The Monday Discourse
The recent recrimination between some judges in the country and a section of the political class over allegation of corruption is a clear indication that this recalcitrant scourge is a hard nut to crack. Shola Oyeyipo writes
A legal luminary and immediate past National Secretary of the Labour Party (LP), Mr. Kayode Ajulo recently recalled a true life story involving the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, when he was the Premier of the old Western Region. This incident, he said happened while Awolowo was conversing with the late Chief Ladoke Akintola over a legal tussle that ensued after the government had acquired land at Idi-Ose, Oyo State for the use of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
According to him, some of the land owner families that were aggrieved with the compensation paid by the government had threatened to go to court. Akintola reported their threat to Awolowo and suggested that the matter be resolved without recourse to litigation.
But Awo, as he was otherwise called, disagreed with him and boasted that the government had solid legal team, which comprised FRA Williams (an authority on Civil Procedure), the late Remi Fani-Kayode (the best lawyer in Constitutional Law at the time) and Bode Thomas (who was versatile in Commercial Law). Thus, to Awo, who was a lawyer himself, the threat by the families was of no consequence.
Akintola was said to have retorted thus: “My leader (Awolowo), e fu’ra o. L’ooto ‘Timi mo procedure. Mo gba pe oba ni Fani ninu constitution, bee ni Thomas l’oga ninu commercial ati evidence o, sugbon awon family ti a n so yi ti gba TOS Benson. Eyin na si mo pe TOS mo Ademola o.”
What he simply implied was that although government paraded a very good team of lawyers, the relationship between a lawyer and a judge could have an effect on the judgments obtainable in any case. He emphasised to Awolowo that the aggrieved family members had employed the services of TOS Benson, who was a very close friend of Justice Adetokunbo Ademola.
Awo got the gist and promptly opted for out-of-court settlement because the presiding judge then was Justice Ademola, a bosom pal of TOS Benson.
The point in the above narration is that unholy relationships between judges and lawyers had existed over a long period. In the same light, the recent developments are pointing to a possibility that as it was then, so it is now. While the ‘brilliant hardworking’ lawyers may know the law and its technicalities, some others only strive to know the Judge and Justices and make good capital of it. And that is it! Case settled!
Quite a lot of Nigerians were bewildered when men of the Directorate of State Security (DSS) raided the residences of some justices in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe, Kano, Enugu and Calabar, during which justices Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro of the Supreme Court as well as Adeniyi Ademola, and Nnamdi Dimgba of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Muazu Pindiga in Gombe State, Justice Samia in Sokoto State and Kabiru Auta in Kano States were taken into custody and questioned on graft related issues.
Amidst the public outcries that greeted the first of its kind anti-corruption war in Nigeria, the position of the presidency through the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mr. Garba Shehu was instructive.
According to the presidency, the operation against some judicial officers was specifically targeted at corruption and not at the judiciary as an institution – an indication that government smelt rat among the affected judges.
“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.
“But reports by a section of the media are giving us a cause for concern. 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”, Garba stated.
From the above, it is clear that the President Buhari-led government, which has vowed to tackle corruption to a stand-still was fully in support of the exercise and the DSS spokesman, Abdullahi Garba also said successes were recorded during the series of the special sting operations involving some of the suspected judges of the Supreme, Appeal and Federal High Courts. The agency had hinted further that during interrogations, some of the judges made useful statements but then a few of them have denied being culpable despite evidence that was found against them in cash, documents and property.
The DSS, according to reports, recovered a total of N93, 558,000.00, $530, 087, £ 25,970 (Pounds) 5, 680 (Euro) from just three judges aside other recovered currencies, banking documents and real estate documents.
It is no news that corruption is a scourge in practically each arm of government – executive, legislature and the judiciary. Nigerians have hopelessly waited that the situation will get better and a time will come that justice will cease to be a respecter of persons. But in spite of that, the people were sharply divided over the move to look into the issue of corruption in the judiciary.
Truth is, former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Maryam Aloma Mukhtar, like other well-meaning Nigerians lamented that there are real cases of massive corruption in the judiciary which have impugned its integrity. Just like Mukhtar, Buhari, during a trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while speaking at a town hall meeting with Nigerians living in the country, said the ongoing fight against corruption in Nigeria could be effectively tackled with the strong support of the judiciary.
The president alluded to the fact that far-reaching reforms of the judiciary remained a key priority for his administration.
“On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now. If you reflect on what I went through for twelve years when I wanted to be the president, I attempted three times. At the fourth attempt, through God and the use of technology, it was possible for Nigerians to elect an APC candidate as president.
“In my first attempt in 2003, I ended up at the Supreme Court and for 13 months I was in court. The second attempt in 2007, I was in court close to 20 months, and in 2011, my third attempt, I was also in court for nine months”, President Buhari who believed he won the elections recounted because he lost all the cases.
While many have applauded the DSS action as one long overdue and also capable of reversing the culture of inherent corruption in the nation’s judicial system, some others see the arrest and detention of the judges as part of the dictatorial tendencies of the current government taken too far.
Even as the proponents and opponents of the anti-corruption drive argue from their different perspectives, there was a new twist to the development – the allegations by some of the affected judges that a former Rivers State governor and current Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi was behind their ordeals because he had approached them with incentives to rule in favour of the APC in Rivers, Ekiti, Ebonyi, Abia and Akwa Ibom States.
This is no doubt raising the curiosity of many discerning citizens as to the degree of innocence of the affected judicial officers in the matter.
First, it was Justice Okoro that accused Amaechi of attempting to bribe him over three election petition matters that were resolved earlier this year in a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed.
Okoro pointedly said Amaechi came to his house to inform him that both President Buhari and the APC asked him to tell him that they must win their cases in three states of Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Abia States. Apart from alleging that the Transport Minister told him he sponsored Umana Umana for the Akwa Ibom governorship, he added that Amaechi promised him a monthly pay From Umana once the candidate is declared the winner of the election by the Supreme Court.
Shortly after Okoro, another justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Ngwuta, also alleged that Amaechi and the Science and Technology Minister, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu begged him to remove Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State, stressing that his predicament was because of his refusal to concede to help the APC pervert justice in the governorship election disputes involving Ekiti, Rivers and Ebonyi States.
Earlier, Justice Ademola had sent a statement to the media in which he blamed the AGF and Minister for Justice for his woes.
According to him, “A DSS official finally informed me that my arrest was based on these three allegations: petition of Hon. Jenkins Duvie dated 4th of April 2016 to the National Judicial Council (NJC); granting bail to Col. Sambo Dasuki and the unconditional release of Nnamdi Kanu; and using my office to secure my wife’s appointment as the head of civil service, through Senator Bola Tinubu.”
Ademola said he considers his arrest as revenge from Abubakar Malami, whose arrest and detention he ordered over a professional misconduct while he was judge in Kano between 2004 and 2008.
Damning as the allegations may be, apart from the fact that the information coming from the revered judges are belated, coming at a time they are under immense pressure, sounded more political – as a PDP-APC renewed war? It is also more of an afterthought designed to discredit the clampdown on them and the attendant embarrassment.
Otherwise, people should be asking why they waited this long to reveal this crime. Does it not also bring to question, the possibility that the judges had been used to having curious out-of-court deals with people, who have cases before them if they had kept the allegation against Amaechi to their chests till now.
The judiciary has been a source of concern to seekers of justice over the years with many lawyers identifying loopholes in judgments of all the courts. Related to the subject matter now is that at the conclusion of litigation that trailed the Rivers State governorship election, the APC candidate, Honourable Dakuku Peterside and Amaechi had accused Governor Nyesom Wike of influencing the outcome of the judgment of the Supreme Court.
The apex court had, on January 27, 2016, upturned the verdicts of both the election petitions tribunal and the Court of Appeal, which nullified the disputed governorship election in the state and upheld Wike as the winner of the election. Though in disagreeing, Wike said the allegations were aimed at inciting the presidency and the Nigerian Armed Forces against the people of Rivers State and the entire Niger Delta region. He dismissed the unproved accusations against him.
Nevertheless, the role played by Wike when the DSS raided Justice Mohammed Liman’s residence, believed to be in possession of $2 million in Port Harcourt, by preventing the security officers from carrying out their assignment was suspect because if the judge had nothing to fret about, there was no need to obstruct the course of justice. He could have made himself available for interrogation after all some of the other judges arrested by the DSS had been released. In fact, some of them are back on the bench now.
Expectedly, this has constituted a huge debate on the polity. First was whether or not a judge could be arrested the way the men of the DSS went about it and it was soon understood that they were not in any way insulated from investigation, interrogation, arrest and conviction. Though there are procedures, which require the intervention of the Nigerian Judiciary Commission (NJC), as people are getting to understand that the raid on the judges was a sting operation designed to nab them with evidence for prosecution, Nigerians are beginning to see the matter differently.
Addressing Okoro’s claim, the Rivers State APC Publicity Secretary, Mr. Chris Finebone said: “He claimed to have mentioned the matter to the CJN at the time but never bothered to follow the prescription of the law in such a circumstance, which required him to put it in black and white to his boss and also report to security agencies.
“In his hurry to manufacture lies, a supposed experienced Supreme Court judge conveniently forgot the provisions of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission Act 2000; 23(1) which says ‘Any public officer to whom any gratification is given, promised, or offered, in contravention of any provision of this Act, shall report such gift, promised or offer together with the name, if known, of the person who gave, promised or offered such gratification to him to the nearest officer of the commission or police officer.”
He therefore concluded that “What has become very apparent is that there were several well-organised rehearsals by these embattled and alleged bad eggs in the judiciary to hit back at the very heartbeat of the Buhari administration as corruption fights back.
“We know that the idea is that the easiest way to hit at the very heart of a strongman is to harm his favourite offspring. Same persons who are hell bent on humiliating the PMB government continues to explore from their mischief box. They started with avenging the defeat of their man, which seems to be failing. Now, they have turned on Amaechi and that will also fail.”
A Lagos based stock market expert, Mr. Seyi Adeyinka, who feels that the revelations being made by the judges do not add up said: “If attempt to commit a crime is criminal; if at all it is true that anyone met the judges as they are saying, then they aided and abetted crime by keeping sealed lips till now.”
The President, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Mahmoud Abubakar (SAN), last Thursday urged the National Judicial Council (NJC) to order the immediate stepping down of the seven justices accused of judicial fraud.
“Our position is well known. It appears to the NBA that it is extremely important that the NJC take 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 excuse themselves from further judicial functions.
“Better still, they may be required to proceed on compulsory leave until their innocence is fully and completely established or until the conclusion of all judicial or disciplinary proceedings.” Abubakar stated during valedictory service held for a judge.
For Ajulo, the way to go is to embark on an urgent overhaul of the NJC, which he said is the best way to ensure that justice does not extinct from Nigeria, considering that the current situation borders on the integrity of the Nigerian judiciary.
“The resolve by the federal government to end corruption in the judiciary is long overdue, laudable and commendable. However, this can only be achieved through total overhauling of the entire National Judicial Council, without which the anti-corruption campaign will end up in futility.
“The current composition of the Nigeria Judicial Council is shrouded in ‘judicial gang absolutism’. The implication of this is that the composition is somewhat confined in judicial sect that places procedures above credibility and competence. The composition and its process create so much room for compromise and questionable lacuna”, he argued.
He suggested the need for the creation of Investigation & Prosecution Unit in the NJC, exercising discipline on erring judicial officers which is one of the major functions of the NJC as established by extant laws.
“There should be clear-cut distinction between judicial misconducts and crime and it should be treated differently. It is advised that there should be other measures to deal with erring members apart from the ones available currently for the body, which recently has stirred up public outcry and vituperation.
“It is also imperative to conclude that the process of appointing judicial officers must be transparent, and aimed at attracting the best and committed in the Bench. The Buhari government must confront various challenges facing the judiciary and the time is now. There must be an amendment to judges appointment process, with less emphasis on litigation as a means of resolving disputes, and ensure that corruption is dealt with”, he said.
Sharing his thoughts on the threat by Amaechi to sue the judges who accused him of attempting to induce them to give favourable judgment in an online debate, author and social public analyst, Mr. Obi Nwakanma said it may be difficult to prosecute the judges.
“As you know, Mr. Amechi’s suit will be a futile exercise, just like all these convoluted drama about trying Supreme Court judges. There is no basis, either in the constitution or in precedence where a suit can be brought against the person of a Supreme Court Justice, either in his personal capacity or in his official capacity as a justice of the court. No court will hear the case. Secondly, the APC administration under the current precedent has embarked on a constitutional war with the institution that interprets the constitution, and it will come out extremely defanged.
“The Attorney General cannot bring a suit before the courts suing, or seeking to convict sitting justices of the Supreme Court. It would amount to an infringement of the separation of powers. The Nigerian constitution is very clear: there is only one means by which a Supreme Court justice can be removed or sanctioned: on the recommendation of the NJC, which is constituted by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
“No court is permitted by the constitution to hear a case against a sitting justice, and for as long as the Supreme Court still exists, and the NJC is constituted, Justice Inyang Okoro remains a Justice of the court, and the Attorney General has no authority to bring a suit before any court seeking his conviction either in a civil case or in a criminal case. The judges enjoy institutional immunity until the NJC, and no other body, not even the courts, recommends otherwise”, Nwakanma posited.
However the matter is resolved, the affected judges who have adjudicated in several cases now know that they are now defendants in the court of public opinion. Others too must watch their back because what is becoming glaring is that there is not likely to be sacred cows in the war against corruption in coming days.
For some state chief executives, who are currently using the opportunities of the immunity they enjoy to trample on the law, they must also be making plans for the day of reckoning; when apart from making a lot of noise, they would have to explain to Nigerians why they acted the ways they did at certain points.