Judiciary: In the Eye of the Storm

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Ademola

THE year 2016 would go down in the history of Nigeria as, perhaps, the worst year, ever witnessed by the nation’s judiciary. It was the year of the unexpected.

In an unprecedented fashion, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration took his corruption war to doorsteps of the Nigerian judiciary on October 8, and 9, in a surprise raids on the homes of seven judges including two justices of the Supreme Court. The operatives of the Department of State Security Service, DSS, who carried out the raids called string operations arrested the judges and put them behind bars until they were granted bails.

The embarrassment caused by the raid and arrests shook the judiciary to its foundation, causing division across the country. The National Judicial Council, NJC, could hardly withstand the blow dealt on it and it took the council almost one week to allow arrested judges to vacate their seats to allow for further investigations and prosecutions.

The Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, was equally devastated and wondered how the lordships could be so treated as common criminals. In its first salvo, the association said the Gestapo method used by the DSS was unacceptable and that the judges should have been invited in more honourable way. Some argued that the judges should have been reported to the NJC instead of being subjected to such manner of treatment.

But the likes of Femi Falana, SAN, argued that criminals should be treated the same manner whether on bench, bar, president, governor, senator or an ordinary citizen.

The seven judges arrested are Justice Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court; Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja; Kabir Auta of the Kano High Court; Muazu Pindiga of the Gombe High Court, Mohammed Tsamiya of the Court of Appeal in Ilorin, and Innocent Azubike Umezulike, chief judge of Enugu State.

However, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba’s residence was also searched but he was not arrested.

The DSS said it recovered large sums of money in Nigerian and foreign currencies from three of the judges during the raids on the houses of the seven judiciary officers.

All the seven of judges had since been released on self recognition by the DSS.

Umezulike, Auta, and Tsamiya had earlier been recommended for sack by the NJC for alleged corrupt activities. On September 29, the NJC recommended Tsamiya for retirement for collecting a bribe of N200 million from an applicant to facilitate the processes for his case.

The NJC recommended the sack of Umezulike for abusing his office and mistreating  defendants.

On his part, Auta, a judge of state high court, Kano State, was recommended to Governor Abdullahi Ganduje for dismissal for collecting N125 million from a certain petitioner in case before him. The council also said Auta should be handed over to the assistant inspector general of Police, Zone 1, Kano, for prosecution.

Apart from the judges, at least three members of the registry staff of relevant courts were also invited for questioning by the DSS and were said to have made “relevant statements.”

In a statement, the DSS said it also recovered various sums of money from those arrested including over N93 million in cash as well as more than $530,000 in cash.

Some of the arrested judges are now facing corruption charges in court.

On Monday, November 21, Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, was formally arraigned before a federal high court in Abuja. Ngwuta, who was docked before Justice John Tsoho on a 16-count criminal charge preferred against him, pleaded not guilty.

Among others, Ngwuta was accused of retaining N35,358,000; $319,596 and £25,915 during the raid on his house by the operatives of the DSS. He has since been granted bail on self recognition, despite stiff opposition from government lawyers. The trial of the justice is expected to start in the new year.

Also facing trial in court are Adeniyi Ademola, a federal high court in Abuja and Olubowale, his wife. The couple appeared before a federal high court, Abuja, on Tuesday, December 13 on a 11-count charge of alleged fraud and abuse of office.

Justice Jude Okeke, the trial judge, granted the defendants bail on self-recognition to the tune of N50 million each, shortly after they took turns and pleaded not guilty to charges levelled against them by the federal government.

They were also requested to submit their international passports to the court registrar pending the determination of the case.

As if that was not bad enough, on Friday, December 16, the NJC announced that it had sanctioned Justice Ugbo Ononogbo, a judge of Abia State high court, and Justice Nasir Gunmi, a counterpart in the Zamfara State high court, for various acts of misconduct. The council said it had recommended Ononogbo for dismissal and Gunmi for compulsory retirement.

Apart from recommending the dismissal of Justice Ononogbo to the governor of Abia State, “the Council also recommended that the Hon. Judge, the assistant chief registrar, Probate Division of Abia State High Court, Udeka N. C., and E. M. Ojiako, Esq., be handed over to the police for investigation.”

The NJC also issued a letter of “strong warning” to Justice D. O. Oluwayemi of the Lagos State Judiciary for granting an ex-parte order in a suit “relying on an affidavit of urgency which disclosed no threat of destruction of rights, or interest, in the subject matter of the dispute without putting the other party on notice.”

It similarly issued a similar warning to Justice M. A. Savage of high court of Lagos State, “for holding discussion with complainant’s counsel in Suit No: LD/179/2000, which he had judicially acted upon, and for serving as a bridge between him and the other party’s counsel.”

Some court officials were also found to be culpable in the corruption allegations trailing the Nigerian judiciary. On Thursday, November 3, the federal government charged Ahmed Saleh, chief registrar of the Supreme Court, and two other employees of the court to court with nine counts, including diversion of N2.2bn belonging to the court.

Saleh, alongside Muhammed Sharif and Rilwanu Lawal, are also accused of receiving gratifications totalling N74.4m from private contractors providing services to the Supreme Court between 2009 and 2016. Saleh was among those shortlisted for final consideration by the NJC to succeed Danladi Halilu, outgoing secretary of the council.

Apparently irked by the turn of events against the judiciary, Walter Onnoghen, acting chief justice of Nigeria, on Monday, December 5, reiterated the commitment of the NJC towards restoring the confidence of Nigerians in the judiciary.

Speaking at an event to mark the swearing in of Paul Galinje and Sidi Bage, the two new Supreme Court justices, Onnoghen said the independence of the judiciary is fundamental to ensure the rule of law.

“My lords, ladies and gentlemen, our democracy is evolving and we must all work towards ensuring that the rule of law is deeply entrenched in our nation. To do otherwise is an invitation to chaos and anarchy,” he said.

The acting CJN has a point there. But he would probably need to speak to the government of Muhammadu Buhari to extract commitment from him that government would henceforth adhere to the rule of law and obey court orders.

Since the advent of the administration, it appears that the government have decided on which court orders to obey.

Perhaps, for the umpteenth time, government has chosen to ignore court orders to grant bail to Sambo Dasuki, a retired colonel and a former national security adviser under former President Goodluck Jonathan.

On Tuesday, October 4, the Court of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, declared the arrest and detention of Dasuki as unlawful and arbitrary. The court also ruled that federal government should pay a sum of N15 million as damages to Dasuki.

The former NSA is facing multiple trials for alleged diversion of $2.1 billion meant for the purchase of arms in the immediate past administration. He is also accused of illegal possession of fire arms.

It is unclear whether the federal government had appealed the case, but Dasuki has remained in detention.

Similarly in the same situation has been Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, whowas arrested in December 2015. Kanu and three associates are facing trial on felony. Many court orders to release them have been ignored by the government.

In the case of Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the Shi’a Islamic Movement in Nigeria, the federal government was given 45 days to comply with an order by an Abuja division of the federal high court on Friday, December 2, to release him and his wife. El-Zakzaky was arrested by the military on December 14, 2015, after a clash between the movement and officers of the Nigerian army.  Unconfirmed report said the army killed at least 347 members of the group.

El-Zakzaky approached the court to demand his release, months after he was arrested without being charged to court. He asked the court to declare that his arrest and continued detention violated his fundamental rights.

Falana, his lawyer, said the court should declare that the continued detention of his client without charging him unlawful.

Delivering the judgement, Justice Gabriel Kolawole, rejected the submission of Tijjani Gazali, counsel to the State Security Service, that El-Zakzaky was kept in protective custody of the SSS.

He said the decision to hold the Islamic cleric and his wife for their safety was not based on law. The judge also awarded the Islamic cleric and his wife N50 million each for the illegal detention.

In any case, President Buhari has never hidden his reservations for the Nigerian judiciary. On Monday, July 18, said the judiciary arm of government was yet to perform its functions to the satisfaction of Nigerians given the reforms brought about by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.

Speaking at the National Judicial Institute, Abuja, while declaring open a workshop for Nigerian Judges organised by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption in conjunction with the NJI, Buhari also said the judiciary must take steps to ensure that it was not perceived as being partisan.

Besides, he charged: “When cases are not concluded the negative impression is given that crime pays. So far, the corruption cases filed by government are not progressing as speedily as they should in spite of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act of 2015 essentially because the courts allow some lawyers to frustrate the reforms introduced by law.”

Buhari said the scenario such as the one he painted must change for his administration to succeed in its fight against corruption, arguing that he has made the fight against corruption one of the top priorities of his administration in the hope of restoring the economy and build a new Nigeria.

Whatever the good intention for the arrest of the seven judges, some Nigerians were aggrieved with the government. One of such persons was Olukoya Ogungbeje, a lawyer, who filed a N50 billion suit against Buhari over the arrest of the judges. Ogungbeje alleged that the arrest of the judges without recourse to the NJC was unlawful and amounted to humiliating them.

Joined as defendants in the suit are Lawal Daura, director general of the DSS; Abubakar Malami, SAN, attorney general of the federation and minister of Justice; Ibrahim Idris, inspector-general of Police and the NJC.

Challenging the competence of the suit, President Buhari, through a preliminary objection filed by Chiesonu Okpoko, his counsel, argued that the plaintiff did not disclose his locus standi to initiate and maintain the suit. He insisted that there was no case between the plaintiff and the respondents.

Whatever the outcome of Ogungbeje’s suit, the year 2016 will be a reference year in the anal of judiciary for a long while. Court!

—  Jan 2, 2017 @ 01:00 GMT

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