Cleansing the Nigerian Judiciary

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Mahmud Mohammed

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The Nigerian judiciary, the third arm of government, has been cleansing it’s house of corrupt judges to increase confidence that it is ready to play a key role in the war against corruption in the country

By Olu Ojewale  |  Oct 17, 2016 @ 01:00 GMT  |

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari has never hidden his disdain for the slow progression of the Nigerian judiciary in the dispensation of justice, especially on corruption cases. Severally, Buhari has openly blamed the third arm of government for trying to frustrate the corruption war that he has embarked upon since he assumed office. The reason for all this is not farfetched; the judiciary itself is not bereft of corrupt elements.

Only last week Friday, September 30, the National Judicial Commission, NJC, sanctioned some judges for their corrupt practises and recommended outright dismissal for another lordship whose action showed that he was not an honourable member of the bench. This new set of three judges shown out of service, in such an inglorious manner, brings to nine the number of judges that have been disciplined so far this year.

Recommended for immediate dismissal and prosecution is Justice Kabiru M. Auta of the High Court of Justice, Kano State. The NJC said Auta should be handed over to the assistant inspector general of Police, Zone 1, Kano State, for prosecution.

And recommended for compulsory retirement are Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya, presiding justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin division, and Justice I. A. Umezulike, chief judge of Enugu State.

Auta, head of the Appeal Court division in Ilorin, Kwara State, was involved in a matter relating to a “419” case. The judge allegedly collected N200 million from a contractor, promising that he would get a purported female chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, to give him contracts. But this did not happen, prompting the contractor to demand for refund of his money. He eventually returned part of the money.

Tsamiya, a justice of the Appeal Court, had used his position as chairman of the Election Appeal Panel in the Owerri Division on legislative electoral arising from 2015 election disputes to feather his own nest. He was said to have met with one of the litigants on three occasions in his residences in Sokoto, Abuja and Owerri and on each occasion he repeatedly demanded for N200 million bribe. The litigant was said to have paid certain amount of the money, but Tsamiya still did not deliver the judgement in his favour, which prompted him to petition the NJC.

It appeared that the judge ran into trouble because he could not convince the two other members of the panel to cooperate with him because the NJC exonerated them in the matter.

On his part, Umezulike, chief judge of Enugu State, ran into trouble when he refused to deliver judgment in a case – Ajogwu Vs Nigerian Bottling Company Limited, in which final addresses were adopted on October 23, 2014. However, he delivered judgment on March 9, 2015, about 126 days after addresses were adopted, contrary to constitutional provisions that judgment should be delivered within a period of 90 days.

It was being speculated that he was probably waiting for the highest bidder. Besides, he ordered the arrest of a litigant in a case that had been amicably settled out of court and judgment entered. The arrested litigant happened to have previously donated N10 million to the chief judge at his book launch.

Other judges that have been recommended for retirement this year include, Justice O. Gbajabiamila of Lagos State. He allegedly delivered judgment in a matter before him 22 months after written addresses were adopted by all the parties and 35 months after the close of evidence in the suit; Justice Idris M. J. Evuti and Justice Tanko Yusuf Usman both of Niger State High Court, who were found guilty of falsifying dates of birth.

Others are Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court barred from elevation to the appellate court for allegedly adjourning pre-election matter severally until the termination of the life span of the Ogun State House of Assembly; Justice Mohammed Yunusa of the Enugu division of the Federal High Court, was recommended for compulsory retirement for making orders restraining the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission and other law enforcement agencies from investigating some persons, including Stella Oduah, a former minister of aviation; Justice Olamide Oloyede of Osun State high court, who was compulsorily retired because of the petition she wrote to the Osun State House of Assembly against Governor Rauf Aregbesola, and failure to conduct herself in such a manner as to preserve the dignity of her office and impartiality and independence of the judiciary.”

Buhari
Buhari

That notwithstanding, it is understood that many more judges are being investigated by security and anti-graft agencies. One of the areas being investigated is the allegation that some of the judges were receiving monthly stipends from the Office of the National Security Adviser, ONSA, in the immediate past administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

More than 20 petitions were said to have been received by the NJC that some judges had received stipends allegedly paid from the $15billion meant for arms procurement, which was allegedly mismanaged by the administration. The stipends were allegedly disbursed from an account which was named “Security Vote”.

Sources said judges benefited from the account in form of “assistance” through which some of judges bought themselves Sports Utility Vehicles, SUVs, for official use.

One of the sources, who spoke in confidence, said: “In one instance, there were allegations that some outstanding allowances and SUVs were purchased from the account for judges based on a request by some heads of some courts. Many contingency requests were accommodated from the three arms of government by the ONSA under the guise of security vote. This is one of the reasons why the prosecution is opposed to the open trial of Sambo Dasuki, ex-national security adviser.”

Besides, it is believed that the EFCC has also been monitoring some high judges across the country, especially four judges in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, who are being accused of frustrating the probe of high-profile corruption cases.

According to sources, the judges are believed to have been sympathetic with suspects who approach their courts to stop their trial by the EFCC for corruption.

“The affected judges have been indulging in ‘arrangee’ injunctions,” the source alleged. ‎The source said a preliminary complaint assessment committee of the NJC is already going through more than 20 petitions to establish whether or not there are prima facie evidence against the judges.

“It is when a prima facie case is established against them that a report will be tabled before the NJC for investigation and disciplinary action. The process is cumbersome and painstaking. Those behind these petitions owe the NJC a duty to prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubt. Otherwise, petitions without evidence won’t be considered by the council,” the source said.

For example, he said, four petitions were filed against Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court but there was no merit in any of them because “he acted within the law.”

Another case that may be of interest to Nigerians is that of Rickey Tarfa, SAN, who allegedly bribed Hyeladzira Nganjiwa and Mohammed Yunusa, judges of Federal High Court, to influence his cases before them.

Tarfa, whose trial resumes on Thursday, October 13, before Justice A.A. Akintoye of a Lagos High Court sitting in Igbosere, Lagos State, reportedly paid money into the bank account of two Federal High Court judges.

Tosin Owobo, a witness of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, disclosed this when he was being led in evidence by Rotimi Oyedepo, counsel to the commission, at the ongoing trial of Tarfa. Owobo, who is an EFCC operative, told the court that in the course of the investigation, the commission wrote letters to Zenith and Fidelity banks requesting information on Tarfa and Awa Ajia Nigeria Limited’s account.

The responses showed that the signatory to the company’s account was Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa. The report also showed, in the statement of account, one Mohammed Nasir Yunusa, another judge of the federal High Court, who has already been recommended for suspension by the NJC. The witness gave a breakdown of some transactions in the account linking Tarfa and the two judges from the statement of account received.

Furthermore, according to the witness, several payments were made into the account at different times by the suspect. “On August 6, 2013, a cheque of N500, 000 was paid to H. A. Nganjiwa by Rickey Tarfa. On January 29, 2014, they discovered that H. A. Nganjiwa was paid the sum of N1.5m,” he said.

Owobo narrated further that a cheque in the sum of N835, 000 was paid to Nganjiwa on October 3, 2014. Also on December 23, 2014, the judge received N500, 000, which was cleared from Tafar’s account. Another cash deposit of N1.5m was made into that account at Awa Ajia by the lawyer. He added that on October 27, 2015, a cash deposit of N1.5m was made into the account of H. A. Nganjiwa by Rickey Tarfar. On December 30, 2015, there was also a cash deposit in the sum of N500, 000.  A cash deposit of N500, 000 by Rickey Tarfar was made to Awa Ajia Nig. Ltd. on January 8, 2016, among other cash transfers.

Also, Owobo alleged that on November 30, 2015, there was a transfer of the sum of N200, 000 from Hauwa Nigeria Limited to Justice Yunusa as well as the sum of N500, 000 on December 15, 2015.

Specifically, the EFCC alleged that Tarfa’s law firm, Rickey Tarfa and Co., with Access Bank account number 0000964760, paid N225,000 into Yunusa’s bank account. The commission said that “the N225, 000 was accepted and acknowledged by Justice Yunusa in a text message to Tarfa wherein he said, “Thank you my senior advocate.”

However, Tarfa stated in an affidavit he filed before a Federal High Court in Lagos, that the money was a contribution by some friends of Yunusa towards the funeral rites of Audi Damasa, his father-in-law.

Be that as it may, if the cases against the lordship are proved Nganjiwa and Yunusa may be sanctioned alongside Tarfa, their lawyer friend who may be derobed.

Before that time, the sanctions meted out by the NJC so far against corrupt judges have been receiving commendations of persons and institutions.

Dele Adesina, former general secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, said in an interview: “I think this will gladden the hearts of many legal practitioners.  My position has always been that of all the three organs of government, the executive, legislature and judiciary, only the judiciary is self-regulated. The judiciary’s regulatory system is inbuilt and that is the National Judicial Council, NJC, and it has been living up to its expectations.

“We have just seen an example of the work it has been doing to sanitise and purify, and that is very in accord with my position, because I have argued over and over again that a situation where we generalise blame, accusations or where we condemn the entire system is not the right thing to do.”

For Paul Ananaba, SAN, the NJC should be commended for living up to its expectations but he urged the commission to find ways to explain the reasons for its decision to judges, so they would not be afraid to properly discharge their duties for fear of sack.

Tarfa
Tarfa

He also wants the judges to be further enlightened so that they would be mindful of what is expected of them in carrying out their assignments. “There should also be more judges’ conferences and retreats where they will review the basis of their actions, so that judges will be convinced that these people were not removed or recommended for sack out of grounds that are merely to put fear. They would know that their removal was the right thing to do at those stages,” Ananaba said.

According to him, the punishment meted out to the erring judges would serve as a clear signal that it would no longer be business as usual. “In all, I doff my hat to the NJC, judges will now know that when you contravene your oath of office and ethics, you are not likely to go free and even though you went from the Bar to the Bench. If you are removed in those circumstances, you can no longer come back to practice law, you can no longer be a lawyer,” Ananaba said.

Aligning himself with the decision of the NJC,  Sam Ohuabunwa, a newspaper columnist, said it had become obvious that the main difficulty in fighting corruption in Nigeria is also the judiciary. He, however, expressed sadness that it is only when the affected litigants petition, when the judge failed to deliver as promised, that the matter usually comes out. “Which is to say that if the judge receives the bribe and delivers favourable judgment, no body petitions. That means that many cases will go unreported. The opponent who has been cheated only hopes that the appellate court will restore his rights.

“But when we have justices of the appellate courts who are asking for such sums as N200 million, what will be the outcome? Therefore, the CJN and the NJC should go beyond waiting for dissatisfied or cheated litigants to petition them before acting and go ahead to set up other measures first to prevent corrupt judicial officers from climbing the rungs and second to monitor the lifestyle of judges to identify those living above their means,”  Ohuabunwa said.

Besides, he wants the NBA to stop paying lip service to judicial corruption and help to sanitise the system. He warned: “I believe that if we wipe out corruption in the executive and legislative arms of government and allow corruption to remain covered in the judiciary, we have achieved nothing, but if we make the judiciary corruption-free, then we have won the war against corruption in every other arm of government or segment of the Nigerian society.”

Mahmud Mohammed, chief justice of Nigeria, CJN, expressed his concern when there were conflicting judgements on the same matter before the judges on political matters recently. This has proved that there were certain inducements. Nevertheless, Mohammed assured that the cases would be probed and erring judges would be sanctioned.

Reacting to that, the Punch in its editorial of October 4, said: “There is a lot wrong with our judiciary. We have had enough of sound bites from the CJN (chief justice of Nigeria) and the attorney general of the federation on how to make the judiciary work again. Action is needed now to stop the bad eggs from the Bench and Bar from escaping justice; and thereby, restoring the integrity, dignity and respect of the legal system.  To achieve this will require appointing CJNs with tenure long enough to execute branch and roots reforms in the judiciary.”

Indeed, if the judiciary is seen to have taken the gauntlet to clean up its augean stables, even President Muhammadu Buhari who has said severally that the Judiciary is a major stumbling block in his fight against corruption, will be rest assured that he has an ally in the third tier of the government. But for now, it is left to be seen how far it is willing to go.

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