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High Court judge of the year

Convinced that a serving Attorney General could not have been so harshly handled, I concluded that Obayuwana must have left office and therefore sought to…

Convinced that a serving Attorney General could not have been so harshly handled, I concluded that Obayuwana must have left office and therefore sought to know when and why he left and whether or not he fell out with highly placed people in power like the governor. When it became clear that Obayuwana was sent to jail while still in office, I assumed that he must have incurred the wrath of the judge after having probably ignored several calls to show up in court. But if so, how did the judge catch him? The man, I was told, went to court by himself to show respect for the institution and authority of the Bench-a posture which he is allegedly known for. So what happened?  The issue reportedly concerns a legal tussle which dates back to 2003 between the Edo State government and a private investor- Churchgate Industries Limited over the ownership of a firm- Bendel Breweries Ltd. The court had granted an interlocutory injunction in favour of the private investor which government failed to honour. Having disobeyed for so long, Justice Hobon decided to use his power and office to compel government to comply by convicting the Attorney General as the legal representative of government. Meanwhile, Obayuwana came to office only in 2009, six years after the order in question was made with none of his predecessors harassed at any time. At this point, I became more curious about the case which looked like a drama piece. The next day, several newspapers reported the story as it had been told at the social parliament and as expected, many people could not comprehend the rather bizarre drama. While some called for a probe by the National Judicial Council, a coalition of Political Parties, Labour and Civil Society Organisations in Edo State, demanded the dismissal of the judge on account of “abuse of Judicial Powers and obvious disregard for due process and the rule of law”. On its part, the National Conscience Party (NCP) described the order as ‘judicial rascality and politicisation of the judicial system.’ The Edo State government itself alleged foul play as its Commissioner for Information, Louis Odion, announced that Obayuwana never received the personal service of required forms “48 and 49 as provided by law that would have led to the contempt of court.

A columnist is obviously not legally competent to determine the propriety of the claims. That is for the Court of Appeal to handle at the appropriate time. But as public commentators, we have an obligation to warn those in power against the negative consequences of the reckless use of power. Disobedience of court order is condemnable, not only because it undermines the power of our courts, it can deprive a citizen from reaping the fruits of his legal victory. We also agree that government being a continuum can be held liable for what its predecessors did. But we do not agree that a citizen should lose his personal liberty on account of a liability that is not traceable to him as a person. In other words, while we support the power to punish a person via contempt for not following a court order, we believe that it is illogical and unwise if “what” is ordered to be done is not within the power of the person so ordered. An Attorney General as a member of a cabinet, does not have the power to hand-over public property to any person. He can at best appropriately advise his principal which the latter can ignore. Against this backdrop, we are unable to disagree with those who condemned the imprisonment of the Edo State Attorney General as arbitrary, capricious and recklessly used to assuage the injured. Also, if it is true that the judge mobilized more than 25 policemen to court that day to actualize his plan, why will we not believe that the saga was premeditated?

At about the same time, Justice Dahiru Musdapher – the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), had to handle a similar case of disobedience of court order by another state government.  In this case, the Plateau State government ignored a court order to stay action on plans to truncate the tenure of council chairmen in the state before the expiration of their tenure and “pending the determination on notice instituted by them against such action”. In his wisdom, the CJN opted to sensitize the state on the consequence of ignoring the order through a strongly worded letter to the State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Edward Pwajok, stating that “without strict adherence to the law, our nascent democracy and indeed our constitution will only be worth the paper on which it is written”. It is thus expedient for a judge to rise above passion in his conduct. If, however, the rationale for the injudicious act in Benin was to show judge- power, the show failed because as the CJN has demonstrated, a strong man is not necessarily the one who fights at will. Courageous judges in Nigeria are few, many are lily-livered. It is instructive that the jailing of Attorney General Obayuwana was done by a judge of the federal high court; it could not have been done by any of the ‘courageous’ judges of the state high court. Again, if Justice Hobon was anxious to shore-up the rather weak image of the judiciary and get an award as the judge of the year, he unfortunately procured a wrong prescription. The nation recently witnessed indiscipline at the highest level in the judiciary when the CJN and the President of the Court of Appeal were engulfed in battle. At the end, the winner lost and the loser rested. That is the type of dark spot begging for cleansing now!!

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