Nigeria: Profiles - Meet Nine New Court of Appeal Justices

Court of Appeal Headquarters, Abuja.
26 September 2023

The nine new Justices of the Court of Appeal swell the rank of the judges of the court to 81.

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Olukayode Ariwoola, on Wednesday, swore in nine new Justices of the Court of Appeal, swelling the rank of the judges of the court grappling with huge backlog of cases to 81.

The Court of Appeal occupies a prime place in the hierarchy of courts in the Nigerian judicial system. It is the penultimate court before Nigeria's highest and final court, the Supreme Court.

The court and its president also have the statutory responsibility to set up and coordinate election petition tribunals that adjudicate on disputes arising from election disputes in the country.

It also serves as the final court for legislative election disputes. Although it receives and adjudicates on appeals concerning judgements of the governorship election petitions tribunals across the country, its own decisions on the appeals can still be further challenged at the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeal is also the court of first instance for adjudication on disputes from Nigeria's presidential elections.

Due to its crucial roles in the socio-economic and political developments as well as its contributions to jurisprudence in the country, PREMIUM TIMES, in this report, shines some light on the new additions to the court's bench.

The nine judges newly added to the bench of the court with the states they represent include: Hannatu Azumi Laja-Balogun, Kaduna State; Binta Fatima Zubairu, Kaduna State; and Peter Chudi Obiora, Anambra State.

They rest are: Okon Efreti Abang, Akwa Ibom State; and Asma'u Musa Mainoma, Federal Capital Territory, Lateef Adebayo Ganiyu, Oyo State, Jane Esienanwan Iyang, Cross River State; Hadiza Rabiu Shagari, Sokoto State; and Paul Ahmed Bassi, Borno State.

Okon Efreti Abang

Mr Abang, 61, who hails from Oron in Akwa-Ibom State, South-south Nigeria, needs no introduction given some high-profile and sometimes controversial cases he has handled in his 14 years judicial career as a judge of the Federal High Court.

He is reputed for the relative dispatch with which he handles criminal cases, in a country where such cases particularly those involving politically-exposed persons proceed perpetually.

In February 2020, the Court of Appeal division in Abuja, praised Mr Abang for making appreciable progress in the hearing of a N3.1 billion fraud case involving a former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam, after the case suffered delays before another Federal High Court judge, Ahmed Mohammed.

"Justice Abang has shown commendable diligence in the trial," Emmanuel Agim who delivered the lead judgement in an appeal lodged by Mr Suswam to have his case retrieved from Mr Abang and returned to Mr Mohammed, had said.

In a landmark decision, Mr Abang in November 2021, jailed a former chairperson of the defunct Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), Abdulrasheed Maina, for money laundering offences involving N2 billion in pension funds.

Given the trajectory of Mr Maina's trial after he jumped bail and was rearrested in Niger and returned to Nigeria amid other high-powered scheming during the President Muhammadu Buhari's regime that saw Mr Maina reinstated to the civil service, many Nigerians lauded Mr Abang for his courage in finding the pension thief guilty.

Delivering another consequential decision last December, the jurist sentenced nine drug traffickers, including four internationally-wanted Mexicans, to 10 years imprisonment each.

This newspaper reported that Mr Abang jailed the convicts for producing cocaine-like drug - methamphetamine - and extracting ephedrine, another illicit substance, at the laboratory located in a warehouse in Delta State.

The judge also chastised the prosecuting agency, the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), for entering into a plea agreement with the drug barons despite sufficient evidence to earn a conviction and secure a stiffer penalty for the culprits.

"The defendants made confessional statements that would even secure conviction on their own," Mr Abang said, insisting that the plea bargain agreement was indefensible.

However, Mr Abang's handling of the trial of Olisa Metuh, a stalwart of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) put his court in the spotlight.

He had in February 2020, sentenced Mr Metuh to seven years imprisonment after finding him and his firm, Destra Investment Limited, guilty of charges of money laundering involving the sum of N400 million they received from ex-National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, in 2014 preparatory to the 2015 general elections.

The Court of Appeal would eventually overturn Mr Abang's decision and order a fresh trial by another judge of the court, on the grounds that Mr Abang was biased against the defendants.

Some lawyers however noted that the Court of Appeal did not show the alleged bias impacted Mr Abang's review of the evidence adduced in the case. The prosecuting agency, the EFCC, has since appealed against the Court of Appeal's decision at the Supreme Court.

With a legal career spanning three decades, Mr Abang practised as a lawyer for about two decades before he became a Federal High Court Judge.

He attended the Central School Ebughu Mbo Local Government of Akwa-Ibom Akwa from January 1968 to June 1973.

Thereafter, Mr Abang proceeded to St.Vincent's Secondary School Oti-Oron, Oron area of the state between September 1973 and June 1978, and School of Basic Studies Akampa, Cross River State from September 1980 to June 1982.

In his quest for legal education, Mr Abang secured admission to the University of Calabar, and studied law between October 1993 and June 1987, before proceeding to the Nigerian Law School Victoria Island, Lagos between 1987 and 1988. He was called to the Bar on 3 November 1988.

After about 21 years of legal practice, Mr Abang was inaugurated a judge of the Federal High Court on 25 June 2009.

He sat as a judge of the court until his appointment and subsequently swearing-in as a Justice of the Court of Appeal on 20 September 2023.

Lateef Adebayo Ganiyu

Lateef Ganiyu was, until his elevation to the Court of Appeal bench, a judge of the Oyo State High Court. He was born on 7 July 1966 in Iseyin, Iseyin Local Government Area of the state.The jurist was enrolled at Muslim Grammar School, Iseyin between 1980-1985 and obtained WASC O-LEVEL in 1986. He proceeded to Ansar-ud-deen High School at Saki, Oyo State between 1986 and 1987 where obtained WASC A-Level in 1987.

He earned a certificate from The Ibadan Polytechnic Continuing Education Centre, Ibadan, in 1988.

Mr Ganiyu bagged his law degree from the University of Lagos in 1992 and thereafter proceeded to the Nigerian Law School in 1993. He was called to the Bar the following year. In his quest for further legal education, Mr Ganiyu proceeded to the Obafemi Awolowo University of Ife, Osun State for his Master's degree in law between 1996 and 1997.

He was appointed judge of the Oyo State High Court on 26 June 2014.

In his contributions to the state's legal development, Mr Ganiyu served on the Committee on Drafting of Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Oyo State, 2016.

Also, he was a member, Committee on Selection of eligible officers of the Oyo State judiciary.

In one of Mr Ganiyu's verdicts, the judge in April 2018, dismissed the case of Adebayo Shittu, ex-Nigerian communications minister, against the Oyo State over a disputed parcel of land.

He served as a judge of the Oyo State High Court for nine years before his elevation to the Court of Appeal bench last week.

Paul Ahmed Bassi

Mr Bassi, who hails from Borno State, Northeast Nigeria, was born in July 1975.He had a 12-year career at Nigeria's anti-corruption agency, ICPC, where he rose through the ranks to become a chief legal officer.

He switched from his prosecutorial job to become a judge of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria on 14 July 2017.

Training to become a lawyer, Mr Bassi obtained his law degree from the University of Maiduguri, and proceeded to the Nigerian Law School in October 2000.

After his successful completion of the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), he ventured into private legal practice at the law office of Oluwole Akanle & Co where he worked for five years before joining the services of ICPC.

He worked with several organisations like the DFID's Justice For All programme and the United States of America's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He has also attended at different times, the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

While working as a private legal practitioner, he was a member of the team that served as legal consultants to the House of Representatives on the drafting of the watershed Pension Reform Act of 2004.

He was also a leading member of the legal consultants to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) on the first Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) Agreement with BiCourtney Services Ltd for the construction of the Murtala Mohammed Airport Terminal 2 (MMA2) in Lagos.

Three years ago, Mr Bassi in a judgement, ordered the Nigerian Army to reinstate Thomas Arigbe, a lieutenant colonel who was compulsorily retired in 2016. He declared the military's conduct as "illegal and unconstitutional."

Mr Bassi, in May 2022, ordered the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) to pay N5.7 billion terminal benefits to over 1000 bank workers affected by the recapitalisation programme of 2006.

Binta Fatima Zubair

Ms Zubairu hails from Kaduna State, Northwest Nigeria. She was appointed a Federal High Court judge on 31 October 2001.

The jurist's educational background is hardly known in the public. Also, little is publicly known of her time as a judge apart from her participation in a governorship election petition case in 2019. Ms Zubairu, leading a three-member panel of the Zamfara State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal, affirmed the election of Bello Matawale as the duly elected governor of the state in November 2019. The Zubairu-led tribunal dismissed the case of the petitioner, Advanced People's Democratic Alliance (APDA), on the basis of a Supreme Court decision of May 2019 that cancelled all the votes polled by the All Progressives Congress (APC), the party that was declared as the winner of the governorship election in the state.

Asma'u Musa Mainoma

Ms Mainoma hails from the FCT, Abuja but was born and raised in Sokoto State. The 53-year-old jurist had served as the director of public prosecutions, Ministry of Justice, Nasarawa State before being appointed a High Court on 1 February 2013.

Hannatu Azumi Laja-Balogun

Ms Lala-Balogun hails from Kaduna State and was appointed a High Court judge in May 1999.

In July 2022, Ms Lala-Balogun while sentencing an internet fraudster, Julius Emmanuel, to one year in prison, ordered the Nigerian anti-graft agency, EFCC, to sell the convict's N8 million worth Mercedes Benz C300 and an iPhone 12 as well as a HP laptop.

Peter Chudi Obiora

Mr Obiora who hails from Anambra State was a judge of the state's High Court until his elevation to the Court of Appeal last week. He was the administrative judge of the Idemili judicial division of the state High Court.

Although Mr Obiora's educational background is not readily available in the public domain, some of his intellectual interventions in Nigeria's electoral jurisprudence are documented. Presenting a paper on Nigeria's Electoral Act in 2021 in Abuja, the jurist called for an amendment to the legislation to compel the electoral commission, INEC, to deploy technology in its conduct of elections. He also advocated the termination of pre-election disputes at the Court of Appeal instead of journeying to the Supreme Court, to relieve the country's highest court of unnecessary burden of caseload.

In another key recommendation, Mr Obiora suggested the conclusion of pre-election suits before the general election to forestall imposition of candidates who either did not vie for election or contested but lost from being imposed on the electorate.

He further argued that the burden of proof in election cases should shift to the electoral umpire, a position being canvassed by Atiku Abubakar's lawyers at the Supreme Court in the disputed 2023 presidential election.

Mr Obiora has also contributed to the development of a robust criminal system in Anambra State. In 2021, he chaired a committee that reviewed the state's criminal code. In the committee's major work, the offence of incest was defined to include adopted child, while defilement was made non-gender based crime.

On the bench, Mr Obiora served as a member of the Osun State governorship election petition in 2019. Delivering the lead majority judgement on the election dispute between then Governor Adegboyega Oyetola of the APC and Ademola Adeleke of PDP, Mr Obiora nullified the supplementary election held on 27 September 2018 after declaring it illegal, and then declared Mr Adeleke the winner of the poll based on the outcome of the substantive election earlier held on 22 September 2018.

However, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court overturned the decision, affirming Mr Oyetola's victory.

In one of his landmark decisions, Mr Obiora jailed a local council chairperson for contempt of court. Chigozie Awugosi, who was the chairperson of Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, was ordered to refund funds he illegally received from the state government after his election as chairman was nullified, but failed to comply with the order, incurring the wrath of the court.

Hadiza Rabiu Shagari

Fifty-five-year-old Hadiza Shagari hails from Shagari town of Sokoto State. She had her secondary education in Minna, Niger State, and Kaduna State.

In preparation for a career in the legal profession, Ms Shagari enrolled for a law degree programme in 1985 at the Usman Danfodio University in Sokoto and graduated in 1991.

Thereafter, she proceeded to the Nigerian Law School in 1991 and was called to the Nigerian Bar in Lagos in 1992.

The jurist also bagged a postgraduate diploma from the University of Abuja in 2006.

Ms Shagari worked with the Nigerian Ports Authority, Lagos, from 1994 to 2005 before being appointed a judge of the Federal High Court in 2006.

As a Federal High Court judge, Ms Shagari was posted to various divisions of the court including Abuja, Lagos and Katsina.

Ms Shagari's judicial career was thrusted into the limelight when she presided over a criminal case involving Mahadi Shehu, a popular whistleblower, and the Inspector General of Police.

At a hearing in March 2021, Mr Shehu's choreographed ill-health as he trudged with crutches into the courtroom with neck brace in Katsina, drawing media attention on Ms Shagari.

She also handled a case involving former governor of Katsina State, Ibrahim Shema.

The EFCC had charged Mr Shema with alleged money laundering involving over N5 billion belonging to the state SURE-P, a social welfare programme during the President Goodluck Jonathan regime.

Jane Esienanwan Inyang

Ms Inyang comes from Cross River State, South-south Nigeria. She was sworn in as a Federal High Court judge on 12 February, 2015.Publicly-available details about Ms Inyang's educational and professional backgrounds are sketchy. However, some public interest cases propelled her name to the national stage.

In May 2020, Ms Inyang while sitting at the Yenagoa division of the Federal High Court, jailed a Kano State indigene, Yunusa Dahiru, who abducted 13-year-old girl, Ese Oruru, from Bayelsa State.

The judge who sentenced Mr Dahiru, widely known as Yellow, to prion, found the convict guilty of sexual exploitation and forced marriage.

The incident drew outrage across Nigeria, putting Ms Inyang in the spotlight.

On the political turf, the jurist disqualified the APC from the Bayelsa State governorship election in 2019. In her judgement, Ms Inyang held that the APC governorship primary election in the state did not comply with the statutory provisions of APC constitution.

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