A judge in Akwa Ibom, on Thursday, refused to grant a request from a former university lecturer who wanted to personally conduct his libel case against his former employer, the University of Uyo, after his lawyer suddenly withdrew from the case.
“You can’t address the court on point of law,” Justice Okon. A. Okon, of the state High Court 9, told Inih Ebong who was already up standing, and ready to cross-examine Emmanuel Imeh, a deputy registrar and director of personnel in the university.
“My lord I have here with me, a Supreme Court authority which permits me as a layman to argue my case,” Mr. Ebong said to the court.
“But the court can’t even allow you to cite the authority,” the judge responded.
The former lecturer, who is in his mid-60s, told the court that he had prepared some questions which he wanted to use in cross-examining Uniuyo. But the judge stood his ground.
“I’ll give you time to look for a new lawyer,” the judge said. “But if by the next date you don’t come with a lawyer, I will allow you to cross examine.
“But know that your role ends there, since you won’t be allowed to address the court on point of law.”
Idorenyin Peter, a lawyer from the chambers of Ekpa B. Ekpa & Co., informed the court that they were withdrawing their legal services for Mr. Ebong for “personal reasons”.
Outside the courtroom, Mr. Ebong drew aside a lawyer who appeared sympathetic to him, opened the law report which he was holding, and read out a portion of the Supreme Court authority he had wanted to cite before the court.
“Legal practitioners do not have monopoly of citation of authorities in a court of law. A litigant, whether a legal practitioner or a layman, who conducts his case in person has the right like any legal practitioner who appears and acts for clients to cite authorities to advance his case. (Atake Vs Afejuku (1994) 12 SCNJ, page 11),” he argued.
Mr. Ebong, an associate professor of theatre arts, was sacked by Uniuyo under controversial circumstances in March 2002, when Akpan Ekpo was the vice chancellor.
While Mr. Ebong went to court to challenge his job termination, the university went ahead to publish a disclaimer on him in The PUNCH newspaper, warning that “anybody who deals with him on behalf of the University of Uyo does so at his or her own risk”.
Mr. Ebong sued for libel.
The case, initially filed at the Federal High Court, Calabar, Cross River state, in October 26, 2002, was transferred to Uyo in January, 2003 when a federal high court was created for Akwa Ibom state.
The case survived four different judges – Justice Gladys Olotu, Justice Isaac Ejiofor, Justice Ernest Chukwu, Justice Muhammed Abubakar – at the Federal High Court, Uyo, and continued to crawl on for about 11 years, before the court, under Justice Ijioma Ojukwu, eventually declined jurisdiction and transferred it in December, 2014, to the state high court.
Mr. Ebong, in his statement of claim at the state high court, said the disclaimer, which he said was done maliciously, painted him as an impostor, carrying out illegal, unauthorised, and fraudulent business and transactions in the name of the university.
He is asking the court to compel Uniuyo to retract the disclaimer, and pay him N800 million as damages, as well as defray his legal expenses of N863, 020.00.
The deputy registrar in the university, Mr. Imeh, in the affidavit he swore to on behalf of Uniuyo, said the disclaimer “became absolutely necessary in the public interest to forestall any attempt” by Mr. Ebong to present himself as employee of the school after his appointment was terminated.
Mr. Ebong, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, admitted that it hurt him that the case dragged on for long, but said that he was determined to go on with it for as long as it would take him to obtain justice.
“I am a stoic; I take things with stoic resoluteness. I’m an existentialist. I learn from my experiences rather than allow my experiences to defeat me.
“Already, it is 15 years now I’ve not earned any money, since they stopped my salary in 2001. The last salary I collected was in July 2001. So, if I have not died, if I have not broken down since then, I don’t think I’m going to break down,” he said.
Mr. Ebong said in fairness to the current judge handling it, that the case has been moving in good speed. He said the court awarded N20, 000 and N30, 000 as separate costs against Uniuyo for causing unnecessary delay in the proceedings, but that the school has so far refused to pay it.
The case was adjourned to May 25, 2016.
Ndianabasi Udofia, a lawyer from the Golden-Bridge Attorneys & Arbitrators, represented Uniuyo.