THE opening of the 2017/2018 Legal Year of Imo State Judiciary, may have become history but the memory of what transpired at the event, especially the exchange of words between the lawyers and Governor Rochas Okorocha, will definitely remain evergreen to all that witnessed it.
The day’s event started with a concelebrated mass at Maria Assumpta Cathedral, Owerri. About 10 priests and three Catholic bishops, Anthony J. V. Obinna (Owerri), Solomon Amatu (Okigwe) and the bishop emeritus of Orlu Diocese, Gregory Ochiagha, officiated during the mass.
Preaching the homily, Archbishop Obinna condemned what he called “the non-implementation of judicial independence, enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution”.
The second phase shifted to the Justice Paul Onumajulu Square, located in the High Court premises Owerri. Governor Okorocha, who probably, didn’t want to face any ecclesiastical bashing in Assumpta Cathedral, chose to honour this later segment.
NBA releases the first missile: The verbal missiles against the state government commenced when Mr. Lawrence U. N. Nwakaeti, the Owerri NBA Chairman, read his seven-page address.
While describing the NBA as “the militant wing of the legal profession,” Nwakaeti roundly condemned the prevailing executive interference with judicial independence. “Back here in Imo State, what we have is one illegality after the other. What is the essence of preaching recession as an excuse and at the same time spending huge sums of money on Christmas decorations? Such decorations can only be for the living and not the dead”, Nwakaeti said.
Wave of illegalities
The NBA Chairman also bristled that “the State Judicial Service Commission, JSC, was not left out in this wave of illegalities”, stressing that just recently, its non-statutory members were purportedly sacked, in clear violation of the Constitution. Let it be on record that the Bar does not recognize the present JSC, as constituted, until the executive respects the rule of law and reverts to the status quo. The executive has gone ahead to handover monies meant for the Judiciary to the JSC, comprising the Governor’s handpicked men”, Nwakaeti said.
While condemning government’s act, the Bar also demanded that all monies standing to the credit of the judiciary, should be handed over to the heads of court. Recalling the protracted strike of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, JUSUN, and the role played by the Bar to get the workers back to work, Nwakaeti regretted that government unilaterally jettisoned the agreement it entered into with the Union.
“Now, they are being victimized by the government, who currently, is withholding their three months salary. The Bar is of the view that this action of the government is wrongful and hereby call on government to take immediate steps towards paying off these arrears”, the Bar said. Nwakaeti then raised a pertinent question: “Why is the Government of Imo State finding it difficult to comply with the constitutionally guaranteed financial autonomy of the judiciary, even after freely signing an agreement to that effect?”
Okorocha fires back: In a reprisal attack, Governor Okorocha accused the lawyers of speaking out of crass ignorance and falsehood, instead of knowledge. While linking Ahamba’s address to sheer partisan politics and a possible wish to occupy the Douglas House in 2019, Okorocha warned among other things that he will not handover to anybody above 50. “Let me make it abundantly clear to people like Chief Ahamba, who are angling to take over from me that I will not handover to anybody above 50 years”, Okorocha said.
Responding to some of the issues raised by the NBA Chairman, the Governor said that the bulk of the presentation by the Bar, stemmed from an ill-informed position. “It is not true that any local government worker was sacked by this administration. I am shocked to hear that 1,100 local government staff has been sacked. I must warn that any worker found wanting in the discharge of his or her official duties, would be shown the way out”, Okorocha said.
When the lawyers started murmuring, in apparent disagreement with the Governor’s submissions, Okorocha said: “Educated people don’t make noise when somebody is talking. When you were addressing us, I didn’t talk and now that I am talking, you must shut up and listen”. On the issue of pensioners and pension, Okorocha said that no pensioner was forced to sign any document.
“The pensioners signed the forms voluntarily. Imo pays N1.4 billion as pension monthly, the highest in Nigeria. Imo got N13 billion from the Paris Club Refund and has used it to offset the backlog of unpaid pensions”, Okorocha said.
Addressing the outstanding three-month staff salaries of judicial workers, the Governor said that since the staff opted to go on strike, even after government entered into an agreement with the Nigeria Labour Congress, he declared the “no work, no pay policy”.
After tutoring the NBA leaders on how to fashion their future addresses, Okorocha then said: “I came with the intention to change Imo State and indeed, Imo has changed for the better. I can boast that none of my predecessors, with the exception of Dee Sam Mbakwe, did not do 20 percent of what I have done. I deserve some commendation”.
AHAMBA FIRES SECOND SALVO
Okorocha was still ruminating over the NBA Chairman’s verbal canons when the Chairman, Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, BOSAN, Chief Mike I. Ahamba, SAN, took the centre stage and berated the state government over the deteriorated court halls across the state.
“A check on either the High Court, Magistrate Courts or Customary Courts outside the capital city of Owerri will expose a gory spectacle of dilapidation of buildings and furniture, most times, with no conveniences. It would appear that any contraption called a building is considered good enough for the dispensation of justice”, Ahamba said.
He also condemned what he branded “arbitrary slashing and non-payment of in-service and post-service remunerations of public officers” in the state.
“The most disturbing aspect of this unfortunate, wicked and indefensible situation is that it has extended to those who preside over our courts at all levels in Imo State. Blackmailing workers and retirees into signing ill-concocted documents, purporting same to tantamount to signing off their rights to due emoluments is, in my humble opinion, a journey in self deceit”, Ahamba said.
AND THE CHIEF JUDGE LAMENTS
In his own address, the state Chief Judge, CJ, Hon. Justice Paschal Nnadi, lamented that the judiciary did not witness much improvements and renovations in the past legal year.
“The renovation of the burnt Customary Court of Appeal at New Owerri, is yet to be completed, many years after work started thereon. The need to complete that office building cannot be overemphasized, as the Court presently sits in a makeshift accommodation and the situation has become worse with the appointment of an additional judge to that very busy court”, Nnadi said.
The CJ reminded Okorocha that “there has not been any capital fund released to the Judiciary since my assumption of Office as the Chief Judge of Imo State in 2014”.
He touched a number of other grey areas bothering the Judiciary and appealed to the Governor to take urgent steps to resolve the problems.