By Owei Lakemfa
My favourite judge, is 57-year old Justice Okon Effreti Abang of the Federal High Court. He is as tough a judge as they can come. He is a product of the University of Calabar, an institution reputed to produce tough persons, hence they are called Malabites (after the tough city of Malabo in Equitorial Guinea) while the ladies are called Malabress. Like me, he is from the Niger Delta; we are said to be tough people.
A no nonsense judge, he is the Lord of his court and leaves nobody in doubt as to who is in charge. He reminds me of Justice Olugbani who used to sit in Lagos. In my active days in journalism, to be summoned by Justice Olugbani was to pray you return home without being guest of the prison yard.
It is to the court of Justice Abang, that the N400 million fraud case against former Publicity Secretary of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) Olisa Metuh was taken.
As expected, the case has been full of drama, but the past week was the most dramatic. It began almost innocently, when on Monday, the case was called. The defendant who has consistently applied for leave to seek foreign medical care, made to enter the box when he collapsed. As he remained on the floor of the court either pretending to be dying or actually dying, Justice Abang continued the case.
Metuh’s counsel, Emeka Etiaba refused to continue the case with his client lying on the floor unattended . Justice Abang abruptly stood down the case for Metuh to get medical attention. An official of the court went to the Medical Department of the court to get a doctor . Dr. Adaora Ikezor examined Metuh and concluded that he needed urgent medical attention. She was apparently carrying out her professional duties.
Justice Abang returned to resume with the case, but Etiaba, apparently displeased with the way His Lordship handled matters, informed the court that he would like to excuse himself from the matter. The judge overruled him ordering the prosecution counsel, Sylvanus Tahir to proceed. But Tahir did not object to Etiaba’s request for adjournment or decision to withdraw. The judge was furious threatening to set Metuh free.
The next day, Tuesday, May 22, was Part Two of the drama. His Lordship was apparently furious, not only at the defendant who was at the intensive unit of the National Hospital, but also with the medical doctor who had examined him on the floor of the court.
Justice Abang said: “When the 1st defendant ignored the humane directive of the court to seat where he was seated outside the dock and fell on his own, the court rose for few minutes …When the court reconvened, I saw the court’s doctor, Adaora Ikezor, in the court room, she approached the bench and told the court that the defendant needed to be taken to the hospital.A doctor cannot attend to a defendant during proceeding, without the permission of the court.” He said Metuh’s absence in court: “amounts to disregard to the authority of the court and the judiciary”
Justice Abang said the doctor’s medical advice was an “unsolicited opinion…It is not clear who directed the doctor to be in court at that time. Certainly Dr. Adaora was in court on her own frolic”
He accused Metuh of holding the court to ransom and adding: “The 1st defendant has repeatedly made the court of law look like an accident scene.” His Lordship went on: “When he fell, the people around him, who aided him to the court did not make any attempt to raise him and he was on the floor, groaning and whispering loudly, thereby disturbing the proceedings of the court. This amounts to misconduct by the defendant.” He ruled that the case would go on even if the accused is absent.
Justice Abang is no stranger to controversy. When the split in the PDP was on and the Markafi faction got a legal ruling from Justice Ibrahim Watila to hold its National Convention on August 17, 2016, Justice Abang, over ruled that court of concurrent jurisdiction declaring the convention illegal.
Perhaps Justice Abang’s most controversial judgement to-date is one in 2016 in which he found Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu guilty of falsification of his tax papers and ordered him to vacate his seat for fellow party member, Samson Ogah. The Court of Appeal said with such judgement, Justice Abang, “raped democracy” The Appeal Court Panel Chair, Justice Morenike Ogunwumiju said: “After reading through the judgement several times, I was amazed at how the trial Judge arrived at his conclusion of forgery against the appellant when there was no evidence of forgery. To say the least, his findings are ridiculous,”
Accusing Justice Abang of turning the law on its head the Appeal Court Judge concluded that : “The judge must have sat in his chamber, unilaterally assessed and computed the tax of the appellant and came to the conclusion that he did not pay the required tax. But let me say that courts are not allowed to speculate as the trial Judge has done in the instant case.”
“The trial judge spoke from both sides of his mouth when in one breadth, he claimed that he based his findings on supply of false information and in another breadth, he came to the conclusion that the appellant in this matter committed perjury, even when there was no allegation of forgery and no allegation that he did not pay tax…From whatever angle one looks at the judgement of the trial Judge, the decision of his court was grossly erroneous.”
Even if Metuh is gravely sick, he would not escape the court of Justice Abang; the way I read the judge, even death would not stop Metuh’s trial. Given judicial precedence, the dead can still be tried and found guilty. The British parliamentarian, Oliver Cromwell in 1640, led the parliament in a war, defeated King Charles I and had him executed. Cromwell died on September 3, 1658 and was given a state burial. But when Charles II came to the throne, Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed, tried and beheaded. In 897AD, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of Pope Formosus exhumed, tried, found guilty and had three of his fingers broken off. John Wycliffe , 1328-1384, who committed the grave sin of translating the Bible into English language, had his corpse exhumed 45 years after his death, was found guilty, and the corpse burnt for heresy. So the long arms of the law can reach beyond the grave .
I wish Justice Okon Abang, many more years of banging the hammer of justice all the way to the Supreme Court. The court shall rise. Court!
- Owei Lakemfa is a prolific writer and one of the leaders of Nigeria’s civil rights movement. Email: email@example.com