Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Article: Controversial Appointment Of Magistrates In Imo State Judiciary



By Barr. Emperor N. Iwuala (ksc.)

It could be recalled that towards the end of the year 2011, Governor Okorocha’s administration in Imo State sacked four members of the Imo State Judicial Commission appointed during the Ohakim regime before the expiration of their constitutionally guaranteed tenures.

Consequently, the sacked members went to court to challenge their sack. While in court, the Governor and the Imo State House of Assembly replaced the sacked members with their own appointees. Ironically also, while the case against the illegal sack was still in court, the Chief Judge as the Chairman of the state judicial Service Commission started sitting in meetings of the commission with the newly appointed members.

Accordingly, on the 27th June 2012, a High Court in Owerri presided by a very courageous jurist, Justice Nonye Okoronkwo, declared that it was wrong to sack the commission members and ordered that the embattled commission members be re-instated.

Unfortunately, this judgment was not obeyed by the Imo State Government. Instead, it appealed against. Incidentally, as at the time of writing this piece, the matter is still in the Court of Appeal and the state government has failed to prosecute it further.
Interestingly, the country’s constitution among other things, vests the power to appoint magistrates in the State Judicial Service Commission.

I have been at the vanguard of those who have been advocating for sanity to return to the judiciary of Imo State. This is because this is the arm of government people feel their lost hope could be regained. Also, I have written severally on the need to have more magistrates and judges in the Imo State judiciary. In my last article on the Imo Judiciary, it was my humble view that for the state Judiciary to among other things have more magistrates and judicial officers, that the Imo State Government should withdraw the appeal it filed against the re-instatement of the sacked members of the state Judicial Service Commission so that the commission could perform its duties. I also submitted that the re-instated members should be allowed to serve out their different tenures or in the alternative, be paid off accordingly if the present government was no longer comfortable with the embattled members and then appoint new ones. I also said that the state government should show good faith in the settlement bid so as to have the confidence of the said commission members in the whole arrangement. With this, I opined that the Imo State Government would have yanked off another unnecessary yoke around its neck.

I am aware that while the crisis in the commission lasted, the tenure of one of the sacked members expired some time last year and there has not been any known replacement. Also, there was a time Imo State Government was trying to negotiate with the sacked members so that they would be paid off. The state government recently claimed that it has given the re-instated members the sum of =N=18M. But when I reached at these embattled members recently, they all confirmed that the Imo State Government has not even paid them salaries or any other money from the time they were sacked till the time of this write-up. They also debunked that the state government’s claim that the crisis had been settled saying that it was all lies.

Nevertheless, many have been asking why the Imo State Judiciary is finding it difficult to enforce a judgment of its own court re-instating the sacked members of the state Judicial Service Commission. What is even the rationale behind settling the re-instated members who are eminent sons of the state?

Recently, 23 new magistrates were given letters of appointment dated March 2013 in what looks like a hide-and seek game. The irony of the whole saga is that after signing these letters of appointments, the same permanent Secretary that signed them was retired in a very controversial manner.

Be that as it may, on the 25th of June 2013, the newly appointed magistrates were sworn in in a manner many have described as suspicious. Members of the Nigerian Bar Association say that they were not officially invited to the swearing in of the magistrates as was the practice in the past.

Consequently, many stakeholders have accused the Imo State Government and the leadership of the judiciary led by the state Chief Judge Justice B. A. Njemanze of injustice in the recent appointment of magistrates. Some claim that the leadership of the judiciary sheared the 23 magisterial slots among their children, blood relations, cronies and associates as against people who merit the jobs. Some also claim that persons who never applied for the magisterial jobs were also among those appointed magistrates.

Because of the type of advocacy I have passion for, I did not apply to be a magistrate and does not intend to be one in future. But ironically, some of my relations and friends were favoured in the appointment under review. But that is not the point. For me, what is worth doing is worth doing well especially when it concerns the judiciary and the law.
However, I am not interested in the merit of the process by which these officers of the lower bench were recently appointed. My reason is that there is no way such appointments can be based on merit owing to the kind of unfortunate system and clime that have bedevilled our generation. Rather, I am faulting the competence of the body that appointed them.

As I said earlier, the letters of appointment of these new magistrates shows that they were appointed in March 2013. I have also interviewed all the re-instated members of the commission and they all said that the state Chief Judge as the Chairman of the Commission has never given them any notice of meeting of the Commission from 27th June 2012 till the time of this write-up.

The question now is which commission authorized the appointment of the new magistrates and in which meeting of the commission was the appointment authorized?

The initial rumour was that the magistrates were appointed because the re-instated members had been paid off. When that rumour could not hold water, it was then said that the Chief Judge, the state Attorney-General and the Acting President of the Customary Court of Appeal et al without the re-instated members formed a competent quorum to do the appointments. 

Consequently, there are a lot of questions begging for answers in the whole saga. Assuming the embattled members were paid off did they formally resign? Assuming they resigned was there a newly constituted state Judicial Service Commission that appointed the magistrates? Can the authority that did the appointment of the magistrates also validly confirm the appointment of a substantive state President of the Customary Court of Appeal or nominate persons to be appointed High Court Judges in the state?

Unfortunately, many persons who are in official positions to answer the above posers have all declined to make comments on this saga. The whole thing looks like a kangaroo arrangement. This then shows that all is not well with the whole appointment exercise.

It is said that petitions have been sent to the National Judicial Commission on this development and some people are also threatening court actions. Many legal pundits are also of the view that the magistrates were illegally appointed and that actions these new appointees take as magistrates might elicit embarrassing court actions if not now, but in future.

In a meeting held recently by the members of the Nigerian Bar Association Owerri Branch, the branch not only frowned at the said appointments but condemned it. It also agreed to set up a committee to advise the branch on how to go about the saga.

It is very unfortunate that this episode is happening to an arm of government people see as the last hope of the common. I am also ashamed that this is the same place where yours truly minister for the course of the oppressed and downdrodden.

Surprisingly, some people are already shocked as they feel that it was only politicians in the other arms of government that are involved in intrigues, acts of corruption and illegality. Therefore, if injustice and illegality is openly and  proudly celebrated in the judiciary, then the society is in for a perpetual damnation.

Unfortunately, a lot of accusing fingers are on the state Chief Judge Justice B. A. Njemanze as the brain behind the whole crises. Some say that the Chief Judge had allowed the crisis so that he would continue ruling the state Judiciary as a ‘Sole Administrator’ in lieu of the state Judicial Service Commission. Others say that the Chief Judge does not want to sit in the same commission with his retired senior learned brother Justice Obasi Iwuagwu (Rtd.) who is among the embattled commission members as it is believed that the retired judge would always insist on right things to be done in the commission. Rumours also have it that the non-obedience to the court order is a show of malice because of the petition by the embattled members to the National Judicial Council against alleged improper conduct of the Chief Judge in relation to the crises in the commission.

However, no matter the reason for the crises, the present leadership in the Imo Judiciary should not set a bad precedent. What kind of justice can a magistrate illegally appointed give the system? One cannot put something on nothing and expects it to stand.

Therefore, it will be very embarrassing if this issue is allowed to take a dangerous angle. It will be even more embarrassing that a magistrate gives judgment and his locus as magistrate is constantly challenged in court.

Just like what was done during the Ohakim Administration in the state, I had expected the state judiciary to focus on things like provision of official vehicles for Chairmen of state Customary Courts who till this moment have no official vehicles like their counterparts in the state magistrates’ courts .

Be that as it may, it is my humble view that the law should be obeyed to the letter in the appointment of the magistrates because we really need them to decongest our courts. The Judiciary should

However, if the process that brought these magistrates in is illegal, it might not be too late to review the whole exercise so as to save the Imo Judiciary from a perceived future embarrassment. The whole world is watching. The Imo Judiciary is already sitting on a keg of gun powder. It is the closeness of trees that makes it look as if a monkey is smart. Tomorrow the trees may be no more and the monkey will cease to be smart.

Therefore, ‘let justice be done even if heavens fall’ (Fiat Justicia Ruat Coalum) for that is the only way to recover the Imo State Judiciary that is already going down under the Njemanze-Led Administration.

(Iwuala can be reached on: 08037247295, emperoriwuala@yahoo.com)

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