence, his insistence on Njemanze.
Upon Agugua’s appointment in March, the cabal swung into action, to ensure that the new Acting Chief Judge, not being its own product, is not confirmed as the substantive Chief Judge. The major weapon being used in the fight is a court action against the Imo state government by one Justin Brown Amadi, an indigene of Egbu in the Owerri North Local Government Area of the state.
In an originating summons filed at the Federal High Court Abuja Division on May 11, 2020 by J.Y Musa, SAN on behalf of Amadi, the plaintiff told the court that the process for the nomination and possible confirmation of Agugua as the substantive Chief Judge has already began despite the pendency of an early suit – by him – that Agugua was not a fit and proper person to occupy the position. Amadi, claimed that the National Judicial Commission (NJC), which is the first defendant in the suit, has directed the Imo State Judicial Service Commission (the second Defendant) to “commence a fresh nomination exercise … targeted at nominating Justice Agugua (the sixth defendant) as the substantive Chief Judge and that “this is prejudicial to my right to the fair hearing of my petition pending before it which challenges the competence of the sixth defendant to remain as a judicial officer and/or appointed substantive Chief Judge of Imo State”. Other defendants in the suit are the Governor of Imo state (third defendant); the Attorney-General of the state (the fourth defendant) and the Imo State House of Assembly (the fifth defendant).
In the summons, Amadi claimed that Justice Agugua was not in the list of the four Judges originally submitted to the state Judicial Service Commission for consideration, adding that the list was withdrawn by the current Attorney-General in order to draw up a new one that included Agugua. However, it was gathered that the first list, which did not have Agugua, was submitted a day after the Supreme Court judgement of January 14,2020 that sacked the immediate past administration.
Prior to filing the suit, Amadi had written a petition to the Chief Justice of Nigeria who is the chairman of the NJC, accusing Justice Agugua of “perjury, falsification of age and false claim of the date of attending primary school”. In the petition, a copy of which was made available to this newspaper, Amadi gave details of sundry allegations of “insubordination” against Agugua by her previous bosses and urged the CJN and members of the NJC to “take steps to discipline Justice Agugua for … brazen acts of dishonesty, cheating, lying, deliberate deception, knavishness, corruption, treacherousness, indecency and lack of integrity”
Some keen observers of the matter, however, smell rat over Amadi’s action. It is the belief of many in the state that Amadi is acting on behalf of members of the cartel, particularly the immediate past Chief Judge, Paschal Nnadi, working together with the immediate past Attorney-General, Hon. Ndukwe Nnawuchi SAN. The two are believed to be using Amadi, said to be a cousin of Nnawuchi, to fight Justice Agugua. Even so, the documents Amadi presented to both the NJC and the High Court are said to have been manufactured by the two using their privileged positions as former top officials of the state’s judiciary.
But when contacted ,Chief Nnawuchi Ndukwe, immediate past Attorney- General and Commissioner for Justice declined comment. ” You know as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria , I cannot comment on a matter that is already before the court.”
Meanwhile, in a letter to both the Imo State Director of the Department of State Services (DSS) and the state’s commissioner of police, elder-statesman and a prominent indigene of the state, Prince Bob Njemanze, told the agency to “investigate with dispatch a very serious attempt from privileged quarters to mislead, misdirect and pervert the cause of justice in the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge in Imo State”.
In the letter entitled, “FRAUDULENT LEAKING AND PROCUREMENT OF UNAUTHORIZED OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS: THE NEED TO AVERT PERVERSION OF JUSTICE”, Njemanze claimed that the former Attorney-General, Nnawuchi “hired the services of his friend and colleague in Abuja to file an action in an originating summons purporting that one Justice Brown Amadi … is the plaintiff in the matter”. Njemanze further told the DSS that “the documents filed alongside with the suit are emanating from the immediate past Chief Judge, Pascal Nnadi, who is a product of this same group, to supersede the present acting Chief Judge since he, Pascal Nnadi, was her junior at the bench”.
He further claimed that these documents have been in the offices of the Chief Judge of Imo State and the Attorney-General. He then prayed that “there may be need to determine” how Amadi “can show so much interest in the appointment of a chief judge and how the said “Hon” Justine Brown Amadi, who equally is my relation, could have access to the various alleged documents as to use them to file an originating summons”. According to the elder statesman, “the intention of Ndukwe Nnawuchi, SAN and co is to scuttle the process that is intended to restore seniority, order and harmony to the judiciary of Imo state”. Finally, Njamanze appealed to the DSS boss to “use your good offices to unravel these acts that are criminal but embellished in the guise of public interest”
On the issue of falsification of age, Prince Njemanze pointed out that Justice Agugua had no need to have a one year difference in her age, explaining that “even after she was superseded, she still had over five years to serve as Chief Judge, so what should a difference of one year make on a testimonial issued over forty years ago make”.
The Attorney – General and Commissioner for Justice Cyprian Akaolisa pointed that those who are fighting the appointment of Justice Ijeoma Aguguo are the same cabal that have held the Judiciary by the jugular by deciding who is appointed the Chief Judge of the state regardless of whether the person is the most senior or not . He said that the activities of the cabal have continued to create bad blood in the state judiciary and that the current administration is determined to stop such injustice .
“Those who have filed the suit are the same members of the cabal comprising very senior lawyers including Senior Advocates of Nigeria from the state who have sworn that only their choice will be made head of the judiciary in the state, regardless of whether the person is the most senior or not. But governor Hope Uzodinma is determined to restore due process and fairness in the appointments of who becomes the Chief Judge of the State.
Even, the man who filed the suit, one Justine Amadi is neither a lawyer nor a judicial worker, and it therefore raises the suspicion that it is the members of the cabal who are using the litigant to scuttle the appointment of Justice Ijeoma Aguguo as the substantive Chief Judge of the state”. He said .
Another prominent citizen of the state, His Royal Highness, Eze Akujuobi David Osuagwu, the traditional ruler of Awaka autonomous community in the Owerri North Local Government Area of the state, in a letter to the NJC and Governor Hope Uzodinma, revealed that Mr Brown Amadi had told him, during a private meeting, that he, Amadi, “is being used by some people he refused to call their names, but refers to them as powerful and influential in the judiciary”. Eze Osuagwu further revealed that Amadi “confessed to me that aside the people he was dealing with, he knew nothing about the judiciary. No knowledge of workings or the individuals either in the Ministry of Justice or the High Court”. Incidentally, Justice Paschal Nnadi, the immediate past Chief Judge is a native of Awaka which Eze Osuagwu reigns over; aside the fact that Awaka and Egbu, where Amadi hails from, share a common boundary.
Only Last month, an Owerri High Court slammed a One Million Naira fine on the same Amadi, over a suit of defamation of character by one Mrs. Ogechi Osuagwu who hails from the same village, Egbu, with him. Amadi had, sometime in 2017, published an article in which he described Mrs. Osuagwu as “a wayward woman”. Delivering judgement in the suit No How/490/2017 on March 31, 2020, the trial Judge, Hon Justice I.M. Njaka said: “The onus probandi placed on the defendant to establish the truth or veracity of these published words against the plaintiff were not discharged…”
An Owerri-based lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “there is no gain saying that the said Amadi is being used. I am not necessarily a fan of the acting Chief Judge, but I will support any move aimed at dismantling the cabal before it inflicts more harm on the state’s judiciary”.
The young lawyer, who is also a civil society activist, said that Agugua’s matter confirms how desperate the cartel has become to retain its control over the state’s judiciary. He disclosed the cartel’s last “act of perfidy” before the appointment of Agugua was in the appointment of the Magistrates and Court Inspectors during the short-lived administration of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha. “The entire thing was shrouded in secrecy because those appointed were related to members of the cartel either as friends or family members”, he said. Continuing, he said: “The appointments were through ordinary SMS.(Short Service Messages) There was not a single publication, either through the electronic or print media, announcing the appointments before they were sworn in”.
The lawyer disclosed that virtually all the members of the state’s branch of the Nigerian Bar Association are behind Agugua whom he said has suffered a lot of injustice, adding that she was supposed to have emerged Chief Justice after the tenure of Justice B.O. Njemanze, under whom she served as an Administrative Judge. “Going by the rule, she was the second in command and ought to have succeeded Njemanze, but to the surprise of everybody, she was transferred to Mbaise, and Justice Nnadi, who was in charge of Court Four, was appointed the Chief Judge instead, thus not only by-passing Agugua but also Justice Duruoha-Igwe who was number three”. The legal practitioner further disclosed that this same cartel has succeeded in imposing a leadership of its own choice on the Bar and that was why its members were able to get their puppets among members of the NBA in the state to sign a document accusing Agugua of sundry matters.
In spite of her travails, Hon. Justice Agugua, it was gathered, is determined to restore order in the state’s judiciary. For example, upon taking over as Acting Chief Judge, she appointed Justice Ikpeama, the next most senior judge, as the administrative judge in replacement of Justice Ononeze-Madu, believed to be the cartel’s choice as the next Chief Judge. Although this action was interpreted in some quarters as “high handed”, keen watchers of events in the state’s judiciary, it is gathered, see it as a step in the right direction.
For now, there is no love lost between the contending groups. But one thing is clear, and that is a reversal of the Acting Chief Judge’s appointment is not in the offing despite the pressures being exerted on the government.