By Anayo Ejem
It is not an imaginary tale, and it is not an exaggeration. Abba community actually approached Anambra High Court seeking to set aside a Supreme Court judgement!!
But nothing is more settled in our jurisprudence than the dictum of the finality of the Supreme Court judgement. True to form, Abba community desecrated that principle with their bizarre action.
This is the story:
On 12th November 1999, then Chief Judge of Anambra State, Hon. Justice Obioha Nwazota, entered judgement against the plaintiffs, Abba in Njikoka LGA, and in favor of the 1st and 2nd defendants Ukwulu/Ukpo in Dunukofia LGA – in consolidated suits No. AA/53/75 & AA/11/77, in a land dispute that had lasted for more than 25 years.
In less than 2 weeks, Abba filed a notice of appeal, with which they secured a stay of execution from the then Chief Justice of Anambra State, His Lordship, Hon. Justice C. Ononiba, who hailed from Nimo, a town that claims kinship with Abba. From that point going forward, Abba departed any pretenses to righteousness.
It was glaringly clear that from evidentiary standpoint, Abba had no chance of overturning Justice Nwazota’s judgement in a fair appeal process. An extra legal strategy was needed. They eventually settled for a reprehensible legal engineering. As late as year 2000s, it was practicable to retrieve lost Court cases by forcing a retrial (trial de novo). And the most common method of forcing a retrial was simply make the judges’ Record of court proceedings to disappear permanently. In that scenario, the losing party (appellant) could competently argue for a retrial, since an appeal cannot be heard without the trial court’s record of proceedings. The dubious practice was notoriously popular in the south western Nigeria, where land cases were a matter of life and death. Being naturally mendacious people, this inglorious method was indeed very appealing to Abba.
Abba committed time and resources to this mission, including what was left of their credibility and morality. They hired prominent lawyers from south western Nigeria, and together hatched their treacherous plans, and went to work. Unfortunately, their mission was unwittingly aided by the defunct Court of Appeal Practice Direction and Order 3 (13.2) which stipulated that “all original documents delivered to the court below under this rule shall remain in the custody of the court below until the record of Appeal has been prepared, and shall then be forwarded with the record to the Registrar (of the Appeal Court) and shall remain in the custody of the Court until the determination of the appeal.” This provision put the responsibility of compiling and transmitting the lower court’s records exclusively on the high court registry. Thus, if records were not compiled and transmitted, blame the high court registrar; if records disappeared, also blame the registrar. That made the task for Abba relatively easy. All they needed to do under that provision was seek out well placed judicial officers at Anambra High Court Registry, offer them enough incentives to take the rap, then wait to take delivery of the Record Book at Oye Abba market. As far as Abba was concerned, the plan worked to perfection. They felt great, because even though they were the real perpetrators of the dastardly scheme, Abba and their lawyers were in the clear; what is more, Abba was well positioned to shed a bucket of crocodile tears, and appeared justified in demanding fresh trial.
In four years following their filing of notice of appeal, Abba did nothing to further the appeal. Instead, they spent time and fortunes recruiting insidious agents. They strategically engaged retired Justice Olike as their consultant on the case. Then, they conveniently recruited the assistant Registrar of Anambra High Court, Mrs. Olike (who just happened to be the wife of their consultant), and who was in charge of the Appeal Court Section of the High Court.
Surprise, surprise, on 19th September 2003, the record book of the land dispute between Abba vs Ukpo/Ukwullu disappeared forever. The coup was complete!!
Then in early October 2003, Abba, who for four years took no steps whatsoever to prosecute their appeal, and who neither asked for, nor obtained enlargement of time to appeal, suddenly went on the offense. They accused Ukpo of stealing the Records to frustrate their appeal and, expectedly, cried for a fresh trial (which essentially was the culmination of the plot).
Let me digress:
The case stalled for several years, but it was advantage Abba. They occupied Ukpo and Ukwullu lands and enjoyed the proceeds. Abba relocated its Oye Abba market to the disputed land; they rented plots of land to telecommunications companies to erect masts; they built shops and stalls; they manned Ukpo Junction and forcibly collected tolls from commercial bike operators. Above all, Abba strongmen fenced in hundreds of plots of Ukpo land inside residents which were themselves built on Ukpo land.
In spite of the considerable provocations, Ukpo were a class act in civility, law and order. Ukpo maintained exemplary patience all through the over 45 years of grinding and grueling court appearances after court appearances. Ukpo knew that justice is slow but its taste is sweet. Igwe Ukpo, HRH Igwe (Dr.) Robert C. Eze, Okofia IV, ever the great tactician, exhorted and admonished restive Ukpo youths to be patient. For more than 45 years, we were patient, no physical confrontations, no riots and no breach of the peace. 45 years, it paid off!
But let’s get back to the court processes:
By the time Abba got to the Appeal Court, the table had turned. Zainab Adamu Bulkachuwa, the former President of the Court of Appeal, had ushered in a new Practice Direction, which took effect on 1st May 2013. For all intent and purpose, the order took a retrospective effect, because the Appeal Court decided it had had enough of the evil-geniuses in the legal profession, who exploited the orchestrated disappearance of judges’ record books to further their own sinister designs.
The new Court of Appeal Order 08, Rules 1 & 4 state as follows:- “The Registrar of the Court below shall within 60 days after filing of a notice of appeal compile and transmit the Record of Appeal to the Court”, and “Where at the expiration of 60 days after filing of the notice of appeal the Registrar has failed and/or neglected to compile and transmit the Records of Appeal in accordance with the preceding provision of this Rule, it shall become mandatory for the appellant to compile the Records of all documents and exhibits necessary for his appeal and transmit to the Court within 30 days after the registrar’s failure or neglect”.
What does this profound change mean? It means that the new Court of Appeal Practice Direction has made it impossible for Abba, for instance, to blame the Registrar, or blame Ukpo or blame anybody else for the disappearance of the Records. This new provision made it mandatory for Abba to compile the trial Records themselves (as obviously the Anambra High Court Registry had failed to) within 30 days, and forward to the Appeal Court. This was impossibility since Abba had since destroyed the stolen Records. Because Abba failed to transmit the Records, the Respondents (our lawyers) were entitled by law to move a motion to dismiss Abba’s appeal. The motion was so moved, and Abba’s appeal was so dismissed. Alas, Abba had fallen on their own sword!!
Abba proceeded to the Supreme Court where they formulated 4 grounds of Appeal. Again there was no consolation. On 15th February 2019, the apex Court, in a unanimous judgement delivered by Hon. Justice Adamu Galumje, ruled in favor of the 1st and 2nd defendants, Ukpo and Ukwulu in all four grounds of Appeal formulated. The Honorable Judge also awarded N1,000,000 cost against the plaintiffs, Abba.
As a stamp of finality of the protracted case, the Chief Judge of Anambra State, upon being presented with the rolled Supreme Court judgement, handed Ukpo the Warrant of Entry – to repossess our God given land.
We know Abba have their own fictitious interpretation of the Supreme Court judgement, but every adult was truly horrified when Abba filed yet another case (suit No’s. AA/53/75 & AA/11/77 & Motion No. NN/70M/2020) at Anambra High Court, pleading the Court to set aside the Supreme Court judgement. The conduct of Abba is symptomatic of the brazen impunity that is fast overtaking our civic society, and it should be of concern for all us. Think about it, if Abba cannot be stopped by the Supreme Court of Nigeria, who can? If they flagrantly disregarded the Supreme Court ruling, how vicious can they become; and to what length can they go? Since the start of the land dispute more than 45 years ago, Ukpo and Ukwulu have played by the rules – the rules of human decency, the rules of fair play and the rules of law. For all their noisy gyrations and protest processions to Anambra Government house, Abba are really stark naked – completely exposed by history, tradition and the courts of law.
Fortunately, the judiciary appears unshaken in its resolve to provide a bulwark against obnoxious behaviors. All law-abiding citizens of Nigeria should, therefore, stand to applaud the strong response of Hon. Justice Onyinye Anumonye of Anambra High Court Neni, who presided over Abba’s latest reckless legal action. I paraphrase Justice Animonye’s ruling below.
On 19th May, 2020, Hon. Justice Onyinye Anumonye of Anambra High Court sitting in Neni, said he had exhaustively looked at the issues canvassed by the applicants and was of the view that after the Supreme Court judgement, all issues relating to the Ukpo/Ukwulu vs. Abba case are contained in the consolidated suits and are laid to rest permanently. In the exact words of the learned judge, “The ruling of the Supreme Court is final and its finality is unchangeable”.
The Judge further said “no matter, under any guise, brought under the court against Supreme Court judgement, can be entertained or reheard by any court”. He opined that the judgement of the Supreme Court on the consolidated matter before the apex Court on February 15th, 2019 dealt extensively on the issues in the Ukpo/Ukwulu community case, which formed part of the issues in the motion before the court. He dismissed the suit with N250,000 cost against the plaintiffs, Abba, emphasizing that “there is no way any issue related to it can be entertained in any court in the land.”
In summary, Abba’s interpretation of the Supreme Court judgement is self-serving, and a joke. But that did not stop them from telling whoever cared to listen that the Supreme Court directed parties to “go back to the trial court to sort out the mess”. Well, I guess Anambra High Court, Neni has now effectively and decisively sorted out the mess. It’s left to be seen whether Abba will go home and live in peace.
Anayo Ejem (Ichie Nnabuenyi).
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