An international human rights advocacy group under the aegis of the Igbo Oriental Think-tank has called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to take a second closer look at its position on the issue of seniority and ranking of judges in Enugu state, based on extant High Court Rules of the state.
The group in a press conference held in Enugu this afternoon noted that in the course of its advocacy and drive for equity, fairness, brotherliness and foster unity among the contending Nationalities in Nigeria, especially among the peoples of the South East geopolitical zone of Nigeria, especially Enugu State, they discovered a sensitive issue that bothered on the “seniority amongst the Enugu State High Court Judges”.
According its Coordinating Secretary, Dr Kenneth Anozie, “…we took a personal study of it, with relevant instant laws as our guide. Our objective was to unravel the truth, and ensure that the Rule of Law is followed to the letter in other to ensure equity and Justice.
In the 3-page statement, Dr Anozie disclosed that the advocacy group discovered that the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria had in a letter ref No AJC/S.3/XXIV/147 dated Oct 12, 1998 approved and communicated the then Provisional Ruling Council’s appointment of a list of eleven Judges in Enugu State to the then Military Administrator of the state.
The letter, Anozie pointed out, stated clearly that “the appointment of the following in order of precedence as Judges of Enugu State with effect from Sept 17, 1998. In the said letter these were the Judges approved “in order of precedence”; Benedict Egwuatu Agbata, Mrs N.P Emehulu, Fredrick Chukwuemeka Obieze, Kignsley Ngwu Udeh, Mrs Regina Obiageli Nwodo, Elvis Chile Ajaonu, Stanley Chuks Nnaji, Anthony Okechukwu Onovo, Reuben Nwajiobi Onuorah, Godwin Osita Anibueze and Raymond Ozoemena.
The group, in drawing the attention of the NJC, the Enugu State Government and the public to see and recognize Justice Anthony Okechukwu Onovo as the Number Two judicial officer of the state, next to the incumbent Chief Judge, stated that out of the eleven High Court Judges appointed same day alongside Onovo, only four remain active in the service today. While the other seven have either retired or are deceased. The four still active according to the “order of precedence” are; Hon Justice N.P Emehelu, (The incumbent Honourable Chief Judge of Enugu State), Hon Justice A.O Onovo, Hon Justice R.N Onuorah and Hon Justice A.R Ozoemena.
That in accordance with High Court Rules of Enugu State which states explicitly in Part 11, Section 7(3); “for the avoidance of doubt, where on the same day two or more persons are appointed to the office of a Judge, they shall have precedence in order in which they took their oath of office”
Based on this, it was therefore clear that Honourable Justice A. O. Onovo is number (2) in the ranking, based on all the relevant laws of Enugu State High Court Rules, and according to the letter of approval sent to the Military Administrator of Enugu State by the then Honorable Chief Justice of Nigeria on Oct 12,1998.
The Rights group bemoaned that in the course of its investigations discovered that the NJC based on a petition by Hon Justice A.R. Ozoemena has somehow waded into the matter and even given a position on the subject. That in its letter dated Dec 24, 2019 Ref. NJC/S.14/HC/EN/11/1/188 to the Chief Justice of Enugu State, Hon Justice N.P Emehelu, listing the “Order of seniority” as below:
Name. Date of call to the Bar
(1) Hon. Justice N. P. Emehelu. 1981
(2) Hon. Justice A. R. Ozoemena. 1983
(3) Hon. Justice R. N. Onuorah. 1984
(4) Hon. Justice A. O. Onovo. 1987
From the foregoing, the NJC and His Lordship, it would be seen did not take into cognizance the High Court Laws of Enugu State, which states categorically in Part 11, Section 7(3) “For the avoidance of doubt, where on the same day two or more persons are appointed to the office of a Judge they shall have precedence in the order in which they took their oath of office.”
The Igbo Oriental Think Tank noted that as a rights group founded on equity, good governance and Rule of Law demand that the right things need to be done. So that the Temple of Justice should not be seen as an arena to perpetrate injustice.