Two justices of the Supreme Court, Justices Muhammad Muntaka Coomasie and Suleiman Galadima have been taken off the panel of the apex court hearing an appeal filed by Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha on his election victory by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar.
This is the second panel formed by the CJN after the first panel headed by Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen was disbanded following complaints of bias by the governor against the judges.
Justice Mukhtar subsequently replaced the panel with a new one headed by Justice Coomasie, with Galadima and Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed as members among others, only for another petition, this time from a group called Lawyers in Defense of Democracy (LIDD), alleging affinity between the governor and the affected justices, led to the CJN, changing the panel all over again.
A top source in the system confirmed that the fresh change was necessitated by evidence provided by the petitioners, especially a video-footage of one of the dropped justices dancing at the wedding ceremony of the governor’s daughter.
When fresh hearing opened in the appeal on June 4, 2013, the two justices who had earlier been listed for the matter, were conspicuously absent, with Tanko Mohammed now heading the panel.
The Onnoghen panel was close to rounding-off hearing after written addresses of parties had been adopted, before the CJN disbanded the panel.
Okorocha filed the appeal to challenge the ruling of the Court of Appeal in Owerri, which agreed to the former Imo State Governor Ikedi Ohakim being a necessary party in the appeal brought by Sen. Ifeanyi Ararume of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) challenging Okorocha’s victory at the poll.
Okorocha wanted the apex court to strike off Ohakim’s name from the case.
The petition leading to the justices’ removal dated April 30th, 2013, signed by the group’s National Coordinator, Adebalogun Sai, read in part, “We wish to express our strong reservations with the ongoing surprise plan to disband the Panel of Justices handling the Appeal brought by Governor Rochas Okorocha challenging the joining of former Governor Ikedi Ohakim to an appeal brought by the Imo state governorship candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the 2011 elections, Senator Ifeanyi Ararume, and his party challenging the conduct of the supplementary election that brought Okorocha to power.
“From all intents and purposes, the agitation against the serving Panel which was initiated and funded by Okorocha’s proxies is not in the least a protest against injustice, but a calculated move to politically intimidate the judiciary and compromise the administration of justice.
“We therefore call on your office to stop forthwith any action that may jeopardize or protract the substantive case which exactly is Okorocha’s target.
“Without a single substantive ground to Okorocha’s claims against the serving Panel, the move by your office to set up a compromise Panel at the governor’s pleasure, is the perfect endorsement of Okorocha’s opening gambit in furtherance of the plot to diminish the integrity of the Supreme Court and unduly stretch the adjudication of the substantive Imo Governorship case.
“The new panel which Okorocha has been boasting that the Supreme Court has already penciled down is evidently peopled by Justices of the Supreme Court loyal to the Imo governor, Rochas Okorocha and carefully handpicked to do his hatchet job.
“Beside undermining other parties to the appeal, the choice of Justices in the new Panel is an insult to the sensibilities of the Nigerian public and especially, observers of judicial proceedings in the country. Okorocha could not have picked a better team himself to handle his case!
“Unlike Okorocha’s agitation that did not point to a single substantive reason for seeking disbandment of the previous Panel, we wish to draw your attention to the compelling sign of bias in the new Panel as personified by the lead Justice of the Panel, Justice Muhammad Muntaka Coomasie, who is a Long time/Close Family Friend and confidant of Governor Rochas Okorocha.