NJC’s Lacklustre Sanctions on Judges

The recent sanctions imposed on two judges by the National Judicial Council for breaches of judicial process are too insufficient to serve as a deterrent to compromised judges responsible for the rot in the judiciary, Wale Igbintade writes 

The National Judicial Council (NJC) penultimate week penalised two judges in the country when it barred them from elevation to the Court of Appeal. The council, which took the decision at its 105th meeting, said the action was taken based on the judges’ breaches of judicial process.  

Those sanctioned are Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court who was barred from being promoted to the appellate court for two years, and Justice Godwin Brikins-Okolosi of the Delta State High Court who got three years ban.

While Justice Ekwo was found culpable of abusing his discretionary power by wrongly granting an ex-parte order, Justice Brikins-Okolosi was penalised for failure to deliver judgement within a stipulated period after parties had filed and adopted their final written addresses.

The case that earned Justice Ekwo sanction, marked FHC/ABJ/C/626/2023, was filed by Juliet Gbaka and two others against Seplat Energy Plc and 12 others. The judge issued the controversial ex-parte order on May 11, 2023, suspending the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Seplat Energy Plc, its chairman and other members of the company’s board from office. About two weeks later, the Court of Appeal in Abuja reversed the order.

Ekwo’s ex-parte injunction against Seplat was seen as an embarrassment which sent a damning impression to foreign investors that a Nigerian court, based on a frivolous petition, could remove a chief executive officer from office instead of first requiring the applicant to put the respondents on notice.

On the other hand, Justice Brikins-Okolosi was said to have wasted seven years in Joseph Anene Okafor Vs Skye Bank’s case, a suit marked A/94/2010, after parties had filed and adopted their final written addresses. At this stage, the stipulated period for judgment to be delivered is within three months.

Many legal experts feel that the punitive measures taken against the judges are insufficient, considering the embarrassments their actions have caused the judiciary and the country at large. For many of them, the actions of Justices Ekwo and Brikins-Okolosi clearly show that judges in the country do not learn from the mistakes of other judges.

Apart from the ex-parte order which Justice Ekwo was penalised for, he has been in the eyes of the public for granting frivolous orders and delivering controversial and incongruous judgments. In March 2022, the judge, without any legal backing, sacked the then Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State and his deputy, Kelechi Igwe, from office for defecting from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC).

The judgment was in sharp contrast to several decisions of the Federal High Court, particularly that of the Gusau Division of the court which a month before, ratified the defection of the then Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, who similarly dumped the PDP, on whose platform he became governor, for the APC in 2021.

The most ridiculous sanction by the council was the mere caution it gave to a judge of the Yobe State High Court, Justice Amina Shehu, for issuing Writ of Possession Conferring Title on the defendant when there was no subsisting judgment of any court to enable her to issue the writ.

What the judge basically did was to issue a warrant to collect somebody else’s property with no judgment underlying it, which by all standards, amounts to burglary or theft. 

It was shocking to many Nigerians that a judge who abused her power for the purpose of converting other people’s property under the colouration of rule of law should be written and cautioned. 

At the minimum, this infraction is supposed to fetch her a jail term either as a pre-trial detainee or a convict. But the NJC merely cautioned her.

With the infractions of the judges, the council destroyed discipline and accountability in the judiciary. Ordinarily, the judges should not have any reason to remain in office. But unfortunately, the NJC gave them a slap on the wrist.

This is why in 2022, a retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Ejembi Eko, accused the council of applying double standards in the discipline of erring judicial officers. He said while some judges found culpable of misconduct were barred from getting promotions, others that committed similar breaches, had their promotion stalled for some years.

Also at the NJC meeting, the council said it considered two reports of its two Preliminary Complaints Assessment Committees that filtered 35 petitions written against judges of the Federal and State High Courts, and decided to empanel eight committees to further investigate the petitions that were found meritorious by the committees. Many fear that nothing reasonable would come out of the petitions.

Some Nigerians are wondering why the council did not sanction the Court of Appeal justices who heard and delivered judgment in the appeal filed by the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) to challenge the nullification of the election of Governor Yusuf of Kano State and the various panels that heard and delivered biased judgments at the tribunals and Appeal Court against the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lawmakers in Plateau State which caused them their seats in the state House of Assembly and National Assembly respectively.

Since Nigeria enthroned democracy in 1999, judges are increasingly being derided because observers feel that justice is given to the highest bidder. The resultant effects, according to them, are the vague, contradictory and incongruous judgments that emanate from the courts. Hardly are judgments or orders in sensitive business and political cases delivered without allegations of bribery.

Many Nigerians are disappointed that corruption has tainted the judiciary. What they have seen over the years is that instead of the third arm of government to use their judgments and orders to straighten the path of progress for the country, judicial officers themselves want to deep their hands into the cookie jar.

It’s been argued several times that justice administration is a very serious business, and the judiciary as an institution derives legitimacy from the implicit confidence reposed in it by the masses over whom it sits in judgement. When the impression, real or perceived, is created that high net-worth individuals can approach the courts to procure judgments and orders at the expense of less-privileged members of the public, then the foundations of the justice system would have been eviscerated.

This, perhaps, was why the presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the 2023 election, Peter Obi, recently described the judiciary as the biggest danger to democracy in Nigeria. At the fifth memorial of the late Justice Anthony Aniagolu in Enugu, he reiterated the urgent need for the revitalisation of the Nigerian judiciary, adding that all other institutions depend on it for the country to thrive.

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