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Edo judiciary-executive tussle for supremacy


JusticeChairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Benin Branch, Princess Iyomoh had cause to celebrate lately as the Federal High Court in Benin upheld her prayers restraining Ojeikhoa, her deputy, from parading himself as the Acting Chairman of the branch. The order given by Mr. Justice O.O. Tokode, asked the various parties involved in the imbroglio to maintain status quo pending the hearing and determination of the suit filed by Iyomoh against Austin Alegeh, the national president of the NBA and four others (including Ojeikhoa).

This current crisis in the Benin Branch of the NBA emanated from the scrapping of the Customary Court of Appeal by the government of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole.

Recently on the order of the governor, the State Chief Judge set up a three-man panel of judges to advise on merging the State Customary Court of Appeal with the State High Court or scrapping it. In the wisdom of the judges, they recommended the scrapping of the customary court of Appeal that had existed for over 32years. This the lawyers and enlightened minds in the state described as unconstitutional as the customary court of Appeal and the High Court were both creation of the constitution. They opined that the scrapping was a breach of the fundamental rights of the Edo people.

This prompted the NBA Benin Branch under the leadership of Princes Isoa Iyomoh to summon an emergency meeting of the Association to deliberate on the actions of the governor. The house rose with a resolution that the Executive Council of the NBA, Benin Branch should contest the action. The Benin Branch of the NBA filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Benin, challenging the action of the governor and others in scrapping the Customary Court of Appeal in Edo State. This action did not go down well with the governor who was seemingly displeased about the alleged role the Branch played in the judiciary workers strike that lasted about nine months.

The suit essentially questions the constitutionality of the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary from scrapping a constitutionally guaranteed institution in Edo State Customary Court of Appeal. Allegations were rife that the main reason for scrapping the customary court of Appeal was not because of any alleged irrelevance, but to quell a brewing controversy over who heads it. But lawyers and the public insist that the equivalent of customary law in Nigeria is the common law which is still in existence in England and which forms the source of the Nigerian law. Customary law is therefore germaine to Edo people and the Nigerian State as a whole as guaranteed by Section 281 of the Nigerian Constitution as amended.

In her reaction, Princess Igomoh said it was worrisome to the bar that such an important matter that directly affected the lawyers, was carried out without proper consultation with stakeholders. She said Austin Alegeh the NBA National President through the General Secretary ordered her to withdraw the case against the governor or to remove the name of the NBA from the suit as the permission of the association’s National Executive Council was not sought before instituting the case. This she complied with but Alegeh was not still satisfied. She said the national president, at the National Executive Council meeting held in Jos on the 18th of February, 2016, accused her, among other things, of filing a suit without permission of the NEC against the Governor of Edo State.

According to Princess Iyomoh, there was no petition against her, and no panel was set up to inquire on the authenticity of the governor’s allegations but the national president went ahead to ask the NEC to remove a constitutionally elected Chairman of Benin Branch of the NBA. On the 20th of February, a query was sent after her purported removal two days earlier.

In what looked like a clannish thing, the Benin Branch members passed a vote of confidence on their chairman saying that she was voted for and elected by the NBA Benin Branch and not Abuja.

The matter degenerated when the Vice Chairman Ojeikhoa Emmanuel Turu was declared by Alegeh as the new Chairman of the NBA, Benin Branch. Ojeikhoa was seen immediately on Independent Television declaring himself as the Chairman. But since the purported removal of Iyomoh by the National Executive Committee in Jos, the NBA, Benin Branch had not known peace as members loyal to Alegeh and the vice chairman broke into the Bar house to form a parallel government which was resisted by Iyomoh’s group.

As the crisis raged on, the Elders of the branch threatened to expel Austin Alegeh as its member over his role in the controversy in the learned profession. They said the NEC lacked the constitutional power to remove an elected chairman. At an elders meeting presided over by Barrister Nosa Peter Osifo, the lawyers disassociated themselves from the Jos meeting. Osifo said: “We see the Jos resolution as an affront and an attempt to ridicule Benin Branch.  We will not allow it.” This aggravated the crisis, leading to the court action to stop Ojeikhoa from parading himself as the Chairman when the tenure of Princes Iyomoh had not expired.

Iyomoh prayed the court to restrain the Defendants by themselves or supporters from harassing or preventing her from carrying out her function as the duly elected chairman of the NBA Benin Branch or doing anything howsoever aimed at tarnishing her image and integrity pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.  It is instructive to note that the lawyers and judges who recommended the disbanding of the Customary Court of Appeal are from the same Edo North, with Oshiomhole and Alegeh which gives the impression that the struggle had an ethnic coloration.

On February 25, the Federal High Court gave an order of interim injunctions restraining Ojeikhoa, or any one acting with or through him from parading himself as the Acting Chairman of NBA Benin Branch or acting in any manner however inconsistent with the powers, functions and duties of the Plaintiff (as Chairman of NBA, Benin Branch) pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice. The crisis obviously is festering.
Ibharuneafe is a media/Public Relations Consultant. He wrote from Lagos.

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