The Appeal Court has ordered Justice Okon Abang to withdraw from the trial of Gabriel Suswam, a former governor of Benue State.
The judgment came on Wednesday 19th February, 2020 following the appeal filed by Suswan challenging the assignment of the case to Abang.
The former governor and the then Commissioner for Finance in his administration, Okolobia Okpanachi, were first assigned by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission before Justice Ahmed Mohammed.
Though, Justice Mohammed recused himself from the case following an earlier report by NAN disclosing a deal between the judge and defendant.
Adamu Kafarati, the former Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, then reassigned it to Justice Abang. Suswan, not satisfied with the reassignment, took the matter before the appeal court.
He squabble through his lawyer, Chinelo Ogbozor, that he was not aware that Justice Mohammed recused himself from conducting the trial as no earlier notice was issued.
Delivering the lead judgment of the appellate court on Wednesday, Justice Emmanuel Agim commended Justice Abang for conducting the trial but held that Mohammed was wrong to have withdrawn from handling the case.
Justice Agim clarified that the court’s decision to return the case to Mr. Mohammed was to correct the “error” made by Justice Kafarati, the former Chief Judge of the court.
The court held that although the Chief Judge had the powers under section 19 of the Federal High Court Rules to assign cases to any judge of the court, “such discretion must be exercised properly and not recklessly so as to meet the justice of the case.
Regrettably, the Chief Judge did not exercise his discretion correctly. The re-assignment of the case to Justice Abang amounted to a transfer in a matter that was part heard.
Four (4) witnesses had previously testified and an accused person is entitled to a trial within a reasonable period of time.
The act of the Chief Judge is an administrative one and therefore, proceedings by Justice Abang cannot amount to a nullity.
The Federal High Court is one court and the judges are the same. It is within the administrative powers of the chief judge to re-assign cases and any judge has the jurisdiction to hear to cases assigned to them by the Chief Judge of the court.
Our verdict is simply to correct the error by the Chief Judge. Justice Abang was right to believe jurisdiction since he has the statutory duty to obey the Chief Judge.
Justice Abang has no powers to challenge or question the Chief Judge. He has a duty to take a case assigned to him and deal with it. He did what the law permitted him.
If Justice Abang ruling did not touch on the reasons given by Justice Mohammed to rescue himself, this appeal would have no life.
Abang has shown laudable diligence in the trial. But since Justice Abang went to determine the propriety of Justice Mohammed’s recusal from the case, the appeal has live issues.