I recollect my virtual presentation to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner (UNOHCHR) for Human Rights in October 19, 2020 during the youth unrest in Nigeria tagged “End-SARS” protest. Many people asked why I asserted that the Nigerian youths were directing their fight to a wrong and innocent party, that the Nigerian Police is never the problem of Nigeria, rather the Policemen are equally victims of Nigerian state. The Nigerian Police was wrongly blamed.
I retorted that the judiciary has been the enabler of all atrocities committed by law enforcement agents and the officials of the Executive Arm of Government. It is the judiciary that is legally and constitutionally placed in a position to checkmate and review actions of all other arms as well as persons. Because the judiciary has surrendered its authority and integrity to dustbin of the state, and there are no consequences, that is why police brutality and other social malaises flourish in Nigeria. In fact, the ills of the Nigerian Judiciary are complex and multi-dimensional.
I was opportune to see the records of the case involving Pastor Umo Bassey Eno’s conviction by the Chief Magistrate Court, Abuja. The crux of the matter exposes a gargantuan proportion of subterfuge and perceived corruption in the FCT Judiciary, just like many other jurisdictions of Nigerian judiciary. The judiciary has positioned Nigeria in a state of international public ridicule and odium.
The story of the case of Pastor Umo Bassey Eno as found in the case record is shocking. The record speaks volume that the current Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Pastor Umo Bassey Eno is alleged to have committed an offence of Cheating and Dishonestly inducing delivery of property against one Mr. Godwin Edet Etim, a former contract staff to Exxon Mobil Producing Nigeria Ltd attached to Royalty Hotels contracting service to Mobil, wherein the man forfeited wages belonging to the said Godwin Edet Etim. Despite all plea, he refused to release the money and when the said Mr. Godwin Edet Etim accosted him, he was detained by his guards in a private confinement for seven days. He also lost his daughter due to the ill-treatmeny by Mr. Umo Bassey Eno. Parts of the crimes extended to Abuja, thus leading to criminal summon against Pastor Umo Bassey Eno, his arraignment , trial and conviction pursuant to Section 325 of the Penal Code law.
An extensive trial was conducted by the Magistrate Court throughout the year 2022 until judgment was delivered on December 20, 2022 convicting Pastor Umo Eno for the alleged crimes based on the findings of the Court. The Court could not pronounce sentence due to absence of the Defendant in Court. The Court granted additional Order issuing Warrant of Arrest for sentencing. Upon service of the Warrant on the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Umo Bassey Eno instructed his lawyers to file a Motion to set aside “Issuance of Warrant of Arrest”.
On the 9th day of January, 2023, the legal team of Pastor Umo Eno filed a Motion on Notice to set aside Issuance of Warrant of Arrest and filed nothing more. That is to say, was no motion to set aside the judgment and the conviction of the Court.
On the 10th day of January 2023, the Court granted an Ex-parte Order for hearing of Motion on Notice to set aside Issuance of Warrant of Arrest and the said motion affidavit undertook that Mr. Umo Eno will appear in Court as the basis for the grant of that relief. The said Order of Substituted Service which slated a hearing date for January 13, 2023 was served on the Complainant lawyers (the law firm of Law Icons Solicitors & Notaries) same date of January 10, 2023. As the record demonstrates, the complainant filed a counter affidavit and a written submission opposing the Motion to Set Aside “Issuance of Warrant of Arrest” slated for hearing on January 13, 2023 as indicated in the Court Order of Substituted Service. Known that there was no defense to the crime allegedly committed, tried and convicted, in an obvious perfection of fraud against the judicial proceedings, when the Complainant’s lawyers arrived the Court on January 13, 2023, the matter was called from the Cause List. Neither Umo Eno’s lawyers nor the said Mr. Umo Eno made appearance in Court. As practice appeared to be, the Complainant’s lawyers urged the Court to deem Umo Eno’s application to set aside issuance of warrant of arrest abandoned and strike it out. One would be so shocked why the Magistrate, Mr. Emmanuel Iyanna had to inform them that in the absence of the Complainant and his lawyers, on the 11th day of January 2023, less than 24 hours after service of Order of Substituted Service on the complainant lawyers to appear on 13th January 2023 for hearing, he had set aside the judgment of the December 20, 2022 which convicted Pastor Umo Bassey Eno when a date for hearing of Motion to Set Aside Issuance of Warrant of Arrest was slated for January 13, 2023. Only corruption or mental health crisis could have given birth to such a fraudulent proceedings.
Eralier, on the 10th day of January 2023, the print and social media were awash with news of alleged bribery, and fingers pointed at the Chief Judge of High Court of FCT, Hon. Justice Husseini Yusuf and the Magistrate, Hon. Emmanuel Iyanna alleging that they met same day in Lagos with the aides of the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Udom Emmanuel, where Dollars were exchanging hands. However, this remains in the realm of allegation, but such proceedings would force one to be swayed by the antics of media blackmail on the judicial officers.
What is more surprising, the complainant’s lawyers have insisted that the said Magistrate Court did not sit on the 11th January 2023, such proceedings could only have held at the Magistrate House, in the bush or another world, but not the open Court. They also claimed that they applied and obtained the Cause List of 11th January 2023 and the Court did not sit.
What is more, the Complainant filed appeal against what he regarded as “Fraudulent Proceedings” seeking the Appellate Unit of the High Court of FCT to set aside the alleged fraudulent proceedings of 11th January 2023 and pronounce sentence on Mr. Umo Bassey Eno, including binding him from holding public office in Nigeria for ridiculing judicial proceedings.
Both Appellant and the Defendant had exchanged briefs of appeal with the one of Umo Eno appearing with no answer to the issue of fraudulent proceedings of January 11, 2023.
The Appeal was fixed for hearing on May 4, 2023. Surprisingly, the media was again awash alleging that the Chief Judge of FCT, Hon. Justice Husseini Yusuf had been compromised by aides of former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Governor Udom Emmanuel to cause him to intervene and stop the appeal from being heard until after May 29, 2023 when they can plead immunity clause to free Umo Eno perpetually.
In what appears to have manifested the allegation of compromising the appeal hearing, on the 2nd day of May 2023, the Chief Judge of FCT suddenly suspended the appeal and dislodged the appeal panel via a directive. Angered by the complainant lawyers, they wrote a letter to him demanding that an appeal panel be reconstituted and the appeal must be heard within seven days. They also informed the National Judicial Council of the ugly development. The FCT Chief Judge obliged the request and reconstituted another appeal panel with new judge, Hon. Justice Belgore presiding and Hon. Justice M. B. Idris assisting.
The matter was slated for hearing on the 17th day of May 2023. On the 16th day of May 2023, Pastor Umo Eno Counsel led by Uwemedimo Nwoko, SAN and Paul Usoro, SAN who had filed their briefs as early as April 2023 without reference to supplementary record, filed a Supplementary Record alleging that there was a hearing notice served directly on the complainant counsel on the 10th day of January 2023 which informed of hearing on the 11th day of January 2023. It seems clearly that the tactics was to enable the Court delay proceedings until after May 29th 2023 as Umo Eno appeared to have no defense in the matter. Such a supplementary record could only become an issue if there was a background discussion between the Court and Umo Eno’s team on what could be a way out.
One may ask, could the Magistrate Court which issued an Order of Substituted Service dated 10th January 2023 with a hearing date of January 13, 2023 also on the same 10th January 2023 issue another hearing notice for hearing on the 11th day of January 2023?
Even the deaf will perceive this level of fraud.
A lawyer by the name Aputazie Chinyere Laura, Esq. in the law firm of Law Icons Solicitors & Notaries impugned the seemingly fraudulent supplementary record. The Bailiff of the Magistrate court whose name appeared in the purported certificate of service, one Mr. Daniel Ochai has also deposed to an affidavit refuting his knowledge of such certificate of service to the supplementary record of Umo Eno alleging that it is forgery. That he did not serve the complainant lawyers any hearing notice for hearing on 11th January 2023. That as a court official his knowledge of proceedings was hearing of 13th January 2023 which was served by his colleague and not him.
During the proceedings of May 17th, 2023, Justice Belgore of FCT High Court adjourned the matter to May 24, 2023 despite granting a motion filed by the Complainant lawyers for an Order of Accelerated Proceedings to hear and determine the matter before May 29, 2023.
On May 24, 2023, all effort of Ibrahim Idris, SAN, counsel brought in to lead the complainant’s team, to urge the Court to allow counsel adopt the processes for the Court to deliver judgment on the appeal proved abortive as the Judge was seen to be guided by Paul Usoro, SAN to divert from the business of the Court to an issue that a lawyer from Law Icons chambers deposed to an affidavit challenging the alleged fraudulent supplementary record. The judge adjourned to May 25, 2023 for ruling on the Plaintiff legal representation just a mere ground that a lawyer from Law Icons deposed to affidavit that no hearing notice was served on her for any hearing on 11th January 2023 except an Order of substituted service which fixed hearing for 13th January 2023. The Court directed itself to a no issue and the appeal hearing was frustrated. On the 25th May 2023, the Court ruled and disqualified the law firm of Law Icons from the proceedings for challenging a fraudulent supplementary record. Who else ought to have challenged a supplementary record which any reasonable man will know is fraudulent and slot in to enable the court buy time until May 29, 2023. This is a very strange proceeding never heard of in the history of judicial proceedings anywhere in the world. On what ground can a whole law firm be disqualified on the ground that one of their lawyers challenge an alleged supplementary record for being fraudulent. Who else supposed to challenge same when Umo Eno claimed it was served on the counsel?. What law did the judge based his decision to disqualify a law firm from proceedings in the absence of professional misconduct. Attempt to disqualify Ibrahim Idris, SAN was not successful as he earlier announced that he was not working in Law Icons but was representing his own law firm leading the team.
But again, all effort of Ibrahim Idris, SAN to cause the Court to proceed to the appeal and conclude it on the 26th day of May 2023 fell on deaf ears. Paul Usoro, SAN’s request that the matter be adjourned to a far date was granted despite attention of the Judges being drawn to section 308 of the Constitution by Ibrahim Idris, SAN. Justice Belgore adjourned the matter to May 2nd 2023.
The media had already reported a leaked plot by the aides of Governor Udom Emmanuel and the FCT Judiciary to frustrate the appeal until after May 29, 2023. The Judiciary could not redeem its image.
How will such a complainant ever believe in going to court to seek redress in issues that confronts him?
One is also left to see what will play out. Will Justice Belgore continue the matter when Umo Eno’s lawyers raise an objection based on section 308 of the Constitution – the immunity clause even after they waived it and practically requested for a latter adjourned date?
I hold an opinion that in the circumstance Umo Eno is affected by the doctrine of estoppel having waived that constitutional protection in the court proceedings. I also hold an opinion that Section 308 of CFRN does not affect appeal proceedings as well as pre-election and election matters. Appeal is not a trial, and does not require the presence of Umo Eno. If my opinion is wrong, I am certain of one thing, the Court is now the one in absolute trial.
Based on what is seen on social and print media about this case, it is very unfortunate that the Court, and in deed the revered office of the Chief Judge of FCT High Court is been referenced as helping the Respondent to slur justice and render mockery to judicial proceedings. There is need to correct such impression and misrepresentation. A situation like this where the Judiciary is being seen by laymen as accomplice and helper of the rich and powerful criminal elements who can fund private pockets against justice for the downtrodden and the tenet of justice could cause loss of hope in court system and encourage self-help. It does not speak well for Nigerian judiciary. . This is just one of the awkwardness and embarrassments of Nigerian judiciary across the Federation of Nigeria.
If criminals are befriended and assisted by the judiciary to climb the ladder of power, a day will come when a functional judiciary will cease to exists, just like what happened in Nazis Germany.
The postulate of Baron de Montesquieu, the proponent of the Doctrine of Separation of Power, which said, “There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice”, demonstrates more than a passive refection in the character of Nigerian Judiciary.
Prof. Cyprian F. Edward-Ekpo is Director-General, Institute of Law Research & Development of United Nations (ILAWDUN), Washington D.C, U.S.A; Principal Executive Director, Universal School of Eclectic Analysis, Research & Legal Studies (UNISERL), London, UK; QAE-PHU’s Distinguished Professor of International Environmental Law, Newark, USA, & SIA’s Professor Public International Law (h.c), London, UK.