The Court of Appeal has ordered Justice Okon Abang to withdraw from the trial of a former governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam.
The judgment came on Wednesday following the appeal filed by Suswan challenging the assignment of the case to Abang.
Suswam and the then Commissioner for Finance in his administration, Okolobia Okpanachi, were first assigned by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission before Justice Ahmed Mohammed.
However, Justice Mohammed recused himself from the case following a report by SaharaReporters revealing a deal between the judge and defendant.
Former Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Adamu Kafarati, then reassigned it to Justice Abang.
Suswan, not satisfied with the reassignment, took the matter before the appeal court.
He argued through his lawyer, Chinelo Ogbozor, that he was not aware that Justice Mohammed recused himself from conducting the trial as no prior notice was issued.
Delivering the lead judgment of the appellate court on Wednesday, Justice Emmanuel Agim commended Justice Abang for conducting the trial but held that Mohammed was wrong to have withdrawn from handling the case.
Justice Agim explained that the court’s decision to return the case to Mr Mohammed was to correct the “error” made by the former Chief Judge of the court, Justice Kafarati.
The court held that although the Chief Judge had 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.
“The action of the Chief Judge is an administrative one and therefore, proceedings by justice Abang cannot amount to a nullity.
“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.
“In fact, if the ruling of Justice Abang did not touch on the reasons given by Justice Mohammed to rescue himself, this appeal would have no life.
“Abang has shown commendable diligence in the trial. But since Justice Abang went to determine the propriety of Justice Mohammed’s recusal from the case, the appeal has live issues.”