• Justice Ngwuta alleges Onu also attempted to influence him, accuses DSS of planting money in his house
• Again, transport minister denies claim APC gives Justice Okoro ultimatum to withdraw bribery allegation
Tobi Soniyi and Ernest Chinwo
As the indicted judges who were recently arrested by the Department of State Services (DSS) attempt to exonerate themselves of the corruption allegations against them by blaming chieftains of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the DSS, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which at the outset of their arrest condemned the DSS, changed its position yesterday, when it asked the affected judges to recuse themselves from further judicial functions or proceed on compulsory leave, until their innocence is fully and completely established.
This came on the heels of yet another claim by Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court that the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, and Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonaya Onu, attempted to influence him during appeals challenging the outcome of the governorship elections in Rivers and Ebonyi States.
He equally claimed that he was being hounded because he refused to help them deliver favourable judgments in the election cases.
Justice Ngwuta was one of the seven judges whose homes were raided penultimate week by the DSS. He and five others were arrested and released on bail a day later.
Justice Ngwuta’s allegations also came after similar ones made by Justices Adeniyi Ademola and John Inyang Okoro against the DSS, Amaechi and the Akwa Ibom governorship candidate of the APC, Mr. Umana Umana. Amaechi and Umana, however, have strongly denied Justice Okoro’s claims.
In a letter dated October 18, 2016 to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, Ngwuta also accused the DSS of planting money in his house.
In the letter, he said he had been diagnosed with malaria and had taken some anti-malaria drugs and was already in bed when suddenly his housemaid started knocking on his door on the night of his arrest.
He said he opened the door for the operatives of the DSS, after they told him the president had sent a message to him.
In his narrative, Justice Ngwuta assumed that given the violent manner in which the operatives conducted themselves, he was under the impression that he was about to be abducted by kidnappers, until he was taken to the DSS headquarters in Abuja. He also said that he thought there had been a coup d’etat in the country.
The Supreme Court judge explained that throughout the raid on his house, he was not confronted with any allegation.
He said: “I became much more disturbed not only for myself but for the future of this great nation, Nigeria. I could not convince myself that any agency of the federal government, in a democratic setting, could for any undisclosed reason violate the rights of a Nigerian citizen, a judicial officer and justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, for that matter with such impunity.
“I thought that the democratic government had been overthrown and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) abolished or suspended.”
Justice Ngwuta described himself as a victim of his own resolve not to violate his sacred oath of office as a judicial officer. According to him, politicians and their collaborators have been hunting him on this account.
“It started in Ebonyi State where I was falsely accused before a panel set up by the NJC in August 2000. It was replicated in 2009 when I was pulled from my division, Calabar, to preside over a motion filed by Senator Andy Uba seeking to be a governor without going through the process of election. In each case I was exonerated.
“My present plight started sometime between 2013 and 2014. I represented the then Chief Justice of Nigeria in an event organised at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.
“Hon. Rotimi Amaechi came in late and sat next to me at the high table. He introduced himself to me and we exchanged contacts. A few weeks after, Fayose’s case was determined in the Court of Appeal.
“Amaechi called me by 6.45 a.m. He said he had come to see me but was told I had left for my office. When he said he would return in the evening, I demanded to know what he wanted, but he would not tell me.
“He did not come that evening but came the following morning when I was already prepared to go to work.
“He begged me to ensure that Fayose’s election was set aside and another election ordered for his friend Fayemi to contest. I told him I would not help him and that even if I am on the panel, I have only my one vote.
“After the Rivers State governorship election was determined by the Court of Appeal, he called to tell me his ears were full and he would like to tell me what he heard.
“I told him I was out of Abuja at the time. On my return, he came in the evening and even before he sat down he barked: ‘You have seen Wike.’
“I asked him whether that was a question or a statement. Then he made a call and asked me to speak with someone. The man he called said he was a DSS man. We exchanged greetings and I handed the phone to him.
“Next, he said, ‘Oga is not happy.’ I asked him who is the unhappy ‘Oga’ and he answered ‘Buhari’. I retorted, ‘Go and talk to his wife.’ He got very angry, and left, remarking ‘we shall see’ several times.
“Your Lordship may recall one morning when I pleaded not be on the panel for Rivers Appeal panel. Your Lordship said I was already on the panel and asked me to explain why I made the request to be excluded.
“When I explained what transpired the previous night, Your Lordship told me Amaechi had also attempted to influence other justices.
“My Lord, on the day we heard the appeal with your Lordship presiding, we were allowed a lunch break at 4.20 p.m. The moment I got into my chambers he, Amaechi, called. When he told me who was calling, I said to him, ‘Your Excellency, you want to issue more threats?’
“He replied, ‘Have you been threatened before?’ I replied, ‘I know a threat when I hear one even if veiled. In any case I will not talk to you,’ and I switched off my phone,” he alleged in the letter.
Continuing, Justice Ngwuta said those who failed to destroy him in Ebonyi in 2000 and in Enugu in Uba’s case in the Court of Appeal, Enugu, in 2009, “are now supplying Amaechi with information to fight me for my negative response to his demands, especially my answer to his statement that ‘Oga was not happy’.”
Justice Ngwuta claimed this assertion infuriated Amaechi and as he stormed out, he (Amaechi) threated he would deal with the situation.
The judge also narrated how Dr. Onu pleaded with him to give judgment in favour of the Labour Party (LP) candidate who the science and technology minister informed him wanted to cross to the APC.
He said: “The incident I will narrate below may or may not bear on this case. When the governorship election appeal from my state, Ebonyi, came to the Court of Appeal, one Mr. Igwenyi, a senior staff of the Federal Judicial Service Commission came to my chambers and told me that the former governor of Abia State, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, had pleaded with him to convince me to see him, Dr. Onu.
“I asked him to call Dr. Onu; he did and I wanted to know why he wanted to see me. He said it was confidential. I asked when he wanted to see me and he said he would like me to come in the evening.
“I told Igwenyi that he would have to take me to Dr. Onu’s place in his car and bring me back. I had wanted him to listen to what Dr. Onu had to say, but when we arrived, Dr. Onu put him in a different room.
“He asked me whether I knew the Hon. President of the Court of Appeal and I told him that His Lordship was my presiding justice in the Court of Appeal, Benin Division. He asked of my relationship with the PJA and I said it was cordial. He nodded his head several times in apparent satisfaction.
“He told me that the candidate of the Labour Party was ready to switch over to APC if he could help him win the appeal in the Court of Appeal and that in appreciation of the undertaking to come over to his party, he had obtained the services of three Justices of the Court of Appeal to ensure victory for Labour Party.
“He said he needed one to convince the PJA to include his three Justices of the Court of Appeal in the five-man panel to hear the appeal. I told him I would not help him and that I could not in good conscience convey such request even to a Customary Court Judge.
“He was disappointed and asked me whether I knew the husband of the PJA. I told him I did not know the man. I bade him good night and left. Igwenyi joined me in the passage and when he drove me back to my home I told him what Dr. Onu wanted.
“Igwenyi apologised to me and assured me that he would not have bothered me if he had known what Dr. Onu wanted me to do.”
On the money allegedly recovered from his house, Justice Ngwuta said: “One of them (DSS operatives) saw the sum of forty thousand naira (N40,000.00) and one thousand naira notes in one of the drawers.
“He was excited and called their lead who saw the money and said, ‘This is not the kind of money we came to pick.’ They left the N40,000.
“In the next bedroom, I lay on the bed out of sight of the wardrobe from which they brought some boxes and brief cases and travelling bags. All the bags and briefcases and travelling bags except one contained only magazines, papers and some old clothing. Some were empty.
“Only one small bag was locked with a padlock and this was the only bag that contained money. They directed me to come over and remove the padlock. I retrieved the key from the side pocket of the bag and removed the padlock and returned to my bed.
“They put the bags together by the toilet door. They called me again and asked me whether the bags were my property and I answered they were my property. None of the bags were either opened in my presence or in the presence of my housemaid who was the only person in the house with me at all material times.
“Some of them stayed in the room while I took them to my study. At this time I became very dizzy and I had to return to lie down on a seat in the parlour and a man with a gun and a facemask stood over me while I dozed.
“He followed me each time I went to the toilet. Another one followed my housemaid each time I asked her for water. There was no way out of the house. They were at all doors. Those searching and those outside the house went into the house through the main door, kitchen door and back doors.
“They went in and out of every room including the room in which the bags were kept. I dozed intermittently but my house girl was kept sitting on the steps and was able to observe them coming through the kitchen door but she could not see those who came from back doors, took the second steps and went in and out of the rooms on the upper floor.
“After many hours they came down to the sitting room downstairs and told me they were going to bring down the bags. I was speechless when I saw them bringing out huge bundles of different currencies from the bags that had contained only magazine papers and old clothes and some were empty.
“Some were contained in multi-coloured plastic bags which they tore and discarded. They put the money in different bags and brief cases and then proceeded to count a large amount of N5, N10, N20 and N50 notes which was the change I returned each time I went to shop over the years.
“They kept waking me up to ask how I came about the small denomination of naira notes. No one asked me any question about the huge sums of money they put in the bags.”
He said he signed the document shown to him because he needed to stay alive to tell his story.
He added: “Confronted with the life-threatening situation, I made an instant mental decision that it was better for me to comply with their orders and stay alive to tell my story rather than get shot and killed on the pretext that I attacked them or that I tried to escape.
“I signed the paper and wrote my name as ordered. No one told me what offence I was alleged to have committed. No one told me of any petition or allegation against me.”
According to him, the only bag that contained money was the small bag he locked with a padlock which he said he unlocked when ordered to do so.
He said: “The bag contained the sum of $25,000, £10, and a brown envelope containing the sum of N710,000, which was a monthly allowance paid to me for September 2016.
“In the brief case, which I carry to my office daily, I had the sum of N300,000 and some loose change. The above are the only sums of money taken from me along with my phones, papers and other household items.
“I do not know how they came about the huge sums of money I saw for the first time in my parlour in the early hours of Saturday, 8th October, 2016.
“The various sums of money alleged to have been recovered from me was said to be on the social media in the early hours of Saturday, 8th October, 2016 when the invaders were yet to complete their search.”
Justice Ngwuta added that he had been subjected to visits to the DSS offices since the raid on his house and arrest.
He said he was made to stay idle for a whole day, without food or even water, adding: “On 17th October, 2016 I went to the DSS office to collect my passports as directed.
“I was to be there by 10 a.m. but I arrived by 9.30 a.m. and I was assured that I would return to my office in no time. I was kept there till 3.45 p.m. before I was questioned on the passports till 5.00 p.m.
“After that, one of them took the passports to his boss. He returned an hour later, handed me my passports and told me he had finished with me, but that only the man in whose office I was in could let me go.
“I was only allowed to go about 10 p.m. with a warning to report at 10 a.m. on 18th October 2016. From 9.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. I was not given water or food.”
Again, Amaechi Denies Allegation
But in a swift reaction to Justice Ngwuta’s claim, Amaechi’s media office denied it, describing it as a figment of his imagination.
A statement from the office said: “Our attention has been drawn to the allegations levelled against Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transportation, by Supreme Court Justice, The Honourable Justice Sylvester Ngwuta. In response we state that:
“The Hon. Justice Ngwuta’s allegation as it concerns Amaechi is nothing but pure fiction, a dubious diversionary tale concocted to muddle the very serious issues of his arrest and investigation by the Department of State Services (DSS).
“For emphasis, we want to state categorically that Amaechi did not and has never tried to lobby, induce or make the Hon. Justice Ngwuta to influence the outcome of any matter before the Supreme Court or any other court.
“The Hon. Justice Ngwuta’s narrative as it concerns Amaechi is simply not true, an unadulterated fallacy designed to deceive and distract from the real issues of DSS investigation of acts of corruption against him.
“It’s indeed very sad and most unfortunate that the Hon. Justice Ngwuta has decided to drag the name of the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), into his fabricated allegations.
“Again, We make bold to state that Amaechi did not and has never lobbied, approached or attempted to make the CJN or any other justice of the apex court to influence the Supreme Court judgment on the Rivers State and Ekiti State governorship elections petition appeals or any other matter before the apex court or any other court.”
The media office said within a space of 48 hours, it had observed a carefully planned and coordinated political attempt to drag Amaechi into the DSS arrest and investigation of judges in Nigeria.
“The aim of the plot is two-fold: to smear and politically destroy the image and reputation of Amaechi and deceitfully portray him as the person behind the arrest of judges. This is indeed most ridiculous and callous.
“We are aware of a well timed, heavily funded plot to ‘take out’ Amaechi politically, and it appears that Justice Ngwuta and Justice Inyang Okoro (of the Supreme Court, who had also made similar made-up allegations against Amaechi), have wittingly or unwittingly been conscripted into this devious politics of ‘destroy Amaechi by all means’.
“Amaechi is not and cannot be behind the arrest and investigation of the Hon. Justice Ngwuta. He should kindly leave Amaechi alone and face the issues he has with the DSS.
“Amaechi is talking with his lawyers and will explore lawful channels to seek redress for this gross defamation against his character and person,” the media office added.
NBA Asks Indicted Judges to Step Aside
However, as the accusations and counter-accusations continued to fly between the judges and chieftains of the APC, the NBA yesterday asked the affected judges to recuse themselves from further judicial functions or proceed on compulsory leave, until their innocence is fully and completely established.
NBA made its position known in Abuja at a valedictory court session held in honour of a retiring justice of the Court of Appeal, Justice Sotonye Denton-West.
The association also called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to take very urgent steps to restore the sanctity of the courts.
The President of the association, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), said the NBA was asking the judges to step down in order to protect the sanctity and integrity of the judiciary as well as the judicial process.
“My Lords, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, permit me to digress a little. I am sure that many here will be expecting me to make further statements on the ongoing events affecting the nation’s judiciary.
“I have in the course of the last two weeks or so made several statements and remarks on these developments. Our position is therefore well known.
“We have emphasised our commitment to safeguarding the independence of the nation’s judiciary. We have also spoken firmly on our commitment to rid the judiciary and indeed the bar of all corrupt elements.
“I will like to say we remain resolute on these. In the course of the last several days, the NBA has continued to hold high-level consultations with all segments of the bar and other stakeholders and indeed the administration on how to address what has obviously become a major concern to all Nigerians within and outside the country.
“That is corruption in the judiciary. On Thursday, 13th of October at the meeting of bar leaders comprising past NBA presidents, past general secretaries and past Attorneys-General of the Federation, we reviewed very carefully the developments after listening to detailed briefings from both the Attorney General and Minister of Justice as well the Secretary of the National Judicial Council.
“One of the resolutions we took was to set up a task force to urgently review the current developments and come up with clear specific recommendations on how best to clean up the nation’s judiciary and rebuild confidence of Nigerians in our law courts.
“I am expecting the report of that task force in two weeks. In the meantime, we have continued with our consultations and engagements. We will be coming up with bold and clear recommendations, which we will pass to the National Judicial Council and the government.
“In the interim, however, particularly having regards to what appears to be an ongoing accusations and counter-accusations between some of the judges and other personalities or agencies, it appears to the NBA that it is extremely important that the NJC takes very urgent steps to safeguard the public image and sanctity of the courts.
“We therefore strongly recommend that, without prejudice to the innocence or otherwise of the judges involved in the ongoing investigations, they should be required to recuse themselves from further judicial functions or required to proceed on compulsory leave until their innocence is fully and completely established or until the conclusion of all judicial or disciplinary proceedings.
“We believe this will be necessary in order to protect the sanctity and integrity of judicial processes that may involve the judges concerned and safeguard the public image of the institution,” he said.
Other than Justices Okoro and Ngwuta, other judges whose homes were raided by the DSS included Justices Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Kabir Auta of the Kano High Court, Mu’azu Pindiga of the Gombe High Court, Mohammed Tsamiya of the Court of Appeal in Ilorin, and the Chief Judge of Enugu State, I. A. Umezulike.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is also probing some judges allegedly involved in corrupt practices.
Justice Denton-West, in her valedictory speech, said she was also a victim of corruption in the judiciary.
Denton-West, who was the first female judge in Rivers State, said: “I would be failing in my duties as a senior citizen of this country, if I fail to comment on the recent goings in the judiciary.
“Indeed I know and believe that there is corruption, unfortunately, even in the folds of the judiciary. I have personally been a victim of corrupt acts from the judiciary on some occasions.”
Without being specific on her allegation, she said that judges’ workload was quite heavy and called on the authorities to increase the enumeration of judges.
Dignitaries at the event included Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State.
Ultimatum for Justice Okoro
Meanwhile, the APC in Rivers State has given Justice Okoro one week to withdraw the bribery allegation he made against Amaechi, or be ready to go to jail for contravening the Corrupt Practices And Other Related Offence Act.
The demand was contained in a statement issued yesterday in Port Harcourt and signed by the state APC chairman, Dr. Davies Ikanya.
The statement berated Justice Okoro for his “wild and baseless allegation as contained in his letter to the National Judicial Council, following his recent arrest by the Department of State Service for alleged corruption”.
The party noted that while the judgment in the Rivers State governorship election dispute was given by the Supreme Court on January 27, 2015, Justice Okoro in his letter to the NJC claimed that Amaechi tried to bribe him on February 1, 2015, to influence a ruling made four days earlier and nine months after to alert the public about the alleged bribery attempt!
“One does not need a soothsayer to see that Justice Okoro is very confused and thinks that by mentioning the name of Amaechi in his letter, he would deceive Nigerians and play down the gravity of his sins and crimes against Rivers State people and Nigeria as a whole,” Ikanya said.
Continuing, the statement said: “If we may ask Justice Okoro, why should Amaechi or anybody attempt to bribe him for an election upturned by both the Tribunal and the Appeal Court?
“An election widely condemned by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the international community and both local and foreign observers who monitored the shambolic exercise in the course of which over 200 of our members were slaughtered like chicken just to install Chief Nyesom Wike of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in power at all cost?”
The Rivers APC drew Justice Okoro’s attention to the provisions of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offence Act, which makes failure to report bribery or a bribery attempt a crime that attracts both a fine and a jail term.
“For failing to report the fictional bribery attempt by Amaechi, Justice Okoro has committed an offence that attracts up to two years imprisonment.
“We are hereby giving him one week to retract his worthless and satanic letter and apologise to Amaechi, or we may be forced to set in motion a machinery to invoke the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offence Act,” he warned.