By Sufuyan Ojeifo
When, on Monday, January 23, 2023, counsel to the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Limited, second defendant in “Senator Ifeanyi Godwin Araraume Vs President Muhammadu Buhari and two others,” Professor Konyinsola Ajayi (SAN) and Etigwe Uwa (SAN) walked out on the proceedings of the Court in protest against Justice Inyang Ekwo’s insistence on ruling at once on all applications in the processes filed by parties in the suit, instead of taking applications separately and deciding on them individually before proceeding, it was apparent that the second defendant had predetermined a stratagem with which to prosecute its case and was not ready to abandon it.
However, the legerdemain by Ekwo in dismantling the stratagem exasperated the NNPC counsel. It was a case of the counsel plotting their trajectory and the judge determining how he wanted the court to proceed, and was determined not to shift his eyes from the ball. And to be fair to Ekwo, he had told parties from the outset that he would want to take all applications at once so that once the issue of preliminary objection on lack of jurisdiction was decided on, the court could either strip itself of jurisdiction or assume the same and proceed immediately to deliver judgment on the suit that was commenced through originating summons.
In fact, it was also very clear that Justice Ekwo was ready to take the suit through a procedure that would reinforce the credibility and integrity of his rulings and/or judgment as he kept adverting the attention of counsel to the fact that he did not want to give a ruling that would be challenged on the grounds of procedural inexactitudes or errors But the approach adopted by the NNPC legal team in its defence was predictable: from the outset of filing of notice of preliminary objection on grounds that the plaintiff’s action was statute barred having regard to Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act Cap P41 LFN 2004; on the grounds that the action constituted an abuse of court process being one that was not supported by law, having regard to the provisions of the Interpretation Act 2004, the Petroleum Industry Act 2021, the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020, and the Articles of Association of Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited; on the grounds that the suit was wrongly commenced by originating summons as the 75-paragraph affidavit in support thereof raised inherently contentious facts, and the reliefs sought in the originating summons required proof by oral evidence; and, on the grounds that the plaintiff’s suit, as constituted, was incompetent, lacking in any cause of action; nor carrying any right of action, having regard to the statutory powers of the 1st Defendant/Respondent implicated in this action.
After initial hitches and some inchoate processes (the most striking being the nonjoinder of the Corporate Affairs Commission as a necessary party and which observation and ruling were at the behest of the court, thus necessitating the filing of an amended originating summons by the plaintiff and the consistent housekeeping and a series of adjournments to boot), the Court got the parties on Monday, January 23, to identify their processes and adopt the same in commencement of definite hearing. It was at this intersection that the NNPC legal team wanted the court to entertain its application for stay of execution of the January 11, 2023 ruling by the court to take all applications and processes together and rulings/judgment delivered on them on the same day.
The NNPC legal team wanted the court to also allow it to receive responses from the plaintiff to its interrogatories filed on January 19, 2023, which Justice Ekwo did not allow despite Prof Ajayi’s seeming brilliant legal maneuvers in which he cited Supreme Court authorities that “interrogatories” were at the heart of fair hearing. Interestingly, this is one of the grounds upon which it is hinging its appeal at the Court upstairs of the January 11 ruling. The team claimed that the trial court breached its right to fair hearing without affording it an opportunity to strengthen its defence before proceeding to hear and determine the substantive suit, therefore occasioning a miscarriage of justice on the appellant.
Justice Ekwo had, on January 23, after deeming all parties to have identified and adopted the processes they had already filed before the Court, ruled that the court would deliver rulings/judgment on the applications and the substantive suit (originating summons) on March 28, 2023. But the NNPC legal team did not want the matter to be so easily and comprehensively determined. It obviously was out to cause a dilation of the legal process. It wanted to use notice of preliminary objection to delay expeditious hearing and determination of the suit. The Court did not fall for it, insisting that all applications and processes would be taken together. At another sitting of the court, its failure to file its counter affidavit stalled the hearing of the matter, actually occasioning adjournment to January 23.
All through the legal gymnastics, Justice Ekwo was on top of the proceedings, guiding the court and calming frayed nerves of the Plaintiff’s lead counsel, Chief Chris Uche (SAN), who was episodic in his observations about the NNPC legal team’s plan to frustrate expeditious hearing and determination of the case. Justice Ekwo pleaded with the legal teams to cooperate with the court in ensuring that the suit was effectively determined, and alluded to the presence of the calibre of SANs in the matter and his expectations that through their submissions they would help enrich Nigeria’s jurisprudence.
It could therefore be imagined how greatly disappointed Justice Ekwo must have been when the NNPC legal team resorted to the hackneyed tactic of trying to delay or dilate court proceeding and/or waste the precious time of court by disavowing the procedure clearly set out by the court from the outset; and by predisposing itself to the strategy of deploying technicalities in the mix of jurisdictional determination of the suit. But Justice Ekwo had calmly told all the parties that he would not take any application singly as he would take all processes and applications together. This is the grouse of the NNPC’s legal team about Justice Ekwo’s position. Significantly. Justice Ekwo had reserved judgment in the suit for March 28.
The question now is: How persuasive can the NNPC legal team be in moving the Court of Appeal to grant its prayers, particularly the prayer for an order of the court setting aside the entirety of proceedings conducted by Justice E.I. Ekwo on January 23, 2023 in suit number FHC/ABJ/ CS/1621/2022- Senator Ifeanyi Godwin Araraume Vs The President, the Federal Republic of Nigeria & two Ors; and an order directing the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to reassign the suit to another Judge of the Federal High Court for determination, particularly when the Federal High Court has yet to deliver judgment in the suit which Justice Ekwo had fixed for March 28? The appeal by the NNPC legal team has further shown its original intention to frustrate the hearing and determination of the substantive suit (originating summons) through preliminary objections grounded on jurisdictional issues.
Will the Court of Appeal one way or another entertain the appeal to the exclusion of joinders of issues by necessary parties in the suit in the court below? Does the instant appeal equate or amount to a stay of proceedings of the suit, which hearing had already been concluded in the open court and judgment fixed for March 28, 2023? Can this occasion an arrest of the judgment? A plethora of questions and concerns by an “unlearned” reporter in the business of Law! Just how the appeal by Professor Ajayi (SAN) and Etigwe Uwa (SAN) at the instance of the NNPC Limited will enrich jurisprudence is a question that excites the mind. All hands are kept crossed.
Ojeifo sent in this piece via email@example.com