A state high court in Uyo, has set aside its judgement which awarded N1.5 billion in favour of Akwa Ibom State governor, Udom Emmanuel, over a libel suit.
Mr Emmanuel had sued Leo Ekpenyong, a lawyer, for defamation of character over a publication in which he accused the governor of “buying judgment” from the 2019 National Assembly Election Tribunal.
The court in its judgment ordered the defendant to pay N1.5 billion to the governor as general damages for libel.
In another defamation case, the court had ordered Mr Ekpenyong to pay N150 million as damages to a former senator, Effiong Bob.
Both judgments were given on December 15, 2020 by Justice Ekaette Obot who is now the chief judge of Akwa Ibom State.
A Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, hired by Mr Ekpenyong, challenged the two judgements, and successfully persuaded the court to set them aside.
Justice Obot noted that Governor Emmanuel and Mr Bob did not file any counter affidavit to oppose Mr Ekpenyong’s application.
She said for the interest of substantial justice, since Mr Ekpenyong had filed his defence in the two libel cases, it was important for the cases to be heard on merit, and that it would not be right to deny Mr Ekpenyong the opportunity of determining the case on merit.
The judge, therefore, granted an extension of time as requested by the lawyer, Mr Effiong, and also went ahead to set aside the two judgements.
The court earlier overruled Governor Emmanuel’s lawyer, Samuel Ikpo’s preliminary objection.
The lawyer had argued that Mr Ekpenyong’s application was incompetent, having been brought outside the three months period stipulated by the law, and that the court lacks jurisdiction to extend such time.
Justice Obot admitted that the rules of court are meant to be obeyed.
She, however, said the provision of Order 25 of the Akwa Ibom State High Court Civil Procedure, which the governor’s lawyer relied upon, was unconstitutional.
She said the provision violates the Nigerian Constitution which allows access to court and also guarantees fair hearing.
‘You’re not on Channels TV,’ judge lashes out
The case attracted public attention last year, when Justice Obot lashed out at the defence lawyer.
“You don’t stand before me and talk nonsense,” she said to the lawyer, Mr Effiong.
“I’ve been on this side of the law for over 30 years and you don’t come and teach me the law from there.”
Mr Effiong, who had urged the court to give priority to his application for extension of time, cited the Supreme Court position on the matter, “Notwithstanding that preliminary objection is on jurisdiction, provided there is an application before the court for extension of time that application must be taken first”.
Refusing Mr Effiong’s application then, the judge said, “Preliminary objections are taken first in every proceeding, especially when it touches on jurisdiction. If you have replied to that objection, why are you afraid?”
“Is anything the matter with you?” she continued. “This is the court of law and things are done according to rules here. Sentiments do not overrule that.
“You are not on Channels Television, neither are you on Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Television,” she had said.
‘It’s a battle between David, Goliath’
“The applications to set aside the judgments can be likened to the battle between David and Goliath. I’m only a vessel that God used to enthrone justice in this case,” Mr Effong said.
“Those who believe that once a governor has sued someone in court, the person that is sued cannot get justice should see today’s ruling as a reminder that the law is no respecter of persons.
“We are happily and readily waiting for Governor Udom Emmanuel and Senator Bob to enter the witness box and prove their defamation cases. The message for them today is that we will never be frightened by their status and power. They cannot have their way through shortcuts,” he added.