The crisis over who is the de facto chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) took a new dimension Tuesday, in the courtroom when senior lawyers disagreed over who was actually briefed by the clients.
The disagreement among lawyers over who should represent Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau State and two others eventually stalled proceedings in the suit filed by Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, seeking to stop Jang from parading himself as the chairman of the NGF.
Fashola had sued Jang following the crisis generated by the NGF's election in which the Rivers State Governor, Chibuike Amaechi, defeated Jang after polling 19 votes as against Jang’s 16 votes.
Fashola is seeking among others, an order restraining Jang from parading himself as chairman of the forum on the grounds that Amaechi won the election.
He is also asking for an order restraining Osaro Onaiwu from acting as the forum's sole administrator.
The defendants include Jang, Asishana Bayo Okauru, the forum's director general, Onaiwu and the forum’s registered trustees.
However, when the matter came up yesterday, two Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) Paul Erokoro and Tayo Oyetibo, disagreed over who should represent Jang and Onaiwu.
A similar disagreement between Awa Kalu (SAN) and F.N. Nwosu, on who should represent the registered trustees stalled proceedings.
At the mention of the case, Professor Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), accompanied by Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), announced appearance for the plaintiff.
Oyetibo, accompanied by Matthew Burkaa, announced appearance for Jang and Onaiwu. Erokoro also announced for the same parties.
While Kalu announced for Okauru and the trustees, Nwosu also announced appearance for the trustees.
But the claims by Oyetibo and Erokoro as appearing separately for Jang and Onaiwu, and Kalu and Nwosu appearing separately for the trustees, sparked an argument that lasted about 30 minutes, with each lawyer claiming to have been validly instructed.
At some point, Osinbajo opposed the suggestion that the case be stood down for sometime to enable the lawyers sort themselves out.
He urged the court to strike out the processes filed for Jang and the trustees because the filing of two different processes for a party amounted to an abuse of the court process. “This is the same confusion in the governors' forum,” he noted.
However, the trial judge, Justice Peter Affen, said it had not reached the stage where the documents filed separately by the two sets of lawyers for Jang and the trustees would be struck out. He advised the lawyers to resolve the disagreement amicably.
The judge said: “We are in the spotlight again, both the bar and the bench. We should not allow acts that will further erode our credibility.
“Let us not be caught by the problem of the governors' forum. They did not resolve their problem amicably, that is why we are here. We should amicably resolve ours.”
In a short ruling afterwards, the judge held that there was an obvious conflict in the representation of the first (Jang), third (Onaiwu) and the fourth (the trustees) defendants.
“I will grant an adjournment to enable the counsels resolve this conflict,” the judge held and adjourned to July 3.
However, it was learnt that Oyetibo and Erokoro would team up to represent Jang and Onaiwu.
Impeccable sources within the Jang-led faction said the confusion in legal representation was caused by some loyalists to the Plateau governor, who briefed Erokoro on behalf of Jang.
The source said the matter had been resolved with Oyetibo as the lead counsel.
Jang and Onaiwu have filed preliminary objections and statement of defence to the suit.
They had asked the court to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the court lacked the jurisdiction to hear it, that the suit was frivolous, and that the plaintiff lacked the necessary right to sue.
Jang, who gave details of what transpired at the May 24 meeting of the NGF, insisted that he remained the forum’s true leader.
Jang had argued that since Fashola did not contest the election for the NGF chairmanship, he lacked the legal right to institute or sustain the action.
According to him, Amaechi whom Fashola claimed won the election had not complained to the court that his mandate had been usurped neither was he joined as party to the suit.