Book: A stranger in their Midst
Author: Charles E. Archibong
Reviewer: Adeyinka Patrick Olumide-Fusika, SAN
Publisher: Narrative Landscape Press (2023)
Pages: 247 pages
The Internet is mindless. Unlike human intelligence, it is incapable of discernment. It is a repository of everything that finds its way there – fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy.
And so, an internet search of the name Justice Archibong will invariably lead you to negative headlines such as “Akingbola: NBA President, Daudu, Walks Out On Judge – Politics – Nairaland”; “Jonathan sacks Justice Archibong – Vanguard News”; “Corruption: Jonathan okays Justice Archibong’s sack – The Eagle Online”; “Jonathan retire Justice Archibong – PM News Nigeria”; “Why we sacked … Archibong – NJC”; “Justice Archibong, a square peg in a round hole?”; etc.
With such headlines dominating the Internet, a decade-long career as a Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, exercising primary jurisdiction over a wide-range of items on the exclusive legislative list is reduced to the single story of the denoument of that career in queer circumstances.
In this book, A stranger in their Midst, Justice C.E. Archibong has risen to the challenge of recording for posterity the full story of his work as a Judge of the Federal High Court. Although this is the main focus of the book, the author also captures snippets of his life, shedding some light into the present condition of Nigeria. For instance, he explains how during his posting to Jos he fell in love with the weather, peace and general ambience of the city, to the extent that he, an Efik man, started planning how to spend the rest of his life in Jos after retirement. He even bought a piece of land to build his retirement home. And then, mayhem broke out in the city in 2010, putting paid to his ambition.
Another noteworthy snippet was about his early life in England where his father, a University of Dublin graduate holding a bachelor’s degree in Literature and History, a master’s degree in Literature and a Higher Diploma in Education, had been serving as Desk Officer of the Student Affairs Desk of the Nigerian High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, London, only to be supplanted and asked to be serving under a fellow Nigerian citizen, recently qualified as a Grade 2 Teacher, apparently in the name of ethnic balancing, a.k.a. Federal character.
Of course, a lot of snippets touched on the relationship of the author and his pillar of support, his banker wife, Juliet. Because he was moving from division to division of the Federal High Court, it was impossible to incessantly uproot his family across these locations, especially because the interest of his autistic son had to be put into consideration. Being bored at a time when he was serving at the Jos Division of the Federal High Court, he once took a weekend trip to Yankari Game Reserve in Bauchi State. It was upon getting there that he found out that phone connection was impossible. Meanwhile, he had not informed his wife of the trip before departing Jos. It can then be imagined what happened when his wife and every other person that tried reaching him on phone could not succeed for almost two days.
Apart from these personal snippets, A Stranger in their Midst lays out the experiences of Judge Charles E. Archibong, who after about two decades of private legal practice, and two short-lived adventures into politics (the nadir of which was his service as elected Chairman of Calabar South Local Government Council during the convoluted and ultimately truncated transition to civil rule programme of the General Babangida led military dictatorship) sought and ascended the bench of the Federal High Court. His motivation, as stated in his own words was because he had come to see that “There is plenty of power on the bench”.
A Stranger in their Midst details a highly incisive engagement with the Nigerian judicial system, as presented through the raft of experiences of its author, Charles E. Archibong, a former ranking judge of the Federal High Court, who is compelled to chronicle the trajectory of a public career of over a decade, in which he took consequential actions that not only impacted the administration of justice in the country, but in which he equally bore the brunt of a system that he apparently took too seriously.
Narrated over a spread of 18 chapters of 247 pages, in addition to initial pages, an epilogue, post-script and appendix, etc., this autobiographical account of Charles Archibong tells a story that’s both private and public – of self and country – while unfolding, in the process, the highs and lows of a judicial career on the bench in the Federal High Court. This saw him discharge his remit from Enugu to Jos, Lagos and then Yenagoa, in Bayelsa State. As the narrative evolves, so are the various issues and concerns strewn in the path of the administration of justice in Nigeria spotlighted, which ultimately define the character and legacy of the author.
Organised around the notion, or trope, of the stranger – an outsider or outlier – who is however both within and outside the system at the same time; one who is an insider enough to see all its foibles, before becoming framed as an outsider for not wanting to partake in the sanctioned rituals and fellowships that are necessary to progress within the system. The outsider not only re-defines himself in relation to the norm, but also gets casted in that mould by the antics of those who are natives of the system and its various expressions.
Naturally, the actions and conducts of the outsider, which have also been designated as a form of “judicial disruption” in the book, challenges the status quo in its accustomed ways, which then pushes back by rallying to contain the disruption – whether by regularly imposing unusual measures of making it render account of itself, deliberate intrusions into its processes and decision-making, alongside a regime of overbearing supervision. Or it just excises the stranger in order to preserve the norm, as was subsequently done in this situation.
That Nigeria is held down by the evil of corruption which pervades every sector of its national life is a well acknowledged fact. We are, and rightly too, in a hurry to crush it. There is however a difference between mob justice and justice according to law. That difference is the absence of due process in the former and its presence (as an intrinsic part) in the latter.
As Archibong points out in A Stranger In their Midst: “The provisions of the 1999 Constitution clearly indicate that courts should be very particular about due process and consequently, about the quality and provenance of evidence as it relates to a particular offence. That is why the chain of evidence in drug cases, for instance, is so important. Neither the EFCC nor any other law enforcement agency should be investigator, prosecutor, judge (or forum picker) and executor (seizing properties as they go). Constitutional safeguards have to be upheld by the courts to apply the brakes to arbitrary action of the executive.”
He appeals to no less a legal canon than the late British jurist, Lord Denning, to ground and reinforce the centrality of due process to the proper administration of justice in any modern judicial system. Denning (1980) puts it thus that due process is: “the measures authorised by law so as to keep the streams of justice pure to see that trials and enquiries are fairly conducted; that arrests are properly made; that lawful remedies are readily available and that unnecessary delays are eliminated.”
A Stranger in their Midst presents the author’s grand vision of the role of the judiciary in society and his answers to questions, such as: How does the judiciary serve society? What should be the legitimate expectation of individuals when they come before the justice system for the adjudication of their disputes? What is the role of the Judge? In answering these and similar questions, the author illustrated with a selection of cases he adjudicated upon in the course of his career, from low profile (your regular run-of-the mill cases of possession of firearms or drugs) and high-profile ones (in which control of state power may be involved) such as the one that followed the mafia-like abduction and attempt at enforced resignation of an incumbent Governor, Dr Chris Ngige of Anambra State in 2003.
In this book, Archibong painstakingly chronicles the processes leading to many of the judgements that he gave, both as documentation for posterity and evidence. For him, and as witnessed in much of his judicial pronouncements, he held due process as being sacrosanct and inviolable, the absence of which was a sore point to be resisted from counsels and parties involved in cases, and which saw to his outright dismissal or discharge of a number of cases.
This vision, especially his uncompromising insistence on due process by all (including his employer, the State); his stance that judicial time must be used efficiently; that cases, once filed, must be prosecuted diligently and resolved in a timely fashion; that the scale of justice must be evenly held by a Judge in every case and most especially in cases by the State against any of its subjects; turned him a ‘stranger’ in a profession and judicial system that has gotten used to the contrary, and wallows in that mire.
A number of these cases went through a labyrinth of technicalities and complex court processes that needed to be sorted out – some spanning a number of years – before they were finally discharged, and hopefully with justice achieved. In the process, Judge Archibong honed his skills for cutting through these mazes quickly to the chase of the matters, and thereafter swiftly discharging the cases involved, as appropriate.
The Nigerian legal system is reputed – if not so honourably – for the ability to drag cases through it in perpetuity, and this has been one of the recurrent points of reform over the years, particularly on how to speed up trial processes, and allow for the quicker determination of cases. The system has been a haven for the dilatory tactics of many lawyers and counsels, who seek to hide behind technicalities and long-winding processes to prolong the course of justice, whether towards pecuniary ends or to attain some predetermined goals.
These serve as context to the energies that Judge Archibong brought on board in rapidly wading through the caseloads at the various divisions of the Federal High Court to which he was posted, from Enugu to Jos and Lagos. Further to this was equally the notion of a speedy consideration of cases in relation to their sustainability through trial and whether they lived up to the tenets of due process – with the latter point subsequently leading to the issues he had with the judicial establishment.
Based on what was narrated by way of background of each case and how he went about resolving the submitted dispute, it is clear that for the author, the fundamental role of the judiciary in society is to uphold social order by resolving conflicts, in a timely manner, using an even scale – the application of pre-existing norms or, in some cases precedents, which have been issued through legitimate procedures, as recognised by the judicial system.
From the narration, a clear pattern emerges of a Judge with a coherent and consistently applied philosophy of justice. The narration gives a clear and unmistakable view of a Judge whose focus was cutting to the chase as quickly as possible and dispensing justice not in accordance with the expectation of any power or mob (which sometimes include a misguided State and some of its agencies and institutions with their sense of entitlement) but in accordance with law and due process of law.
A Stranger in their Midst is a rigorous examination of how justice has become a political issue in Nigeria, according to the author, “Political dispute adjudication and the criminal justice system have become the Achilles’ heel of the judicial establishment, indeed the entire Nigerian legal profession …. They are now the focal points of our so-called “democratic” dispensation. Some senior specialist counsel are now little more than articulate and smooth managers of senior jurists. They parlay close relations with ranking justices (assiduously maintained) into desired outcomes for their patrons and clients”, and they then pile pressure on the NJC to discipline judges that they view as “awkward.”
Pushing back the regular onslaught against due process in many cases that he handled, inclusive of the media trials of victims by the EFCC while bungling the proper court procedure, the shenanigans of senior lawyers and men of the Bar, led to the call of many for his head, as they repeatedly petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC) for disciplinary action against him, as motivated by the senior lawyers who felt slighted by the way he discharged their cases.
While, case after case throughout the length of the book, Archibong demonstrates his proclivity for acting on the side of due process, this could be seen as accounting for his discharge of a number cases erected on faulty procedure – even if at times a bit too hastily. Still, it was this mindset that defined his engagement with the two momentous cases that coalesced into the denouement of his brilliant judicial career – that of the trial of Dr Erastus Akingbola – alleged to have embezzled a humongous amount of money from the Intercontinental Bank that he led – and a part of whose convoluted trial he dismissed, while disbanding the prosecuting team. And, also the trial of some actors in the South-West Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who were in a battle with President Olusegun Obasanjo for supremacy in the party, which he also discharged against the wishes of some powerful social figures.
The foregoing – especially the Akingbola case in which he was accused of being a suborned judge – led him into a vortex of contestations and sponsored career-lynching by a number of senior lawyers and the judicial establishment in the country. It is the considered painful injustice involved in this career-lynching that makes Archibong devote a highly painstaking and significant effort in A Stranger In their Midst to tracing and unveiling the roots of this evil done to him, alongside all the factors that consolidated into such grievous miscarriage of justice, which apparently still sadden him till date.
Naturally, the book becomes a soul-searching around the notion of “judicial misconduct” and what really qualifies as such.
Reading through it, one cannot but be reminded of Wole Soyinka’s farcical fantasy, A play of Giants, with the fate of our author comparable to that of another stranger in their midst, the Chairman of the Bugaran State Bank, whose effort at explaining to the four buffoons caricaturised as African leaders, that merely printing more currency (that turns out more worthless than toilet paper) will not solve their countries’ financial problems, evoked the holy rage of his simpleton Dictator (Field-Marshal Kamini) who, with a signal to his goons, visited the unbridled brilliant head with insertion in a toilet bowl for most of the play (translatable to most of his remaining life).
Although the whole purpose of the play was to depict, in comical fashion, the complete absence of introspection in the caricaturised African leaders (Benefacio Gunema, Emperor Kasco, Field-Marshal Kamini, and General Barra Tuboum), an observation by one of them, Emperor Kasco, is worth recalling:
Power comes only with the death of politics. That is why I chose to become emperor. I place myself beyond politics. At the moment of coronation, I signal to the world that I transcend the intrigues and mundaness of politics. Now I inhabit only the pure realm of power.
To normal people, politics and power are intertwined. Politics is the process through which power is attained or lost. So, when Emperor Kasco says ‘Power comes only with the death of politics’, a perceptive mind immediately perceives that there is some wisdom in his buffoonery. Having arrived at the pinnacle of power using the ladder of politics, what better way to keep himself there than to destroy the ladder?
A Stranger in their Midst dissects what I will refer to as the Kasco equation that has come to afflict our judicial system and its dispensation of justice. In a A Play of Giants, the equation involved ‘power’ and ‘politics’; in ‘A Stranger in Their Midst, the equation involved ‘justice’ and ‘due process’. Is there a pure realm of justice in which due process is just a burden? Put differently, can justice transcend the ‘intrigues’ and ‘mundaness’ of due process? Is justice in fact possible without, or by subversion of due process?
Shorn of all its surrounding and exaggerated drama, the Erastus Akingbola was simply this. The prosecuting agency filed a criminal charge that could not be prosecuted because it had not completed its investigation into the allegations. The charge ended up being dismissed, albeit without prejudice to the right of the state to file a fresh charge when ready to actually prosecute. The dismissal order also contained a directive to the Attorney General to disband and not use the same team of publicly funded private prosecutors for the case whenever refiled. Perhaps the judge intended by this to send out a signal that judicial time is not to be trifled with in the way and manner it had been done.
Aggrieved by the happening, members of the Team (figuratively referred to in the book as “the six milk ‘maids’ of the apocalypse” or the “seal team”) complained to the National Judicial Council. It is ironic that a man whose entire career was devoted to preserving due process in judicial administration became a notable victim of non-observance of due process. A Committee was set-up by the NJC to investigate the complaint. ‘The committee “decided that there was no need to invite the parties as it had sufficient evidence before it to deliberate on the matter””. The Judge was found guilty of lacking full grasp of the law and procedure of the Court, and he was recommended for reprimand by way of a written warning and subjection to closer monitoring by his Chief Judge.
It was later claimed that the NJC, after deliberating on the Report, decided to recommend instead to the President that he “be retired compulsorily”, although all efforts by the author to obtain the record of where that particular decision was taken have been denied till now.
Justice Archibong was only shoved off the Bench by forced retirement, a fate the Chairman of the Bugaran State Bank would have preferred than the indignity of having his head permanently stuck in a toilet bowl. This was in the year 2013. That was ten solid years ago. But like the printing of more bank notes was no solution to the fundamental economic malaise of Bugaran, the forced retirement of the author for daring to remove from his docket a criminal charge that was not ready for prosecution because the allegations were still under investigation has turned out to be no solution to the fundamental malaise afflicting our justice delivery system.
Ten years after, the prosecution of Erastus Akingbola is still nowhere near anywhere. The case had since 2013 ceased to be handled by a judge who “lacked full grasp of the law and procedure of the Court”. Yet? It remains in a situation of no heads, no tails; motion without movement! We should be ashamed of ourselves – the Nigerian state, the system of criminal investigation and prosecution, judges and lawyers. What is the point to a cat that cannot catch mice? How long are we going to continue to allow a situation where “We choose the “offenders” to go after, mindless of the “offence”?” How long are going to continue to tolerate a situation where “Investigators, so-called move into court, unfiltered by experienced attorneys, holding courts captive as they (attorneys) spend years disguising their embarrassment at not having a case worthy of prosecution”? How long are we going to continue to allow “Corruption prosecutions in Nigeria to go on for years while the accusers are still looking for evidence, or just refuse to throw in the towel” while “The judges are captive to the spectacle”?
In the words of the author,
“Mohammed Bello Adoke, Goodluck Jonathan’s Attorney general knew what my clash with … the seal team was all about as he turbo-charged the President’s endorsement of the NJC recommendation that I be retired, over the course of the weekend following that emergency NJC meeting. Adoke told me as much himself later. “You were upholding the authority of your court,” Adoke, SAN said. This was no revelation. I was out of the way; the truth could be admitted to me in person. It would change nothing.”
Understandably, because of the way corruption has ravaged Nigeria and the perception that the judiciary is part of the corruption edifice, the “public does no give a damn”. All that is required to work up the public is simply to levy the allegation and it is assumed true because it fits what they have come to know and expect of their public officials. Once manipulated into an unreasoned rage, the public will overlook Barabbas and go after the innocent one against whom they have been worked-up, even if that one has spent all his working life ensuring that they are not denied the benefit of due process.
The Undertaker, in John Peale Bishop’s Funeral of an Undertaker, lived a life of commitment and service. He ensured that even the poorest was not denied the decency of a burial. He it was who, “With starved horse and bare hearse” took “The poor in spirit to the grave”. Yet, when ultimately death happened to him, and he himself was:
Shrunken by life to a hard grin,
Alone upon an unkempt bed,
The man whose labouring years had been
A watch with death himself lay dead
His eyes stared at the ceiling, the chin
Had fallen, one sleeveless arm was thrown
Limply across the bed, the skin
Pulled thin to fit each finger
Though all men knew that he was dead
No wax light burned beside his bed
And no one from the village came
With black boards for a coffin frame
No housewife came to bind his mouth
With a smooth strip of linen cloth,
No prayer was said, and no one swung.
The bell rope where the church bell rang
But the tragedy has turned out not to be the author’s alone. Right before our very eyes, no less an eminence than our Chief Justice of Nigeria was also denied non-observance of due process. An ex-parteorder of the Code of Conduct Tribunal is all that is now required to remove the CJN from office. Residences of Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria are now invaded like child’s play. A warrant signed by a Magistrate Court from anywhere is all that is required to do that. According to the author, it is all “A fitting endpoint for a system that refused or neglected to champion and proclaim “due process” of lowly people, or the out of favour members of the elite in this democratic era”!
The law says you need a court order to freeze a citizen’s bank account. A citizen’s bank account just gets frozen without any court order; just at the asking of any entity that claims to be performing law enforcement service. The citizen goes to court to complain. The Court finds all manners of excuses to give comfort to, and accommodate the lawlessness. But which law is a so-called ‘law enforcement agency’ enforcing when it would not itself follow the law?
Should outlawry be excused or accommodated under any guise, especially by the State (the Law giver) or its agencies created for law enforcement? Unfortunately, as noted by the author, “Our courts have lost the courage to enforce due process”. The author’s warning to the effect that our failure, with the active acquiescence of the judiciary, to realise that “Trampling on the rights of somebody may result in damage to bigger things like the autonomy of states in a federal system, or even the independence of the judiciary” is not an empty warning. It is already today’s reality.
I once read somewhere that frogs have the ability to adapt their body temperature to the temperature of their environment. They also have the ability to jump, including when they sense danger. Now, according to what I read, if you put a frog in a pot of water and start heating the water, the frog keeps adjusting its body temperature to the increasing temperature of the water. By the time the water approaches boiling point, the frog realises that it is no longer able to adjust.
It then decides to jump out. It tries doing so only to discover that it has lost its natural ability to jump because all the adjustments have exhausted its strength. It dies an excruciating death by boiling. This metaphor speaks to the whole gamut of our judicial system and all its role players – the State, our judges, our lawyers, our so-called ‘law enforcement’ agencies, litigants, etc. This book also speaks to each and every one of them. It is a recommended read.
Adeyinka Patrick Olumide-Fusika, the book reviewer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is a founding partner of Citipoint Chambers.
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