By Jonathan Ugbal
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen has commissioned the new structure housing the Calabar division of the appeal court; the country’s second highest court.
Established in 1999, the Calabar division of the appeal court has moved from a structure at Court road to another at the state housing estate and the industrial court in Calabar.
And, Onnoghen who said he remembered with nostalgia, the incidents that led to the establishment of the division as well as it’s first sitting on February 3, 1999 presided over by the late Justice J.T Akpabio, noted that it was a special moment for him and for those who struggled for it.
“I remember all these to pay tributes to those who are no longer around when this dream came to pass. I remember these things because it brings us together and makes today very unique.
“Why? Because this court of appeal standing here is going to be commissioned by my humble self as the Chief Justice of Nigeria who happens to come from Cross River State,” Onnoghen said and called on judicial officers to remain steadfast.
He averred that: “I used this opportunity to call on judicial officers in the country to remain steadfast to their oath of office, to remain steadfast to the constitution of this country, to continue to remember that without the rule of law, the society is doomed; to continue to remember that though the justice system is not designed to attain peaceful or friendly relationship between litigants or among them, it is the best time we can have and we will still have to try our best to temper justice with mercy where the law allows.
“I am not saying that because your conscience is against the law; for instance because you are not in support of death sentencing, you allow murderer go home because you are not in tune with that sentence. No!
“I am saying that you should firm to your oath of office, that whenever you put the fate of the parties on a scale, whichever weighs the most, that is where your judgment should go. It doesn’t matter whose ox is gored.
“It doesn’t matter because the society depends on us, the society depends on that decision you take. The society survives because you are courageous enough to tell whosoever is wrong that you are wrong.”
He advised them to be cautious as this is the time politicians approached them using different forms and ways.
Onnoghen was accompanied by the President of the Appeal Court, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa who said the current presiding Justice of the Calabar division, Justice Ibrahim M.M Saulawa is the ninth in its history, gave a synopsis of the challenges the division has faced in terms of infrastructure.
According to her, aside the nine presiding justices, “There were and still other erudite honorable justices who worked for the growth of the division in spite of the very difficult working environment they had to grapple with. Initially the problem of adequate space and conducive working environment because of the nature of the building constructed since 1899 and suffering some forms of decay and dilapidation.”
She said a fire engulfed the building on December 31, 2011 leading to the destruction of case files, furniture and office equipment as well as records which took time to be put back on track.
The division then moved to several other places including a chamber in the federal high court, the high court of Cross River State and the national industrial court which hosted it for three years.
She disclosed that former Governor Donald Duke had allocated a plot of land to the court and a contract awarded in January 2007 with a gestation period of 12 months which ended up being almost 12 years.
Justice Bulkachuwa said that upon assumption of office in acting capacity in November 2012, the project became one of her challenges and following the inability of the contractors to deliver, they were withdrawn and another engaged to complete the project.
Also, a former Attorney General of the federation and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Kanu Agabi in his address called for the judiciary to be spoken highly of and sought for the creation of state appeal courts.
“Our duty to honor the judiciary is unqualified. The time to speak well of her is now when her reputation has been unduly and unjustly challenged. This is not a time to stand silent or to proclaim what we consider to be the weakness of the judiciary.
“Our judiciary is not the stone that the builders rejected but afterwards put in its proper place. It is the stone of justice and so right from the beginning we must put it in its proper place. Unless we put it in its proper place, the nation shall stumble on it as it is doing presently,” Agabi said and described the judiciary as “not just one of the arms of government,” as it is, “the preeminent one.”
On the creation of state appeal courts, Agabi who said that there was a time when the appeal courts did not exist, posited that: “We look forward to that day when each state of the federation shall have a state court of appeal from which appeals shall lie to a federal court of appeal and from thence to the supreme court. That will minimize the burden on the present court of appeal and ultimately, the supreme court.”
The former national chief prosecutor commended the judges and justices whom he said have immortalized themselves by their judgments which will stand the test of time against monuments; a situation which according places the onus of ensuring they don’t “eternalized a thing that is wrong” as judges, justices and magistrates are the “good men and women that God himself has appointed to see to the enforcement of our laws. If you do your duty it will not be long before every citizen takes his proper place in the scheme of things.”
On his part, Cross River Governor, Senator Ben Ayade who invited attendees to this year’s Carnival Calabar and festivals, said that: “Today we are beholding a structure that is consistent with the philosophy, style and elegance that our government presents today.”
He commended the reforms in the judiciary and hailed the CJN and the president of the court of appeal for installing state of the art infrastructure in the complex.
To the judges and justices, Ayade appealed to them to always allow their conscience which he termed “internal policeman” to guide what they do while matching it with the tenets of their office.
Notable among attendees at the event were the deputy governor of Cross River State, Professor Ivara Esu, the Obong of Calabar, Ndidem Ekpo Okon Abasi Otu V presiding justices of the Portharcout, Akure, Lagos divisions of the appeal court among others as well as several senior advocates of Nigeria including Mr. Peter Agi.