Justice Abang Okon who is currently presiding over analleged N3.1bn fraud involving former governor of Benue, Gabriel Suswam alongside Okolobia Okpanachi, his former Commissioner of Finance was Wednesday stopped by the Court of Appeal from hearing the case.
In the allegation leveled against him, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) charged Suswam and Okpanachi with nine counts of money laundering and diversion of of N3.1.
But in a unanimous judgment on Wednesday, the appellate court ordered that the case should be sent back to Justice Mohammed of the same court for continuation of trial.
Delivering the judgment, Justice Emmanuel Agim also ordered that Justice Mohammed who had shown unjustified reluctance in entertaining the case should give the trial an accelerated hearing.
The court held that Justice Mohammed was wrong to have recuse himself from conducting the trial on account of fear, when all the parties had expressed confidence in him.
Nevertheless, the court commended Justice Abang, who is currently adjudicating on the matter, for showing diligence in the trial.
It held that it’s decision to return the case back to Justice Mohammed was to correct the error made by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court by re- assigning the case to him.
Explaining further, Justice Agim said the decision was to strengthen the path of justice and protect the institution of the Judiciary as the Chief Judge misapplied his discretion, when he re-assigned the case to Justice Abang, rather than directing Justice Muhammed to continue with the trial.
The court however held that although the Chief Judge has the powers under section 19 of the Federal High Court Rules, to assign cases to any Judge of the court.
“such discretion must be exercised properly and not recklessly so as to meet the justice of the case.
“Unfortunately, the Chief Judge did not exercise his discretion correctly.
“The re-assignment of the case to Justice Abang amounted to a transfer in a matter that was part heard.
“Four witnesses had already testified and an accused person is entitled to a trial within a reasonable period of time” Agim held.
Justice Agim further held that the exercise of discretion should be in a rational manner and properly to the satisfaction of all the parties.
The court held further that the improper exercise of discretion by the Chief Judge did not in any way rendered the proceedings before Justice Abang a nullity since the action of the Chief Judge was an administrative in nature.
The action of the Chief Judge is an administrative one and therefore, proceedings by Justice Abang cannot amount to a nullity the panel added.
“The Federal High Court is one court and the Judges are the same.
” It is within the administrative powers of the Chief Judge to re-assign cases and any judge has the jurisdiction to hear to cases assigned to them by the Chief Judge of the court.
“Our decision is merely to correct the error by the Chief Judge. Justice Abang was right to assume jurisdiction since he has the statutory duty to obey the Chief Judge.
“Justice Abang has no powers to challenge or question the Chief Judge.
“He has a duty to take a case assigned to him and deal with it. He did what the law allowed him.
The EFCC had on November 2015, arraigned the defendants before Justice Ahmed Ramat Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja, and had presented four witnesses before the court.