Nigerian Judiciary on a Self-Cleansing Mission?

Justice Walter Onnoghen, chief justice of Nigeria
Justice Walter Onnoghen, Chief Justice of Nigeria

 

The Nigerian judiciary is on a mission to redeem its image going by the recent move by the Nigerian Judicial Council to purge the system of corrupt judges and allow states create special courts to try corruption cases. But will that  restore confidence in the judiciary?

 

  • By Olu Ojewale

 

SINCE he assumed office in May 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari has not minced his words that the Nigerian judiciary is a major obstacle in his fight against corruption in the country.

Indeed, two years down the line, the Nigerian courts appear to be bulging with hundreds of corruption cases, but without high profile convictions to show that the judiciary is helping to fight corruption. This seems to have lent credence to the perception that the judiciary is not working in tandem with the Buhari administration to fight corruption.

Perhaps, to erase the perception, the National Judicial Council, NJC, chaired by Justice Walter Onnoghen, chief justice of Nigeria, appears to up in arms to rid the Bench of corrupt elements in the system and clean the Aegean staples.

In the past few days the NJC has taken three fundamental steps in that direction. First, it directed that at least one special court should be established in each state of the federation to try corrupt cases. Second, the council established Financial Cases Trial Monitoring Committee; and third, it set up committees to investigate some alleged erring judges.

According to a statement issued on Tuesday, October 2, the NJC at its 83rd meeting set up 15 panels to probe two state chief justices and 13 other judges accused of misconduct. The panels would investigate various allegations in the petitions written against 15 judicial officers, including two chief judges.

The NJC said in a statement signed by Soji Oye, director of information of the council, that it took the decision after considering the reports of the two preliminary complaints assessment committees, on 46 petitions written against judicial officers in the federal and state judiciaries.

The statement, however, did not give the names of those being investigated.

In any case, the NJC said it dismissed 31 petitions, 29 of which it found to be without merit. The remaining two written against Justice J. T. Tsoho of the federal high court and Justice Olanrewaju Akeredolu, acting chief judge of Ondo State, were withdrawn at the instance of the petitioners.

According to the council, Al-Sagr National Insurance Company which wrote against Tsoho withdrew the petition since the judge had delivered the ruling in his case.

One Raheem Badmus, who wrote against Akeredolu, also voluntarily withdrew his petition for personal reasons, the statement said.

Nevertheless, the statement said the council considered and found worthy of further investigation, the petition written by Azi A. Phillip on behalf of All Farmers Association of Nigeria, Plateau State Chapter, accusing Justice P. D. Damulak, the immediate past chief judge of Plateau State of bias, for failure to make his judgment in Suit No. PLD/J/236/16 delivered on November 4, 2016, available to him until the time he wrote the petition.

The council said it, however, decided not to constitute an Investigative Committee to look into the matter, because the accused judge had already retired from service and was,  therefore, no longer in the employment of the National Judicial Council.

In other cases, the NJC considered and dismissed petitions written against two other judicial officers for lack of merit. The judges are L. T. C. Eruba – high court of justice, Abia State; and Grand Kadi Abdullahi Waiya – Sharia’h court of Appeal, Kano State.

It also decided to issue two letters of advice to Justice M. A. Dada of the Lagos State High Court of Justice and Justice Chukwudi Charles Okaa of the Anambra State High Court for violation of extant laws in the course of their judicial duties based on petition written against them by Dayo Adamolekun, Esq. & Ridwanulah Olanite, Esq. and Reverend F. U. Ekavhiare & Associates, respectively.

Agbakoba

The council agreed to report Adesina Ogunlana to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, LPDC, for misconduct, for the use of uncouth language in a petition written to the NJC against Justice O. O. Atilade, the immediate past chief judge of Lagos State.

The council used the occasion acknowledge and welcomed as good development, a letter from Zamfara State Government approving the recommendation of the NJC for the compulsory removal of Justice Musa Anka from office for receiving a bribe of N200, 000 from Zubairu Abdumalik in order to deliver judgement in his favour.

The recommendation was made to the Zamfara State Government by council in 2011. No reason was given why it took the state government such a long time to act on the NJC recommendation.

Nevertheless, earlier on Wednesday, September 27, the NJC appointed Ayo Salami, a former president of the Court of Appeal, who was controversially removed from office six years ago, as head of the council’s newly established Financial Cases Trial Monitoring Committee.

Oye said the decision of the NJC was taken at the 82nd meeting of the NJC, on Wednesday, September 27. He disclosed that the committee comprises 15 members, including Kashim Zannah,  chief judge of Bornu State; P. O Nnadi,  chief judge of Imo State; and Marshal Umukoro, his counterpart from Delta State.

Others are M. L. Abimbola, the chief judge of Oyo State; Abubakar Mahmood, president of the Nigeria Bar Association; Wole Olanikpekun, Olisa Agbakoba, Joseph Daudu, and Augustine Alegeh, all former NBA presidents. Others are Garba Tetengi, and R.I Inga, members of the NJC.

The rest includes Gambo Saleh, the NJC’s secretary and representatives of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, ministry of justice and non-governmental organisations, respectively.

“The Committee’s primary functions include: regular monitoring and evaluation of proceedings at designated courts for financial and economic crimes nationwide; advising the chief justice of Nigeria on how to eliminate delay in the trial of alleged corruption cases; giving feedback to the council on progress of cases in the designated courts, conducting background checks on judges selected for the designated courts; and evaluating the performance of the designated courts,” Oye said.

According to the statement, the setting up of the new committee is in line with the promise made by Onneghen on September 18, to direct special attention to cases of fraud and corruption in Nigerian courts.

The ultimate objective, the statement said, is to reduce in the delay of corruption cases and enthrone a speedy resolution of corruption matters by the judiciary.

While the membership of the committee has thrown up discussions among some Nigerians, the preference of Salami as head of the committee appears to have gotten more people talking.

Indeed, Salami, before he was eased out of the judiciary, had been suspended following his alleged disclosure to the media of an attempt by Aloysius Katsina-Alu, the then chief justice of Nigeria, to influence the decision of the Appeal Court, in a Sokoto governorship election matter pending before the court at the time.

Katsina-Alu, who was suspected to have sympathy for a leading opposition political party in the state, and then as head of the Federal Judicial Service Commission, he recommended that Salami be promoted to the Supreme Court.

But he rejected the recommendation and went ahead to spill the beans when he averred in a suit in court that the chief justice had asked that the governorship election petition in Sokoto State be decided in favour of the candidate of the ruling party.

Notwithstanding, the suit filed by Salami against his planned removal from electoral petition panel, the NJC suspended the then Appeal Court president pending the investigation of the allegations of misconduct against CJN.

At that time, both Segun Oni and Olagunsoye Oyinlola whose elections as governors of Ekiti and Osun  states respectively  had been annulled by the Court of  Appeal alleged that Salami was in constant telephone conversation with leaders and lawyers of defunct the Action Congress of Nigeria during the hearing of some election petitions. The NJC also decided to investigate the grave allegations of both politicians.

Falana
Falana

Suspecting that the NJC might not decide the matter fairly, Nigerian Bar Association set up its own panel of inquiry to investigate the roles played by all the parties involved including its own members in the Sokoto governorship election petition saga.

Not surprisingly, the reports of the NJC and the NBA were mired in controversies.

While Katsina-Alu was exonerated by the NJC, Salami was asked to tender apology for lying on oath even though it was found that the CJN actually asked Salami to change the panel that had concluded the hearing of the appeal. Giving excuses for its ruling the NJC said that the CJN interfered in the case in the interest of the judiciary. On its part, the NBA panel exonerated Salami and indicted the CJN as well as some lawyers.

Eight months after, following the retirement of Katsina-Alu as the CJN, the matter was revisited by the NJC which turned round to exonerate Salami, lifted his suspension and recalled him to his post.

Eight months later, in April 2012, the NJC, headed by Dahiru Musdapher, the then new CJN, recommended the reinstatement of Salami to the then President Goodluck Jonathan. That NJC recommendation was, however, not implemented.

The NJC, under Musdapher had hinged its decision to recall Salami on the findings of a three-member committee headed by Mamman Nasir, a retired justice.

Explaining its reasons for dismissing the allegations against Salami, Nasir said: “It became evident that Katsina-Alu CJN’s administrative decision that the case should be put on hold, should not have been made by him. In any case, the CJN should not in the first place have written direct to the justices in Sokoto judicial division as the power to do so lies in the PCA (President of the Court of Appeal).”

However, President Goodluck Jonathan refused to allow Salami to return to office as the president of the Court of Appeal on the ground that the matter was pending in court.

Giving reason for the Presidency’s refusal to approve the reinstatement of Salami, Mohammed Adoke, the then attorney general, said the Presidency could not act on the matter, because a case was already pending in court regarding Salami’s suspension.

The case in question was filed by Amobi Nzelu, a private lawyer, but curiously distributed to the media by the Presidency.

Despite the explanations given by Adoke, a lot of people ascribed the president’s refusal to widespread criticism of Salami by members of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. Salami was accused by the PDP members of allowing the Appeal Court to rule against it in various election petitions which eventually led to opposition parties reclaiming seats.

Until his compulsory retirement in 2013, Salami was never reinstated by the former president.

That notwithstanding, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has sent an open letter to Onnoghen, urging him to use his “good offices and position to urgently revisit and review the composition of Justice Ayo Isa Salami’s Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee, COTRIMCO, to remove the risk of apparent and potential conflicts between the work of the committee and the private practice of some of its members who are handling high-profile cases of corruption involving politically exposed persons, PEPs.”

The organisation argued that “for the Salami Committee to perform its tasks effectively and with propriety, it should preferably be composed entirely of members of the judiciary, particularly drawn from available pool of brilliant and incorruptible retired judges.”

In the letter dated October 3, and signed by Adetokunbo Mumuni, the SERAP executive director, the organisation said that: “While international law does not prohibit some representation of the legal profession or academics, we urge your Lordship to select candidates from these fields to the Salami committee based on their demonstrable commitment to the fight against corruption, and after extensive consultation, and a thorough scrutiny of the candidates’ past record of legal practice, to eliminate all possibilities of bias and conflict of interest.”

Besides, the SERAP said it was seriously concerned that rather than promoting judicial accountability, the committee as currently constituted “could be used to interfere with the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.”

As if that is not bad enough, it further argued that there might be conflict of interest between public and private duties.

At press time, the CJN was yet to react to the fear expressed by SERAP.

In any case, Onnoghen appears not be relying on the Salami committee alone. On Monday, September 18, the CJN directed all heads of courts in the country to compile and forward to the NJC, comprehensive lists of all corruption and financial crime cases being handled by their various courts.

The CJN, who gave the directive during a special court session by the Supreme Court held to mark the opening of the 2017/2018 legal year, noted that “inexplicable and seemingly intractable delays” had been the bane of criminal justice administration in the country, thereby leading to “the unfortunate disruption of due process.”

Consequently, Onnoghen ordered all the heads of courts to designate at least one court in their various jurisdictions as special courts, solely for the purpose of hearing and speedily determining corruption and financial crime cases. He said where such cases proceeded on appeal to either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, special dates on each week should be fixed solely for hearing and determining such appeals.

He warned bribe givers to stop forthwith.

Nevertheless, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, a former president, Court of Appeal, argued that not all Nigerian judges were corrupt.

Abdullahi said in any human society, there must be good, bad and worst elements. Hence, he argued: “So, the judiciary is a human and Nigerian institution. Therefore, it is not surprising that some few judicial officers are being picked up for going out of their parameters of judicial function.’’

He said the judiciary had been delivering services to the continuity of the country and was in the forefront in providing solutions to some of the problems facing the country.

“We are not disputing the fact that there is no bad element in the judiciary, but not all in the system are bad. If you compare the number of the bad ones, the good ones out-number the bad ones,’’ he said.

Abdullahi expressed the hope that necessary machinery would be used to flush out the bad ones.

While commending the Onneghen for the current steps he has taken to fight corruption in the judiciary, Bartholomew Okafor, a public commentator said: “The Judiciary is now in the public domain, regrettably for the wrong reasons, because of the level of judicial rascality we have seen in recent times and we commend the new chief justice, for the house cleaning.

“I advise that even the Industrial courts should not be spared, where labour cases against powerful institutions are frustrated by over-extended adjournments to frustrate and weaken labour by Judges who take sides, not on the side of the law but on the side of the powerful institutions who have the financial muscle to buy justice.”

In his own reaction, Femi Falana, SAN, in a newspaper article said to make a success of the CJN directive, the chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, the chief judges of the States, and the Federal Capital Territory should be directed by the CJN to issue practice directions to accelerate the determination of corruption cases.

“In addition, the Supreme Court (Criminal Appeals) Practice Directions 2013, Court of Appeal (Criminal Appeals) Practice Directions 2013, and Court of Appeal (Fast Track) Practice Directions 2014, as well as the Federal High Court Practice Directions 2013 issued by the heads of the respective courts should be put to use as they are designed to give priority to the trial and appeals arising from cases of corruption, money laundering, terrorism, rape, and kidnapping and human trafficking.”

In the same breath, he wrote: “Trial courts should stop such delay tactics which are programmed to defeat the letter and spirit of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015. Finally, defence counsel who conspires with their clients to frustrate the prosecution of corruption cases should be made to pay punitive costs while not more than three lawyers should appear in court for any of the parties in corruption cases.”

Also, Yemi Akinseye-George, SAN, professor of Law and the president of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, said it was disappointing that since 2003, most of the cases of high-profile corruption and financial crimes had remained unresolved in any way.

“The courts have completed several cases involving junior to middle-level defendants but when it comes to resolving high-profile corruption cases involving politically-exposed defendants, the system buckles under the dilatory tactics of lawyers. They blame the delay or outright abandonment of the high-profile corruption cases on lack of evidence. I don’t believe there is no evidence in virtually all the cases involving high-profile defendants. The courts need to be more creative and relevant to the challenges facing the society,” he said.

Nevertheless, Akinseye-George commended the determination of the current CJN to clean Aegean staples with some of the directives rolled out in recent days.  “The Judiciary must join in the crusade for reform. They must tackle high-profile corruption and impunity without giving excuses. Several high-profile defendants who have contributed to the economic challenges facing the country must be made to account for their misdeeds while they were in office. The judiciary can save the country from the shenanigans of politicians. Unfortunately, many judges do not seem to realise their critical role in punishing unethical behaviour in the public domain.

Akiseye-George
Akiseye George

“Having said that, it is not right that high officials of the state, including the president, should brand the judiciary as all corrupt. That gives a bad name not only to the judiciary but also to the country as a whole. It makes us unattractive to investments. There are still good people in Nigeria and in all the departments of government including the judiciary. Let’s celebrate the good and hard-working ones including judges. Then more people will want to be good and ethical. But if we brand everybody corrupt, that’s bad for the system and quite discouraging.

“On the other hand, the recent expressions of displeasure at the excessive judicial tolerance of high-profile corruption may have spurred the recent actions by the chief justice to confront the malaise,” he said.

In order to get conviction, the professor enjoined anti-graft agencies to be more thorough in their investigation. He said: “Improved investigation and effective prosecution are needed. More importantly, however, we need a judiciary that is alive to its role under the Constitution. This is why I believe that the directives issued by the CJN during the commencement of the current legal year must be taken seriously. The high courts must conclude cases and not allow interlocutory applications to delay them. The appellate court justices on their part must not get too technical in reversing or upholding the decisions of trial courts. They must take appeals expeditiously. These are the marching orders issued by the chief justice himself.

“We all know Justice Ayo Salami is a no-nonsense judge. He was pushed out of the judiciary because of his uncompromising stance. Now, he has a second chance to serve. Appointing him to head a sensitive committee as this shows the courage and determination of the CJN. “So, the judiciary is now moving in the right direction. With the support of the eminent senior lawyers in the committee, they should be able to resolve some of the high-profile corruption cases as quickly as possible.”

Salami

Does that mean Nigerians should be optimistic that the steps taken is the most desirable house cleansing needed by the judiciary to restore people’s confidence? The days or months ahead will determine that.

 

– Oct. 6, 2017 @ 18:00 GMT |

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here