*As Court Orders NNPCL To File Reply

Hearing in a N100 billion suit instituted against President Muhammadu Buhari over alleged unlawful removal from board was for the second time stalled at the Federal High Court, Abuja on Wednesday.

The plaintiff, Senator Ifeanyi Araraume, had instituted a N100 billion suit against President Buhari, over his alleged unlawful removal as Non-Executive Chairman of the newly-incorporated Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Limited.

Besides Buhari, the NNPCL and the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) are second and third defendants respectively.

Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja, had on December 15, 2022 fixed definite hearing for January 11, after ordering all parties to file and exchange necessary processes.

Hearing in the matter could not go on during the December sitting of the court because parties were yet to be served with all necessary processes regarding the matter.

However, Wednesday’s proceedings was stalled after it was discovered that the NNPCL was yet to file its counter affidavit to the suit.

When the matter came up on Wednesday NNPCL’s lawyer, Mr Etigwe Uwa (SAN), informed the court of a preliminary objection he filed against the suit and asked the court to proceed with its hearing as its determination may likely put an end to the substantive matter.

But Araraume’s lawyer, Chris Uche, while objecting, reminded the judge of his last order; that all processes must be filed and exchanged by parties before January 11, 2023.

Uche therefore urged the court to proceed to hear the main suit as agreed upon by parties during the December 15, 2022 proceedings.

Responding, Justice Ekwo drew Uwa’s attention to the practice direction of the Federal High Court to the effect that both the substantive matter and any preliminary objection must be taken together in order to save judicial time of the court.

He accordingly declined to proceed with hearing of the preliminary objection alone and ordered the NNPCL to file its counter affidavit and serve on all parties accordingly.

Justice Ekwo subsequently fixed January 23 for definite hearing.

Araraume had asked for N100 billion as damages caused him in the alleged unlawful and unconstitutional way and manner he was removed as the NNPCL chief after using his name to incorporate the entity.

In the suit marked, FHC/ABJ/CS/691/2022, the former senator formulated four issues for determination by the court.

One of the issues was whether in view of the provisions of the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the NNPC, Companies and Allied Matters Act 2010 and the Petroleum Industry Act 2021, the office of the Non Executive Chairman is not governed and regulated by the stated provisions of the law.

Meanwhile, Buhari has filed a Notice of Preliminary Objection (NPO), challenging the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court, Abuja, to entertain the suit.

The NPO was filed on December 8, 2022, by the Acting Director, Civil Litigation and Public Law Department, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mrs Maimuna Lami Shiru.

Besides the president, the NNPCL also filed its notice of preliminary objection challenging the competence of the suit and praying the court to make an order dismissing it; or, in the alternative, make an order striking out Araraume’s originating summons dated September 12, 2022; or make such further order or orders as it (the court) may deem to make in the circumstances.

In its NPO filed on its behalf by its team of lawyers led by Konyin Ajayi (SAN), Etigwe Uwa (SAN), the second defendant amongst others, predicated its request on the grounds that Araraume’s action was statute-barred having regard of Section 2 (A) of the Public Officers Protection Act Cap P41 LFN 2004.

NNPCL further submitted that Araraume’s suit constituted an abuse of court process being one that was not supported by law, having regard to the provisions of the Interpretation Act 2004; the Petroleum Industry Act 2021; the Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2020; and the Articles of Association of NNPCL.

Besides, they averred that the suit was wrongly commenced by originating summons as the 75-paragraph affidavit in support thereof, raises inherently contentious facts; and the originating summons required proof by oral evidence; and that the plaintiff’s suit, as constituted, is incompetent, lacking in any cause of action; nor carrying any right of action, having regard to the statutory powers of the first defendant/respondent implicated in this action.

Specifically, Buhari predicated his objection on three grounds, to wit: that the removal of Araraume (the plaintiff/respondent in the suit) as the non-executive chairman of NNPCL (2nd defendant/respondent) was done in his capacity as a public officer by virtue of Section 251 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended); that the suit was a statute barred action, which offended the provisions of Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act, 2004 with respect to his administrative acts or decisions made on January 17, 2022, being a period of about seven months prior to the filing of this suit on September 12, 2022; and on the grounds that the suit amounted to an abuse of court process, which ultimately deprived the court of the jurisdiction to entertain it.

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