Like a bad dream, the Nigerian legal community woke up to the unpleasant news of the mass arrest of Judges and Justices across the country by masked security operatives, said to be men of the Directorate of State Services (DSS).
The swift ‘sting’ operation which took place between Friday night and the early hours of Saturday morning across the country, saw men of the DSS raid the residences of Supreme Court Justices and Federal High Court Judges, where the DSS claims that huge amounts of cash, both in Naira and foreign currencies, and sensitive documents were allegedly recovered.
THIS DAY LAWYER’s investigation revealed that this development may not be unconnected to the tussle in the nation’s apex court. There have been speculations for quite a while that, there were serious efforts to stop Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen from becoming the next Chief Justice of Nigeria. Onnoghen occupies the number two position in the nation’s judiciary as the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court. As is the usual practice, ascension to CJN is done by hierarchy. But Onnoghen is from the South-South part of the country. The core North are said to be uncomfortable with a CJN from any part of the south for now. That if Onnoghen is somehow rooted out, the next two Justices in line for CJN are from the North. Be that as it may, Onnoghen’s recommendation for the position of CJN is be considered by the NJC this week.
It is a matter of record that the last Chief Justice of Nigeria from the South was Honourable Justice Ayo Irikefe, whose tenure was from 1985-1987 and for the past 29 years, no CJN has been appointed from the south-south or the south-west. This has been said to be the source of controversy at the apex court.
It was initially reported that Honourable Justice Onnoghen was also affected by the DSS exercise. However, Ahuraka Isah, Media Aide to the CJN, later confirmed that Onnoghen was not among the arrested Justices. Naturally, anxiety and uneasiness were palpable in the Nigerian legal community over the weekend as the unsettling scenario played out. The NJC had also not helped matters by submitting three names instead of one, to the National Assembly to replace the outgoing CJN. But former NBA President, Mr. J.B. Daudu SAN said that the list of three names forwarded to the National Assembly for screening for the office of CJN is not unusual, as the NJC had done it before, depending on the circumstances.
It was reported that two Supreme Court Justices, Honourable Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro, were arrested by the DSS operatives at their residences in Abuja. Likewise, the residence of a Judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, Adeniyi Ademola was also raided and he was also arrested. Honourable Justice Nnamdi Dimgba also of the Federal High Court, Abuja, and Ademola’s neighbour, was also affected, in that his home was also ransacked. Another Judge of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt Division was not left out of the raiding and arresting spree, as his house was stormed by the DSS. Apparently, but for the timely intervention of the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, who was reportedly manhandled by the DSS operatives, he would also have been carted away unceremoniously like his colleagues. The DSS were frustrated by the intervention of Wike, claiming that he obstructed justice, by assisting the Judge (with the aid of thugs) to move $2 million cash, money which the DSS had had information was within the Judge’s home.
A member of the National Judicial Council (NJC) said the arrests could be in relation to the Buhari administration’s fight against corruption, which according to him, is just being taken to the third arm of government, the Judiciary. The DSS claims that the arrests were made as a result of various allegations of corruption and misconduct levelled against the Judges. On further investigation, the Presidential Committee on Anti-Corruption claimed to have no knowledge of the goings-on.
The raids were carried out in Abuja, Sokoto, Port Harcourt, Kano, Enugu and Gombe (Honourable Justice Muazu Pindigi who served on the Electoral Tribunal in Rivers State) and the total number of Judges affected by the exercise could not be ascertained as at Saturday afternoon.
However, in a swift reaction, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. A.B. Mahmoud SAN addressed the media on Saturday afternoon at the Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.
The NBA President restated some of the facts of the arrest and said that he had been reliably informed that the raids are still ongoing and that it had become necessary for the NBA to as a matter of urgency to take a stand on the embarrassing situation. Mahmoud addressed the media in the company of former NBA Presidents, including Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, Mr. J.B. Daudu SAN, Dr Olisa Agbakoba SAN and Mr. Augustine Alegeh SAN. Other senior lawyers and bar leaders present included Mallam Yusuf Ali SAN, Deacon Dele Adesina SAN, Dr. Konyin Ajayi SAN, Mr. Kemi Pinheiro SAN, NBA 2nd Vice President, Mr. Monday Ubani and the Executive Director of Administration of the NBA National Secretariat, Mrs. Ifueko Alufokhai.
Mahmoud said ‘we have watched with serious concern the unfolding situation in the country where senior judicial officers’ residences were raided last night and they were forcefully taken away in a brazen manner’.
‘This has never happened in this country and calls for concern’. The NBA opined that the DSS failed to follow due process in effecting the arrests of these Judges and Justices. Some senior lawyers feared that Nigeria is fast slipping into a Totalitarian State.
The NBA thereby resolved and stated in clear terms as follows:-
• That President Muhammadu Buhari should as a matter of urgency call the security agencies to order.
• That all the judges and justices so arrested should be released forthwith.
• We hereby declare a state of emergency in the Judiciary and the legal profession.
• If our demands are not met, it spells grave consequences for the nation.
• We hereby constitute a Crisis Response and Management Team comprising of all past presidents and general secretaries of the association, to continuously examine the situation as it unfolds and advice the association accordingly.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria who preferred not to be named said ‘This is a serious embarrassment and utmost humiliation for the nation’s judiciary and a dangerous signal that our democracy could be imperiled’.
‘Why were these raids carried out at night? Why couldn’t the judges have been invited to come to the DSS offices on their own? There appears to be a clear intention to humiliate, denigrate and rubbish the judiciary.’
That there are laid down procedures to be followed via the NJC in matters such as this.
However, those in support of Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade have welcomed this move by DSS against the Judiciary, saying that it is unimaginable that Judges could be in possession of such huge sums of money in their homes. They are calling for the prosecution of the Judges and Justices to the fullest extent of the law, to serve as an example and deterrent to others who may be treading the path of corruption. They are of the opinion that the NJC is in the habit of giving erring Judges the easy way out, by simply removing/retiring them, instead of recommending them for criminal prosecution, if, indeed, a crime has actually been committed.
Supporters of the anti-corruption crusade say that Judges are not above the law. For instance, in May 2014, the FBI arrested a Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge, Manuel Acevedo Hernandez, on suspicion of accepting bribes to acquit a man who was charged in a fatal drunk driving case. He was suspended pending the outcome of the investigation and placed under house arrest. Similarly, nine Philadelphia Traffic Court Judges between 2008 and 2011 were arrested for various corruption charges. Some of them faced over 400 years prison time.
They say that in the event of the unlawful arrest or detention of any of the Judges, Section 35(6) of the 1999 Constitution protects the rights of such a person as it provides that “Any person who is unlawfully arrested or detained shall be entitled to compensation and a public apology from the appropriate authority or person, and in this subsection, “the appropriate authority or person” means an authority or person specified by law.” The question is whether a reputation that has been tarnished, as in the case of some of the Judges that may be innocent, can ever be restored?
It is imperative that due process must always be followed and the rule of law must always prevail. Apparently, in the case of Honourable Justice Dimgba, his house was ransacked, when infact, the DSS did not have a warrant to search his house. He was not arrested. But there were reports that his brother was assaulted by the DSS operatives. Is Nigeria becoming a Police State?
The actions of the DSS has affected the dignity of the Judiciary and may be likely to cause a loss of confidence in the Judiciary.
Additional Report by Jude Igbanoi