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Appointment Of A Substantive Chief Judge Of Imo State: A Sinister Haste Despite A Pending Suit – Nnamdi C. Osigwe Esq.

In one of those actions that may be classified as Public-interest Litigation, an aggrieved Imolite, one Honourable Justin Brown Amadi, has taken out a suit against the National Judicial Council, Imo State Judicial Service Commission, the Governor of Imo State, the Honourable the Attorney-General of Imo State, the Imo State House of Assembly and Honourable Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua, seeking some declaratory and injunctive reliefs against all the six defendants. In the Concurrent Originating Summons filed in the Federal High Court Abuja Division on the 11th day of May, 2020, by Dr. J.Y. Musa, SAN, the Plaintiff raised five questions for determination to wit:

  1. Whether having regard to the provisions of Section 158(1) and paragraph 21 (c) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, (as amended), the 1st defendant (National Judicial Council) is subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person, including the 3rd Defendant (Governor of Imo State), in the performance of its duties or exercise of its powers to recommend suitable persons to the Governor of a State for appointment as the Chief Judge of a State.
  2. Whether having regard to the provisions of section 202 and paragraph 6(a) of Part I of the Third Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, (as amended), the 2nd defendant (Imo State Judicial Service Commission) is subject to the direction or control of any authority or person, including the 3rd defendant in the performance of its duties or exercise of its powers to advise the 1st defendant on suitable persons for nomination to the office of the Chief Judge of Imo State.
  3. If the answer to the first question is in the negative, whether the 4th defendant’s (the Honourable the Attorney-General of Imo State) letter to the 1st Defendant dated the 23rd day of January, 2020, acting on the directives/instructions of the 3rd) defendant purportedly withdrawing the list of persons earlier submitted to it by the 2nd defendant as suitable persons to be recommended for appointment as the substantive Chief Judge of Imo State by the 3rd defendant, is an act of direction and/or control of the 1st defendant in the discharge of its duties or exercise of its powers, contrary to the provisions of section 158 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
  4. If the answer to the second question is in the negative, whether the 4th defendant’s letter to the 1st defendant dated the 23rd day of January, 2020, acting on the directives/instruction of the 3rd defendant purportedly withdrawing the list of persons earlier submitted to the 1st defendant by the 2nd defendant as suitable persons to be considered and recommended for appointment as the Chief Judge of Imo State by the 3rd defendant is an act of direction and/or control of the 2nd defendant in the discharge of its duties and/or exercise of its powers contrary to the provisions of Section 202 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, (as amended).
  5. If the answer to each of the third and fourth questions is in the affirmative, whether 4th defendant’s letter to the 1st defendant dated the 23rd day of January, 2020, acting on the directive/instructions of the 3rd defendant purportedly withdrawing the list of persons sent to the 1st defendant by the 2nd defendant for consideration and recommendation for appointment as the substantive Chief Judge of Imo State by the 3rd Defendant is ultra vires the powers of the 3rd and 4th defendants and, therefore, null and void?
  6. Whether the directive of the 1st defendant to the 2nd defendant on the basis of the 4th defendant’s letter to the 1st defendant dated the 23rd day of January, 2020, acting on the directives/instructions of the 3rd defendant, to commence a fresh nomination/recommendation exercise for the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge of Imo State is ultra vires the powers of the 1st defendant and, consequently, null and void?

Amongst nine other reliefs, the Plaintiff prays for an Order restraining the 3rd defendant (the Governor of Imo State) from appointing the 6th defendant (Hon. Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua) as the substantive Chief Judge of Imo State based on a fresh recommendation exercise by the 1st defendant (National Judicial Council) and/or the 2nd Defendant (Imo State Judicial Service Commission) in disregard of the 2nd defendant’s earlier exercise contained in the Memorandum on the Appointment of a Substantive Chief Judge of Imo State, dated the 15th day of January, 2020 and submitted to the 1st Defendant.

In an affidavit of 44 paragraphs deposed to by the Plaintiff, he stated, inter alia, that:

  1. Upon the retirement of the immediate past Chief Judge of Imo State, Honourable Justice P.O Nnadi on the 12th day of March, 2020, the 3rd defendant appointed the 6th defendant, being the next most senior Judge, as the acting Chief Judge pending the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge of the High Court of Imo State.
  2. That prior to the retirement of the immediate past Chief Judge, the 2nd defendant commenced the process of appointment of a new substantive Chief Judge of Imo State which culminated in the submission of the names of two Judges of the Imo State High Court, excluding the name of the 6th defendant to the 1st defendant for recommendation to the 3rd defendant for appointment as the next substantive Chief Judge of Imo State.
  3. That the judgment delivered by the Supreme Court on the 14th day of January, 2020 ushered in the swearing-in of His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodinma as the Governor of Imo State in place of Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha.
  4. That with the nascent administration, the 6th defendant sought to overturn the concluded exercise conducted by the 2nd defendant in advising the 1st defendant on suitable persons to be recommended to the 3rd defendant for appointment as the substantive Chief Judge of Imo State which did not recommend her (Hon. Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua) name.
  5. That the 6th defendant successfully persuaded the 3rd defendant to interfere with the concluded work of the 2nd defendant and this led the 3rd defendant to instruct Chief C.O.C Akaolisa, Attorney-General of Imo State to write a letter to the 1st defendant withdrawing the 2nd Defendant’s Memorandum on the Appointment of a Substantive Chief Judge of Imo State already submitted to the 1st defendant.
  6. That Chief C.O.C Akaolisa, Esq., in obedience to the directive or instruction of the 3rd defendant, wrote a letter to the 1st defendant dated the 23rd day of January, 2020, purporting to withdraw the Memorandum with a view to commencing a fresh exercise.
  7. That I know as a fact that the 1st defendant has not, at any of its meetings since the receipt of the Memorandum and the letter of withdrawal from the Attorney-General, deliberated on the appointment of a substantive Chief Judge of Imo State and/or the purported letter of withdrawal of the Memorandum for the Appointment of the Chief Judge of Imo State.
  8. That I know that at its statutory meeting held on Wednesday, 29th day of April, 2020, the 2nd defendant resolved to commence a fresh exercise, acting on a purported directive of the 1st defendant, that would culminate in the 2nd defendant rendering a fresh advice on the two suitable persons to be nominated to the 1st defendant for appointment as the Chief Judge of Imo State.
  9. That the proposed exercise is skewed towards ensuring that the 6th defendant is appointed the Chief Judge of Imo State.
  10. That pursuant to the 2nd defendant’s resolution, its Secretary, Mr. C.C Nzekwe has written a letter to the Branches of the Nigerian Bar Association in Imo State, titled “Commencement of a Fresh Exercise for the Appointment of a New Chief Judge for Imo State,” calling for their comments on the suitability of each of the following short-listed candidates for consideration for appointment to the office of the Chief Judge of Imo State: Hon Justice I.O Agugua (the 6th defendant), Hon. Justice P.C Ikpeama, Hon. Justice C.A Ononeze-Madu and Hon. Justice T.E Chikeka
  11. That I know as a fact that the 1st Defendant is domiciled and carries on its activities in Abuja, Federal Capital Territory, within the jurisdiction of this Honourable Court.
  12. That I know that the action of the 1st defendant in directing the 2nd defendant to commence a fresh nomination exercise was targeted at including the name of the 6th Defendant and this is prejudicial to my right to the fair hearing of my petition pending before it which challenges the competence of the 6th Defendant to remain as a judicial officer and/or appointed the substantive Chief Judge of Imo State.
  13. That the letter of Withdrawal of the Memorandum written by the 4th defendant to the 1st defendant purporting to withdraw the earlier shortlist of Judges submitted to the 1st defendant was predicated on the letter dated the 6th day of January, 2020, written by Chief M.I Ahamba, SAN on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN), Imo State Chapter.
  14. That all the steps being taken by the Defendants are geared towards forwarding the name of the 6th Defendant by the 2nd defendant to the 1st defendant who will now recommend her to the 3rd defendant who will appoint her as the substantive Chief Judge of Imo State, to the confirmation of the 5th defendant (Imo State House of Assembly) which will definitely confirm her appointment by virtue of the 5th defendant being a rubber-stamp House of Assembly of the 3rd Defendant.
  15. That the defendants have gone into override in order to ensure that they achieve their sinister purpose as soon as possible with scant regards to the suitability or eligibility of the 6th Defendant for the exalted position of the Chief Judge of Imo State and without regards to the weighty issues raised in my petition to the 1st defendant which is yet to be looked into.
  16. That except restrained by an order of this honourable court, the defendants will throw overboard constitutional provisions all in their unholy bid to impose the 6th defendant as the Chief Judge of Imo State.
  17. That it will accord with the interest of justice if the honourable court grants the reliefs sought in this suit.
  18. That none of the Defendants will be prejudiced by the grant of the reliefs sought.
  19. That I make this oath in good faith and in accordance with the Oaths and Affirmation Act, 2004.

I have it on good authority that the processes in this suit have been served on five defendants with affidavit of service accordingly deposed to by the bailiff, one Dike Ifeanyi. From the affidavits of service, the 2nd defendant was served on the 18th day of May, 2020 at 10:30am by delivering same personally to Mr. C.C Nzekwe, the Secretary of the 2nd defendant; the 3rd defendant was served at 1:50pm on the same day by delivering same to its Secret Registry, Imo State Government House, Owerri; the 4th defendant was served on same day at 10:50am and acknowledged by his Secretary, one Mr. Peter Ibewuike in the Chambers of the Attorney-General, Ministry of Justice, Owerri; the 5th defendant was served same day at 2:24pm and the processes were acknowledged by Onyeaghali Chikodi, a Secretary in the Office of the Clerk of the Imo State House of Assembly, while the 6th defendant was served on same day at 2:05pm at the Chief Judge’s Chambers, acknowledged by one Anthonia, Secretary to the 6th defendant.

Alongside these originating processes, the Attorney-General of Imo State (the 4th defendant) and the Secretary of the Imo State Judicial Service Commission were, on the same day and time, served a letter from the Counsel to the Plaintiff, Dr. J.Y Musa, SAN, notifying them of the pendency of this suit and warning that parties maintained status quo. The third paragraph of the letter reads, “It is instructive to mention that the law is settled beyond peradventure that when parties have submitted their dispute(s) to the court for adjudication, none of them is permitted to do any act in respect of the subject matter with the intention of foisting a fait accompli on the court.”

Most surprisingly, the Imo State Judicial Service Commission cocked a deaf ear to the pendency of the suit and letters from the Plaintiff’s Solicitor and sat on Tuesday, the 19th day of May, 2020 to deliberate on the matter which is already sub judice and the pendency of which they had full knowledge of. At the meeting, the Acting Chief Judge and Chairman of the Commission, the Secretary of the Commission and the Attorney-General of the State, in a conspiratorial silence, refused to bring the pendency of the suit to the knowledge of other members of the Commission.

Irked by this development, the Solicitor to the Plaintiff opted to write personally to all the members of the Commission on the 20th day of May, 2020. These letters were delivered through DHL on the same day. The 7th and the penultimate paragraphs of this letter read, “Our client informed us and we verily believe him that the Imo State Judicial Service Commission sat on Tuesday, the 19th day of May, 2020 to deliberate on the matter which is already sub judice and the pendency of which they have full knowledge of and refused to mention the fact that there is a pending suit on the matter… we wish to also mention that there are ethical components in the actions of the members of the Imo State Judicial Service Commission as far as the Judges and Lawyers who are members of the Commission are concerned and we shall take appropriate steps in that direction to address their misconduct.”

Spurred by the pot of porridge offered to them by the Governor of the State, Distinguished Senator Hope Uzodinma, the Commission in another impious haste held another meeting on Thursday the 21st day of May, 2020.

In another desperate bid, the proponents of this scheme quickly made their fire and cooked up another document on the 22nd day of May, 2020, but deliberately back-dated it to 18th day of March, 2020. The document is addressed to the Chairman of the National Judicial Council and titled “Memorandum Submitted by the Judges of the High Court of Imo State on the Succession to the Office of the Chief Judge of Imo State.” This document listed all the twenty-two High Court Judges in Imo State in an attempt to secure their individual endorsement of the Acting Chief Judge. But woefully, (save for the Acting Chief Judge’s) only five out of the twenty two Judges endorsed, thereby foiling the desperate strategy. A careful reading of the processes filed and their accompanying exhibits will leave no one surprised as to the reason the Acting Chief Judge cannot have up to 35 percent endorsement of his fellow Judges as demonstrated by the document referenced above.

In the Memorandum for the Appointment of the Chief Judge of Imo State dated the 15th day of January, 2020 and addressed to the Honourable the Chief Justice of Nigeria, which is Exhibit A, names of four Judges were submitted to the Judicial Service Commission for consideration: Honourable Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua, Hon. Justice P.C Ikpeama, Honourable Justice C.A Ononeze-Madu and Honourable Justice T.E Chikeka. The Commission exhaustively deliberated on the suitability of the four Judges and carefully considered their antecedents, conduct, comportment, performance, attitude to work, service records, leadership qualities, respect to constituted authority (Heads of Courts), respect for fellow Judges, members of the Bar and other court users.

Amongst others, comments were called from the three surviving retired Chief Judges of Imo state. Only one out of the three gave a favourable comment while the other two chronicled her persistent history of gross insubordination which earned her series of queries from them and warnings from the higher authorities, inclusive of one from Hon. Justice M.L Uwais CJN Rtd, which prevented her name from being recommended to the NJC for consideration for the appointment to the office of the Chief Judge of Imo State in the 2010 exercise. The warning from former Chief Justice of Nigeria which forms annexure 1 reads, “I would like to draw your attention to the comment made there-upon by your Chief Judge…the points made there-in are weighty and they reveal a history of insubordination by you. This is most unbecoming of a Judge that is expected to be honourable. It is capable of leading to a sanction against you by the National Judicial Council. I am therefore to strongly advise you to conform in future to good behavior that you may avoid your act being referred to the National Judicial Council for necessary action.” This document is dated the 5th day of January, 2006 and signed by the former Chief Justice Uwais.

A similar warning (annexure 2) from the National Judicial Institute issued on the 12th day of February, 2005, reads, inter alia, “I am by this letter directed to warn you to desist from such unwholesome act capable of undermining the authority of the Board, thus portraying the Judiciary in a bad light before other arms of government. A repeat performance will earn you very severe sanctions.”

Outside the judiciary hierarchy, as annexure 4 reveals, the Acting Chief Judge had also fraudulently obtained money from Imo State Government which scandalised Imo State Judiciary as national dailies were agog with the news.

In this regard, Ngozi Amaliri, the then Commissioner for Finance, on the 3rd of May, 2000, wrote the Acting Chief Judge and her accomplice, Late Hon. Justice Ifunnanya Udom-Azogu, in the following words: “You recall that you came with Hon. Justice Ijeoma Agugua and informed me that both of you were the two femal Judges who had been approved to attend the above conference as a result of your seniority. Meanwhile, I had earlier been advised by the Principal Secretary to the Executive Governor that approval had been granted by His Excellency for two female Judges to attend the conference. Being honourable high court Judges, I had no cause to doubt you. I believed you, hence we went ahead and processed the release of fund and paid you. Ordinarily, I would have subjected you to the usual interrogation. Surprisingly, after some days, a letter came from the Acting Chief Judge nominating different persons…please arrange to refund immediately, the money you were paid to enable us fund the right persons duly nominated for the conference. If you fail to heed to this letter, Government will be compelled to take drastic measures to recover the money and any other action considered appropriate for this unwholesome act.”

Embarrassingly, the print media was, few days later, awash with news of these two Judges of Imo State Judiciary defrauding Imo State Government. Particularly, National Post of 6th day of May, 2000 (annexure 4) was hot with a Headline “Imo Judiciary in ‘419’ Scandal.” Another national daily, Champion Newspapers the following day had the headline, “Imo Orders Two Judges to Refund N1.7m” and reported the incidence thus: “The Imo State Government has ordered two female Judges in the State to refund N1.7m alleged to have been falsely collected from its coffers for an overseas trip. The order was contained in a letter to the affected persons and signed by the State Commissioner for Finance, Mr. Ngozi Amaliri. According to the letter dated May 3, 2000, the female Judges, Ifunanya Udom-Azogu and Ijeoma Agugua, had informed the Commissioner that they were the two female Judges approved by the State Governor, Chief Achike Udenwa, to attend the fifth biennial conference of the International Association of Women Judges scheduled to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, next week…”

The comment of one of the retired Heads of Courts submitted to the Imo State Judicial Service Commission in the 2020 aborted appointment exercise reads, “the antecedents of the service career of the first candidate (Hon. Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua) from records and observations over a long period of time covering the tenures of a number of past Chief Judges of the State, reveal a consistent, unabated, unrepentant penchant for indiscipline and insubordination inconsistent with the position of leadership, more so that of the Chief Judge of a State.”

Exhibits accompanying the originating processes reveal the following Queries from former Chief Judges of the State: Query dated the 21st day of April, 1997; Query dated the 8th day of May, 2000; Query dated the 6th day of March, 2001; Query dated 30th day of October, 2001; Query dated 3rd day of December, 2001; Query dated the 18th day of March, 2002; Query dated 28th day of June, 2005; Query dated the 2nd day of March, 2010; Query dated the 31st day of March, 2010; Query dated the 19th day of January, 2016; Query dated the 9th day of June, 2017; Query dated the 24th day of January, 2018 and Query dated the 7th day of February, 2018.

Apart from the comments of Heads of Courts which were unfavourable, Security Report from Department of State Security was even much more. On her Character/Integrity Checks, the report revealed, “she is said to be unnecessarily arrogant, high-handed and exhibits acts of insubordination to her superiors, which earned her a number of Queries from previous Chief Judges of the State whom she served under. Furthermore, subject is seen as being impatient with members of the Bar, resulting in situations many view as insulting. She is said to be opinionated and thus not a good team builder. Contacts opined that subject’s arrogance is a factor why she has not been made a Chief Judge, as she is said to be the senior to Nnadi (Justice), a situation which has caused her to be somehow disgruntled. Agugua is rated a little above average in management of cases by contacts in the Judiciary.”

On Neighborhood Checks, the report revealed in the following words: “Neighborhood checks revealed that subject is not appreciated and respected by her kiths and kins, especially her in-laws, as she attempted to bury her late husband without giving recourse to his family members.” As a matter of fact, in Suit No HOW/317/2010, the Agugua family, represented by Nze Lambert Agugua and Aziz Diagne Ray-Agugua, took out a suit against the Acting Chief Judge in which they, inter alia prayed the honourable court for a perpetual injunction restraining her from using their family name ‘Agugua’ as part of her name. The kernel of the suit (annexure 14) was that the defendant’s scandalous promiscuity and waywardness, disrespectfulness, lack of care and attention to her husband culminated in the death of her husband, Chief Reginald Agugua. After his demise, the defendant attempted to bury him without recourse to his family members.

In Exhibit 4, being a petition dated the 26th day of April, 2020, titled, “Perjury, Falsification of Age and False Claim of the Date of Attending Primary School by Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua,” there is an unsettling revelation that the Acting Chief Judge falsified her age and lied on oath. Paragraphs 4.2, 4.4, and 4.5 of the Petition read, “Sometime in January 2020, information filtered out that Justice Agugua submitted documents to the Imo State Judicial Service Commission (JSC) during the nomination exercise in November 2019, wherein four most senior Judges in Imo State were shortlisted for the consideration of the JSC, for its recommendation to the NJC for the appointment of the Chief Judge of Imo State…In her Curriculm Vitae which Justice Agugua personally submitted to the JSC, she furnished her date of birth as 10th May 1960. However, contrary to the aforesaid, the First School Leaving Certificate and Testimonial which she obtained from the Federal Government College, Port Harcourt and which she annexed to her aforesaid CV, stated her date of birth as 10th May, 1959. The false date of birth was first claimed by Justice Agugua when she was appointed a Magistrate in 1986. The falsehood has therefore endured for 34years. Sometime in November 2019, Justice I.O Agugua also swore to an affidavit stating that she was born on 10th May, 1960. It will be recalled, sadly, that this offense of age falsification was the ground upon which the immediate past Acting Chairman of the Customary Court of Appeal in Imo State was compulsorily retired sometime last month.

All documents referenced in this piece formed part of either Exhibits or Annexures in this pending suit.

The foolhardy resolve and insistence of the Imo State Government to appoint His Lordship Hon. Justice Ijeoma O. Agugua in the light of the pending suit is therefore worrisome. The role of members of the State Judicial Service Commission (made up of Judges, erudite Senior Advocate, Hon the Attorney-General of the State) in this process makes it even more embarrassing. It will be recalled that the Honourable the Attorney-General of Imo State was sworn in alongside the Secretary to the Government of Imo State and the Chief of Staff on the 3rd day of February, 2020 as exhibit 10 would reveal. This fact is also in the public domain. Yet, the letter sent to the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (exhibit 2) with reference number as MJI/X/237/1/20, for the withdrawal of the Memorandum on the Appointment of the Chief Judge of Imo State, where Chief Sir C.O.C Akaolisa signed as the Honourable the Attorney-General of Imo State and Commissioner for Justice was dated the 23rd day of January, 2020. This letter pre-dates the Honourable Attorney-General’s swearing-in. The ethical questions this action poses is not the aim of this suit filed. It is not the essence of this piece either. But the above conduct together with other kindred unethical conducts evinced in this process mirror the desperation of both the Commission and the State Government.

Instead of maintaining status quo and heeding to age-long advice, Imo State Government continues to threaten the Plaintiff in this case, Hon. Justin Brown Amadi, after he had spawned their Three Million Naira pot of porridge offered him to withdraw the suit.

Igbo adage has it that an elder does not sit at home and watch a She-Goat deliver in Tethers. The Imo State Judicial Service Commission made up of two Judges, (the Acting Chief Judge and the Acting President of the Customary Court of Appeal), an erudite Attorney-General and a seasoned Senior Advocate of Nigeria and other senior lawyers is the elder in this scenario. If in total disregard of the pending suit and litany of petitions and damaging testimonies, they advice the Governor of the State to go ahead and appoint the Acting Chief Judge of the State as the Substantive Chief Judge, then they have allowed a She-goat to deliver in tethers, and one does not need to have the vision of Nostradamus to see the anarchy that will be loosed upon Imo State Judiciary and the State.

Nnamdi C. Osigwe is an Abuja based legal practitioner.
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