•Accused of obstruction of justice
Mr. Michael Owolabi, the Defence Lawyer in the case involving the Nigerian Army and Maj-Gen. Ijeoma N. Ijioma, one of the 38 senior officers contesting unjust retirement in 2016, has been dragged before the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, for obstruction of justice.
Gen. Ijioma had in a letter dated December 3, 2018 and addressed to the two legal institutions, accused Owolabi of deliberately constituting a clog in the wheel of justice through some unprofessional antics and delay tactics.
This, he said, could combine to violate his rights to fair hearing and ultimate justice if the lawyer’s conduct is allowed to stand.
The aggrieved senior officer, had in the letter sighted by Global Sentinel on Monday, listed instances where the Nigerian Army Defence Counsel had in the last two years, adopted several measures to deny him of justice.
There was a sudden twist in the case involving the “Claimant in Suit No. NICN/ABJ/262/2016, between Major General Ijioma Nwokoro Ijioma vs. Nigerian Army, Minister of Defence, Chief of Defence Staff & Chief of Army Staff, before his Lordship Hon. Justice E. N. Agbakoba, of the NICN No. 2, Abuja Division”, on November 19, 2018, being the date fixed by the trial judge for delivery of final judgment, when Owolabi tabled a petition dated October 30, accusing the trial judge of biase.
Ijioma regretted that the letter from Owolabi on the day of judgement, alleging bias against the person of Justice Agbakoba, which was “forwarded to the President of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, on October 31, 2018 and in a rather commanding and arrogant tone, urged his Lordship to recuse herself from the case” ended up to scuttle the judgement.
“Though my counsel had argued otherwise, giving copious reasons why the Petition, which was only brought to his knowledge some minutes before resumption of sitting for the day should be discountenanced, including the fact that the President of the Industrial Court to whom the said Petition was addressed and served since October 31, 2018, had not issued any directive on it, such as would prevent his Lordship from proceeding with the case, his argument never saw the light of day, as his Lordship decided to adjourn sine die, for reason earlier stated,” he argued.
Part of the petition filed by Gen. Ijioma against Owolabi is replicated below:
The said suit was instituted at my instance by the law firm of Mike Ozekhome’s Chambers on July 15, 2016, vide an Originating Summons, following my compulsory retirement, along with several other military personnel, from the services of the Nigerian Army, vide letter dated June 9, 2016. As at the time the suit was filed I have about three years left before my retirement date, after serving the Nigerian Army and the nation meritoriously for 32 years, 11 months and 5 days, as at the date of my compulsory retirement. Now, due to the several unprofessional and unethical method employed by the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants, I have barely eight months left of service and this entire period may lapse without the case being decided, going by the present course adopted by the said counsel.
The controversial petition
Permit me to say that the approach of the Respondent herein and his confrontational attitude, even toward the person of the trial Judge, from the time he announced appearance in the suit, is to say the least, one unbecoming of a legal practitioner. The latest is the Petition dated October 30, 2018, alleging bias against the person of his Lordship, amongst other allegations.
I was in court on Monday, November 19, 2018, being the date fixed by the trial judge for delivery of final judgment in the suit, when one of the counsel from Mike Ozekhome’s Chambers, drew my attention to a Petition dated October 30, 2018, written by the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendant M. D. Owolabi, Esq, and personally served on him in open court at about 9:20 am, shortly before his Lordship, Hon. Justice E. N. Agbakoba, started sitting. A copy of the Petition dated October 30, 2018, titled: PETITION AGAINST HON. JUSTICE E. N. AGBAKOBA ON CONDUCT LIKELY TO IMPEACH THE IMPARTIALITY OF A JUDEX IN SUIT NO. NICN/ABJ/262/2016, and addressed to the President of the National Industrial Court, as personally signed by the said M. D. Owolabi, Esq.
Suffice to say sir, that, the business of the Court for the day, which was for final judgment, going by the Court’s cause list, was violently interrupted on account of the said Petition, as the trial judge was compelled to adjourn the matter sine die, to await the decision of the President of the National Industrial Court on the Petition, following allegation of bias said to be contained in it.
His Lordship came to this decision after counsel for the 1st and 4th Defendant had conceitedly informed the court that the Petition, which he said was based on the instructions received from his clients, alleging bias against the person of Hon. Justice E. N. Agbakoba, dated 30th October, 2018, had been forwarded to the President of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, on 31st October, 2018 and in a rather commanding and arrogant tone, urged his Lordship to recuse herself from the case. Though my counsel had argued otherwise, giving copious reasons why the Petition, which was only brought to his knowledge some minutes before resumption of sitting for the day should be discountenanced, including the fact that the President of the Industrial Court to whom the said Petition was addressed and served since 31st October, 2018, had not issued any directive on it, such as would prevent his Lordship from proceeding with the case, his argument never saw the light of day, as his Lordship decided to adjourn sine die, for reason earlier stated.
Sir, to say that I was shocked and bewildered beyond imagination, along with all persons in the courtroom that very day, by this sudden and rather strange development and turn of events, of a party (a Minister in the very temple of justice) to a proceedings filing a Petition, ostensibly to stop or arrest a judgment from being delivered, who had also filed an appeal on the same subject matter, as well as a motion for stay of proceedings, is an understatement. This is clearly an attempt at clogging the wheel of justice.
I have taken time out to peruse and study the contents of the said Petition and I am now fully seised of the facts said to have prompted same. Permit me to quickly state here and now, that, having never missed a sitting since this case was filed, I make bold to say that, all the allegations, especially bias, levelled against the person of his Lordship Hon. Justice E. N. Agbakoba, as contained in the Petition, are patently false and are consistent with the antics of the 1st and 4th Defendants’ counsel, right from when he entered appearance in this matter on behalf of the 1st and 4th Defendants, to stall proceedings in the suit.
Over a dozen antics to stall proceedings
At the proceedings of July 21, 2016, after the court heard argument on the motion for interlocutory injunction, it adjourned proceedings to 26th July, 2016, for ruling on the said motion for interlocutory injunction.
At the proceedings of July 26, 2016, much to the surprise of the court and my counsel, while M. D. Owolabi Esq, announced appearance for the 1st and 4th Defendants, one Paul A. Imafidor, Esq, announced appearance for all the Defendants. Both counsel, especially M. D. Owolabi, Esq, had argued vociferously at the said proceeding and claimed they were not served with the originating processes, whereas the record of the court proved otherwise. They claimed to have been in court by virtue of the hearing notices served on them. Their game plan ostensibly, was to stop the Ruling of that day, but the court coram Hon. Justice M. N. Esowe, proceeded to deliver its ruling after satisfying itself that my lawyer had fulfilled all righteousness with regards to service of the requisite processes on the Defendants. The court subsequently adjourned proceedings to October 12, 2016, and directed the Defendants to put their house in order, on the issue of legal representation.
Surprisingly sir, at the proceedings of October 12, 2016, the case could not go on, as the same issue of legal representation by the Defendants stalled the proceedings and same was subsequently adjourned to October 24, 2016, for hearing, and for the Defendants to put their house in order, even though they had almost four months to resolve the issue of legal representation amongst themselves.
During the course of the proceedings, counsel to the 1st & 4th Defendants filed two separate Notices of Preliminary Objections. First was the one filed on October 5, 2016, while the second was filed on September 11, 2017, with barely two days to the September 14, 2017, date fixed for definite hearing of the main suit. The two Notices of Preliminary objections are on almost the same subject matter. Obviously, these preliminary objections were separately filed, just to stall the case.
At the hearing of June 7, 2017, being the date fixed for the hearing of the Claimant’s motion to enter judgment against all the Defendants, counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants served on my lawyer their motion for extension of time to file their Statement of Defence, in open court, at about 8:53 am, thus stalling the proceedings for that day.
It is pertinent to point out that though the Motion for extension of time and the Statement of Defence were both filed on March 23, 2017, my lawyer was only served in open court, on June 7, 2017, at about 8:53 am, a period of almost three months interval. Counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendant had put the court to task in explaining the delay in serving the said processes, despite the fact that the record of the court showed clearly that a lawyer from the office of the 1st and 4th Defendants’ counsel had undertaken to serve the said processes on the other parties. The statement of defence was later found to have been filed without the Witness Statement on Oath and exhibits said to be attached to same. The lead counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants at the proceeding undertook to file a complete process, which was however served on my lawyer on July 7, 2017.
At the proceedings of July 10, 2017, the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants wrote to the court requesting for an adjournment on the ground that he was attending to his sick mother. Nothing meaningful was achieved on the said date.
On September 11, 2017, two days to the adjourned date of September 14, 2017, that the case was fixed for definite hearing, the Respondent served on my lawyer their second notice of preliminary objection dated August 18, 2017, but filed September 11, 2017, ostensible to force an adjournment of the proceedings of that day. An adjournment was then sought at the instance of the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants to enable him file his reply on points of law, as my lawyer was able to file and serve on him his counter affidavit.
At the proceedings of February 7, 2018, the court stood down the matter upon the application of the Counsel in court for the 1st and 4th Defendants, to enable the lead counsel M. D. Owolabi, Esq, personally attend to the matter. At the resumed hearing at 11:40 am, the case proceeded to trial, as my examination-in-chief took place and a few questions were asked by the 1st and 4th Defendants counsel.
It is interesting to note that my cross-examination, lasted three proceedings, to wit: February 7, 2018, April 24, 2018 and May 10, 2018, all at the instance of the 1st and 4th Defendants, who at the proceedings of May 10, 2018, after close of my case, stated that he will rest their case on that of the Claimant, though they had filed a Statement of Defence. The Court then adjourned to June 25, 2018, for adoption of final written addresses by the parties.
Sir, from May 10, 2018, till October 3, 2018, spanning a period of almost five months, when the court ruled that my lawyer should adopt his final written address, in the absence of the Defendants filing their final written address, it was one story or the other of the 1st and 4th Defendants’ inability to file their final written address in response to the Claimant’s written address that was filed and subsequently served on them on May 25, 2018. His argument was that the record of proceedings, which he had applied for, was not made available to him to enable him file his final written address, despite the several indulgences granted the 1st and 4th Defendants by the court.
At the said proceedings of October 3, 2018, the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants had once again sought for an adjournment on the grounds that the record of proceedings which they had applied for has not been made available to them. He stated that what they were given was an incomplete and uncertified copy and further stated that if the record was not available, they shall then leave it at the discretion of the court. His Lordship after listening to the response from the counsel to the Claimant delivered a bench ruling wherein his Lordship declined the application for an adjournment and directed the Claimant to proceed to adopt his final written address. These facts as well as the ruling are all contained in Annexure E, attached to the Petition written by the Respondent dated October 30, 2018.
It is also important that I point out that after my lawyer adopted his final written address, the counsel for the 1st and 4th Defendant orally applied to the court to be allowed to reply on points of law, which the court granted him, though my lawyer had vehemently objected to same. In adjourning to November 1, 2018, for judgment, the court ordered the 1st and 4th Defendants to file their reply on points of law on or before the October 12, 2018.
In a rather strange twist, the 1st and 4th Defendants going against their own request, instead of filing their reply on points of law, proceeded to lodge an appeal against the ruling of his Lordship of October 3, 2018. The Notice of Appeal was filed on October 16, 2018. The 1st and 4th Defendants followed it up by filing a Motion for Stay of Proceedings on October 29, 2018, and another Motion for Stay of Proceedings that was filed on October 31, 2018. A copy of the Motion for Stay filed on October 31, 2018.
At the proceedings of November 19, 2018, the trial judge refused to proceed with the business of the day, but instead remitted the case file back to the President of the National Industrial Court, pending his Lordship’s directive, and proceeded to adjourn the matter sine die.
Without allowing the Court of Appeal to decide on his appeal, and the trial Court decide on his motion for stay of proceedings, the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants wrote the Petition dated October 30, 2018, against the person of his Lordship, alleging bias. Thus effectively putting a stop to the pending judgment that was to have been delivered in the suit filed since 2016.
From what I have stated above and from the proceedings which I have observed from day one, I make bold to say that there is absolutely nothing in the actions of his Lordship to indicate bias as alleged by the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants. It is all a figment of their imagination and a clear indication of their desire to stall the proceedings.
Except strong disciplinary action is taken against the counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants for this unprofessional and unethical action, I am afraid this may set a very dangerous trend for legal practitioners and litigants who will resort to this sort of tactics once they perceive that a case is going against them.
The dangerous signal such a decision has set is that once a Defendant finds that he is losing out on a case, all he needs to do is to allege bias against the person of the trial judge and have the matter transferred to another judge for it to start de novo. This will be a travesty of justice and the implication of this on matters pending before the court is that they are left to the whims and caprices of the party who feels he is losing out of a case.
Sir, the most worrisome aspect of the Petition is that same was written, addressed and served, while the appeal processes initiated by the same counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants was pending. The record of appeal has been compiled and transmitted, with appeal number CA/A/980/2018, between The Nigerian Army & 1 Or and Maj. Gen, Ijioma Nwokoro Ijioma.
To allow the actions of the 1st and 4th Defendants stall proceedings in this suit is to allow him to benefit from his own wrong, aside the dangerous precedence this would have set in our legal jurisprudence.
I state here sir, with all sense of responsibility, that this is a clear case of man’s inhumanity to man, using the judicial process to frustrate the course of justice.
Since I obtained a copy of the Petition written by counsel to the 1st and 4th Defendants, I have taken time out to peruse the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, and I dare say, I find no place for the type of under hand tactics employed by the counsel, herein. Not even his claim to have been so instructed to write the Petition by his Client. A lawyer by the Rules is enjoined to foster the course of justice and not to truncate same counsel has done in the circumstances leading to this Petition.
I dare say, counsel has connived and colluded with his clients to both subvert and frustrate the course of justice.
I am shocked that a Minister in the temple of justice could lend himself as an instrument to perpetuate injustice and constitute himself a clog in the wheel of justice. Justice is for all parties to a suit and its interest is best served if it is fair to all parties concerned. Under the present circumstances leading to the instant Petition, it cannot be said that justice has been done.
Sir, if the Petition had been personally written by his client, one may argue that they possibly don’t know the implication having entered an appeal on the same subject matter, but it was written by the lawyer, hence he cannot claim ignorance or be absolved of liability of this strange practice to subvert the course of justice.
That I have a matter in court and a lawyer is deliberately subverting my quest for justice under the guise of doing his client’s bidding, for whatever reason under the earth, is most unfortunate.
A cry for justice
We were many that were ignominiously thrown out of service, accused of all manner of offences, including corruption. Because I believe I am innocent of the many allegations levelled against me, I came before the temple of justice, seeking justice and to clear my names of the allegation of corruption and several infractions levelled against me by the Military hierarchy, only for a minister in the very temple of justice to connive with his clients, my adversaries, to seek to subvert my quest of for justice. He has conducted himself in a manner inconsistent with his professional calling.
To the best of my knowledge, I have always been present in court on every adjourned dates, except for the representation at the proceedings of November 19, 2018, by one Captain David O Yuguda, representing the 1st and 4th Defendants, there has never been any form of representation for them. Thus if there is any allegation of bias impugned against the integrity of the trial judge, it is based on the erroneous presentation made to the 1st and 4th Defendants by the counsel concerning his Lordship. They (1st and 4th Defendants) who never had any representative in court, could not have formed any opinion of the judge whom they never listened to, or observed in open court.
As a Major General of the Nigerian Army, I dare that the alleged representation by one Captain David O. Yuguda, representing the 1st and 4th Defendant, is suspect, as I know that under normal circumstances, the COAS cannot have a Captain represent him on any occasion. It is belittling the court to have a captain represent the Nigerian Army and the Chief of Army Staff.
I have no doubt you will do the needful under the circumstances and puta stop to this type of practice from legal practitioners who are supposed to be ministers in the temple of justice.