Not many could understand why the federal government bickered with the National Judicial Council over the recall of the suspended justices, when for eight months, the alleged incriminating evidence and proceeds of crime it claimed were found in their homes could not be put together to initiate a profound trial. Davidson Iriekpen writes
All is currently not well between the presidency and the National Judicial Council (NJC), since the council decided to recall the eight justices suspended following the raid on their homes by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) last October and allegations of corruption levelled against them by the federal government.
Following intense pressure, the NJC overlooked the presumption of innocence of the affected judicial officers by relieving them of their judicial duties pending the conclusion of investigations or determination of the cases filed against them. But after eight months with no formal charges against the judges, the NJC on June 3, decided to recall them. It said it took the decision, because of the backlog of cases pending in courts due to the absence of the judges.
No sooner had the council taken the decision than the government which had largely been docile in taking appropriate actions against the judges in over eight months, suddenly woke up to attack the NJC. First to react on its behalf was the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Professor Itse Sagay, (SAN), who said the judiciary took a hasty decision, and that it was not on board with anti-graft war of the government. He asked the council to rescind its decision in the interest of the war against corruption.
Also, the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla, lambasted the NJC for reinstating the suspended judges, accusing the body of condoning corruption. He declared that the council was working against government and that the presidency was disappointed. He further stated that the council was trying to protect the suspended judges from prosecution.
The presidential aide said the public would lose confidence in those judges, if they resumed work, as the allegations of bribery and corruption were still hanging on their necks. He wondered why the NJC took the action of recalling the judges, when the body was aware that the EFCC was about to file criminal charges against them.
Obono-Obla specifically challenged the NJC recall of Justice Adeniyi Ademola, when it was aware that the government had appealed against his discharge by the Federal High Court and a record of entry at the Appeal Court by the prosecutor.
In its response, however, the NJC accused the government of telling lies over the recall of the suspended judges. It said since there were no cases against them pending in any court, there was no reason to keep them perpetually suspended.
A statement by its Director of Information, Soji Oye, said it was particularly concerned about the statement issued by Obono-Obla that the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) had filed a notice of appeal against the ruling of Justice Jude Okeke of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, for discharging and acquitting Justice Ademola and 2 others on April 7, 2017.
Oye, in the statement titled: â€˜Putting the Record Straightâ€™ said, when the parties were invited by the FCT High Court for settlement of records to be transmitted to the Court of Appeal on April 18, 2017, the appellant failed to turn up and the Registrar of the court further adjourned the settlement of records to April 21, 2017, and invited all the parties, but the appellant again did not come to court.
According to the NJC, the 45 days allowed for compilation of record in all circumstances expired on May 7, 2017, for the Registrar of the lower court and May 22, 2017, for the appellant. It noted that the office of the AGF only filed additional grounds of appeal in the court on June 6, 2017, three days after the press release by the council that the judicial officers had been directed to resume duties.
The exchange of words between the government and the NJC has again exposed the lackluster manner the office of the AGF and prosecuting agencies handle cases in courts and how they delay in charging suspects to courts, thereby allowing them languish in detention.
To many, it was unbelievable that for eight months, the alleged incriminating evidence and proceeds of crime the federal government claimed it found in the judgesâ€™ homes could not be put together to initiate trial against those yet to be charged, or get conviction in the only case that had been concluded. The usual excuse of the complexity involved in handling the prosecution of corruption cases cannot explain away eight long months of inactivity on the judgesâ€™ cases, while they were already serving punishment for offences they have yet to be charged in court with, let alone being found guilty. It is the law in this jurisdiction that the burden of proof rests on the party that alleges. This dictum applies to all criminal cases and not corruption matters alone.
It was therefore the belief of many that since there was no case against the judges the NJC was perfectly in order to have recalled them. Many analysts therefore believed it was uncharitable to criticise the NJC for asking those who have not been charged to court and the person who has been given a clean bill of health to resume duties.
As a result, many questions are begging for answers here. Would it have been more appropriate for those judges who have been staying at home for eight months to continue to do so for as long as it took the anti-corruption agencies to file cases against them in the court? Or should Justice Ademola be prevented from benefitting from the outcome of his case in court, especially when the judgment of the court in his favour has yet to be properly appealed?
Even if the verdict of the trial court has been appealed by the EFCC, is an appeal tantamount to a stay of execution? What has the anti-corruption agencies been doing for eight months that they could not build iron-clad cases against these judicial officers if indeed they had strong evidence against them? And why did the EFCC, in what seemed like a childish move and an afterthought, rush to court to file processes against the judges it did not charge to court for eight months now that the NJC had recalled them from suspension?
Many Nigerians wrongly thought that the EFCC job of prosecuting the judges would be simple given the items of evidential value allegedly recovered from some of them, when their homes were raided some months ago by the operatives of the DSS. The agencies should have allowed the NJC to exercise its constitutional disciplinary control over the affected persons, who are judges of superior courts of record, after which they would commence criminal trial.
Ironically, the presidency that is accusing the NJC of not being on board with it in the fight against corruption has allegedly failed to act on the recommendations of the NJC to it to dismiss or compulsorily retire some judicial officers, who were found guilty of corrupt practices.
This is why observers believe that the travail of the judges has exposed what Nigerians go through in the hands of state agencies. They wonder how a person alleged to have contravened the law would be made to serve punishment for eight months without a formal charge against him or her. Prosecutors are therefore advised to endeavour to work hard and responsibly within the ambit of the law to get justice without inflicting unwarranted punishment on suspects.