• Eight more judges under investigation, seven still in detention
• Suspects may be suspended
• APC, PDP disagree over SSS modus operandi
• Presidency reassures judiciary of its independence
By Iyobosa Uwugiaren, Tobi Soniyi and Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
The sting operations carried out by the Department of State Services (DSS) against some judges across the country are not over yet, as more judges will be arrested and likely prosecuted for bribe taking in the next few days or weeks, a senior intelligence officer told THISDAY in Abuja last night.
The DSS had on Friday night carried out sting operations in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe and Kano, hauling in two justices of the Supreme Court, one justice of the Court of Appeal and four other judges of the Federal High Court, suspected to have engaged in bribery and large scale corruption.
The operations, however, attracted angry reactions from the public, particularly the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), which declared a state of emergency in the judicial sector, saying the rule of law was under siege even as the National Judicial Council (NJC) meets today to deliberate on the development.
THISDAY checks close to the NJC, the body responsible for the appointment and discipline of judicial officers, suggested that the suspected judicial officers under investigation might be suspended pending the determination of the accusations against them.
Yesterday, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) joined the fray on the side of the embattled judicial officers, accusing President Muhammadu Buhari of preparing the ground for fascism by ordering the arrests of the judges.
But the Presidency in its reaction gave assurances that President Buhari reserved his highest respect for the judiciary as the third arm of government.
A statement yesterday by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, said the president would not do anything to undermine its independence.
Shehu said: “Buhari remains a committed democrat, in words and in his actions, and will not take any action in violation of the constitution.
“The recent surgical operation against some judicial officers is specifically targeted at corruption and not at the judiciary as an institution.
“In a robust democracy such as ours, there is bound to be a plurality of opinions on any given issue, but there is a convergence of views that the country has a corruption problem that needs to be corrected.”
The Presidency regretted that reports by a section of the media were giving it cause for concern.
According to it, “In undertaking the task of reporting, the media should be careful about the fault lines they open. It is wrong to present this incident as a confrontation between the executive and judicial arms of government.
“The presidency has received assurances from the DSS that all due processes of the law, including the possession of search and arrest warrants were obtained before the searches.
“To suggest that the government is acting outside the law in a dictatorial manner is to breach the interest of the state.”
THISDAY intelligence source, however, said apart from those being detained and interrogated, another eight judges, including two justices of the Supreme Court, are also being investigated for mind-boggling corruption cases.
He said a total of seven judges, including two justices of the Supreme Court — Justice John Inyang Okoro and Justice Sylvanus Ngwunta — are still being interrogated by the security services at its headquarters in Abuja and might be charged to court anytime from today.
“A total of 15 judges are being investigated by the Department of State Services and other security agencies. Seven of them are currently being interrogated at the DSS headquarters in Abuja and may be charged to court as from Monday,’’ the source stated, adding: “While another eight including one or two from the Supreme Court are still being investigated and more of the judges will be arrested in the next few days or weeks.’’
The judges being detained include: Justice Muhammad Ladan Tsamiya of the Court of Appeal; Justice Kabiru Auta in Kano; Justice Muazu Pindiga who was arrested in Gombe; the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Auta, and Justice Adeniyi Ademola.
The intelligence source said that none of the judges arrested during the DSS’ sting operations between Friday and the early hours of Saturdayhad been released.
“The seven judges being detained and interrogated have not been released; their statements are still being taken; they are cooperating with the interrogators. The interrogation is taking more time than expected because of the many questions the arrested judges need to answer,’’ the source said.
THISDAY gathered that the sting operations carried out against the suspects were the accumulation of many events, linked to “mind-boggling corrupt practices and the willingness, determination and desire by the security agents to fight corruption head-on”.
Justifying the operations of the DSS, the source said: “If not DSS who else? There is nothing unusual about the DSS’ actions; it is normal. The security institution acted within the law guarding its operations.
“The actions of the suspected judges border on national security. We are talking about huge corrupt practices and national security that are beyond the mandate of the EFCC and the ICPC.
“If we talk about democracy — from the conduct of election to election rigging; issues of foreign investments; economy and other issues that have to do with our national security, they all end up in courts. So anybody or institution that tries to undermine that institution is toying with the national security of our dear nation.’’
In the eyes of the law, the intelligence officer said, the suspects were not above the law and didn’t have immunity from being investigated or prosecuted, explaining that they were ordinary people like every other citizen.
He said the DSS acted based on petitions it received against the judges. “We have a situation where one of the judges was so foolish that he entered a departmental store to collect a bribe from a litigant. We have the evidence including video recording,’’ the source stated.
Reacting to several criticisms against the DSS’ action, the intelligence source added that the agency was ready to defend its action in competent court of law, challenging whoever felt aggrieved to take the DSS to court.
“During the sting operations, huge amount of monies, some in foreign currencies, were collected from some of the judges and they all signed the exhibits recovered in their houses. The DSS has strong evidence to charge them to court and that will be done as soon as the interrogation is concluded,’’ the source added.
Responding to the press statement by the leadership of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), which some observers said might create tension in the country, the senior intelligence officer said: “There is no tension at all. Whoever threatens national security of the nation will be dealt with.
“Gone are the days where those on the wrong side will turn around to intimidate us. That will never happen again in this country.’’
Apparently responding to the acclaimed illegality of the action of the DSS, the source said that a search warrant was obtained before the sting operations were carried out in the affected places, adding that “a warrant signed by a magistrate court can be executed even in the villa”.
PDP Condemns Arrests of Judges
Reacting to the development, the opposition PDP accused the President Buhari-led administration of displaying total disregard for the rule of law by ordering the arrests of the judicial officers.
“This invasion is the latest in a series of actions taken by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration which reveal its disregard for the rule of law and its abject disdain for the Principles of Separation of Powers,” it said in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Prince Dayo Adeyeye.
The party said by the arrests, the president had shown that he had no desire to respect the pillars of our democracy, warning that Nigerians could no longer afford to stand aside and watch the administration destroy the foundations of the country’s democracy.
The PDP alleged that Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike was assaulted by the men of the DSS during his intervention, causing him to sustain injuries on his arm.
The party warned that the nation might be witnessing a descent into fascism. “This inexorable slide into fascism began with the invasion of the Akwa Ibom State Government House by the same SSS, the continued detention of several people despite courts ordering their release, the invasion of the Ekiti State House of Assembly and detention of Hon. Akanni Afolabi and the invasion of the Zamfara State House of Assembly,” it said.
The PDP accused the federal government of disobeying court orders, saying it was further evidence that the Buhari administration was unwilling to be guided by law.
According to the party, “The government has no regard for the rule of law. They do not care about court orders. This government has disregarded the orders of the ECOWAS Court and every other court in the land and continues to detain (Col Sambo) Dasuki illegally. They continue to detain hundreds of Nigerians without bringing them to trial and against valid court orders.”
The party argued that the proper way to treat the suspected judges was to report them to the NJC for disciplinary actions if they had erred.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Constitution in Section 153(1)(i) and Part 1 of the Third Schedule thereto establishes the National Judicial Council (NJC) and empowers same to regulate and discipline judges across the country. The proper path to follow to discipline erring judges will be to forward a petition containing any wrong doing to the NJC along with any evidence in support thereof,” it said.
APC Disagrees with PDP
The All Progressives Congress (APC) said last night that the desperation of the PDP and some of its governors to drag Buhari into the circumstances surrounding the arrests of the judges was unfortunate.
“The President Muhammadu Buhari APC-led administration strictly respects the principles of the rule of law and also adheres to the constitutional provisions of separation of powers between the three arms of government,” the APC stated in a statement by its national secretary, Mr. Mai Buni.
“While the party calls on all security agencies to respect and be guided by the rule of law in carrying out its constitutional duties, the APC finds the actions of some PDP governors and the reckless unsubstantiated allegations levelled by the PDP on the president fingering him as the architect of the SSS raids curious and suspicious,” it said.
The APC said it suspected that the PDP and the Ekiti and Rivers State governors, Ayodele Fayose and Nyesom Wike, had something to hide, saying it was a red flag that security agencies must not ignore.
The ruling party added: “Meanwhile, the APC will not join issues on matters before the courts because it will be subjudice. We advise the PDP to tow the same line and allow judicial processes run their normal and legitimate course.”
Wike Picks Holes in SSS’ Allegations against Judges
Rivers State Governor Wike berated the DSS for resorting to deliberate misinformation and concocted stories to justify its “unconstitutional assault on the nation’s judiciary”.
The governor said the DSS lacked the constitutional powers to be involved in the legal process to discipline a serving judicial official, pointing out that there was a legal process that must be followed.
Addressing the people of Rivers State on Saturday night during a special dinner for the management and players of Rivers United at the Government House, Port Harcourt, Wike said: “The weak blackmail of the SSS will not lessen the crime they have committed against the Nigerian State by assaulting the judiciary,” noting that nobody was deceived by the concocted figures being circulated by the SSS.
He said: “Their blackmail stories will not move me. They will concoct all kinds of stories to justify this undemocratic illegality perpetrated against the judiciary.
“It is really unfortunate that DSS would concoct a false defence that $2 million (that is N900 million) was found in the house of the judge. It is unfortunate that the DSS is coming up with flimsy excuses.”
The governor noted that while he would not condone corruption, he would also not support any process that was targeted at ruining the nation’s judiciary.
He stated that the NJC had the responsibility to discipline erring and corrupt judges, after which indicted judicial officers were handed over to the relevant law enforcement agency for prosecution.
The governor said the police, army and other para-military agencies had their respective processes for the discipline of erring and corrupt officers.
“In the police, erring and corrupt policemen are first given orderly room trial, sacked and then appropriately prosecuted. For judicial officers, the DSS has no role,” he said.
Wike added: “This impunity must stop. I am not in support of any judicial officer being involved in corruption. What we are saying is that the right things must be done. We must not do things that will jeopardise our hard earned democracy.”
SERAP Calls for Release of Arrested Judges
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has sent an open letter to President Buhari requesting him to use his “good offices and leadership to urgently instruct the DSS to immediately and unconditionally release all the judges arrested by them and end the continuing intimidation and harassment of the judiciary”.
It said: “If following the receipt and/or publication of this letter, your government fails or refuses to immediately and unconditionally release the judges as requested, SERAP would promptly consider appropriate legal options nationally and internationally to ensure the full and effective implementation of our requests.”
SERAP’s letter dated 9 October, 2016 and signed by its Executive Director, Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, said: “We are seriously concerned about the wave of arrests, intimidation and harassment of judges across the country by the DSS. While we fully support the government’s efforts to eradicate judicial corruption, we cannot accept anti-corruption strategies and methods which patently offend the rule of law and undermine the authority, integrity, sanctity and independence of the judiciary.”
Meanwhile, a lawyer and former National Secretary of the Labour Party, Mr. Kayode Ajulo, has also condemned the arrests of some judges.
Ajulo in a statement yesterday said the SSS should have followed the judicial procedures for dealing with erring judges.
“I have canvassed several times the need to overhaul our judiciary; I recall my twin letters to the President, Muhammadu Buhari, and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, on same. However, I believe that in cleansing the judiciary of corrupt judges, proper procedures must be followed,” he said.
He added: “Yes, judges have no immunity from prosecution and discipline but I have been privileged to take part in the disciplinary procedures of some judges at the National Judicial Council to know the importance of the unique procedures.
“It is pertinent to state this: no arm of government has reviewed itself more than the judiciary and this ought to be encouraged. I believe there are procedures to be followed for any disciplinary measure against serving judges.”