BOOK REVIEW: Charles E. Archibong (2021), A Stranger in Their Midst

A good publisher and his editor should invite Charles Archibong to serve on their editorial board as an advisor, writer, and thought leader in the best traditions. The thought grabs you as you read the preface to this evocative memoir. It would bring Charles Archibong full circle to his heart’s desire and initial love: journalism and writing.

Lawyer, politician and judge, Charles Archibong’s book is an unspoken elegy to his first love and rebellion against the one he practised and lived out of obligation. You get the feeling that he remained a reluctant lawyer until the end.

Charles Archibong’s (2021) A Stranger in Their Midst offers exciting first-person accounts of his life as a judge of the Federal High Court sitting across locations in Nigeria. It is an unputdownable book full of wit, sarcasm, wisdom, and strong views as fitting for a judge. Archibong speaks tongue-in-cheek about several foibles but comes out hard where necessary.

A Stranger in Their Midst will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers, cause a rethink of some issues, and be a conversation starter.

Archibong served in the Federal High Court of Nigeria from 2002 until 2013. The Federal High Court is “the primary superintending forum of Nigeria’s federal system with jurisdiction over the executive activity of the federal government and its agencies.” A Stranger in Their Midst narrates some of the matters Archibong treated during his time on the bench.

The cases ranged from the abduction of then governor Chris Nwabueze Ngige of Anambra State, the recall of the Deputy Senate President, and a trial of activists of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB. There are many commercial cases. Archibong collides with senior lawyers engaged on behalf of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to conduct a significant criminal trial. Archibong enters the crossfire of feuding political bigwigs fighting to control their party structure. The conflicts were one too many for the comfort of the authorities of the Federal Court, which emphasised system maintenance and not rocking the boat.

Archibong defends his decisions and practices and makes strong statements on various issues. Samplers:

Tackling corruption. “Corruption prosecutions in Nigeria go on for years while the accusers are still looking for evidence or refuse to throw in the towel. The judges are captive to the spectacle.”

Due Process. “The provisions of the 1999 Constitution indicate that courts should be very particular about due process and consequently about the quality and provenance of evidence as it relates to a particular offence. That is why the chain of evidence in drug cases, for instance, is so important. Neither the EFCC nor any other law enforcement agency should be an investigator, prosecutor, judge (or forum picker) and executive seizing properties as they go. Constitutional safeguards have to be upheld by the courts to apply the brakes to arbitrary action of the executive.”

Media trial: “What happened to the protection of the persons of citizens and the confidentiality of their data and communication? That is what sections 35 and 36 of the 1999 Constitution are about. These are now ridiculed as technicalities. EFCC prefer media convictions to the hard slog of putting together a case. They also lean towards pressuring suspects for confessions, using embarrassing personal details accessed on their mobile devices that are not necessarily criminal.”

Olusegun Obasanjo, Bola Ajibola and Bakassi Peninsula. “There is no reason (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo and Prince Bola Ajibola should not be prosecuted for treason for handing over the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon purely for burnishing their international credentials. The National Assembly was never involved in that process. That should be a treasonable felony. With a few trips to the Hague-one small step for man- a territory was lost, and a great many displaced: a huge leap into misery for a considerable number of Nigerians in the south-eastern extremity of the country. Does any politician have the power to give away Nigerian territory singlehandedly? It is a continuing nightmare.”

Legal practice today: The NJC is not supposed to and is not equipped to review records of proceedings before the courts. Their writ is the discipline of judges and justices in relation to their conduct. It is now their preferred modus to impact on court proceedings in favour of “substantial” petitioners. This is the rot in the system; the accommodation of the desires and wishes of petitioners and their powerful patrons.”

Senior counsel? Some senior specialist counsel are now little more than articulate and smooth managers of senior jurists. They parlay close relations with ranking justices (assiduously maintained) into desired outcomes for their patrons and clients.”

A Stranger in Their Midst tackles recent Nigerian history because of the judiciary’s role. Matters come to the judiciary as an arbiter. Chapter 15 is essential reading as it contains the gravamen of the book. Justice Charles Effanga Archibong makes judicial pronouncements on the judiciary from the outside looking in and the benefit of experience.

The many cases include Erastus Akingbola/Intercontinental Bank versus EFCC, Olusegun Obasanjo versus Buruji Kashamu. The book offers a peep into the persons and politics of the judiciary as a too human institution with its foibles and Nigerianism.

Archibong as a good raconteur, infuses his personal and family narratives into the story. The reader meets his wife and children, his illustrious forebears (the Maurice Archibong family of Calabar), and the role of friends, family and bosses in his career. He gives plaudits to Justice Roseline Ukeje, his first boss and ogre, as “The person who most affected the character and content of my judicial service career. I am grateful for all she did, some of which might have been accidental. In the end, she saw good in me. I appreciate that”.

The experience with the next head of the Federal High Court was decidedly mixed. Justice Abdullahi Mustapha stood in the way of a recommendation by Justice Mariam Mukhtar for the elevation of Archibong and Justice Binta Nyako to the Court of Appeal. “Had he endorsed these 2008 recommendations, I could have still been a serving judicial officer, a justice of appeal due to retire at 70. I would have very likely avoided the controversy that inspired the same Justice Mukhtar, by then CJN, to engineer my early retirement.”

What was the controversy? The thrill of the chase (reading) is for every reader to discover.

Justice Archibong was independent and courageous. It stood him out as “a stranger in their midst”. He decried the role of the National Judicial Council for entering the fray in cases involving senior counsel. “I turned petition commentary into an art form and got immense intellectual satisfaction. The silence that followed from the NJC after each riposte was testimony to the effective drubbing I gave those attempted hit jobs. That is not the same as winning admirers up there. In the end, some would relish taking me down a peg or two. One thing I did not do was leave my duty post to fraternise with denizens of the NJC. That is a game I was temperamentally unsuited to”.

A Stranger in Their Midst is essential reading for legal practitioners, law students and informed citizens who appreciate the critical role of the judiciary.

Reviewed by Chido B. Nwakanma, School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University

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