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Killjoys at temple of justice

By Nsikak Ekanem
12 September 2022   |   2:45 am
In recent times, a number of what have been proceeding from judges’ mouths in Akwa Ibom State High Courts, in Nigeria’s south-south axis, are not only full of newsworthiness but are heartwarming

[FILES] Akwa Ibom

In recent times, a number of what have been proceeding from judges’ mouths in Akwa Ibom State High Courts, in Nigeria’s south-south axis, are not only full of newsworthiness but are heartwarming to those yearning for a better society and heart-wrenching to those becoming a law unto themselves and poisoning humanity with inhumanities.

An 82-year-old monarch has been sentenced to death for murder; a 20-year-old Uduak Frank, an undergraduate, who raped and killed a 26-year old Philosophy graduate of the University of Uyo, Iniubong Umoren, has been pronounced to be hanged till he dies.

In fact, within a period of one month or so, not less than 10 persons have been sentenced to death across 12 divisions of the state High Court on issues connected to robbery and killing, including death resulting from spousal clashes when romance becomes ruinous.

The conviction of Prof Peter Ogban, a professor of Soil Science, for soiling his hands in the 2019 Akwa Ibom north-west senatorial election has the first-of-a-kind place in Nigeria’s history.

There has also been an outstanding gracious act in which the state High court presided over by the Chief Judge (CJ), Justice Ekaete Obot, reversed its earlier judgment of December 15, 2020, that ordered one Leo Ekpenyong to pay N1 billion to Governor Udom Emmanuel as damages for libel.

Leo had, in a publication titled “Justice for Sale in Akwa Ibom State National Assembly Elections Petition Tribunal” accused the governor of bribing judges to the tune of $1.5 billion.

In the sequel to the grievous accusation, the governor instituted legal action against the accuser. Leo neither put up an appearance nor had legal representation while the matter lasted. It was after the judgment that he contracted a lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, through whom he prayed the court to reverse itself.

Upon the foregoing and many other headline-alluring judgments, the July 27 sentencing of Inibehe to one-month imprisonment has taken the shine off all other judgments. Contrastingly, the helmsman of the state judiciary is being made to become a villain. It is a practical demonstration of the force of the first story. Except it is speedily checked, factually corrected and its true version is superbly, widely and sophisticatedly spewed out, the first story has the potential of being more palatable and believable.

The first account of the story, which went viral was told by Inibehe himself. Around 10:40 am that Wednesday, Inibehe sent a message, through social media, thus:  “I have been sent to Uyo prison by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Obot, for one month for defending Leo Ekpenyong in a libel suit filed by Governor Udom Emmanuel.”

How true was the 34-word of one sentence? While the first 21 words collectively have truism, the remaining part of the sentence took truth on a rigmarole trip, hence misleading and misinforming the public.

Although it is true that Inibehe is “defending Leo Ekpenyong in a libel suit filed by Governor Udom Emmanuel.” From what transpired in the court that day, he was not jailed “for defending Leo Ekpenyong” but for the contemptuous act, as alleged by the Chief Judge.

That Wednesday, Inibehe did not shift his ground that the judge should recuse himself from the matter for fear of biases. He objected to the presence of armed policemen in the court and protested the confiscation of a phone of a Premium Times reporter by the police on the order of the CJ.

The journalist was said to be doing a discreet audio recording of the court proceeding so that he could be properly guided in his reportage.

The CJ is reported to have stated in a certified true copy of the judgment that the activist lawyer shouted, banged the table and pointed a finger at the judge while making his objections and that he was convicted because of his “unruly behaviour.”

As a legal instrument to ensuring obedience to court orders and instilling the cherished culture of decorum in courts, the interpretation of contempt of court falls within the prerogative of a presiding judge. But with regards to natural justice, when contempt in the face of court barks or bites, the bizarreness of the concept comes to the fore in that a judge is seen playing the unfair role of being accuser, prosecutor and judge.

By its nature, the legal profession is a conservative adventure. In Akwa Ibom, unlike Lagos and some other places with appreciable open society compliance, there appears to be an infusion of extremism into the conservatism. Such a trend is not pleasing to anyone with orientation and consciousness that public affairs, which the court is part of, should at all times be applied with finesse spirit of open society, which, simply, entails that public engagements should not be operated in obscurantism to the people.

In Lagos, apart from journalists having relatively unhindered access to cover court proceedings, there is a well-furnished press centre within the High Court premises, where newsmen usually converge.

Unlike some other places where court clerks and other support workers in courts relate with journalists with a long spoon, those in Lagos rub shoulders with journalists in the judiciary beats. Though matters in courts all over the world can hardly be optimally reported in the news media, the conducive working environment in Lagos has greatly enhanced court reporting.

It is hard to know how audio or written records of court proceedings by a journalist or any member of the public could impair justice delivery. In a society, such as ours, where armed security personnel at civil places are often trigger-thrilled, where common people are often at the receiving end of overzealous protection of the powerful, where the air of peremptoriness surrounds those in power, Inibehe, like every other life-loving unprotected citizens, has a number of reasons to feel unsafe that day in the court.

His protestation against the treatment meted to the Premium Times reporter and the presence of armed security officers in the court was not just rights activism before the court but his own quota against the desecration of the temple of justice.

However, one should not lose touch with the fact that mannerism is quite an essence, as it often conveys its distinct meanings.

Given Inibehe’s action of refusing to obey the judge, particularly when he was ordered to leave the bar and enter the dock to answer charges of contempt of court, anarchy was imminent at the temple of justice. What should the judge have done in the ensuing circumstance?

In the course of instilling discipline in the legal profession and averting erosion of solemnity in the court, Justice Obot’s slamming of charges of contempt of court on the lawyer may not have been out of place, just as Inibehe’s action to ensure adherence to the principle of open society and civility of the court deserves to be hailed instead of being nailed. Certainly, the missing link was the inadequate application of emotional intelligence.

While many accuse the judge of not being fair in convicting the lawyer of contempt of court, it is even more unfair that a number of commentators take the words of the convicted lawyer hook, line and sinker without even bothering to hear the side of the court, which has been circumstantially made to become a party in the matter it is dutifully an arbiter. Judges deserve everybody’s pity for their introverted nature in the larger public.

Meanwhile, the conviction of the lawyer has laid a foundation for building another case study on contempt of court, which abounds in Nigeria as well as the English law that Nigeria’s legal tradition is fashioned after. That is why the act of approaching an appellate court, as Inibehe has already done through a star-studded human rights lawyer and senior advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana, is very commendable. Decision at the superior court will be of renewed vista to Nigeria’s jurisprudence, particularly on the ever-controversial matter of contempt of court.

The hullabaloo of condemnations, particularly calls for the CJ to be investigated, is an attempt to throw caution to the wind, just as they constitute killjoys to sound judgments from the Akwa Ibom State judiciary, which are quite pleasing to good consciences.

Ekanem sent this article through nsikak4media@gmail.com.