An Enugu State High Court has once again ordered the Commission of Inquiry into the sale of land leased to the defunct Nigeria Coal Corporation by host communities in the State to suspend its sitting pending the determination of a suit challenging its composition.
Justice Fidelis Ngwu gave the order after Counsel to three applicants challenging the composition of the Commission told the court that the Commission had continued to sit in disobedience to its restraining order.
The three applicants, all from Ngwo Community: Chief Peter Nwani, Mr. Okechukwu Ani (on behalf of other aggrieved members of Enugu Ngwo Community) and the Registered Trustees of Ngwo Social Club of Nigeria approached the court on September 15, 2017, challenging the inclusion of retired justice K.N Udeh as Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry and Miss Anayo Enechukwu as Secretary of the Commission.
The case with suit number suit number: E/680M/2017 was entitled “Application of Applicants for the Enforcement of their Fundamental Rights under the Fundamental Right Enforcement Procedure Rules.”
The applicants had argued that the two persons (Retired Justice Udeh and Miss Enechukwu) would not be fair and impartial in their job as they were in a similar committee constituted in 2005 (under Governor Chimaroke Nnamai’s administration), which recommended that Ngwo Community was not entitled to regain the parcels of land it leased to the defunct Nigeria Coal Corporation for station and colliery purposes, under “reversionary interest.”
The presiding judge, Justice Fidelis Ngwu had on the 29th of November 2017 restrained the commission from further sitting pending the determination of the motion on notice and directed that the respondents, retired Justice Udeh and Miss Enechukwu, be served even by substituted means.
But counsel to the applicants, Mr. Alex Amujiogu, told the court that it was worrisome that the commission had continued to sit despite being served on the 4th of December, 2017.
Mr. Amujogu prayed the court to summon the respondents to show cause why they would flout the order of the court.
However, a lawyer from the Office of the Enugu State Attorney General, Mr. Bekue Edeh, who announced a conditional appearance in court, denied that the respondents had been served and urged the court to discountenance the claims of Mr. Amujiogu.
He also challenged the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the matter, claiming that they had filed a process challenging the jurisdiction to make any order or even listen to the suit in the first place.
Reacting, Mr. Amujogu argued that any person who wanted to raise the issue of preliminary objection to the jurisdiction of the court should file notice of preliminary objection, which the respondents were yet to file.
After listening to the arguments, Justice Fidelis Ngwu ruled that the respondents as well as the Enugu State Attorney General should know that they had been served with the restraining order as the facts before him indicated so.
He also ordered the office of the Attorney General to file notice of preliminary objection if it wanted to challenge the jurisdiction of the court on the matter.
Counsel from the State Attorney General’s office, Mr. Bekue Edeh expressed some reservations on the ruling, insisting that it was not binding on his principal (the Attorney General).
“The order of the court as it relates to the Attorney General is alien to us; as you can see in the face of the suit the Attorney General is not a party to the suit, and any order made whatsoever cannot bind a non-party to a suit.
“Unfortunately representing a counsel is different from being a party to a suit. Yes the Attorney General has the power to represent someone, either conditionally or clearly. But the point is that the order of the court as it relates to the Attorney General being aware of this suit is not sacrosanct as the order of court cannot bind someone that is not a party to the suit”
To the counsel to the applicants, Mr. Amujiogu, the ruling was a representation of the law.
“I feel elated that the honourable court has once again reaffirmed the state of the law. It is an aberration for a party having been served with a court order stopping the respondents from further sitting regarding the panel of inquiry they are conducting now that they still insisted on disobeying the court order.
“The Attorney General is the chief law officer of the state and the panels are constituted by the Attorney General’s department, and being the chief law officer of the state he ought to know the law. It is unfortunate that people who are involved are men who should know the law and who should obey the law; a retired judge of that matter. The court has given them a final warning to stop further sitting otherwise they will face committal proceedings and we are ready to put them to prison if they continue.”
Meanwhile, the case was adjourned until January 25, 2018.
It could be recalled that the Enugu State Governor, Mr. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had on April 24, 2017 Inaugurated the commission following persistent agitations among host communities over the Bureau of Public Enterprise’s (BPE) sale of land leased to the defunct Nigeria Coal Corporation (NCC) by the communities, including Ngwo community, thereby alienating them from regaining the land or benefitting from the proceeds of the land.