Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed penultimate week retired from the bench without clarifying some vital issues concerning his arrested colleagues. That evidently was not an enviable way to bow out, writes Davidson Iriekpen
For a cross-section of Nigerians, who thought the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, would have used his valedictory court session to open up on some vital issues concerning two of the embattled justices of the Supreme Court, it ended up a huge disappointment that he maintained sealed lips and left them in the cold.
Justice Inyang Okoro and Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, whose houses were raided and later arrested recently by the operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) had in their separate letters to Justice Mohammed in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) held the Minister of Transportation and former Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, responsible for their travails.
In a letter to Justice Mohammed detailing his ordeal in the hands of DSS, Justice Okoro had alleged that Amaechi came to his house to persuade him to give judgment in their favour and also promised to offer him millions of naira. He called on the CJN to disregard all the lies and media campaign orchestrated by those who felt he purposely refused to help them win their election appeals at the Supreme Court.
Although Amaechi had dismissed the allegation as well as members of the public, who thought his defence was rather an afterthought following the embarrassment that their arrest caused them, they however stuck to their story.
Okoro’s letter read: “My Lord, I strongly believe that this my travail is not unconnected with the verbal report I made to you on February 1, 2016 about the visit to my official residence by His Excellency, Rotimi Amaechi, former Governor of River State and now Minister of Transportation.
“In that report, I told you My Lord, that Amaechi said the President of Nigeria and the APC mandated him to inform me that they must win their election appeals in respect of Rivers State, Akwa Ibom State and Abia State at all costs.
“For Akwa Ibom, he alleged that he sponsored Mr. Umana Umana, candidate of APC for that election and that if he lost Akwa Ibom appeal, he would have lost a fortune. Amaechi also said that he had already visited you (the CJN) and that you had agreed to make me a member of the panel that would hear the appeals.
“He further told me that Umana would be paying me millions of Naira monthly if I cooperated with them. My response, as I told you on that date was that it does not lie within my power to grant his request and that I would do all within my power not to be in the panel for Akwa Ibom State.
“My Lord graciously left me out of the panel for Akwa Ibom State. That notwithstanding, the APC in Akwa Ibom State which lost the appeal at the Supreme Court believed that my presence in the Supreme Court made them to lose the appeal. Could I have resigned from the Supreme Court simply because people of Akwa Ibom State had a matter before it?
“My Lord will recall that I also reported that Mr Umana Umana visited my residence before Amaechi’s visit. He also made the same request of assistance to win his appeal at the Supreme Court. Umana talked about ‘seeing’ the justices who would hear the appeal.
“Pastor (Dr) Ebele Ukpong, who led Umana to my house intercepted and said that the issue of ‘seeing’ the justices was not part of their visit and that as a pastor, he would not be part of such a discussion. Umana apologised. I advised them to go and pray about the matter and get a good lawyer. That was how they left my house.”
On his part, Justice Ngwuta in his letter too, accused Amaechi of masterminding the operation. He said Amaechi had approached him in 2013, when he asked him to set aside the election that produced Mr. Ayo Fayose as governor of Ekiti State and replace him with the former governor of Ekiti State, who is now the Minister of Solid Mineral Development, Kayode Fayemi. He also said in the letter that Amaechi had attempted to influence other justices on the Rivers State election panel.
He said: “My present plight started sometime between 2013 and 2014. I represented the then Chief Justice of Nigeria in an event organised in the International Conference Centre. 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 6.45a.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 an operative of the DSS. 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.”
Ngwuta reminded the then CJN that he had brought the pressures by Amaechi before him and that he was assured that he was not alone.
“Your lordship may recall one morning, when I pleaded not be on the panel for Rivers Appeal. 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.”
But Amaechi and members of his party, the APC had repeatedly denied the allegations, and accused some governors like Nyesom Wike and Ifeanyi Okowa as responsible for the allegations. It is therefore the belief of many that Justice Mohammed would use the occasion of his valedictory session to clear the air on the allegations.
They were however shocked when the former CJN did not raise the issue at all through the event beyond the usual admonition of any retiring CJN to the judiciary and lawyers.
It is therefore believed that since judges do not always have the opportunity to hold a press conference or issue statements to respond to allegations against them except during their valedictory sessions, the former CJN should have used the occasion of his valedictory session to speak up on the issue no matter whose ox is gored.
It is assumed that the valedictory session was a good opportunity for Justice Mohammed to clear the air on the confessions of the two justices either by debunking or admitting them rather than leaving them in the cold. They are also of the view that the former CJN should have used the opportunity to either narrate the pressures politicians mounted on him and some of colleagues to pervert the course of justice.
People are wondering why the former CJN would retire and leave his colleagues or subjects in the cold without as much an attempt to save them after suffering huge humiliation and embarrassment in the hands of the DSS. Even if they were guilty of the allegations, the platform stil could have been used to set the record straight. But to have left without saying anything was disturbing the legal family and their integrity.
For instance, during the valedictory session held in his honour, Justice Mohammed had said he had no apologies for refusing to do the bidding of politicians, who wanted to intimidate the judiciary. He said the nation owed the judiciary a debt of gratitude for standing firm in the face of contrary winds that threatened to blow the country’s democracy off course.
According to him, it took the steadfastness of the judiciary to avert a replay of what happened during the June 12, 1993 during last year’s general election.
“During the run up to the 2015 elections, our judicial officers withstood immense pressure in order to guarantee a level playing field and smooth transition of government, which ensured that we were spared a re-enactment of the June 12 saga. In fact, the courts, thus securing the electoral process, disallowed so many frivolous matters aimed at truncating the electoral process.
“I must particularly commend the Supreme Court for refusing to be intimidated or influenced by any candidate or political party, and I make no apologies for the firm stand that we took in our decisions. I am proud to be a part of the Supreme Court which refused to be cowered into truncating the electoral process. I am proud to have headed this noble arm of government and steering it through some very stormy waters. I am proud of the Nigerian judiciary,” he said.
The above was not what they expected from the out-gone CJN at this critical period when two of his former subordinates are facing alleged criminal charges from the executive arm of government.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Samson Edegbai, who craved anonymity, faulted Justice Mohammed for maintaining sealed lips at his valedictory session. He said the session should have offered him a perfect opportunity to speak up on the issue. He stated that the former CJN’s silence amounted to a betrayal of his colleagues, who looked up to him for survival.
“For me, with due respect, Justice Mohammed betrayed his colleagues. He left them in the cold. If indeed Amaechi had also attempted to influence other justices as he claimed as alleged by Justice Ngwuta in his letter, his valedictory session should have been a perfect opportunity to reveal everything.
“Now, he has left his colleagues in the cold. His clarification would have gone a long way in dissuading the DSS from filing charges against the justices. He should have also named the justices the former governor attempt to influence. For me, I don’t think he did well for not speaking out. If he could not speak out at the valedictory session, which was a perfect opportunity, when will he say something?”
People are wondering why the former CJN would retire and leave his colleagues or subjects in the cold without as much an attempt to save them after suffering huge humiliation and embarrassment in the hands of the DSS. Even if they were guilty of the allegations, the platform stil could have been used to set the record straight. But to have left without saying anything was disturbing the legal family and their integrity