Tobi Soniyi, Senator Iroegbu, Paul Obi in Abuja, Victor Olakiitan in Ado Ekiti, Segun Awofadeji in Gombe and Shola Oyeyipo in Lagos
The Department of State Services on Saturday arrested some judges after an unprecedented sting operation launched almost simultaneously in different states and Abuja that targeted judicial officers accused of involvement in corrupt practices. But it was an operation that was widely described as a usurpation of the job of the National Judicial Council, which is statutorily responsible for the appointment, promotion, and discipline of judges in the country.
The DSS said it had credible intelligence on the illicit activities of the judges, which it investigated before cracking down on them. Those arrested included two Supreme Court justices, Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro, and two judges of the Federal High Court, Adeniyi Ademola (Abuja Division) and Muazu Pindiga (Gombe Division).The house of another judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, was also raided, but he was not arrested.
The DSS said it recovered huge amount of cash in different currencies from three of the arrested judges totaling N362, 519,611 (at the prevailing exchange rates).
The operatives also raided the houses of judges already sent packing by the NJC. The house of the former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I.A. Umezulike, was raided in Enugu, while that of a former judge of Kano State High Court, Kabiru Auta, was raided in Kano. Both judges were dismissed last week by the NJC.
Ngwuta and Pindiga were later released.
An eyewitness told THISDAY that the State Security Service operatives initially mistook the house of Justice Walter Onnoghen for that of Ngwuta and had gone there with a list of the targeted judges before someone checked the list and saw that Onnoghen’s name was not on it. The operatives were, consequently, informed them that the house was not that of Ngwuta, who was number one on the list, and they left Onnoghen’s house immediately, the source said. The source could not confirm if Ngwuta lives close to Onnoghen.
The crackdown on allegedly corrupt judges was unprecedented in the country’s history, particularly since the return to civil rule in 1999, and it, expectedly, elicited loud reactions from various groups and individuals. The Nigerian Bar Association declared what it called a legal state of emergency in response to the clampdown on judges, which it saw as reminiscent of the style of the country’s past military rulers.
The NBA called on President Muhammadu Buhari to call the DSS to order and demanded the immediate release of all judges arrested. The body also declared a state of emergency as it affects the affairs of the judiciary and announced the constitution of a crisis management team, comprising all past presidents of the association.
Some insinuated that the crackdown might have been targeted at Onnoghen.
Onnoghen was last week recommended to the NJC by the Federal Judicial Service Commission for further recommendation to President Muhammadu Buhari as the next Chief Justice of Nigeria after Justice Mahmud Mohammed, who will retire on November 10 at the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Cross River-born Onnoghen would be the first CJN from southern Nigeria in 29 years, after Justice Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, who served from 1985 to 1987. And unlike many CJNs in recent times whose appointments came very close to their retirement from the Bench, Onnoghen, born December 22, 1950, has a relatively long time to serve before the official retirement age of 70. The insinuation in some quarters was that Onnoghen’s name had been craftily dragged into the anticorruption clampdown to try to smear him and prevent his appointment as CJN.
But the DSS said in a statement saturday that Onnoghen was not in any way connected with the anti-graft raids. The statement signed by Abdullahi Garba said, “The Service would want to clearly state that it has never invited Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen for investigation, neither is he being investigated by this Service. In addition the Service would like to put it on record, that it has tremendous respect for the judiciary and would not do anything to undermine it or its activities.”
The DSS also tried to defend itself against allegations of highhandedness in the crackdown, which targeted judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and High Courts at their homes in Abuja and some state capitals, including Gombe and Port Harcourt. An attempt by a combined team of DSS operatives and officers of the Nigeria Police to search the Port Harcourt house of Justice Mohammed Liman of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, and, perhaps, also arrest him was fiercely resisted by the judge and Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike. Wike accused the security operatives of trying to abduct the judge about 1am yesterday.
The governor told journalists after the failed security operation at Liman’s house, “Not under my watch will I allow this kind of impunity to take place. That is why we are here. I don’t know which judge they were detailed to abduct. I didn’t bother myself to know which judge. All I am interested in is that, at this level, it is not allowed.
“He is not a criminal and he is not an armed robber. If the person has committed an offence, invite him. It is only when he refuses to honour the invitation that you can adopt this commando style.”
But DSS said in its statement that the raid on the judges’ houses followed due process.
According to the statement, “These operations were based on allegations of corruptions and other acts of professional misconduct by a few of the suspected judges. The Service action is in line with its core mandate, as we have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgement obtained fraudulently and on the basis amounts of money paid.
“The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of Naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.
“Meanwhile, some of them have made useful statements while a few have declined even with the glaring evidences that were found against them in terms of material cash, documents and property recovered pointing to their compromise.”
In apparent reference to the Port Harcourt incident, DSS stated, “In one of the states where the Service operations were conducted, credible intelligence revealed that the judge had two million United States Dollars ($2,000,000 USD) stashed in his house. When he was approached for due search to be conducted, he in concert with the state governor, mobilised thugs against the Service team. The team restrained itself in the face of unbridled provocative activities by those brought in by the governor. Unfortunately, the judge and governor also engaged the tacit support of a sister security agency.
“The Service surveillance team noticed that upon frustrating the operation, the judge with the active support of the governor craftily moved the money to an unknown location which the Service is currently making effort to unravel.”
The DSS said it recovered huge sums of money in local and foreign currencies from the homes of three of the judges. It summarised the recovered funds as N93.558 million, $530,087, £25,970, and €5,680.
But a source close to the DSS gave the amounts recovered from one of the three judges as N54 million, $171, 779, £80, Rupees 1,010.00, €4,400.00. The following, N35.208 million, $319,475, £25,890, €280, 380 UAE currency, 420 Gambia Dalais, 4 Argentine notes, and 20 Ghana Cedis was recovered from a second judge, while N4.35 million, $38,833, £25,890, and €1,000 was taken from the third judge, the source said. He gave a breakdown of the recovered money as $530,087, £25,970, €5,680, N93.558, 1,010 Rupees, 380UAE currency, 430Gambia Dalais, 4 Argentine notes, and 20 Ghana Cedis
Meanwhile, the NJC has summoned an emergency meeting for tomorrow to consider Onnoghen’s recommendation for appointment as CJN as well as the Gestapo style arrest of the judges. Many have said that the council should have been allowed to handle the discipline of the judges for whatever offences they are alleged to have committed. On September 30, NJC fired the Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya, the Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I. A. Umezulike, and a judge of the Kano State High Court, Justice Kabiru M. Auta, for breaching the Codes of Conduct for Judicial Officers.
Reactions have continued to trail the arrest of the judges.
NBA President, Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud, said: “I want to emphasise again that we are not under military rule and we cannot accept this unholy event and Gestapo-style operation.
“We, therefore, call on President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately caution all the state security agencies and to respect the rule of law and to respect due process.
“Any issues affecting the judicial officers, there are established procedures for handling them and we demand that this constitutional process must be obeyed.”
Mahmoud, who addressed the press alongside four past presidents of the Association – Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Mr. J.B. Daudu (SAN) and Augustine Alegeh (SAN) – said: “Given the unfolding nature of the event and the seriousness of the situation, the NBA hereby declares a state of emergency as it affects the affairs of the judiciary and I hereby constitute a crisis management team, comprising all past presidents of the association.
“I want to, on behalf of the association, make the very following clear and unequivocal demands: we demand the immediate and unconditional release of all the judges abducted from about 9pm yesterday (Friday).
“The release must be done immediately and without any conditions. Two, we demand that the Department of State Services should limit itself to its statutory and constitutional responsibilities.
“I’ll be meeting with the CJN later tonight or monday. There will be consequences if these demands are not met.”
Others in attendance during the NBA declaration, which held at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, were Prof. Kayinsola Ajayi (SAN), Mr. Yusuf Ali (SAN), Mr. Dele Adesina (SAN), Monday Ubani, among others.
Reacting to the development, Ekiti State Governor, Mr Ayodele Fayose, described it as a threat to the survival of the country’s democracy.
Fayose, at a press conference in Ado-Ekiti on Saturday, said, “It should now be obvious to all Nigerians and the international community that democracy is under threat in Nigeria and Nigerians must rise to save democracy from being truncated.”
The governor, who described the arrest as a direct assault on the judiciary, said: “From all intent and purposes, there is no how the federal government can justify the Gestapo and crude action of the DSS against our judiciary, the last hope of the common man and I believe they just want to hide under anti-corruption fight to blackmail and intimidate the judiciary. If not, have the affected judges been reported to the National Judicial Council, the body saddled with the responsibilities of investigating and sanctioning erring judges? Were the affected judges ever invited by the DSS and they refused to honour the invitation?
“I am particularly worried over the involvement of Justice Onnoghen in the invasion, and I hope this is not a plot to prevent his appointment as the next CJN just because he is from the South-south region.”
Noting that he had raised similar alarm in the past, Fayose said, “I did say then that democracy in Nigeria was becoming unsafe in the hands of this APC government and that those keeping silent because of politics might also end up in the belly of the roaring lion that is threatening to consume our democracy. Then, those who ought to have joined in condemning the DSS impunity at that time kept silent for fear of the unknown.
“Now we have gotten to the height of it and Nigeria faces full-blown military dictatorship! This is sad!”
He said it was more worrisome that two of the judges involved, Justice Adeniyi Ademola and Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, ruled against the DSS and condemned its impunity in the cases of former National Security Adviser (NSA), Col Sambo Dasuki (rtd), and retired Air Commodore, Umar Mohammed.
Also, the Caritas International of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) yesterday warned against any twist that could truncate the chances of Onnoghen becoming the CJN.
Speaking to journalists, Director of Caritas International, Rev. Fr Evaristus Bassey, said any attempt to politicise the ascension of Onnoghen to the office of the CJN would not be taken lightly by Nigerians.
According to Bassey, “For Justice Onnoghen, I think many Nigerians would be disappointed if there is any twist that would not make him the next chief justice.”
“People might think it is orchestrated to achieve certain aims. But if the secret service has evidence, let it be substantiated,” Bassey stressed.
The Pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, in its reaction, condemned the invasion and described it as executive lawlessness.
In a press statement saturday, Afenifere National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, said such action was an attack on the judiciary.
“Afenifere is shocked by the reported intimidation of both Supreme Court and Federal High Court judges. It is executive lawlessness and usurpation of the investigative functions of the judicial arm of government which is not done with the authority of the NJC as stipulated in our constitution.
“We are certainly descending into a deeper dictatorship trajectory than we have ever witnessed in our polity even during military interregnum. It is curious that all the Judges reportedly targeted by the DSS are all from the South which creates a tension of its own in an atmosphere that has been charged with so much sectionalism”, Odumakin lamented.
The Afenifere spokesperson expressed worry that
“If judges can come under this raw show of naked power what would be the fate of everyday citizen?”
“This is a new low never witnessed in our country and all lovers of justice, democracy and decency must condemn this barbaric act”, Odumakin noted.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, on his part,
urged the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to immediately boycott courts activities across the country.
According to him, “this is full blown dictatorship now in action.
“It is now a case of anarchists in power. The clampdown on judges has been on for a long time, through agents of government in the various institutions of oppression. We are now back to the 1984 jackboot system of intolerance, where all dissenting views and opinions must be silenced.”
The Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) said the raid on judges residences and arrest of some of them was a flagrant assault on the rule of law and interference with the integrity and independence of judges.
LEDAP in a statement signed by its National Coordinator, Chino Obiagwu, said: ” It amounts to crass intimidation of judges, which is the first line of attack of dictatorships.”
LEDAP consequently called on all lawyers, ” to rise in unison to condemn the attack on the judiciary by the executive, and in solidarity and in protest to boycott the courts next week from Monday October 10 to Friday October 14 2016 in order to send strong message to the Buhari regime that the legal profession will not stand by and watch the desecration and denigration of the judiciary.”