An indigenous firm in the oil and gas industry, Seplat Energy Plc, has petitioned the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, Chairman of the National Judicial Council, protesting perceived bias of a judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Inyang Ekwo, accusing the judge abuse of judicial powers.
Seplat Energy Plc, in a six-page petition signed by the acting CEO/Chief Operating Officer, Samson Ezugworie, dated May 15, demanded the NJC to dispassionately investigate its complaint and ensure appropriate disciplinary action against Justice Ekwo for granting exparte orders under what the company construed as “very questionable circumstances which are designed to hinder the affected Directors and Secretary of Seplat in the performance of their contractual and statutory duties to Seplat.”
The acting CEO/Chief Operating Officer of Seplat Energy Plc argued that it is unrealistic for the company and its officers, including but not limited to the Senior Independent Non-Executive Directors of the Company, to obtain a fair and unbiased hearing before Justice Ekwo.
Samson Ezugworie, therefore, demanded on the CJN to urgently transfer or reassign the suit between Juliet Ebere Nwadi Gbaka & others Vs Seplat Energy Plc & 13 Others and all suits involving Seplat Energy Plc either as a plaintiff or defendant pending before Justice Ekwo on the ground of bias or likelihood of bias.
The petitioners noted that in the suit between Boniface Okezie & 3 Others V. Seplat Energy Plc & nine others filed on April 13 by some shareholders of Seplat whose shareholding is less than 0.0005% of Seplat’s entire share capital, the plaintiffs had cited alleged unfairly prejudicial conduct in the management of the affairs of Seplat.
The petitioner protested that Justice Ekwo was granting an order to preserve the rest of the suit despite the fact that no such application was before him.
The petitioner stated: “It is noteworthy that the above order was made by His Lordship on 28th April 2023, notwithstanding the absence of any application by the Petitioners for the preservation of the res, and notwithstanding the fact that the Petitioners who are the beneficiaries of the order, did not give any undertaking as to damages.”
Seplat disclosed “during the pendency of the April Petition, another suit was filed against the company, its Directors, Secretary, Corporate Affairs Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The objective of the Suit was to ensure the removal of directors and Company Secretaries from office and to utilize the machinery of the SEC to appoint new persons to replace them.
“By accident or design, this case was also assigned to Justice Ekwo.”
Seplat protested that there was no indication that the case was administratively adjourned to May 11 when the court sat and made far-reaching orders and exparte against the company.
“The far-reaching exparte orders were made by His Lordship notwithstanding the fact that Seplat and some of its directors who got wind of the proceedings have filed different processes challenging the competence of the suit and the jurisdiction of the court to commence the suit as a shareholders’ derivative action, without the prior approval of the court,” the company declared.
Seplat argued that it finds it alarming that his Lordship made far-reaching orders on May 11 against her even though similar orders sought in the April petition have not been granted.
“We believe that this can only be possible because of prior direct communication between His Lordship and Counsel to the Plaintiffs in the above Suit. This, we believe, is highly unethical”. the company protested.
“Seplat also believes that it is an act of gross misconduct on the part of His Lordship to gloss over various applications filed by Seplat and some of its directors and Secretary, on 10th of May 2023, challenging the competence of the Suit and the jurisdiction of the Court to entertain the Suit.
“As it were, the orders made by His Lordship on 11th May 2023 will compromise the fair hearing of these pending applications filed by Seplat and other Respondents.”
Seplat declared that it “has every reason to believe that all the steps taken by His Lordship in the above Suits are designed to favour the Plaintiffs and disfavour Seplat, its directors and secretary. Seplat, its directors and Secretary’s position is corroborated by other cases and events.”
Seplat also disclosed that the final judgement in the Suit BETWEEN AKINDURO ERIC AKINNIFESI & ANOR V SEPLAT ENERGY PLC was wrongly ignored by Hon Justice Ekwo.
There were, however, concerns among shareholders in Seplat that the lingering issues may have likely prevented Company’s 2023 AGM scheduled for May 10th 2023 and had instituted the suit, demanding mandatory orders for the holding of the meeting.
The stakehodlers also sought an order that the directors and company secretary should not be removed from office or hindered in the performance of their duties by any person or authority.
The final judgment was delivered by Hon. Justice A. R. Mohammed of the same Abuja Judicial Division of the Federal High Court. The Petitioners succeeded in the Suit and the court ordered that Seplat’s AGM be held as scheduled and that the directors and company secretary should neither be removed from office nor hindered in the performance of their duties.
The judgment was brought to the attention of His Lordship, Hon. Justice I. E. Ekwo by some of the Counsel representing the Respondents in Suit No: FHCIABJ/CS/626/2023 Between Juliet Ebere Nwadi Gbaka & two Ors. V Seplat Energy Plc & 13 Ors, via various processes filed by them on 10th May 2023.
Notwithstanding His Lordship’s attention being directed to the subsisting judgment of a more senior Judge (Hon. Justice A. R. Mohammed) of the same Federal High Court, His Lordship made orders on 11th May 2023, which contradict and indeed have the capacity of overruling the judgment of Hon. Justice A. R. Mohammed
Seplat argued that it is improper for His Lordship, whose attention had been drawn to the existing final judgment of a Brother Judge, to sit as an appellate court over such judgment through the rendition of an interlocutory ruling which conflicts with the said final judgment.
“On the strength of the above, Seplat invites the NJC to dispassionately investigate his complaint and ensure appropriate disciplinary action against the Hon Justice Ekwo.”
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