NGWUTA, JSC JOINS HIS ANCESTORS: WHAT WILL HE BE REMEMBERED FOR?

From a reliable report, the Late Honourable Justice Ngwuta, JSC died in his sleep. A peaceful death. One of the rewards for righteous men. It is believed that a peaceful death guarantees a peaceful rest for the soul. But no one has ever returned from the great beyond to confirm what happens to the soul of men after life.

His Lordship rose through the ranks to ascend the ultimate throne of justice in Nigeria, the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He had few days to go before he attains the retirement age of 70. But he is now fully retired in death.

We remember with delight some of his notable pronouncements on the way. While at the Court of Appeal, Ngwuta, JCA (as he then was) held that one cannot challenge the jurisdiction of court with a letter. This was in the case of Usani v. Duke [2006] 17 NWLR (Pt. 1009) 610 at 654. According to the Learned Jurist:

The letter of 6/5/05 on the conduct of a member of the Tribunal and the bailiff attached thereto does not amount to a challenge to the jurisdiction of the Tribunal. It may well raise the issue of bias but it clearly does not challenge the jurisdiction of the court…

At the Supreme Court, Ngwuta JSC was in the panel of Justices who held that the computer or gadget to be used in playing or demonstrating electronic evidence does not need certification. This was in the case of Dickson v. Sylva [2017] 8 NWLR (Pt. 1567) 167. At page 222 of the report, Ngwuta, JSC held:

In the same vein, once the computer generated document has been admitted in evidence, having satisfied all the requirements of section 84(2) of the Act, the statement therein can be produced for the court or tribunal by the means of any functional computer without a certificate in form of exhibit P42A. I see no such requirement in the various provisions of section 84 of the Evidence Act.

We also recall his decision in Mfa v. Inongha [2014] 4 NWLR (Pt. 1397) 343 at 369 where his Lordship held that:

Continuous absence of counsel in a case he is handling as shown in the record of the trial court amounts to obstruction of the cause of justice and therefore contempt of court.

Clearly, his Lordship would not tolerate the delay tactics of some Counsel.

In Jim-Jaja v. C.O.P., Rivers State [2013] 6 NWLR (Pt. 1350) 225, the Court of Appeal had refused to award damages to the Appellant whose fundamental rights were breached on the ground that none was claimed. The Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeal and held that compensation for unlawful arrest and detention is automatic. Ngwuta, JSC, in delivering the lead Judgment, criticized the Court of Appeal for “Relegating the Appellant to the status of a panhandler approaching the Court for a handout.” (See page 245, para. C)

In N. A. C. B. LTD. v. Ozoemelam [2016] 9 NWLR (Pt. 1517) 376 at 407-408, his Lordship explained that a litigant has a duty to monitor the progress of his case. In his Lordship’s words:

Again, the appellants were not only indolent but treated the matter in court in which they were involved as defendants with utter contempt. A person with a case in court, either as plaintiff or as defendant, can ill-afford the luxury of defiant complacency, and expect that miracles will take place to protect his interest at stake in litigation. It is in the interest of a party to check the Registry of the court if nothing has been heard after a reasonable lapse of time for the current status of the case. In the circumstance, I believe it is a gross abuse and insult to the court for the appellant to slumber comfortably for 18 months after delivery of the judgment against it and then ask that same be set aside.

Justice Ngwuta identified one of the problems of Nigeria’s educational system when he observed that square pegs are put in round holes. This was in the case of Unijos v. Ikegwuoha [2013] 9 NWLR (Pt. 1360) 478 at 507. His Lordship reasoned:

Did the members of the “Full Panel” that interviewed the Respondent [the Lecturer] on behalf of the University of Jos conduct the interview in their sleep? How could they have inflicted on the University lecturer who had no writing and/or communication skill in the English Language to teach Political Science? This is the bane of the educational system in the country – square pegs are put in round holes. And the Appellant [Unijos], having woken up to her errors, thanks to some 300-level students, failed to comply with section 22 (vii) of her Regulations thereby compounding the problem for the University with the Respondent. Perhaps the Appellant will resolve that in due course. However, the sooner the issue is resolved the better for the University and her students, particularly those in the Social Sciences.

Controversy

In October 2016, while his Lordship was performing his duties as the living oracle of the law at the apex Court, the Federal Government of Nigeria led by President Muhammadu Buhari unleashed Nigeria’s secret Police – State Security Service (SSS) on him. the SSS embarked on a gestapo style of operation in the homes of some Nigerian Jurists including Justice Ngwuta in search of incriminating evidence of judicial corruption.

The Late Justice Ngwuta was one of those visited by the SSS in the dead of the night on that fateful day. Notwithstanding the accusations and counter-accusations, this experience will, perhaps, pass for the worst experience in the life of the Jurist. His Lordship was eventually dragged to the Court and was docked before an oracle of a lower command. Here lies the beauty of the law. A Justice of the Supreme Court is only higher than a High Court Judge in terms of his authority to decide appeal cases. This is one proof that the law is above all.

Like a lamb led for the sacrifice, Justice Ngwuta was calm. He followed through with his case until the case of false asset declaration and corruption charges were quashed both at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the Federal High Court respectively on the ground that any judicial officer accused of a wrongdoing must first be reported to the National Judicial Council (NJC), before being charged to court. The public never really had the opportunity to know whether there was merit in the allegations against his Lordship or whether it was a mere attempt to stain his Lordship’s dark robes with paints of guilt.

Conclusion

Now, Honourable Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta CFR, has joined his ancestors, and will be remembered for all his great works on the Bench.



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a lawyer with expertise in Commercial Dispute Resolution and Technology Law practice. He is a Partner at Infusion Lawyers. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts on behalf of financial institutions, other corporate bodies and multinationals. He has worked with a number of startup tech companies. He tweets @siazubuike.

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