Honourable Uzo Azubuike of Abia State and his injustice to the poor
It started like a joke. At the High Court of Abia state in Aba Judicial division Aba. I had gone there to watch Court proceedings.
At 9.05am dot the Registrar of the Court shouted – 'Court' - upon a three times bang on the door by the Orderly to the Judge, everyone in the Court stood up. The Judge came in and sat down. Every other person in the Court including the Lawyers sat down. The Judge inquired from the registrar:
Judge - Registrar are you ready?
Registrar – yes my Lord
Judge – call out the first case.
The Judge directed the Registrar to call out the first case in the Cause list for that day. While the Registrar was trying to call out the first case which obviously was a criminal case, a Lawyer stood up from the Bar and while standing said:
Lawyer – I am sorry my Lord, with the kind permission of my Lord, I humbly apply to call my matter out of turn, it is number 6 in the Cause, I have sought and obtained the permission of all my colleagues at the Bar; and it is not going on as well.
Judge – any objection from the Bar?
All the Lawyers in the bar chorused no objection, as if the Lawyer that stood up took eternity to campaign to his colleagues. The court was filled with Lawyers who came for various cases. He was actually the most senior at the Bar among the Lawyers in the Court on that day, and it the practice that senior Lawyers can call their matters out of turn (i.e. without following the cause list strictly as listed). They are always given that privilege, but it is subject to the overriding approval of the Judge as the Judge has the discretion to refuse the application. But in this case the judge said:
Judge – Registrar in the absence of any objection from the Bar, call out case number 6.
It was actually a privilege not a right as any other Lawyer at the Bar had the right to object to such application upon very good and genuine reasons for instance that he/she will be before another Court in another criminal case/matter which is contentious. If this happens, the Judge will now use his (the use of 'his' here is in its generic sense which includes both Male and female judges) discretion to determine whether to overrule the application and follow the cause list strictly as listed or to grant the request of the learned senior Lawyer at the Bar. But in this case the Judge granted the request and directed the Registrar to call out the case.
Registrar – case number 6, Charge No A/20C/2008 between the State vs. Chiemela Egege and 4 others.
The Registrar continued.
Registrar – Chiemela Egege
One young man who obviously was Chiemela Egege motioned out towards the dock, and the rest of the four accused persons followed him behind. They filed out in sequence according to how their names were called out by the Court Registrar. They were all smartly dressed and looked like University students except the 4th accused who looked older than the rest the accused persons. The Registrar upon sighting all the accused persons heading towards the dock went to them and asked them individually, which language they would want to speak in Court, all the Accused persons individually retorted: English language. The Registrar then went back to his position in court, and now facing the Judge said:
Registrar – My Lord, all the accused persons are in Court and they speak English language.
While the Judge was recording the information given to him by the registrar, I remembered I didn't switch off my mobile phone. I was told that the Judge could cite someone for Court contempt if the person's mobile phone rings while proceedings are going-on in court. I quickly went out of the Court to put it off. Fortunately as soon as I went out of the court room the phoned ranged, it was one of my friends that phoned me. It took me a little time to end the phone conversation, but when I eventually went back into the Court and sat down, the Judge said:
Judge – since the prosecution witnesses are not in the Court for the inability of the Prosecution to liaise with the Court Bailiff in order to serve them with witness summons, this matter is further adjourned to 12/04/2011, fresh witness summons is hereby ordered to be served on all the remaining prosecution witnesses, the accused persons to remain in Prison custody.
It was when I heard the above ruling of the Court I understood that the matter could not go on because the witnesses who ought to testify in Court for the prosecution could not be served by the Court Bailiff and therefore the court had to adjourn the matter to another date. The accused persons were brought from Afara Umuahia by Prison Warders, and the Court ordered that they should be taken back. I understood from someone who was sitting close to me in the Court room that the application for their bail which the defence lawyers filed on their behalf especially for the 4th accused had been heard and refused by the female presiding Judge. The accused persons quickly came out from the dock and went back where they were sitting down in the midst of Prison Warders. The Judge now told the Registrar:
Judge – Registrar call out the first case in the cause list.
Registrar – as the Court pleases. Charge No A/15/2010 between 'The State vs. Nmuo Weke'.
When the Registrar called the name of the accused person, he stood up and motioned towards the dock. The Registrar went to him and inquired from him the language he wished to speak in Court and he said Igbo language. The Registrar quickly went back to his position and while facing the Judge muted:
Registrar – my Lord the accused person is in Court and speaks Igbo Language.
The Judge while She was busy recording the information passed to her by the Registrar, directed the Court Clerk to affirm himself so that he can interpret the Court proceedings to the accused person who speaks Igbo language in Court. The Court clerk stood up and affirmed himself to interpret the Court proceedings under the relevant provision of the Criminal Procedure Law from English language to Igbo language and thereafter went close to the dock where the accused was standing.
I was interested to know why those young men were standing trial in the earlier case; I stopped paying attention to the next case that was going-on. I then asked the young man sitting close to me why he felt very bad after the Court's ruling in the earlier case involving five accused persons. The man was terribly angry, expressed disappointment and almost busted into tears when the Judge ruled that – there was no witness in Court and that the accused persons be returned to Umuahia Prisons. The man looked at me and asked me –
The man - are you a security agent in civilian clothes?
I quickly disabused his mind before he does start feeling uncomfortable.
I answered – No, I am not.
The man – I thought you are a security agent. I am comfortable now. My brother, the story about that case is a long story.
I replied – are you related to any of the accused persons standing trial in that case?
The Man – yes.
I went further – can you please tell me a little story about the case?
The man – yes, but we have to go out of the Court room.
I nodded in approval that it was better we do that so that we will not both be cited for contempt of Court, for discussing in the bowl of the court while the Court sat. Both of us went out of the Court room and stood under a tree for shed, which was about 50 meters away from the Court. He said:
My brother, since my life I have not seen this type of wickedness before. I am 40 years this year. I am related to the 3rd accused who was a student prior to this case; and they are standing trial for Kidnapping and Armed Robbery…
I interjected at this juncture and told him sorry, because I never knew one of the accused persons was his relation. He continued –
There is one man called Honourable Uzo Azubuike who is a politician. During the 2007 general elections in Nigeria, he contested under the platform of the Peoles' Democratic Party (PDP) to represent his constituency at the Abia State House of Assembly. He won the election through the help of these young men standing trial except the 4th accused person…
I interjected again, I am sorry my brother, but how did these four accused persons excluding the 4th accused help him win election? What role did the 4th accused play and why are they standing trial for Kidnapping and Armed robbery? He continued:
My brother, are you a journalist? Is this a kind of interview?
I entertained fear that the man might decide not to tell me the story again, and at this juncture I became so much interested especially to know how the four accused persons who were standing trial would have helped this politician to win election; and how they became charged for Kidnapping and Armed Robbery. I also was interested to know how the 4th accused person joined the other four in this charge. I decided to take him to task on these facts. Both charges in Abia State of Nigeria are Capital charges. This means that upon conviction for any of the charges, the accused persons will be sentenced to death. I jokingly told the man that I was not a journalist and that I was not equally interviewing him. Just that I was interested to know why he became sad when the case was adjourned while we were in the Court room and also, I would want to know what actually transpired that gave rise to the charge of armed robbery and kidnapping. I told the man to trust me, that I wasn't deceiving him. I then felt it was time for me to ask the man his name. I quickly but politely asked him his name, he said:
The man – my name is Anthony.
I then said, Mr Anthony, could you please continue from where you stopped especially by answering the questions I asked. He continued –
Honourable Uzo Azubuike like other PDP members who are politicians employed those young men as political thugs; they alongside other young men were the persons who helped him to rig elections. They went to voting booths and stations and carted away ballot boxes on behalf of Honourable Uzo Azubuike, he was announced the winner of the elections. Honourable Uzo Azubuike took the first accused as his Personal assistant. However, Honourable Uzo Azubuike refused and neglected to settle the young men who helped him rig the election. They have been making repeated requests that they should be settled, but the Honourable refused to heed to their requests for settlement. The young men now hatched a plan. The plan was to kidnap the daughter of Honourable Uzo Azubuike to compel him to settle them, once they are settled; they will let his daughter go.
I screamed – Oh my God! How could they do such an awful thing? It was a wrong idea. Anthony then continued –
My brother, youths of nowadays, everything appears simple to them. They saw it as a very simple thing to do. So, as I was telling you, having concluded the plan to kidnap the daughter of the Honourable, one fateful day while the 4th accused was driving Honourable Uzo Azubuike's daughter to School, because the 4th accused is a driver to the Honourable, on the perfected plan of the rest of the accused persons, he was double crossed and caused to stop at gun point. The 4th accused who was still innocently confused, but was fathoming if he ran into armed robbers; and a possible way of escape, the young men pointed a pistol at the 4th accused head, collected his mobile phone and abducted the little girl he was taking to school.
I could not bear it again, I screamed – Jesus Christ! How could they justify their actions? It was really bad. Mr Anthony at this time was now warning me that he wants to go home since he had finished what brought him to court. I pleaded with him to finish up the story summarily to me. He continued –
The accused persons excluding the 1st accused were arrested by the villagers at one of the Ngwa villages near Umuahia in a Mercedes Benz 190 model car; and the little girl was rescued. The accused persons admitted that they did it to compel Honourable Azubuike to settle them for using them as political thugs. The 1st accused who was a Personal Assistant to the Honourable, was implicated by the other accused persons to be part of the plan leading to the abduction of the little girl who was rescued some few hours after the incident. The 1st accused was the chief informant. The 4th accused drove home, told the Mother of the girl (Honourable Uzo Azubuike's wife) what transpired and the little girl's mother accompanied the 4th accused to a nearby police station to report the incident. But the 4th accused who ought to be a witness for the prosecution was included in the charge because, the father of the little girl (Honourable Azubuike) is a rich politician and also in his statement to the Police said – he is suspecting his driver to have conspired with the rest of the accused to abduct his daughter; coupled with a personal hatred for the 4th accused. This was why the 4th accused was included in the charge, in the absence of that, none of the accused persons implicated him to have been part of the plan to abduct the little girl. Within a short time, they were all charged to court. We tried at the family level to see how we could settle the matter because the accused persons except the 4th accused are related to Honourable Uzo Azubuike, but the settlement was not successful, hence the matter was taken to court. What pains me most is that since this matter was charged to court in 2008, there have been a lot of adjournments, up till now the prosecution is yet to finish calling their witnesses; and the worst being that the female Judge presiding the case refused to admit them to bail. How can the matter continue like this? It is almost a year; the matter has not been heard. I am suspecting Honourable Uzo Azubuike may have caused the delay in this case to punish these young men. The judge has been going from one function and assignment to another. She was at Jos for election petition tribunal cases, when she came back she went on leave, after the leave she went on another assignment in Bayelsa state…. These accused persons some of them are students, the 4th accused has a wife and children. It looks as if they have been abandoned to die in the prison, I wonder the type of judicial system we have in Nigeria…
Someone called on Mr Anthony to come, so he went to see that person. I was already feeling very sad by the revelations and stories Mr Anthony told me. I could not reconcile the situation at all. While I was ruminating on the facts, Mr Anthony resurfaced and told me that he wanted to attend a function alongside the wife that he will leave now. I was very grateful to Mr Anthony, I thanked him so much and he zoomed off.
When Mr Anthony finally left me, I felt lost, I felt the naked intrigues of the Nigerian judicial system, and I exclaimed – God save Nigeria!
I was imagining why citizens of Nigeria will be made to suffer in the name of trial. In this case, the accused persons have been in detention for more than four years and nothing serious is happening in terms of their trial. Nigerian prisons are thickly populated to the brim because of cases like this. One wonders if the persons left to languish in prison custody are not human beings, whether they have no rights (human rights). In an article published in the Nigerian Vanguard on 9th September, 2011 captioned 'plight of prisoners awaiting trial', the author exclaimed on the plight of prisoners who are abandoned in over-crowded prisons across Nigeria on the mantra 'awaiting trial'. The Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro (as at September 2011) had called for speedy trials of all pending cases to decongest prisons in Nigeria. It must be noted that all efforts to decongest prisons in Nigeria had always been initiated by successive Attorney Generals of the federation of Nigeria, but each prison decongestion strategy is always ill-fated and riddled with corruption without any positive result.
It should be noted that the Nigerian Prisons congested because of the 'awaiting trial' mantra are not up to standard, very few of them meets internationally accepted standards, with inadequate facilities and above all, without reformation and rehabilitation strategies and facilities. Yet citizens of Nigeria are kept in these places longer than necessary. In one of my Prison visits at Afara Umuahia, I came back hoping and as well prayed that there won't be an epidemic in the prison because of the poor state of the prison.
The Nigerian Constitution requires everyone who is alleged to have committed an offence to be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved. See, section 36 (5) of the Constitution of Nigeria, 1999. If the accused persons in this case are presumed innocent as provided by the constitution, why won't they be tried without delay or at least admit them to bail? In the present case, there is no trial, there is no bail. What a sham judicial system in Nigeria. How can someone be kept in prison custody in the name of awaiting trial and forgotten there to die? Someone that has a family with children like the 4th accused why won't the right to be presumed innocent avail him?
In the same vein, Section 36 (4) of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 provides that anyone who is alleged to have committed an offence must be tried within a reasonable time. In this case, the accused persons have been in detention for the past four years, and the prosecution is still calling their witnesses, common sense shows that the prosecution is not prosecuting this case diligently. If not, what on earth can justify the fact that the prosecution in the space of four years is still calling witnesses? These young men who are wasting their youthful age in prison without a conviction, what if they are finally discharged and acquitted, what happens to the several years they stayed in detention without trial? I know that the Nigerian system might not compensate an accused for illegal incarceration, and if that is the case, what then is the basis for remanding someone who has not yet been convicted and sentenced by a competent court of law, in prison custody for a long time? Why will someone unjustifiably waste his life in prison custody in the name of standing trial in Nigeria? Is this justice? In the present case, it will not be preposterous for one to quickly posit that the fundamental human rights of the accused persons have been violated. The courts in Nigeria ought to try an accused person who is not on bail within a reasonable time as required by the Nigerian Constitution (section 36(4)), but in the present case, the accused persons are not on bail, still they are not been tried in the court. They have just been abandoned in prison custody. It would have been rational enough to admit them to bail while the judge hearing their case is busy touring all states in Nigeria.
One begins to wonder if the inherent problem in Nigeria (Corruption) has laid its filthy hands on the case. The world was a witness to the level of corruption rocking the judiciary in Nigeria. The two presiding Justices of the two apex courts in Nigeria recently had a fall out, wherein the president of the Court of Appeal of Nigeria was accusing the Chief Justice of Nigeria to have instructed him to compromise a case going on in court, (see this link - http://tribune.com.ng/index.php/news/37736-perjury-salami-knows-fate-march-21). This issue brought the Nigerian judiciary to public opprobrium, confirming without any pinch of doubt that corruption has massively infiltrated the Nigerian judiciary. See http://tribune.com.ng/index.php/tribune-law/28355-matters-arising-from-katsina-alu-salami-saga.
One baffling question might be – why will a Nigerian politician employ political thugs to help him rig elections? In this case, he refused ( Honourable Azubuike) to settle his political thugs and they felt the only way to get themselves settled is to abduct his daughter. Why will the Peoples' Democratic Party allow someone who believes in using political thugs and rigging of elections to vie for an elective post under the platform of the party?
Surprisingly, going by the result chart published by the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria on the election of 9th April, 2011 for the House of Representatives election; the same Honourable Uzo Azubuike was elected with 21, 787 votes under the platform of the PDP to represent Aba North/Aba South in the Nigerian House of Representatives. One wonders if political thugs were not used and whether he promptly paid his political thugs to avoid another rift and abduction plan.
Mr Anthony was thinking that Honourable Azubuike has settled the Court to punish the accused persons because the integrity of the Nigerian courts has been eroded by corruption from the highest hierarchy of courts to the least. Going by the extent to which corruption has eaten deep in the fabric of the Nigerian society, it will not be out of place to suspect that there might be some dealings going on privately about this case targeted towards a longer incarceration of the accused persons without any conviction and sentence.
The judge handling this case has been jumping and touring round all the states in Nigeria and abandoned the accused persons to die in Prison, of course it is not her business. One wonders if Nigerian Judges have conscience. If not, why will a Judge abandon her judicial functions which has affected the lives of a lot of citizens of Nigeria who are standing trial but yet to be convicted to be languishing in prison custody. The default position is that such accused persons are presumed innocent until the contrary is proved, still they are been punished upfront. Is this justice? Is this how judges in Nigeria administer justice? The Chief Judge in Abia State whom I want to assume is aware of the tours of the Judge in this case, why can't he mandate the Judge to conclude old cases like that of the accused persons; or at least re-assign the case to another judge who will hear the matter expeditiously. This is part of the administrative functions of the Chief Judge. Obviously, the Chief Judge is not performing his functions effectively.
How will the 4th accused person explain his situation to his children? May be the 4th accused will shamefully tell his children that his employer (Honourable Azubuike) suspected him to be part of the hatched plan that led to the abduction of his daughter; or the 4th accused will tell his Children he left and relocated to the Prison in Afara Umuahia (that he has been incarcerated) for almost five years without been found guilty for any known offence by a competent court of law. I am sure the 4th accused children will develop hatred for Nigeria for making their father suffer without an established cause.
What a robust judicial system in Nigeria! It is ridiculous. This is why Nigeria has been seen in the comity of nations as a country that has no regard for its citizens, does not respect the human dignity and personal liberty of its citizens. Nigeria is a party to International human rights legal regimes, but has failed to observe them. Article 7 of the International Covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR) and Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' rights (ACHPR) which have both been ratified by Nigeria prohibited torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Certainly, the incarceration of the accused persons without trial and conviction amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. Why will Nigeria be violating the human rights of its citizens with impunity? There is an urgent need for Nigeria to change and join other civilised nations of the world. Justice delivery in Nigeria is laughable; Nigeria should quickly overhaul its judicial system or be flown away by the ill-fated ravaging tide embedded in corruption.