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The Judge as a Street Fighter by Reuben Abati

I would never have believed that a day would come when a Nigerian judge would engage in street fighting no matter the level of provocation.

 

 

 

I would never have believed that a day would come when a Nigerian judge would engage in street fighting no matter the level of provocation. It was for this reason that I initially thought the video showing a suit-wearing fellow, referred to as a certain powerful judge kicking and slapping a security guard at the Banex Plaza, Abuja last week, was a Nollywood video. But when it was later confirmed that the kick-boxer was actually a serving judge, identified as Justice Danladi Umar, Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, I was shocked.

 

When the Head of Press and Public Relations of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Ibraheem al-Hassan later issued a statement in defence of the learned Judge, my shock turned to petrification. Nothing could be more shocking than seeing the man in charge of the country’s Code of Conduct Tribunal in such disgraceful misconduct in public. Justice Umar may have been watching a lot of UFC shows and may have learnt one or two things about how to punch, kick and overwhelm the opponent, but not even Israel Adesanya or Kamaru Usman would behave in such manner as seen in that video. Judges occupy a position of great value in society. They are guided by a code of conduct that requires them to be on their best behaviour at all times, either on the Bench or away from it. They are required like Caesar’s wife to be above board.

 

Justice Danladi Umar has stayed long enough on the Bench. He certainly does not need to be lectured on this fine point. He became a Chief Magistrate before the age of 36, and was appointed Acting Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal at 36. He was appointed Chairman of the Tribunal at the age of 40, the youngest Nigerian to assume that office.  He is now 50, and has been in charge of the Code of Conduct Bureau either as Acting Chairman or as Chairman for more than 14 years. What got into him? At a point, I was afraid that his Lordship, if not restrained by security men, was going to remove his jacket and charge ferociously like a kickboxer in the ring! He should be advised to stop watching kick-boxing matches just in case he does so.

 

There may well be persons out there who will insist that Justice Umar is after all, a human being and no man is infallible. And to show just how human he is, we are told that he goes to the Banex Plaza regularly to shop and repair his phones if he has to. He doesn’t send aides to do the rounds for him. He goes there himself. But I don’t see how this justifies his misconduct. Nobody expects judges to be invalids. A judge going to a shopping mall is not an achievement. Other professionals live a normal life and engage in routine activities, but they do not go about engaging in physical altercations or punch-ups. They respect rules of communal conduct. And a judge should know about rules.

 

The security guard at the Banex Plaza was said to have told His Lordship’s driver that he could not park at a particular spot. He was doing his job, as a guard and parking attendant. He obviously was not in a position to know the status of the occupant of the vehicle he was re-directing. Justice Umar was said to have insisted that his driver would occupy a chosen space. This was at the Banex Plaza, a shopping centre, not at the premises of the Code of Conduct Tribunal where he is the Boss. There is also no indication in Justice Umar’s resume that he once worked as a parking attendant and hence, had a better understanding of how vehicles should be parked. Naturally, the Banex Plaza staff insisted on doing his job, and that led to an altercation and the Judge rushing out of the car.

 

In the recorded video of the incident that has since gone viral, someone could be heard in the background saying: “Hey! Hey! Hey! This man is mad. Your power will not save you.  Respect yourself. Oga go inside your car. You are not the most powerful herdsman… Respect yourself, dem go beat you comot for here.. Hey! Hey! Who are you? Who you be?…Dem don lock the gate. Dem go show you pepper here today…Who are you? Who are you?.. Close the gate.. Close the gate. One Fulani man think say he get all the power in the world. Who are you? We make the rules here. If Buhari come here dem go show am pepper. See. Dem don break him glass… Hei! Heeei!” It was a very ugly situation in which the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal found himself.

 

The CCT Head of Press and Public Relations, Ibraheem Al-Hassan later issued a statement on the incident in which he says “the boy was rude in his approach and threatened to deal with the Chairman if he refused to leave the scene”. The statement claims that the CCT Chairman was assaulted by “Biafran Boys”.  Danladi Umar himself has commented directly on what transpired. He said he was assaulted by persons who chanted “secessionist and sectional slogans” and that the video in circulation does not show the part where he was “molested.”   He says he “regrets being drawn into responding to the situation.”  It is surprising that days after the incident, Justice Umar is more or less still arguing that he was provoked into resorting to physical assault. He also does not see anything wrong in the reference to “Biafran Boys.” He repeats the offence in that regard by referring to “secessionists” and conveniently, he concludes that his action “has been misconstrued in the narrative floating across the social media”. He still doesn’t get it, does he? He is a jurist, an officer in the temple of justice, and even if he is “drawn into responding to the situation”, he really believes that “kick-boxing” is the best response? If he was molested, and that can be proven, why would he then take the law into his own hands? A man whose job is to enforce the law should not be seen breaking the law. If Justice Umar has an anger management problem, he should be encouraged to seek help.

 

Ugoji Egbujo has written an opinion piece titled “Nigeria’s CCT Chairman as a Senior Agbero” (Premium Times, April 5, 2021). I respect the judex so much I wouldn’t dare translate the Yoruba word, “agbero” into English or quote Egbujo’s expletives-ridden commentary. But I think Justice Umar needs to learn some very quick lessons or lend himself some wisdom. No 1: We are in the age of social media, citizen journalism and the democratization of news. Whatever anyone does in public, can be easily recorded by persons wielding even the cheapest smart phone in the market. Private conversations on phone can be recorded and edited. Whatever is recorded can be published almost immediately.

 

Twenty years ago, the drama at Banex Plaza involving the CCT Chairman could have occurred and nobody will know about it. If it gets noticed by the media, Umar’s Press Team would have appealed to editors to please kill the story. These days, it is difficult to kill a story.  The citizen journalist who operates on Instagram and WhatsApp may not even have a by-line. The standard phrase is that bad news sells. It not only sells; it now travels at the speed of light. No. 2: Nigeria is no longer a place where anybody wearing some fancy clothes, driving a big car, going about with uniformed security can expect that his class and stature will intimidate less privileged members of society. You can no longer go about telling people: “Do you know who I am?” No matter who you are, you will most likely be told: “Who are you? Or Who do you think you are? Do you feed me? Okay, do you know who I am too? And what makes you think I should know who you are?” Nigerians are angry.  It is better not to provoke them any further. No. 3: Justice Umar talks about “secessionists and sectional slogans”. Ibraheem Al-Hasan in his first press statement said Umar has been going to the Banex Plaza for about 18 years.  Apparently, most people there did not know his identity. But now with the video that has gone viral, his cover has been blown. Common sense should tell the CCT Chairman that it is in his best interest to stay away from that plaza for a while.

 

 

 

And No 4: did Justice Umar directly ask Ibraheem al-Hassan to refer to the persons at the Banex Plaza as “Biafran Boys”? Is he aware that this contravenes Section 26 of the Cybercrimes Act 2015 as has been correctly pointed out by Femi Falana, SAN? Al-Hasan also insists that he acted on the directive of the CCT Chairman. Can someone please help explain to Mallam Al-Hassan that no public officer is excused under the law with such an explanation that he or she was carrying out an unlawful order just because a superior official gave a directive to that effect? The penalty for the use or suggestion of xenophobic words is five years imprisonment and/or a minimum fine of N10 million. Al-Hassan is the Head of Press and Public Relations at the CCT. He was deployed to that agency by the Federal Ministry of Information. I was furious reading the first press statement that he issued on the Danladi Umar incident. It was riddled with grammatical infelicities, howlers, spelling errors, wrong word use and the abuse of syntax. As Nigerians are wont to say, the guy “murdered the English language”:  “video cliff” instead of “video clip”; “Packing lot” instead of  “parking lot”; “fixe” instead of “fix”; “had went” instead of “had gone”, “rode instead of rude”, “refuse” instead of “refused”. I had to take analgesics after reading his press statement.

 

Al-Hassan’s excuse in a public apology is that he wrote “under intense pressure and instruction” and was unable to proof-read the statement! What does this tell us about standards, competence and quality control? Al-Hassan should be sent on a refresher course in public communication without any further delay.

 

Public outrage on all the issues raised above is in order. Many groups have asked that Justice Umar should resign for conduct unbecoming of his status. Others want him reported to the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the Presidency and the National Assembly for sanction. The Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) has condemned his conduct, described as a “display of naked power” and has ordered an investigation with a view to taking “appropriate action”. Others have dredged up old allegations against him including how he was the one who issued a controversial ex parte order for the suspension of former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. Umar has stirred the hornet’s nest. But nobody should count on anything happening to the CCT Chairman by way of sanction. He will not resign. That is certain. And he is not willing to apologise properly either. The man he assaulted, Clement Sargwak, 22, can only be advised to seek an enforcement of his fundamental human rights and thereby institute legal action against him.  

 

II:

 

A Tale of Two Airports

A tailpiece in this column: “Much Ado About Ogun Cargo Airport” (Tuesday, March 23, 2021) turned out to be my own version of stirring the hornet’s nest, given the controversy, the animus and the attention that it has generated. I had raised specific questions about an emerging Egba vs. Remo war of attrition that had developed around the idea of a Cargo Airport in Ilishan Remo, Ogun State an inherited project which happens to fall under the Senatorial District of the current Governor of Ogun State, and another airport at Wasinmi within the Egba territory. Ilishan and Wasinmi are within shouting distance from each other.

 

I argued that the former having come first in order of time, should not become controversial if the present Governor is trying to develop it. I added that I did not see the wisdom in having two airports any way for reasons of ethnic ego. What! Hell broke loose in Egbaland. I was woken up the following morning by strident attacks on my phone. My identity was questioned. A senior friend sent me all the WhatsApp messages that had been circulated about me: I was called a bastard for daring to question the siting of an airport in Wasinmi. One man wrote: What kind of Egba man will support Remo/Ijebu people against Egbaland? Are you sure this Abati is one of us? “Omo ale!” Is he aware that Egba is his political base and not Ijebu? Does he even know the facts?

 

A friend took the trouble to send the Egba side of the story: “(1) that the Wasinmi Airport Project is being funded by the Federal Government and has been part of the budget for the last couple of years. The financial arrangement was designed to be effected through the instrumentality of a Bond programme that failed to get the approval of the state legislature.  (2) I was told the Wasinmi airport is a passenger airport while the Remo airport is a cargo airport. (3) The Dapo Abiodun administration is asking the Federal Government to stop the Wasinmi Airport, that Ogun state doesn’t need it and that the money meant for the project should be diverted to the Cargo Airport at Remo. That is wrong, my friend said. (4) Even if Egbas are the most intelligent people in the world, they will rise against that nonsense Dapo Abiodun is doing and (5) I was accused of attacking former Ogun State Governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun and here is what I was told: Governor Abiodun is the culprit here, not Amosun. Every Senator has a right to defend projects allocated to his state…”     

 

My point is proven: ethnic politics and conflict, that is the “my-own-isation” of everything, is the bane of Nigeria’s development process at both national and sub-national levels. Tragic.

 

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