By Emmanuel Umohinyang
One popular saying, especially when there is perceived injustice is that the Judiciary remains the last hope of the common man.
This is hinged on the prism that the Courts are an impartial arbiter where justice can be obtained by all, irrespective of background.
That is the major reason Nigerians still have implicit confidence in our Judicial system, despite the endless criticisms that the system has had to contend with.
Unfortunately, these criticisms are very much with us and would take a very long time to go because of the high handedness of some persons in the Bench who sometimes overreach their bounds in the Temple of Justice.
No doubt, mistakes are inevitable in every human endeavor, but it is the height of impunity for anyone to ascribe to himself powers he doesn’t have, no matter the situation.
Issues like this bring back the memories of my boss, mentor and greatest friend of the masses, Late Chief Gani Oyesola Fawehinmi (SAN) who at different times fought such impunity even at the risk of his life.
Gani, as he was fondly called took the battle to the Courts to fight perceived injustice, for which many Nigerian Journalists, Lawyers, Activists and Poorest of the poor would never forget him.
There is no iota of doubt that the late human rights activist would be angry in his grave because of the Inibehe Effiong case in Akwa Ibom State.
Effiong, a lawyer and human rights activist was recently sent to one month in prison for contempt by the chief judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Obot.
He is the lawyer to Leo Ekpeyong, a professional colleague who is standing trial in a libel suit instituted by the state Governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel and Mr. Effiong Dickson.
The defence Counsel had earlier asked the Chief Judge to disqualify herself from presiding over the matter, alleging likelihood of bias.
When the matter came up for cross examination of the last witness, on Wednesday July 27, 2022, it ended abruptly as the Chief Judge was visibly infuriated by the perceived confrontational behavior of the rights lawyer.
Effiong had while cross examining the witness drawn the attention of the Chief Judge to the presence of two AK47- bearing Policemen inside the court.
Said he “with total respect My Lord, I don’t feel comfortable as a lawyer in this atmosphere having armed policemen sitting behind me.
“I am formally raising observation that the atmosphere of the Court is hostile for the proceedings .I am also raising observation that my Lord should ask them to leave the Court, they have no business being here, but if my Lordship rules that is in line with the tradition of the Court, let them stay, but I pray the Court should excuse them. Even in ceremonial Court, armed Policemen do not enter the Court”
Irked by Effiong’s effrontery, Justice Obot ordered him to step out of the bar, which he obliged and further ordered him to remove his wig and gown, but the lawyer sought the reason for such order, even as he indicated that he would not address the Judge while being de-robed.
The CJ quipped “you are sentenced for being confrontational and contemptuous, now remove your wig. You are no longer in a position to address me. You are hereby sentenced to one month imprisonment to purge yourself of contempt.”
Despite the plea of two lawyers, including the defence counsel’s colleague, the Chief Judge said it was late as she had already passed her judgment.
Speaking with Journalists after the incident, the claimant’s counsel, Samuel Ikpo said “we have filed our last witness for the final cross examination and the defence counsel in his characteristic manner was very hostile with the Chief Judge, poured vituperation.
“He has been doing that before, even me as a lawyer cannot tolerate that, but the Chief Judge in her magnanimity has been tolerating him until today.
“In law, even when the judgment is against you, you cannot stand before the Chief Judge and say, you see that matter, I am going to appeal. Every time he goes out of Court, he will gather the media to talk nonsense. Let him stay in the Correctional Centre and purge himself of contempt.’’
This Writer would never disparage the Judiciary, no matter its shortcomings because doing so does not augur well for our Jurisprudence and democracy.
But that does not suggest that I agree with Justice Obot one bit. Far from it, because this unfortunate scenario could have been better handled.
The essence of this article is equally not to hold brief for Effiong because of my conviction that it is a matter he could jolly well handle.
However, this does not preclude one from saying the truth as far as this issue is concerned.
In doing this, these pertinent questions needed to asked, to further shed light on this all-important matter.
Could the Akwa Ibom Chief Judge have excluded herself from this case over the likelihood of bias? Is the plea by Effiong in respect of the two AK-47 – bearing policemen in Court out of place? Is it out of place for the Chief Judge to have given the rights activist a warning, instead of sending him to jail?
At this point, it would be germane to ask what the interest of Justice Obot is in this matter. This is most essential, if one considers the issue of perception which is very significant.
Perception may not always be true, but it must be factored into whatever we do because when people think in a certain manner, whether rightly or wrongly, it cannot be simply waved aside.
In this particular case, this is ideal because as the head of Akwa Ibom State Judiciary, Justice Obot relates periodically with Governor Udom Emmanuel, the State chief executive, who is a party in this case before the Chief Judge.
Though both head different arms of government and operate independently, the possibility of bias cannot be over ruled.
Excusing herself from this matter would have been most ideal as credibility is crucial in the dispensation of Justice.
Indeed, if another Judge had presided over the matter and sent Effiong to Jail, it would not have generated the kind of reactions it is currently generating locally and internationally.
It is a truism that the court is clothed with the power to deal with issues of contempt under the Federal and States High Court Civil Procedure Rules and Judgment (Enforcement) Rules made pursuant to the Sheriffs and Civil Process Act. Sentencing without trial is definitely not welcome under the Nigerian Criminal Justice system as it relates to an exercise of arbitrariness and a slapped on the hallowed concept of the Rule of law.That is to say that since the lawyer has been accused of contempt, he ought to have been tried for same in accordance with the layed down legal procedure before being sentenced. In AKPAN vs AKPAN, Justice Niki Tobi warned that since contempt proceedings affect the liberty of the contemnor ,the law expects strict compliance with the procedural rules.
It is pertinent to note that the power of the court to punished a person for contempt is basically to protect the cause of justice from being eroded or hindered not to be used whimsically or for the fertilization of a Judge personal ego.
It is therefore important to distinguish between conduct that tends to erode the dignity of the temple of justice from conduct which merely annoyed me Lord.
In lZUORA vs THE QUEEN ; The Privy Council held that “it is not every act of discourtesy to the Court by Counsel that amounts to contempt,nor any conduct which involves a breach by Counsel of his duty to his client.
Also in CANDID-JOHNSON vs EDIGI, the appellate Court also lend her views in condemning the crass abuse of judicial power to punished for contempt. The Supreme Court beautifully said that “For words or actions used in the face of the court,or in the course of proceedings, to be contemptuous,they MUST be such as would interfere with the course of justice” .This was held in the case of INEC & ANOR vs OGUEBEGO & ORS.
Unfortunately, we are not in an era when the likes of Gani, Beko Ransome- Kuti, Chima Ubani, Baba Omojola and many others were still around, as what we call the Civil Society today has virtually gone to sleep, while judgment instead of justice walks on both legs.
These were men who never saw eye ball to eye ball with impunity as we are seeing in Akwa Ibom State under the present administration.
In the same state, Senator Godswill Akpabio holds the record of being the best man to have governed the land of promise since its creation.
Curiously, in spite of his achievements, the “uncommon governor” received negative publicity from many publications, some of them libelous, yet ignored them.
In fact, as he was going to the office on a particular day, he was said to have seen a publication which carried a story that he and his wife had been arrested for money laundering abroad on its front page.
Akpabio was said to have bought a copy of the paper, got the editor interrogated, but asked that he be released on finding out that it was the handiwork of fifth columnists.
Governor Emmanuel needs to take a cue from his predecessor, especially with the state holding the unenviable record of having the largest army of unemployed youths according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
Back to the imprisonment of Effiong, though some lawyers have petitioned the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the bigger challenge is to put a final stop to these excesses, no matter whose ox is gored.
Nigerians need to use the Effiong case to show an example to the governor and his ilk that Nigeria is greater than anybody, no matter how highly placed.
The action of the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State is a crass abuse of judicial power and has stretched the time tested view of Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes beyond his imagination and she must be called to order by the NJC before she desecrate that revered institution of justice.
Umohinyang, a social commentator and public affairs analyst wrote from Abuja.