By Emmanuel Oloniruha
Sen. Ifeanyi Ararume has described as an abuse of court process, the appeal filed by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL), seeking to upturn the judgment of a Federal High Court, which ordered his reinstatement as non-executive chairman of the Board of the newly-created NNPCL.
Araraume argued that the appeal by NNPCL was not only incompetent and lacking in merit but also a waste of the precious time of the court, which must be dismissed with a huge cost.
His position was contained in his brief of argument filed July 31 by his team of lawyers, led by Chief Chris Uche, SAN.
Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, had, in a judgment on April 18, 2023, ordered the immediate reinstatement of Araraume as NNPCL’s board chairman.
The court had, in its judgment, held that his removal after his appointment by former President Muhammadu Buhari was illegal, unlawful, unconstitutional, null, and void and had subsequently nullified the president’s action.
Besides, the court had also ordered the defendants which included Buhari, NNPCL and the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), to pay Araraume the sum of N5 billion being damages he suffered following his unlawful removal as NNPCL’s board chairman.
In addition, the court had declared as a nullity all decisions and actions taken so far by the board in the absence of Araraume.
Dissatisfied by the judgment, NNPCL had approached the Court of Appeal, Abuja, to challenge the decisions and orders of Justice Ekwo of the Federal High Court delivered on April 18.
The NNPCL, in its appellant’s brief of argument, dated June 30, but filed July 3, presented 18 grounds upon which it was challenging the entire decision of the trial court.
Specifically, the appellant through its lead counsel, Mr Yusuf Ali, SAN, urged the appellate court to set aside the judgment in favour of Araraume because the trial court lacked the requisite jurisdiction to entertain the suit, having been statute barred.
He averred that the trial court misled and mis-applied the relevant statutory provisions which led it to the wrong decisions; that Araraume failed to adduce convincing, believable, cogent and compelling evidence in support of his suit; and that the trial court ought not to have entertained the suit, which was filed via originating summons.
The appellant argued that the trial judge erred in law in holding that the president was wrong in removing Araraume as Board Chairman, adding that the constitution, PIA, 2021 as well as the NNPCL’s Memorandum and Article of Association, “give the power to appoint and remove the the Non-Executive Chairman of the appellant to the 2nd respondent, under the long established and judicially settled principle of he who have the power to hire can fire.”
In addition, the appellant submitted that where a person’s appointment is removed by the person who confirmed the said appointment, such person is not bound to give reason in the letter of termination/ removal as done in this case.
The appellant noted that where the person who confirmed the appointment chose not to give reason for his action, “it is not for the court to embark on a voyage of discovery and import reasons or motive for the termination of the appointment.”
Similarly, NNPCL argued that the trial court erred in its interpretation of the constitution, Petroleum Industry Act, 2021, Section 288 of the Company and Allied Matter Act, to the extent that because the NNPCL was not incorporated as a statutory incorporation, the president can control the NNPCL, adding that the issue of control was never before the court.
The appellant accordingly raised six issues for determination through which it wanted the appellate court to resolve the appeal.
On the first issue, NNPCL submitted that the trial court acted requisite vires to have entertained Araraume’s suit in view of Section 254(c)(1) of the Constitution, Section 2 of the Public Officers Protection Act and Section 307 of the Petroleum Industry Act, (PIA), 2021.
According to the appellant, the trial court erred in law when it went ahead to hold that the case of the claimant was not statute barred, despite evidence that the suit was filed eight months outside the three months provided by the law.
On the second issue, NNPCL argued that the trial judge was wrong to have entertained the Araraume’s suit on Originating Summons, explaining that where facts in dispute were riotous, hostile and in conflict, Originating Summons was inappropriate.
Besides, the appellant accused Justice Ekwo of not giving them fair hearing when it refused to hear and determine their application for a stay of execution they had filed on January 20, 2023.
NNPCL claimed that at the proceedings of Jan. 23, the attention of the trial court was drawn to application for stay of execution but, “the trial court refused to hear (the) same despite the fact that its attention was drawn to it.”
Faulting the judgment of the Federal High Court, further, the appellant claimed that the trial court was wrong to have ordered Araraume’s reinstatement while at the same time awarding damage on the grounds that such amounted to double compensation.
It was also the submission of the NNPCL that the trial judge erred in law when it granted the declarative reliefs in favour of Araraume even when he did not offer cogent, reliable, believable or convincing evidence to support his claims or prove his entitlement to the claim or even disclosed any cause of action against the appellant.
They therefore urged the court to determine the appeal in their favour and set aside the judgment of Justice Ekwo delivered on April 18, 2023.
Responding, Araraume faulted the appeal for being incompetent on the grounds that the said brief of argument was filed by a non-party in the suit.
According to Araraume, there is no proper appellant before the Court of Appeal because the NNPCL that he sued is different from the Nigerian National Petroleum Company that filed the brief of argument and as such it lacked the locus standi and the legal personality of any brief of argument in this appeal or to prosecute same.
“We submit that this is not a case of misnomer, but consistent with the position and attitude of the “Appellant” as if the 2nd respondent defendant sued by the 1st respondent at the court below was still a parastatal of government.”
Meanwhile, Araraume has urged the court to dismiss the appeal with substantial cost for being a gross abuse of court process.
According to him, the trial court acted within its constitutional and statutory jurisdiction when it entertained, heard, and determined his suit against the NNPCL, then President Buhari and the CAC.
Araraume claimed that NNPCL was wrong in challenging the court’s jurisdiction on the premise that his case was a labour or employment related matter, which should be heard by the National Industrial Court.
“In view of the clear position of the 1st respondent as Director/Non-Executive Chairman of the appellant, it was wrong and incorrect to regard the 1st respondent as an employee of the appellant or employee of the 2nd respondent.”
Araraume further argued that his case arose from the operation of the appellant as a corporate entity incorporated under the CAMA, 2020.
On the issue of protection Araraume in the reply filed by his lead counsel, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, pointed out that the provisions of Section 2 of the Public Officers Protection Act and Section 307 of the PIA, 2021 were not applicable to the suit as statutes of limitation.
According to him, “an elected President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is not a Public Officer,” adding that the Public Officers Act was intended to protect the officer from detraction and unnecessary litigation but never intended to deprive a party of legal capacity to ventilate his grievance in the face of stark injustice.
Besides, Araraume submitted that the mode of commencement of the suit was appropriate being one of the interpretation of the provisions of the constitution, CAMA, 2020 and PIA, 2021, since there was no hostile or hotly contested facts.
In addition, he submitted that the necessary parties were before the court; and, as such, there was no breach of the right to fair hearing of any non-party.
“The court below was right to have granted the reliefs sought in the circumstances, (the) same having been proved in accordance with the law, and there being no defence thereto.”(NAN)
Edited by Ismail Abdulaziz