Sunday, December 20, 2020 11:26 pm
By Victor Afam Ogene
I spent the night of Wednesday, December 16, wondering how His Lordship, Justice Okon Abang was feeling inside of him. Was he deeply asleep, probably snoring, even as I endured an unforced vigil on his behalf? Or, was he awake, like I was, tossing endlessly in stoic reflection of the events earlier in the day, when his otherwise huge reputation was brutally sullied?
Now, my concern for Justice Abang is not in any way connected to the mundane fact that he hails from the same state of Akwa Ibom as my dear wife; nor is it because his ‘sparring partner’ in the latest judicial melodrama, Olisa Metuh, hails from Anambra, as I do.
Far from it. Rather, my worry stems from the realisation that if a Justice Abang, currently rated as one of the country’s most courageous, is found, like Caesar’s wife, not to be above suspicion, then the entire mantra of the judiciary being the last hope of the common man, may as well have been a duplicitous sloganeering. Indeed, if gold rusts, what would iron do?
Now, for those who may have forgotten about how Justice Abang got entangled in the web that has thoroughly salvaged his honour, a brief recap.
Barely six months into the Muhammadu Buhari administration, and with corruption trials the latest buzz word in town, anti-corruption agencies, particularly the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission(EFCC), had taken in Metuh, then National Publicity Secretary of the former party in power, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
The case against Metuh and his firm, Destra, was narrowed down to two issues: receiving the sum of N400 million from the former National Security Adviser, retired Colonel Sambo Dasuki; and transacting with an alleged sum of $2 million in cash – without going through a financial institution, as required by the money laundering law.
Coming in the immediate aftermath of the bitterly fought 2015 general elections, not a few Nigerians were of the resolute believe that the case was more political than a real attempt at punishing an act of corruption.
If there were any cobweb of doubt regarding a pre-determined resolve to jail Metuh at all costs, it was soon cleared as the case, assigned to Abang, began in earnest on January 15, 2016.
From stringent bail conditions, which Metuh could not meet until they were varied, to ordering an immediate day-to-day trial, as well as blatant refusal of virtually all applications by Metuh and his lawyers – with the exception of those not opposed by the prosecution – Justice Abang appeared to have long decided the case, even before it started.
While handing down a seven-year jail term on Metuh on Tuesday, February 25, 2020, Abang had railed: “The convict and his counsel, especially Emeka Etiaba(SAN) and (Onyechi) Ikpeazu, SAN, used every opportunity open to them to humiliate the Court, writing hopeless, reckless and frivolous petitions against the Court.”
In spite of Justice Abang’s misgivings, Metuh and his team held tenaciously to the Igbo adage which proclaims that only a tree would remain rooted on same spot, after being alerted that it would be cut down.
In fact, in the course of the trial, one of Metuh’s lawyer had, in open court, accused Justice Abang of bias, and urged him to recuse himself. He declined.
Now, if Abang felt that Metuh was out to humiliate him, the country’s Appeal Court did much more than that.
In denuding Abang of every shred of honour, a three-man panel of the Court set aside Metuh’s conviction, on the grounds of bias allegedly exhibited by the trial judge.
Besides ordering his release from Prison, the Appeal Court panel led by Justice Stephen Adah also directed a retrial, to be assigned to another judge.
In arriving at this decision, the justices held that “the trial judge has shown to the world by his utterances that he was biased against the appellants.”
Justice Adah further held that a judge “must not only do justice, but must manifestly be seen to have done Justice. They must be seen to be fair to all parties and any evil spin of bias will invalidate the integrity of the proceedings.”
Although it is the brief of the Appeal Court justices to only look at the instant appeal before it, political gladiators and analysts rather think that the slip offs by Abang are one too many.
One of them, former Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, enthused: “I see his judgments as one given from a reprobate mind.”
Instructively, this won’t be the first time an Appeal Court panel would chastise Abang for acting beyond the call of duty.
On August 18, 2016, the Court had come to a conclusion that Justice Abang had raped democracy. It was in the case of Abia State Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu versus Samson Ogah.
Justice Morenike Ogunwumiju who delivered the lead judgement had berated Abang for committing grave violence against one of the pillars of justice: fair hearing. Justice Ogunwumiju wondered how a Minister in the Temple of Justice would place the burden of proof on the respondent.
Again, on October 14, 2016, another three-man panel of the Appeal Court was to dismiss Abang’s judgement as ‘ fraudulent as it was violent.’
After all the legalese, many there are who insist that in seeking to exact a pound of Metuh’s flesh, Justice Abang chopped off more than required, in harsh recompense.
From disputations regarding whether both men were classmates at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos, to an insistence that Metuh must provide documented proof of how he spent funds meant for media operations, Abang certainly left the ball and went for the legs.
Much like the much maligned security votes operated by the Executive branch, many wonder how funds disbursed to individuals as PR in furtherance of a media campaign, can be receipted.
To have convicted Metuh, therefore, and sent him off to prison, whilst the acclaimed source from which he got the funds was yet to be declared guilty as alleged, was a most unkind cut. Ancient wisdom proclaims that the hands of the giver, of cash, is always on top that of the receiver. Put simply, if there’s no giver, there won’t be a receiver. So, it rankles to single out the latter for reprimand, while the former is not taken in.
My take here, does not imply that the duo of Metuh and Dasuki are guilty of the alleged offences for which they are charged; rather it centres on the imperative of an equal template for the dispensation of justice.
Indeed, as Metuh gets set for his trial to begin de novo, Justice Abang remains mired in a conscientious battle to cleanse his bruised image.
One of those who think that he doesn’t deserve any chance for atonement is ex-Governor Fayose.
Hear him: “The question is, what is this manner of judge still doing in our courts? Why can’t the National Judicial Commission save the bench from this national embarrassment and Nigerians from avoidable sufferings in the hands of this Justice Abang?”
Whichever way this episode ends, embattled Justice Abang would, for the remaining period of his stay inside the temple of justice, continually reminisce on the opening lines in Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s 1595 work, Richard 11, to wit: “Mine honour is my life; both grow in one. Take honour from me and my life is done.”