Counting the kidnapped and the killed among Nigeria’s judges, lawyers

To survive in Nigeria’s legal profession these days, practitioners and judges require skills in the martial arts; nimbleness of feet on an Olympian scale; weapons handling; not to mention advanced training in subterfuge. Sadly, these are not offered on the curriculum of the Nigerian Law School nor in judicial orientation.

Even with these skills reinforced by a wing and a prayer, being connected with the business of the legal process in Nigeria today is often life endangering.

In August 2015, Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) announced that they had arrested members of a kidnapping syndicate who were about to abduct judges sitting on election petitions in Owerri, capital of Imo state. They named the leader of that syndicate as one Chibueze Henry, who went by the operational alias, Vampire. Charges followed against Vampire and his gang whose trial began in Owerri, the following year.

Now, the High Court in Owerri occupies a prominent piece of real estate, a shouting distance between the office of the State Governor and the headquarters of the Imo State Police Command. Entrance into the premises is controlled by gates, managed by security people who are public officials. In one of the court halls on this premises, the trial of Vampire and his gang was scheduled to continue on the morning of 27 January, 2017.

As officials of the Nigeria Prison Service (as it was then called) drove into the court premises, a black Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) at the back of the convoy, sped past them, stopping suddenly. A horde of men armed with assault rifles jumped down from the SUV and started shooting indiscriminately.
As judges, court personnel, lawyers, and court users scampered, the attackers liberated Vampire who fled along with up to 29 other detainees. The attack killed at least two persons, leaving many others injured.

Imo State, where this incident occurred, had been a site of targeted violence against judges and lawyers for over a decade. In March 2011, high court judges in the state embarked on a strike to protest the abduction of one their colleagues, Theophilus Nzekwe. He was not the first.

One year earlier, the judge-president of the state’s Customary Court of Appeal, Ambrose Egu; and senior Magistrate, Pauline Njemanze, were abducted near the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport near Owerri on official duties.

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