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Only those with locus standi can file action challenging the creation of an autonomous community

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NWANKWO & ORS v. ORIZU & ORS (2019) LPELR-46613 (CA)

In the Court of Appeal
In the Owerri Judicial Division
Holden at Owerri
ON MONDAY, 4TH FEBRUARY, 2019

Suit No: CA/OW/275/2016

Before Their Lordships:

AYOBODE OLUJIMI LOKULO-SODIPE, JCA
RITA NOSAKHARE PEMU, JCA
IBRAHIM ALI ANDENYANGTSO, JCA

Between

1. EZE JOHN K. ELOCHUKWU NWANKWO
(EZE-ELECT AKUNWANTA-UNO)
2. CHIEF OBI NWANKWO 3. SIR ROMANUS OKEREKE – Appellant

(For themselves and on behalf of other indigenes of
Akunwanta-Uno except 1st & 2nd Defendants) 1. CHIEF MARTIN ORIZU
2. MAZI OKWUDILI OGBUKATI
3. GOVERNOR OF IMO STATE
Respondent
4. ATTORNEY GENERAL, IMO STATE
5.THE SPEAKER, IMO STATE HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY

LEAD JUDGMENT DELIVERED BY AYOBODE OLUJIMI LOKULO-SODIPE, J.C.A.
FACTS OF THE CASE
The Appellants by a writ of summons instituted the instant action at the High Court of Imo State holden at Orlu Judicial Division against the Respondents, claiming as follows: – “(a) Declaration that Akunwanta-Uno community in Arondizuogu, Ideato North L.G.A, is entitled to an Autonomous Community status and not Ndiakunwanta Iheme, which in a manner inconsistent with the custom and traditional usages of Akunwanta-Uno Arondizuogu usurped and converted the autonomous community status that accrued to Akunwanta Uno to Ndiakunwanta-Iheme, Arondizuogu. (b) Declaration that Eze Elect John K. Elochukwu Nwankwo is the Eze-Elect for the proposed Akunwanta-Uno autonomous community, excluding any other person claiming through or under him, throughout his life time.

(c) An order setting aside the fraudulently obtained autonomous community status from Imo State Government by Ndiakunwanta-Iheme in the stead of Akunwanta-Uno the 1st in time to apply to Imo State House of Assembly in 2005 and whose facilities Akunwanta-Iheme converted to its own benefit under the auspices of the 1st defendant, Chief Martin Orizu. (d) N3, 000,000 being general damages for upturning and converting the Akunwanta-Uno autonomous community status with its facilities to Akunwanta-Iheme autonomous community contrary to the custom and traditional usages of Arondizuogu, Ideato North L.G.A. (e) An order restraining the 3rd, 4th and 5th defendants from recognizing, installing and giving staff of office of Ezeship to the 2nd defendant as the Eze-elect of Akunwanta-Uno community of the claimants. (f) Perpetual injunction, restraining the 1st and 2nd defendants from parading themselves in the name and style of or as the Eze-Elect of Akunwanta-Uno or the Eze of Akunwanta Uno in whatsoever guise, and or acting or doing anything in that capacity or temper or character as the Eze-Elect of Eze of Akunwanta-Uno, Arondizuogu.”

The 1st Respondent filed a motion in the action and therein he sought for: – “An order of the honourable Court dismissing this action for the claimants lacking locus standi to bring this action”. The grounds for the application as set out in the motion on notice include: –
“a.That the claimants are not members of Ndiakunwanta Iheme Autonomous Community to possess such right as required by the Imo State Traditional Rulers and Autonomous Communities and Allied Matters Law No. 6, 2006. b. That the right to challenge the recognition of the Eze of Ndiakunwanta Iheme Autonomous Community, (the 1st defendant) by anybody whatsoever is statute barred. c. By Section 24 of Imo State Traditional Rulers and Autonomous Communities and Allied Matters Law No. 6, 2006, it is only members of Ndiakunwanta Iheme Autonomous that can object to the creation of the said autonomous community. d. That the claimants and their privies are not members of Ndiakunwanta Iheme Autonomous Community, and therefore do not possess the locus standi.”

The motion on notice was entertained by the trial Court and in a considered Ruling the Court dismissed the action for lack of locus standi. Being aggrieved with the part of the ruling of the trial Court “adjudging that the claimants/Appellants lacked the locus standi to commence and maintain the suit”, the Appellants appealed to the Court of Appeal.

ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION
The Court determined the appeal on a lone issue for determination, thus: “Whether the trial Court was right when it adjudged that the Appellants had no authority to institute and maintain the suit.”

APPELLANT’S COUNSEL SUBMISSIONS
Dwelling on the issue for the determination of the appeal, the Appellants in the main submitted that they have the locus standi to institute the instant action. They submitted that locus standi being the right or authority to institute and maintain a suit, is to be determined from the statement of claim before the trial Court and no extraneous material(s) is/are to be taken into consideration. It is their position that the statement of claim in this case glaringly disclosed their locus standi, in the instant case, they (Appellants) brought in a representative capacity. Thereafter, the Appellants disclosed that the trial Court relied on an extraneous and inapplicable factor in the nature or form of Section 24 of the Imo State Law No. 6 of 2006 to adjudge them as lacking the authority (i.e. locus standi) to institute and maintain the instant case. Having stated the full title of Law No. 6 of 2006 to be Traditional Rulers & Autonomous Communities Law, the Appellants submitted that the Law, which merely deals with the creation and operation of traditional stools and autonomous communities in Imo State, “does not deal with access to Court and does not create any Court or vests judicial powers and functions.” That access to Court is a constitutional matter beyond State Law and is provided for by Section 6(6)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended and which extends the judicial powers vested in Courts created by the said Constitution. That any person in Nigeria, who complains about the infraction of his rights or seeks a determination of his liability has an unfettered constitutional right or capacity to institute a suit and be heard by the Courts.

The Appellants submitted that the wording and intent of Section 24 of Law No. 6 of 2006, is that only members of an autonomous community can make an administrative objection to the Governor and House of Assembly over the creation of an autonomous community. That the Section does not preclude non-members from making judicial complaints over wrongs suffered by the non-members as a result of the creation of an autonomous community as they (Appellants) have done in their statement of claim. It is the stance of the Appellants that in their statement of claim, they were not merely objecting to the creation of an autonomous community because they did not want to be part of the autonomous community; that their complaints were premised on the infraction of their (Appellants’) rights by the creation of the autonomous community.

RESPONDENT’S COUNSEL SUBMISSIONS
The position of the Respondent on the issue at hand, in the main, is that the trial Court was right in its decision being appealed against. In this regard he submitted that the Appellants in their statement of claim made copious averments regarding the fact that they are from Akunwanta-Uno community, while they are challenging the autonomous community status of Ndiakunwanta-Iheme autonomous community. Reference was made to the Imo State Government Official Gazette of 2011, showing that Ndiakunwanta-Uno community is not among the component villages that make up Ndiakunwanta-Iheme autonomous community. Having stated the trite position of the law to be that locus standi is a threshold issue for the purpose of determining the right of anybody to initiate proceedings, and that interest is the yardstick for determining whether a plaintiff has locus standi, the Respondent ended up by saying that the Appellants have no locus standi to have instituted the instant case, against the backdrop of the fact that Law No. 6 of 2006, which created the Autonomous Communities in Imo State, also regulates those who should have the locus standi to challenge its creation. That the gate is not open ended for gate-crashers or for busy bodies. That it is only people who have sufficient interest in the creation of an autonomous community that can challenge the creation of the same. That anybody that can do this, must be a member of that community in order to have locus standi. It is the stance of the Respondent that Law No. 6 inasmuch as it did not oust the jurisdiction of the Court, is not in conflict with the provisions of Section 6(6)(b) of the 1999 Constitution as amended. That there is nothing inconsistent with the right of a Nigerian citizen to challenge or contest the breach of his right in Court under Law No. 6 of 2006 as the law only goes to curtail busy bodies/interlopers who have no nexus with the autonomous community in question.

RESOLUTION OF ISSUES
In resolving the issue, the Court held that the position of the law has never been that all manner of people can institute actions in respect of all manner of causes of action as it would appear to be the stance of the Appellants relying on Section 6(6)(b) of the 1999 Constitution as amended. The Court went further to hold that the position of the law in its considered view has not obliterated the dichotomy between locus standi in the realm of public law or public right litigation and locus standi in the realm of private law or private right litigation and the different tests applicable to them respectively. See OWODUNNI V. REGISTERED TRUSTEES OF CCC (2000) 10 NWLR (Pt. 675) 325 SC; (2000) LPELR-2852 (SC).

The Court stated that the Appellants’ case having regard to their statement of claim is not that they are by right under any enactment entitled to be granted the status of an autonomous community. This is to say that the Appellants are not seeking for the enforcement of a public right. If that were their cause of action, all they needed to have done according to the Court, was to have instituted an action compelling the creation of their own autonomous community. The Court stated further that they have instituted the instant action to procure what they believe they are entitled to, and which no doubt is at the discretion of the appropriate authorities.

Considering Law No. 6 of 2006, the Court held that that law without doubt, does vest a cause of action to challenge the creation of an autonomous community in any category of persons, save those within an autonomous community that has been created by the appropriate authorities. The Court agreed that the trial Court was not wrong in applying Law No. 6 of 2006 to the Appellants’ case as the law is the only enactment applicable to already created autonomous communities. The Court held that the trial Court was eminently correct in its finding and application of the appropriate or relevant law, in striking out the Appellants’ case given the averments in the statement of claim.
HELD
In the final analysis, the appeal failed and it was accordingly dismissed.

Appearances:
Jerry Elumeze – For Appellant Emeka Orafu – For 1st Respondent

Compiled by LawPavilion


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