The Nigerian judiciary remains a major concern of government as senior lawyers are accused of helping criminals to escape justice
| By Olu Ojewale | Feb 29, 2016 @ 01:00 GMT |
IBRAHIM Magu, acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was apparently in a combative mood on Tuesday, February 16, when he took a swipe at lawyers and journalists in Nigeria. Magu accused both professional groups of conniving with criminals to subvert the course of justice and frustrate war against corruption.
Delivering a speech at a rally organised by a coalition of civil society groups, in Abuja, the EFCC boss alleged that lawyers usually receive part of the stolen public funds to fight his commission, sabotage and delay justice. “One of the big challenges we have in the effective prosecution of the war on corruption, is that of very senior lawyers who Nigeria has been very kind to: They who went to good schools here, when Nigeria was good, many of them, on government scholarship; they who Nigeria has given so much opportunity.
“When we have corruption cases, cases of people who have stolen food from the mouths of our children; when we have cases of people who have stolen money meant to build hospitals and buy drugs; when we have cases of people who have stolen all the money meant to buy guns for our soldiers to fight Boko Haram, when we have all these cases of wicked people who have stolen Nigeria’s money, they run to these same senior lawyers, give them part of the stolen money and mobilise them to fight us, to delay us in court and to deny Nigerians of justice. These are the people who do not want justice for the common man,” he said.
Magu was not done. Making a veiled reference to Rickey Tarfa, a senior advocate of Nigerian, SAN, who was arrested and charged to court, for allegedly trying to foil the arrest of two Benin Republic nationals in Lagos, the anti-graft boss said it was disheartening that 34 SANs could storm the court to defend their colleague. He said despite their presence in such large number, a ‘small’ EFCC lawyer was able to defeat them as the court refused to quash the charges against Tarfa.
As for journalists, he accused some of them of working for some powerful individuals. “Corrupt people hire journalists to abuse us every day. They say we are not doing the work according to the law. But, that is not true.
“There is no agency that follows the law more than EFCC; none. Before we arrest you, or seize your property or do anything to you, we check the law, we go to court and get court order. That is why we are winning; that is why we are defeating them every day,” Magu said.
Earlier on Wednesday, February 10, while the anti-graft boss received members of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in his office, he appealed to them to join hands with the EFCC to stamp out corruption in the country. He lamented that some members of the NBA had been giving the association a bad name through their unprofessional conducts.
“Society is not served when prominent members of the bar not only take clearly tainted briefs, but even facilitate the commission of crimes by knowingly supplying the technical know-how and later, helping in the dispersal of the proceeds of crime.
“There are lawyers within the fold of the NBA who ought not to be among your noble ranks. Those people are not fit to be called ministers; rather, they are vandals of the temple of justice,” he said. He, therefore, urged them to share in the vision of President Muhammadu Buhari’s war against corruption.
Augustine Alegeh, SAN and president of the NBA, told Magu that the courtesy call was to salute the courage of the anti-graft boss in the corruption war. Alegeh admitted that the EFCC and NBA needed to work in synergy for the war against corruption to be won.
But whether members of the bar would have the same synergy to work with the bench and help to clean the Augean stables is another kettle of fish. President Buhari is equally worried about the conduct of the judiciary in the current fight against corruption.
Speaking on Sunday, January 31, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he attended African Union, AU’s conference, Buhari said ongoing fight against corruption in Nigeria could be effectively tackled with the strong support of the judiciary.
Recounting his experiences with the judiciary in his first three attempts to become president, Buhari concluded that for justice to be served in the dispensation of justice, far-reaching reforms of the judiciary remained a key priority for his administration.
Nevertheless, he assured members of the Nigerian community in Ethiopia that with the support of the chief justice of Nigeria, he would continue to do his best to improve the nation’s judicial administration system.
That notwithstanding, the NBA has been unhappy with the criticism of the judiciary in the current fight against corruption. Also, most senior lawyers think that the statements coming from the executive arm of government against the judiciary is based on ignorance of what the functions of lawyers are.
Speaking at the valedictory session organised in honour of Mohammed Muntaka-Coomassie, a retiring justice of the Supreme Court, on Wednesday, February 10, Alegeh said the recent attack directed at the judiciary over the ongoing anti-corruption war was unacceptable. “The NBA condemns in its entirety the generalisation and/or categorisation of the judiciary as being corrupt and an impediment to the zero corruption policy of the present administration,” Alegeh said.
The NBA president noted that although there were bad eggs in the system, the categorisation of the entire judiciary as corrupt was a strong misconception, and an attempt to intimidate the judiciary, which he said, would not be tolerated. Although he did not mention President Buhari in his speech, it was clear the statement was directed at president and others who have criticised the judiciary recently. Alegeh said such generations and categorisations of the judiciary as being an obstacle to the anti-corruption crusade was aimed at intimidating the judiciary.
Also, Justice Mahmud Mohamed, chief justice of Nigeria, said the judiciary was duty bound to act in accordance with the dictates of the law, not that made by critics. “The Nigerian judiciary, though constantly striving to redress the wrongs and tilt the balance in favour of that which is right, has recently had to face the backlash of misguided opinions fashioned without due consideration of the law,” Mohammed said.
Professor Epihany Azinge, SAN, and former director-general of School of Advanced Legal Studies, is of the view that there are fundamental misconceptions of the roles of lawyers and what they are expected to do. “Lawyers work within the ambit of law which guides what they can and cannot do. That’s why they have disciplinary committee,” Azinge said in the NTA Good Morning Show on Thursday, February 18, describing the criticisms of Magu as harsh. Azinge suggests that there is need to build the capacity of EFCC’s to match the effectiveness of senior lawyers who have garnered their experience over the years to enable them prosecute their cases effectively and successfully.
Similarly, Solomon Akoma, former attorney general of Abia State, dismissed Magu’s statement as unfortunate. “It gives the impression that he is not conversant with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution. His complaint is totally out of point. Our view with due respect is that he should follow due process. The law confers on the accused to choose a lawyer of his choice just as it confers on the EFCC to engage lawyer of its choice to prosecute a case. Nigerians are of the view that the moment anybody is charged to court that the person is already guilty. This is not so. The law holds the suspect innocent until proven guilty. Once the person goes to court the onus is on the prosecution to prove otherwise,” Akoma said.
There are other lawyers who think that Magu is posturing with his accusations because he is a government official and he is under pressure to prove to his pay masters that he is working hard to get a conviction of suspected corrupt officials. “It is an assault to the provisions of the Constitution which laid the background for engaging a legal practitioner. It is a wild allegation made to intimidate the bar and the bench,” another former attorney general said.
Nevertheless, it is not only government that has been putting pressures on the judiciary. There are also pressures within. Apparently using his position as a senior member of the bar, Rikey Tarfa, SAN, on Tuesday, February 16, appeared before Justice Aishat Opesanwo of Lagos State High Court, Igbosere, on two-count charge of obstruction of justice and attempting to pervert the course of justice with more than 90 SANs and other lawyers representing him. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and Adeniyi Akintola, SAN, who led the team of lawyers, was able to get him bail on self-recognition.
Rotimi Oyedepo, prosecution counsel, represented the EFCC in matter.
The intimidation was, however, not lost on Justice Opesanwo, who bemoaned the number of counsels who appeared in court for the defendant. She remarked that there was no need for such a solidarity support as it only amounted to harassment and intimidation of the court.
The heat from government is also getting to the bench also. For instance, on Monday, February 2, during the trial of Patrick Akpobolokemi, former boss of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, and six others on a 22 count charge bordering on allegations of conversion and theft to the tune of N2.6 billion, Justice Ibrahim Buba, the trial judge, announced to the chagrin of his audience that he forced himself to sit for the trial despite ill-health because he didn’t want adversarial newspaper headlines. “My temperature was very high yesterday, but I forced myself to be here in court so that the press will not write bold headlines that judge’s absence stalled trial,” he said.
It is not only on the fight against corruption that the government officials are worried about. Commenting on the recent Supreme Court decision on the Rivers State governorship election petition, John Odigie-Oyegun, chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC, said: “I still find the judgement on Rivers State governorship elections astonishing. There is something fundamentally wrong in the judiciary. We have lost very important resource-rich states to the PDP. No matter how crude oil prices have fallen, it is still the most important revenue earner for the country.”
This, analysts would like to believe that Odigie-Oyegun wanted the Supreme Court to award victory to the APC as the ruling party at the centre and such, entitled to control such a “juicy” state as Rivers.
In the case of Akwa Ibom State, Amadu Attai, a leader of the APC in the state, called on President Buhari to probe the Supreme Court over its verdict which upheld the election of Governor Udom Emmanuel. In a statement in Abuja, Attai said that a probe of the apex court over that judgment was the only way to restore the dignity of Nigeria’s highest court.
According to him, “We believe the leadership of the country and indeed all Nigerians should not sit and watch the judiciary collapse under the watch of the current chief justice of Nigeria. We, hereby, call on the president to arrest the drift in the third arm of government by probing the rot in the Supreme Court.”
Attai claimed that the spate of attacks on the Supreme Court following its decisions in some of the governorship election petitions, including that of his state, were indicative of the lack of confidence in the court by many members of the Nigerian public.
This, he contended, portends grave dangers for the nation as it could lead those who felt they had been denied justice to resort to self-help.
“By complaining against the judiciary and seeming to encourage the public to also whine, the president appears to be unaccustomed to the thoroughness and sensible ‘delay’ required by the courts to reach a just decision. Those who join him to rail against the judiciary appear to embrace his unseemly rush to judgement. They must pray that the shoe will never be on the other foot. For, after all, at the Appeal Court level, the ruling party was exultant. When they suffered reverses at the apex court, when the shoe was on the other foot, they became unbearably sullen and disconsolate,” a commentator who did not give his name said.
On his part, Oyebanji Babalola, a student at the Obafemi Awolowo University, said: “If we all agree that the judiciary is a clog in the wheel of progress of this country then something has to be done to address it. “What happened in Ghana recently is an eye opener that this crop of individuals do not live up to their callings. Are we going to continue to be politically correct to the detriment of the progress of our country? Something drastic needs to be done to correct this situation, including what may not be “lawful” by your own definition. Enough is enough!”
That notwithstanding, there are also those who want the sanctity of the law to be upheld no matter what. “Every accused under the law must be presumed innocent and lawyers have a duty to argue for their innocence in court. The judges are the team to ensure that lawyers don’t play a fast one on the public by upholding judicial integrity,” David Eboh, a university student, said.
In any case, Onyekachi Ubani, a human rights lawyer, said the NBA was equally worried about the criticism against the judiciary. To find a solution to the problem, Ubani said that the national executive council of the NBA had to meet in Jos from Wednesday, February 17 to Saturday 20, to thrash out how to help the government in its war against corruption in accordance with the provisions of the law.
Will the NBA come out with an acceptable solution to the apparent conflicts of interest between the judiciary and the government? That is a matter of conjecture. But what is paramount to the larger society is that justice should not only be served, it must also be seen to have been served. And putting the judiciary on trial every time there is a pronouncement looks like the best way to bringing down the justice system itself which may not be in the interest of all.