By Barr. Emperor Nnabuihe Iwuala (Ksc.)
Towards the end of the year 2011, the Imo State Government suspended the Imo State Judicial Service Commission. This was done through a letter by the Secretary of the State Government Prof. A. G. Anwuka to the Chief Judge of the state calling for the suspension of the activities of the commission. Subsequently, the state government appointed new members who replaced the ‘sacked’ ones who were yet to complete their constitutionally guaranteed tenures in office.
Consequently, the replaced members challenged their removal in an Owerri High Court. On the 27th June 2012, the Owerri High Court presided by Hon Justice Nonye Okoronkwo declared the replacement of the sacked commission members unconstitutional and ordered that the removed commission members be re-instated. The affected members are the Former President of the Imo State Customary Court of Appeal, Rtd. Justice Obasi Iwuagwu, Pioneer Vice Chancellor of the Imo State University Prof. Thomas Ndubizu, former Member of the Imo House of Assembly Hon. Nkem Nwankwo, and Barr. Chinedu Igwe.
Consequently, the newly appointed members of the commission who replaced the illegally removed ones ceased to be in office.
Regrettably, the Imo State Government has since then refused to obey this judgment but claims to have gone on appeal against the judgment. This has invariably made the state judiciary not to have a functional Judicial Service Commission for more than 11 months from the time of this write-up.
Section 6 (c) Part II Third Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended) spells out the duties of a State Judicial Service Commission. They include the duty to appoint, dismiss and exercise disciplinary control over judges, magistrates, customary court chairmen/ members, the Chief Registrar/Deputy Registrars of the superior courts and members of the staff of the Judicial Service Commission.
Therefore, the implication of the non-existence of a Judicial Service Commission in Imo State is that all the above functions of the Commission are not being performed in the State for 11 months from the time of this write-up.
Recently, in the year 2012 a list of more than ten persons to be nominated as judges for the Imo State Judiciary was rejected by the National Judicial Council because of the non-obedience to the June 27 2013 court judgment ordering the re-instatement of the sacked members of the Imo State judicial Service Commission. Also, in the same year some persons were elevated to the Court of Appeal. Abia State had two slots while Imo State was completely left out because of the same disobedience to the said judgment. Presently, there is no Imo person at the Supreme Court since the death of Justice Pats Acholonu and there is no hope yet of having an Imo indigene at the said country’s apex court.
Furthermore, since the retirement of Justice A.B.C. Egu more than a year and half from the time of this write-up, there has not been a substantive President of the Customary Court of Appeal Imo State. The next senior judge Justice P. I. Okpara has acted beyond 6 months as against the constitutionally provided 3 months period. This is because there is no existing Judicial Service Commission in the state to confirm the appointment of a substantive President. Many legal pundits are of the opinion that this lacuna can elicit a lot of unconstitutionality. It is said that this can nullify some acts done by the Acting President of the state Customary Court of Appeal done in such acting capacity. Also there is no confirmation of a substantive Chief Registrar and Deputy Registrar for a very long time now since the inception of the Okorocha Government in the state.
In another vein, the Imo State Law on the establishment of courts in the state provides for a minimum of 30 High Courts to service the 27 local government areas in the state. Port-Harcourt municipality alone has 25 functional Courts. But unfortunately, Imo State has only few courts. As at the time of this write-up, there are no High Courts in 14 local government areas of the state. They are; Ezinihitte Mbaise, Ehime Mbano, Ideato South, Isu, Mbaitoli, Ngor-Okpala, Njaba, Nwangele, Obowo, Ohaji/Egbema, Onuimo, Orsu , Oru East, Owerri North and Owerri West. The irony is that some of the above listed Local Government Areas do not even have a High Court when in actual sense, the need up to four High Courts each.
To worsen the matter, there is no judge sitting at Ahiazu Mbaise High Court for about two years from the time of this write-up. Also as a result of retirement of many judges, there are no judges in some High Courts in Owerri, none in Oguta High Courts 2 and 3, High Court 2 Okigwe, Isiala Mbano High Court and the High Court in Urualla Ideato South. Regrettably also, not less than two judges are retiring before then end of the year 2013.
Similarly, the above unfortunate situations in High Courts in Imo State are even worse in the state Customary Court of Appeal, Magistrates’ and Customary courts. Incidentally, it is over one year from the time of this write-up the Okorocha Administration conducted interview for appointment of magistrates but nothing has been heard any longer about the exercise.
The implication of the above scenario is that one judge, magistrate or panels of customary courts handles from 20 to 40 cases daily (being cases meant for up to four to five persons/panels) in the state. Also, the Panels of Customary Courts are distorted because of vacancies or completion of tenures of some members without replacement. All of these and more have jointly ruined justice delivery in the state as cases linger so much in court with disposal of cases unreasonably delayed. This has also made the people start losing hope in the Imo Judiciary which before now, was seen as the ‘last hope of the common man’.
Rumour has it that the re-instated members of the state Judicial Service Commission were sacked for selfish and political reasons. It is said that their sack is one of the agenda of a senior official of the Okorocha’s Government to make his wife the President of the Customary Court of Appeal against the rule on seniority in the legal profession. Some people are also of the opinion that the comatose in the state Judiciary is a manifestation of the present Imo State Government’s publicly acclaimed disenchantment for Rule of Law. Recently, I heard that the Okorocha Government promised to pay off the said members he sacked. The question now is what is the morality behind this? Are the sacked commission members outcasts or non Imo indigenes? Why not allow them complete their tenure and then appoint new ones?
The irony of the whole saga is that when the re-instated members of the commission were illegally sacked and new ones appointed, the Chief Judge of Imo State who is the Chairman of the Commission did not waste time in sitting with the new members. But eleven months after the Imo State High Court ordered for the reinstatement of the sacked members, the Chief Judge is yet to call a meeting of the commission and sit with the re-instated members. It is trite law that appeal against a judgment does not operate as a stay of that judgment. It is even a more confusing irony that Imo State Judiciary has refused to implement even its own judgment. Habba! The Governor should not be blamed in this matter. I think if the Chief Judge of the state as the Chairman of the commission starts calling meetings of the Commission with the re-instated members, the problem will be over.
The Nigerian Bar Association is among the greatest casualties of the predicament facing the Imo State judiciary. Ironically, Imo State has a lot of respected Senior Advocates and lawyers in the country’s legal profession. Nevertheless, many judges and other stake-holders have openly called for the recovery of the Imo Judiciary which is dying faster under the present administration in Imo State.
Interestingly, I heard that some senior members of the legal profession in the state have met and entreated the state Chief Judge to start sitting with the re-instated members of the commission but unfortunately, this is yet to happen.
Be that as it may, there is no hope lost. If the present government in Imo State means well for the Imo State Judiciary, I do not see any difficulty in getting this arm of government back on track.
Therefore below are my humble suggestions as way forward:
1.The court judgment re-instating the sacked members of the state Judicial Service Commission should be obeyed by the State Government. The Chief Judge should call a meeting of the state Judicial Service Commission and allow the re-instated commission members participate. This will make the state have a functional Judicial Service Commission that will take care of the welfare of the state judiciary.
2. In the alternative, if the government does not still like the faces of the re-instated members, these members could be sincerely approached and paid all their arrears of salaries and cumulative entitlements for their remaining tenures This might enable them resign formally for preferred new members to be appointed
3. The Imo State Government should grant the Imo State Judiciary financial autonomy just like it is in places like Rivers State. This will make the judicial arm of the state government independent and free from undue influence and control of politicians and other arms of government.
4. Other arms of government should not continue desecrating the judiciary by interfering with its activities for selfish and political reasons.
5. The society is becoming more sophisticated and the litigious consciousness of Imo people is increasing everyday. Therefore, adequate fund should be provided for the Imo State Judiciary so that this important arm of government can meet its demanding responsibilities.
6. More courts should be created and new judicial officers, magistrates, customary court officers appointed to handle the rising number cases that pile up in the state judiciary on daily basis.
7. The Chief Judge and other stake-holders in the judiciary should sincerely stand courageously against the undue interference of politicians in the activities of the judiciary just like in the good days of Justice Chukwudifo Oputa (Rtd.) as the Chief Judge of Imo State.
8. Members of the Nigerian Bar Association (especially the ones in Imo State) should intensify its fight to reclaim the state judiciary.
(Iwuala, an Owerri-Based Private Legal Practitioner can be reached on: 08037247295, firstname.lastname@example.org)