There was palpable celebration within Enugu State judiciary today as Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi swore in Justice Ngozi Priscilla Emehelu as the state’s acting Chief Judge. Justice Emehelu is stepping in as Chief Judge following last week’s suspension of former Chief Judge, Innocent Umezulike, by the National Judicial Council (NJC).
At the swearing in, Governor Ugwuanyi referred to a letter from the National Judicial Council dated September 30, 2016, suspending Justice Umezulike from office on the grounds of judicial misconduct. The governor said he had received another letter from the Chief Justice of the Federation in which the National Judicial Council recommended the compulsory retirement of Justice Umezulike.
The NJC found that the disgraced former Chief Judge of Enugu failed to deliver judgment within the constitutionally stipulated 90 days in a lawsuit between Ajogwu vs. Nigerian Bottling Company Limited. Final addresses in the case were adopted on October 23, 2014, but Justice Umezulike did not deliver until March 9, 2015, 126 days later.
In addition, the NJC found the former Chief Judge abused his office by ordering the arrest of a lawyer, Peter Eze, in a lawsuit, Ezeuko vs. Probate Registrar, High Court of Enugu State and 3 others, despite the fact that the matter had been amicably resolved and judgment entered on terms of the settlement.
The NJC also discovered that Justice Umezulike “in a speech delivered by him to the Eastern Bar Forum on Friday 4th March, 2016, openly made uncomplimentary remarks containing vulgar language against the petitioner, contrary to Rule 1.3 of the National Judicial Council Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.”
The NJC found that, in February 2014, the former Chief Judge launched a book and accepted a donation of N10 million from Prince Arthur Eze, even though the donor had two cases pending in the judge’s court.
According to the NJC, the disgraced former Chief Justice committed “abuse of judicial powers” when he insisted on hearing cases against two defendants despite all genuine efforts made by the defendants to get the suits transferred to another court.
The NJC rebuked Justice Umezulike for allowing his emotions to “dictate his judicial functions to the detriment of the defendants in both suits.”
Acting Chief Judge, N. P. Emehelu, is a graduate of the University of Ife and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1981 after which she went into private practice. Between 1997 and 1998, Justice Emehelu was the Attorney General of Enugu State. She was appointed a high court judge in 1998. At various times, she sat as either the chairman or member of election petition tribunals in Gombe, Bornu, Adamawa, Benue, Yobe and Kwara States.
At the swearing in of the new acting CJ, Governor Ugwuanyi invoked section 271(4) of the Nigerian Constitution, which requires that where the office of Chief Judge becomes vacant, the most senior judge in the state judiciary, should be sworn in as Acting Chief Judge. He said Justice Emehelu is the most senior judge in the State High Court.
A senior official in the Governor’s office told SaharaReporters that Mr. Ugwuanyi would soon formally ask the state legislature to approve the removal of Justice Umezulike from office on grounds of grave misconduct as recommended by the National Judicial Council. The source said there would be no difficulty obtaining the two-thirds majority required to conclude Mr. Umezulike's dismissal from the judiciary.
Mr. Umezulike was appointed a judge in 1993 and became the Chief Judge of Enugu State in 2004. Not long after his appointment, he began what one source described as a reign of judicial terror in Enugu State. In a letter published in the Vanguard Newspaper in February 2016, the former Attorney General of Enugu State, Mr. Nduka Ikeyi, accused Justice Umezulike of fraud and encouraging and tolerating corruption amongst named magistrates in Enugu State. Indeed, Mr. Ikeyi specifically accused Justice Umezulike of attempting to get the then state governor, Mr. Sullivan Chime, to provide housing funds to him for a second time after he had sold his official residence in the posh Government Reservation Area, Enugu, to a third party.
Justice Umezulike was also engaged in a long-running battle with the Enugu Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association. In a letter signed by Osita Ogbu, the Bar accused Justice Umezulike of high-handedness, undermining the independence of other judges, unreasonable delay in assigning cases and disregard for laid down guidelines in the appointment of judges and magistrates. In his letter, Mr. Ogbu, a professor of law, also alleged that in certain cases, Justice Umezulike did not deliver judgments one year or more after final addresses.
Matters came to a head when, during the court session to mark the opening of the 2015/2016 legal year, Justice Umezulike threatened to manacle and bundle Mr. Ogbu out of the hall.
Our correspondent reported that judges, lawyers, staff of the Judiciary and members of the public rejoiced openly when the NJC recommended the removal of Justice Umezulike, whom a lawyer described as a tyrant. Several lawyers who spoke to SaharaReporters hailed the National Judicial Council for recommending Justice Umezulike’s compulsory retirement. Indeed, some of them argued that Justice Umezulike ought to have been dismissed.
Professor R. Achara, a constitutional law expert, described Justice Umezulike as a terror to both judges and lawyers and agreed that Justice Umezulike got off lightly. Gary Eneh, a former member of the House of Representatives, described the removal of Justice Umezulike as a refusal to tolerate impunity.
Several lawyers told SaharaReporters that the acting Chief Judge is faced with the huge task of righting the various wrongs perpetuated by Justice Umezulike and redeeming the image of the Enugu State Judiciary battered for thirteen years under Justice Umezulike’s leadership.