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Friday, March 24, 2023

Inibehe Effiong’s Unlawful Sentence Without Trial: An Abuse Of Judicial Power And a Slap On Criminal Jurisprudence

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By. Pelumi Olajengb Esq.

I have read the report that Human Rights Lawyer, Inihebe Effiong, has been sent to the Uyo Correctional Centre by the Hon. Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Obot, on purported ground of contempt in facie curiae  arising from the case between Governor Udom Emmanuel and Leo Ekpenyong in which Mr. Effiong is Counsel to the Defendant.  What leaves me in shock is the fact that no contempt proceeding whatsoever was held before his conviction and sentencing, and neither was he allowed to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt, as obtainable under summary trials for contempt.

Let me start my review of the incidence by taking into cognizance the position of the law to the effect that “it is indeed difficult to give an exact definition of what amounts to or what contempt of Court is in all cases, since the facts and circumstances vary from one case to another. As a result, contempt or what may amount to contempt of Court would depend on the peculiar facts and circumstances of each case. However, contempt of Court has been defined to mean and include, any act or conduct which is calculated and tends to bring into disrespect, scorn, or disrepute, the authority of the Court and administration of justice” – OKO V AGANYI (2012) LPELR- 19704(CA) Per GARBA, J.C.A (Pp. 16-17, para. C)

Following the antecedents of this case, I am aware that the matter was slated for continuation of trial sequel to the court setting aside the earlier judgment given in the case in question, allowing for the defendant to be heard. As Inihebe narrated, the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State had ordered news reporters from Premium Times to leave the court room and he had prayed the Court to let them stay since the proceeding is public; but the Court did not burge. He further informed the Court of the unease sliding through him owing to the uncustomary presence of policemen in the courtroom. It was at that moment the Chief Judge asked him to step out of the bar and ordered the Policemen to take him to the Uyo correctional centre and keep him for one month. 

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A good question is whether his expression in any way ridicules the Court or interferes with the administration of justice? the answer is to the negative. At this point, I cannot completely overlook the fact that the Chief Judge had earlier threatened to put Inihebe Effiong Esq behind bars for accusing her of the likelihood of bias in the ongoing libel suit which In addition, sentencing without trial is definitely not welcome under the Nigerian Criminal Justice system as it emblems an exercise of arbitrariness and a slap on the hallowed concept of Rule of Law. To sentence for contempt in the face of the court by the Judge who feels offended will naturally bring about a case of the Judge being a ‘Judge’ in her own case and for that, the Judge ought to be more circumspect in the exercise of her powers. 

The Appeal and Supreme courts have cautioned that Judges faced with cases of contempt be weary and circumspect in dealing with such cases. The court in OBIUKWU v UGWUERUCHUKWU & ORS (2019) LPELR-46616(CA) posited that “Courts have always been admonished to be circumspect while handling contempt proceedings…Contempt of Court was not meant to be wielded by the Court as an instrument of intimidation, or a club of offence, to harass and subjugate and hew down litigants, lawyers and persons within the precincts of the Court, or outside. Contempt is not meant to be used as a weapon or means of showing strength and power by the Judge. See also Nwadike vs the State (2015) LPELR- 24550 (CA); Ethel C. Chukwu & Ors vs Lolo stella C. Chukwu & Ors (2016) LPELR- 40553 (CA), where stressing the need to comply strictly with procedural rules was stressed, since contempt proceedings affect the liberty of individuals, and the Court cannot afford to gamble with the liberty of persons appearing before it…” (Pp 34-35 Paras B-B) (emphasis mine).

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It is my opinion that if my Learned brother has been accused for contempt, then he ought to be tried for contempt in accordance with due legal procedure before being sentenced. The Court is no place for display of sentimentality, and justice should not only be done, but manifestly be seen to be done.

In light of the ripple consequences of setting such precedence in the arbitrary exercise of the court or a judge’s right to hold one on contempt charges, it behoves on the judiciary as an institution to take more than a cursory interest in this matter and see that manifest justice in the form of redress  is extended to my learned friend and colleague Inibehe. The current Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom is apparrently no longer competent to continue to preside on the matter and the court, neither is she fit to continue to hold such a very important and delicate office as her cloak of justice have been stained with injustice and the pungent stench of political bias.

Pelumi Olajengbesi Esq., is a Public Interest Lawyer and the Managing Partner at Law Corridor, Abuja.


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