Needless Controversy Over Recall of Judges

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It would be unfair to keep the judges at home while their accusers fish for evidence with which to charge them
The recent recall of six of the eight judicial officers—earlier compelled by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to recuse from presiding in their courts—has become a source of controversy. The suspension of the judges, which followed the raids on their residences by the Department of State Services (DSS) was lifted in a manner that drew the ire of the executive arm of government. It was viewed as an indication of the NJC’s lack of support for the anti-graft war of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.

The displeasure was voiced by the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Mr. Okoi Obno-Obla, and the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay. Their argument was that the NJC ought to have tarried a while when it knew that investigations were ongoing; and that an appeal had been lodged in the case of one of the judges that had been discharged. But the NJC responded that its decision was based on the principles of rule of law and fairness, particularly when efforts to get the Ministry of Justice to diligently prosecute the concerned judicial officers were futile.
We consider the controversy to be unfortunate, particularly as it betrayed once again, the scant respect for due process by the executive arm of government. That it was coming at about the time the 2016 World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index was released, rating Nigeria as the fifth lawless country in Africa, should not be lost on critical stakeholders. A system where there is scant regard for the rule of law, going by the WJP Index, can neither fight corruption nor protect the rights of the citizenry on a sustainable basis.

When the houses of judges were raided in October last year, the DSS claimed the operations were carried out to apprehend evidence of alleged corruption against the judicial officers. At that time, the NJC was visibly aggrieved and was supported by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in its position that the raids had serious implications for the principle of separation of powers enshrined in 1999 Constitution as amended.

The argument of the NJC was that the constitution had allotted it disciplinary powers over judicial officers and that the lawful thing for the executive to do, if it had reservations about any judicial officer, was to file its complaints with the council. The NJC stated further that it had the structure to discipline its own and reeled out figures to demonstrate that it had not failed in its duty to sanitise the judiciary.

Apparently bowing to public opinion, the NJC eventually directed the affected judges to recuse themselves from proceedings in their courts. But eight months after the raids, said to be in aid of acquisition of evidence to nail the allegedly corrupt judges, only three of them were charged to court. One of them, Justice Adeniyi Ademola was discharged by Justice Jude Okeke of the High Court of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja because the prosecution could not establish a prima facie case against him. For the other two judges, Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, the executive is yet to come up with any credible case.

Although Ngwuta was charged for corruption, the prosecution had to drop the case after three amendments of charges, before finally taking him to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). Okoro too was charged before the CCT for alleged non-declaration of assets. But the case has been withdrawn to enable the prosecution amend the charges against him. Meanwhile, the judges had complained last year that they did nothing wrong and that they were being harassed for giving judgments against the executive.

To the extent that under our constitution, every citizen accused of wrongdoing is entitled to diligent prosecution within a reasonable time, we agree with the NJC that it would be manifestly unfair to allow the judicial officers to remain at home while their accusers go fishing for evidence to charge and convict them. Yet if there is any lesson this administration has refused to learn, it is that investigations that can lead to conviction of suspects in criminal trials require rigour and painstaking efforts, not media propaganda.

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If there is any lesson this administration has refused to learn, it is that investigations that can lead to conviction of suspects in criminal trials require rigour and painstaking efforts, not media propaganda