“Whoever allows coconut to be broken on his head will never live to eat out of the Coconut!”
This story you are about to read is not a fiction. It is not a fairy tale. It is a true story. It is the story of two learned judges who were found to have compromised their oath of office at the peak of their career. It is the story of corruption in the temple of justice. It is also the story of one judge who stood firm, who refused to be tempted, and who refused to be cowered.
This is the story that the late Gani Fawehinmi described as a case that struck “at the very heart of the integrity of the Nigerian Judiciary”.
By re-telling these stories, it is Onigegewura’s hope that our generation can save ourselves from future blunders by learning from the mistakes of the past.
If you are not too busy, let’s go to Anambra State where it all began in 2003.
If you are not too busy, let’s go to Anambra State where it all began in 2003.
You recall that there was a general election in the country in 2003? That was the election that triggered this story. Nicholas Ukachukwu contested the April 12, 2003 general election in the Anambra South Senatorial Zone. He won the election and was the declared the winner.
Following his victory at the polls, Mr. Ukachukwu began to read the Constitution in order to familiarize himself with what the law said about his role as a senator. He was reading the Constitution one day when he heard the news that made the Constitution to drop from his hand. The Anambra State Resident Electoral Commissioner had cancelled his victory and a gentleman who did not contest the election was declared the winner.
Eziokwu! He called his counsel. Off to Awka where the National Assembly Election Tribunal was sitting. What type of abracadabra was this? It would have been understandable if the person declared the winner had contested the election! From nowhere, an apparent stranger was given his victory.
The Tribunal listened patiently to the aggrieved ‘Senator’. My Lords listened to INEC. My Lords took evidence from the witnesses called by the parties. The Tribunal found merit in the case of our ‘Senator’. He was declared the true winner. He jumped up for joy!
I hope you are following me. It was now the turn of the ‘INEC Senator’ to feel aggrieved. Ugochukwu Uba collected the Tribunal judgment and with his counsel went off to Court of Appeal in Enugu. Please don’t confuse the parties o. Nicholas UKACHUKWU on one hand. Ugochukwu UBA on the other hand. I hope that’s clear now. Can I proceed with my story? Good.
At the Court of Appeal, three Lord Justices were assigned to hear the appeal. Justice Okechukwu Opene was the most senior. His Lordship was appointed into the Court of Appeal in 1993. Justice David Adeniji was the next in seniority. The youngest in age and on the Bench was Justice K. B. Akaahs.
At the Court of Appeal, Uba was the appellant - appellant is someone comes to the court of appeal because he is not satisfied with the judgment of a lower court. Ukachukwu was the respondent. You should be able to guess the meaning of respondent by now.
While the appellate court proceeding was going on, Ukachukwu said that he began to notice that Uba’s Personal Assistant was moving around with His Lordship, Justice Adeniji. He was alarmed naturally. What is the connection between a taxi driver and a fishing boat?
He remembered his grandmother’s proverb: nwaanyi muta ite ofe mmiri mmiri, di ya amuta ipi utar aka were suru ofe. Since the woman had decided to make the soup watery, he as the husband must learn to dent the Garri before dipping it into the soup.
He called his brother and together, the brothers conducted their due diligence and found one Bonti Onuigbo who was a close friend to the PA. They requested him to monitor the PA’s movement for them.
It was also at this point that a gentleman lawyer who was not a man (there are no ladies at the Bar) approached the brothers. The lawyer told the brothers that she knew Justice Opene. She told them that His Lordship did not have a house in Abuja though he had a plot of land. She wondered if the brothers could assist His Lordship with ‘small kolanut’ to enable the judge complete his house.
Kolanut? To assure Ukachukwu that the transaction was genuine and not china product, she took his brother to meet My Lord. His Lordship confirmed the barrister’s information and he hinted that for him to complete the Abuja house, N15M would be needed. Not 15 hundred o. 15 Million Naira! That’s the kolanut. His Lordship further hinted that the other party had offered to assist him with the same amount.
The brothers had no fifteen thousand. They monitored the lady lawyer’s movement. They monitored her driver’s movement. They also monitored the PA’s movement.
On February 15, 2004, a Staff of the Court of Appeal, IMS, began to observe the goings and comings into Justice Opene’s Quarters during the period in question. In particular, IMS noticed a white Mercedes Benz was regular. On this fateful day, IMS noticed that the lady lawyer came to see His Lordship with 3 Ghana-Must-Go Bags. The lady lawyer however didn’t leave with the bags named after Nkrumah’s country.
You remember Bonti Onuigbo? You don’t remember? I told you he was a close friend to Uba’s PA. You now remember him? One day, Onuigbo said he followed the PA to a guest House where Justice Adeniji was staying. At the guesthouse, Onuigbo assisted the PA to bring down one big Ghana-Must-Go Bag from the vehicle and he helped him to carry it to the building. Onuigbo was panting by the time he dropped the bag inside the building. The PA chided his friend for panting. “”Na only 12 Million Naira you carry and you dey pant like this!”
I also told you that the brothers were monitoring the lawyer’s driver. The driver was Ndubisi Okafor. He also drove the lawyer to the same guesthouse. This time around, instead of one GMG Bag, it was three bags. Yes, one, two and three GMG bags that they delivered to Justice Adeniji. My Lords escorted the lawyer out to the car. On seeing the driver, My Lord hesitated and asked who he was. The lawyer assured the Honourable Justice that there was no problem. His Lordship was satisfied. The driver said that His Lordship gave him N10,000.
I hope you remember that there were three Justices on the panel. You are not even asking about the third Judge. Justice Opene allegedly got three GMGBs. Justice Adeniji purportedly received one plus three GMGBs. My mathematics is not that good. You can do the maths yourself. Ha! You are now asking about the third Judge, the youngest Judge.
Well, some days later, the Most Senior Judge visited the Youngest Judge. They discussed about general issues in the country. How are the children? How’s your family? Are you hearing from home? How much is a bag of rice now? How much is the cost of a Ghana-Must-Go Bag now? Etc. Etc.
Then gradually, MSJ told YJ that he had come to see him in respect of the appeals they were handling. He told YJ that he would want him to assist him (Most Senior Judge) so that the appeal could be allowed because the Governor was interested in the case. In other words, ‘the INEC Senator’ should be allowed to go to Abuja while the Senator elected by the people should go to his house.
My Lord Justice Akaahs must have caught his breath. He realized what was at stake. Slowly but bravely he spoke: “I have a long way to go in the Judiciary and I wouldn’t want to soil my reputation.” MSJ had heard enough. He had expected it to be 3-0, a unanimous judgment. But with this Mr. Reputation refusing kolanut, it would have to be 2-1. Well, that’s still something.
The Middle Judge heard that YJ –Mr. Reputation was not going to play ball. Justice Akaahs was not going to soil his hands with the oily kolanut. Well, Mr. Reputation or No Mr. Reputation, the GMG was not going to be returned. He was said to have turned to the Youngest Judge and told him: “a person who allows his head to be used to break a coconut, will not leave to eat it.” Ha! From Kolanut to Coconut! Oginni!
On the day the appeal was adjourned to for judgment, the Court Room was filled to the brim. The parties and their counsel occupied all the seats in the court. There was not a single seat that was not occupied. And it was just 8am in the morning. Judgment would be delivered by 9am.
9.00. The people in court waited to hear the familiar knock announcing the entrance of Their Lordships. No knock came.
9.30. No knock.
10.00. No knock.
10.30! If there was any knock, it must have been from the party leaders who were knocking the floor with their walking sticks.
Then by 11am, the knock came! GBA! GBA! GBA! Court!
Justice Opene saw that the crowd was agitated. He apologized for the delay. He informed the eager faces that he had received a lot of phone calls and threats. But he assured the litigants and their supporters that they would go ahead and deliver their judgments.
Now, let me explain something for the benefit of those who are not learned in law. And this is not part of the story, please. An appellate court or tribunal is usually composed of odd-number judges. This is to ensure that in case the judges are unable to arrive at a unanimous position, the majority decision will be the decision of the court/tribunal. Majority carries the vote? Exactly! The minority decision is the dissenting judgment. In such a case, the majority will deliver their judgment first, followed by the minority judgment. I hope you understand. Very good.
Ki ni scores? You recall that the score was 2-1. Following the usual practice, the Most Senior Judge and the Middle Judge who were the majority were expected to deliver their judgment first. This is where the story get k-leg!
Most Senior Judge asked the Youngest Judge, the Minority Judge, the Dissenting Judge to read his minority judgment which the Most Senior Judge called the Lead Judgment! You are confused? You are not alone! Those who were in court were also confused.
Well, My Lord Justice Akaahs had no kolanut in his mouth and he was not scared of coconut. His Lordship delivered his minority decision – which MSJ had called the Lead Judgment. He dismissed Mr. Uba’s appeal. 1-0
Justice Opene nodded and he began to read his judgment. Halfway into the judgment, Ukachukwu and his supporters realized what was going on. They saw that His Lordship was going to uphold Uba’s appeal to make it 1-1 and that Justice Adeniji would read his concurring judgment, thereby making it 1-2 against him.
Suddenly there was uproar in Court! We no go gree o! We no go gree! In vain the Court Registrars shouted: Order! Order! Order! Seeing the pandemonium, their Lordships rose. This is how a witness described the scene: “The three Justices – Opene, Adeniji and Akaahs started running away. So he (Justice Opene) could not conclude his judgment.”
So what happened after the rowdy scene in court? Ukachukwu sent a petition to the President as well as to the Chief Justice of the Federation as the Chairman of National Judicial Council. Anambra Democratic Vanguard sent another petition to NJC. Anambra Democratic League also sent in its own petition. The three petitions were against MSJ and MJ. Anambra Democratic Lawyers also sent in a petition, this time, against only Justice Akaahs. The address given by the last petitioner, the Anambra Democratic Lawyers, was found not to exist.
NJC set up a panel of three experienced Justices headed by Justice Owolabi Kolawole (Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with His Lordship. Please read Awujale’s case and Ayinla Omowura’s story). Justice Olakanmi and Justice Darazo were the two other members.
The Panel sat. Petitioners were called. My Lords who were accused of kolanut reception were also called. The Youngest Judge was also called. Witnesses testified. The panel considered the case for and against.
In its report to NJC, the Panel found that: “The allegations against the two Court of Appeal are very serious and sad. The evidence against the two Justices is so overwhelming. They put their integrity as Judicial Officers in great dispute. The three Justice of the Court of Appeal sat to hear appeals in Enugu; only one of them, the youngest, did the Judiciary proud. He is Justice K. B Akaahs.”
Notwithstanding that Justice Opene had only one year left to retire from the Bench, the Panel recommended that “he should be removed by dismissal from the judiciary to serve as a deterrent to others.”
With regard to Justice Adeniji, the Panel recommended that he “be removed as a Judicial Officer by dismissal in order that it may serve as a deterrent to others.”
NJC accepted the recommendations of its Panel against the Justices. NJC further recommended to the President that the Justices be sacked.
On May 3, 2005, President Olusegun Obasanjo approved the recommendations of the National Judicial Council for the dismissal of the two Justices.
But that’s not the end of the story. Justice Adeniji went to Court to challenge his dismissal from the Bench. In 2014, the Court of Appeal struck out his Lordship’s appeal from the decision of the Federal High Court. The Appellate Court, of which he was a former member, held that the appeal was incompetent as it could not be remedied.
Justice Adeniji continues to maintain his innocence. According to His Lordship:
“It was the evidence of Ndubuisi Okafor that was used against me and the court correctly found that it was wrongly ascribed to me and expunged same from record. This means that the whole charge against me has gone. Curiously, however, the same court that established this vital point still went ahead to dismiss my suit. That was why I described that judgment as an open-ended judgment… Of course, I cannot go back to the Bench again because I have passed retirement age. But if they clear my name, let them pay me my entitlements and then I can go in peace. I will leave the rest to God. God knows those who contrived this callous act and He will surely judge everybody.”
I rest my case. I thank you for your time.