An advocacy group, Access to Justice, has described the recent suspension of the Chief Judge of Abia State, Theresa Uzokwe, as a “brutal violation” of the Nigerian Constitution.
Joseph Otteh, the group’s Director, in a statement Sunday said the suspension is a deliberate affront to the independence of the judiciary guaranteed by the Constitution.
“First, the legislature of Abia State has no powers to suspend the Chief Judge or any Judge of the Abia State Judiciary,” Mr. Otteh said.
“In purporting to do so, the Executive and Legislative branches have overreached their powers, as well as usurped the role and jurisdiction of the National Judicial Council (NJC).”
Mrs. Uzokwe, who was appointed in 2014 by the then governor, Theodore Orji, was suspended last Friday by the state’s lawmakers over alleged acts of tyranny, infamy, incompetence, and gross misconduct.
And by a resolution, the lawmakers asked Governor Okezie Ikpeazu to appoint an acting Chief Judge for the State.
The Abia House of Assembly thereafter constituted an eight-member committee, headed by Thomas Nkoro, to investigate the allegations against the Chief Judge and submit its findings within a seven day period.
Barely three hours after the lawmakers suspended Mrs. Uzokwe, the governor appointed an acting Chief Judge, Obisike Orji, to replace her.
Mr. Otteh said neither the legislature nor the executive governor could appoint an acting Chief Judge without the recommendation of the NJC.
“As the Supreme Court has insisted, the NJC must be involved in any process to remove a Chief Judge of a State.
“The NJC as far as we know has not itself suspended or authorized the Governor to either suspend Hon. Justice Uzokwe as Chief Judge of Abia State, or appoint an acting Chief Judge during the period of that suspension.”
Access to Justice berated Mr. Orji for making himself available to replace the Acting Chief Judge when the incumbent had not been validly interdicted and lawfully prevented from exercising her duties.
“Justice Orji’s conduct in this respect does not promote the cause of judicial independence, notwithstanding any issues that may have arisen with the performance of the purportedly suspended Chief Judge and whatever may have been his personal predilections over the leadership of the State’s Judiciary,” Mr. Otteh said.
“Judicial officers ought to remain at the forefront in defending judicial independence and remain bulwarks of resistance to efforts by anybody to undermine that autonomy.”
The Abia State Judiciary has been rocked by crisis following the decision of the governor to dissolve the state’s Judicial Service Commission and reconstitute it.
Mr. Otteh said the dissolution and reconstitution of the Commission despite a court order restraining the action undermines the authority of the courts in the state as well as the rule of law and the Constitution.
He urged the NJC to immediately wade into the matter in the state and demand the immediate restoration of all rights and duties of the office of Chief Judge to Mrs. Uzokwe.
“Additionally, the NJC should investigate the state of affairs of the Judiciary in Abia State and clarify that the Chief Judge is providing the sort of leadership that is conducive to the proper administration of justice in the State and take any necessary actions from its findings.
“We urge the NJC to set up a fact-finding Committee to investigate the state of affairs of the Judiciary in Abia State for this purpose.”
Judicial appointments to federal courts
In a separate statement, Access to Justice criticised the recent move to appoint judges into federal high courts and courts of appeals saying judicial appointments should be held up for public scrutiny.
“The NJC has reportedly sent out a list of persons nominated for judicial appointments to the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal to the President,” Mr. Otteh said.
“The President has also, reportedly, ordered background checks on the recommended candidates.
“At this time, no information is available to the public about who those recommended for these appointments are. Once the recommendations are accepted by the President of Nigeria, the nominees are sworn in, and the process is completed and cannot be reversed.”
Mr. Otteh said judicial appointments into superior courts in Nigeria have high public interest as well as significant consequences for Nigerians.
“Where the Judiciary starts off on the wrong foot, it is the public who will bear and suffer the consequences of its errors of judgment,” he said.
“That is why the process should not be shrouded in mystery. The public has an interest and should be able, at the very least, to provide a feedback to appointing authorities on the suitability of proposed nominees.
“Such feedbacks are potentially useful interventions; they can enhance the quality of the appointment process and save the Judiciary from taking decisions that will ultimately bring ridicule and embarrassment to it.”
The group recalled two incidents in December 2017 where a judge, Segun Tokode, was recommended for retirement after it emerged that he submitted false qualifying credentials during his screening for judicial office; and where the appointment of Moses Kazeem as a Federal High Court judge was put on hold after claims that he had been sacked as magistrate more than ten years ago.
“If the Judiciary had invited public scrutiny of Hon. Justice Tokode and his background, it is possible the fallacious entries on his application would have been discovered and his appointment would have been pre-empted,” said Mr. Otteh.
“Public scrutiny has also played a positive part in determining the suitability of nominees for the conferment of special statuses within professional ranks.”