Nigerian Judiciary on Trial: Can Supreme Court Rescue It?

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Mahmud Mohammed

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The pronouncements of President Muhammadu Buhari on the refusal of government to respect court bails given to some accused persons and controversial decisions of some election tribunals seem to have created suspicion that the judiciary is being manipulated by the ruling All Progressives Congress

By Olu Ojewale  |  Jan 18, 2016 @ 01:00 GMT  |

THIS is a very busy time for the Nigerian judiciary. Both lawyers and judges appear to be fully engaged with their hands full with cases ranging from corruption matters to electoral issues. In the past few months, ruling on corruption cases and electoral matters have attracted criticisms against the federal government and the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC.  Moreso, the discordant rulings emanating from the judiciary albeit from the election tribunals and appellate courts on similar election cases taint the image of the judiciary which appears to be on trial. This is why Nigerians are worried that those seeking for justice in the judiciary in the country may not get it because of allegations that judges are corrupt and that they are being manipulated by the government in power, especially the federal judges who are being owed salary arrears.

This notwithstanding, trials are going on and cases are being heard. For now, the star attraction for Nigerians has been the ongoing Dasukigate. Sambo Dasuki, a retired colonel and former national security adviser, and some of his alleged cohorts are on trial for alleged diversion of security votes of about $2.1billion. The number of prominent members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, being tried for the alleged offence, makes it look as if the APC government is using the judiciary to deal with its opponents.

Indeed, some pronouncements in the judiciary may have raised such suspicions. For instance, on Wednesday, January 6, authorities of the Federal High Court of Nigeria distanced itself from media reports indicating that it granted N250m bail sum to Dasuki and others being prosecuted for diversion of funds meant for arms procurement.

Emmanuel Garko, acting chief registrar of the court, said in a statement that the Federal High Court could not have granted bail to any of the accused because none of them was charged before the court. Rather, Garko said the accused were facing trial before Justice Hussein Baba-Yusuf and Justice Peter Affen of the High Court of the Federal City Territory, Abuja.

The former NSA and others were granted bail on two occasions – on December 18 and 21 – last year at N250m by Baba-Yusuf and Affen of the high court of the FCT.

Dasuki is currently involved in three criminal cases pending before the Federal High Court, Abuja, and the high court of the FCT, Abuja. Before Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Dasuki is being tried on a five counts of money laundering involving about N84.6m and illegal possession of firearms.

In the second case, the former NSA is facing trial on 19 counts bordering on criminal diversion of funds with Shuaibu Salisu, a former director of finance and administration in the office of the NSA, ONSA, and Aminu Baba-Kusa former director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.

Dasuki, Salisu, Baba-Kusa and two companies – Acacia Holdings Limited and Reliance Referral Hospital Limited – were charged with conspiracy and criminal breach of trust under the Penal Code Act and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, (Establishment) Act.

Justice Baba-Yusuf, trial judge, granted each of the accused person bail on December 18, at N250m with one surety and adjourned the case to January 21, for commencement of trial.

Dasuki
Dasuki

In the third case, Dasuki is being tried with Bashir Yuguda, former minister of state for Finance; Shuaibu Salisu, former director of Finance and Administration in the ONSA; Attahiru Dalhatu Bafarawa, former Sokoto State governor,  Sagir Attahiru, his son, as well as Dalhatu Investment Limited, his firm, on 22 counts ‎of alleged diversion of more than N20billion.

Justice Affen, on December 21, last year, granted bail to each of them at N250m with two sureties and fixed February 2, for trial to start. After perfecting the bail granted by Affen, the operatives of the State Security Service, SSS, in a dramatic move, took custody of Dasuki and refused to allow him to go home on bail. He was arrested as soon as he was being released from Kuje Prison, on December 29.

Before the bail, the former NSA had previously been granted bail on two occasions, which were similarly scuttled by security operatives. Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court in Abuja, had granted the former NSA bail on November 3, in the charges of unlawful possession of firearms but the bail was on November 4, denied by the SSS who instead of obeying court order laid siege on his Asokoro Residence and placed him under house arrest.

The security operatives claimed that Dasuki was being investigated on another matter.

Indeed, he was later arraigned before Justice Baba-Yusuf of the Abuja high court on breach of trust. Again, he was granted bail but which the security operatives, also refused to honour the bail order. Every move by Ahmed Raji, SAN and counsel to Dasuki, to get his client out on bail has remained a herculean task.

Similarly, Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, has been in detention since October 14, 2015, when he was arrested on his arrival to Nigeria from Britain, despite fulfilling all his bail conditions.

Justice Ademola granted Kanu bail unconditionally while ruling in an application filed and argued by Vincent Obeta, his counsel. The judge set aside an earlier order permitting the DSS to detain Kanu for 90 days.

Ademola ruled that Kanu’s continued detention after two months without trial violated Section 158 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 and Section 35 of the 1999 Constitution. The court ordered the DSS to release him unconditionally.

Rather than release him, fresh charges were filed against him. On December 23, Kanu apparently frustrated plans to arraign him and two of his associates by expressing doubts about Justice Ahmed Mohammed’s ability to adjudicate the treasonable charge against them fairly. The judge withdrew from the case.

These have evidently called into question the capability and willingness of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to respect the rule of law in a democratic setting. As it is, Buhari had once ruled the country as a military leader with iron fist and flagrant disregard for the rule of law.

A trait of this could, perhaps, be adduced in the way and manner he answered a question on the government’s disobedience of court orders on December 30, during his maiden media chat. The president justified Dasuki and Kanu’s detention, saying those who committed serious crimes against the country should not be granted temporary freedom because they could jump bail.

“Technically, if you see the type of atrocities these people have committed against the republic, against the country, when you think about it, you can’t allow them to jump bail,” he said.

On Kanu, the president, said: “And the one you are calling Kanu, do you know he had two passports, one Nigerian, one British, and he came into the country without any. Do you know he brought an equipment into this country and was broadcasting, Radio Biafra; which kind of government do you think should harbour that kind of person?”

The president’s statements have been condemned by a good number of Nigerians who perceive him as dictatorial and intolerant of opposition.

Kanu
Kanu

One of the venomous critics of the president is Femi Fani-Kayode, former campaign manager of the President Goodluck Jonathan campaign organisation. In an article in The Sun newspaper of January 6, he described Buhari as a diehard dictator. “Mr. President, I watched you on your media chat the other day and I am constrained to tell you that you not only abused your power but that you also crossed the line with some of the things that you said. For example, you have no right to tell the courts how to administer justice and who and who not to grant bail. Again, you have no business to tell the legislature, which laws to pass and how to run their affairs.

“Again you have no right and neither do you have the power to pronounce any Nigerian citizen guilty of any crime unless and until a duly constituted court of law has done so. You cannot be the prosecutor, judge and jury in any criminal proceeding and this is especially so when you initiated those proceedings and you are the accuser. To attempt to do so is not only unacceptable and irresponsible but it is also heartless and unkind. The fact that most of our senior and respected lawyers have refused to tell you this simply because they are scared of you or because they are looking for patronage from your government does not mean that what you are doing is lawful or acceptable. What you are doing is morally and legally reprehensible and it is unacceptable in any democratic and civilised society.”

The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in a statement on Saturday, January 2, linked the trial of Dasuki to the 2019 general elections, saying President Buhari and his All Progressives Congress, APC, were scared that the former NSA might be nursing a presidential ambition.

The party said it was unfortunate that Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade had now become a war between the APC and the PDP. The PDP explained that the trial of Dasuki was a sign that the ruling party felt threatened by his wide political and security network which he could deploy if he should decide to contest for the presidency in 2019 on the PDP platform.

The party also noted that Buhari appeared to have already pronounced Dasuki and Kanu guilty in his last week media chat even before court pronouncements. “The PDP is conversant with the sinister plan by the APC-led Federal Government to completely decimate our party by raking up all manner of allegations of corruption against the Goodluck Jonathan administration and leaders of the PDP with a view to taking them to court on orchestrated charges,” the party said in a statement.

The PDP also said that it is aware that President Buhari had directed security agencies to be more vicious in dealing with its members and had continued to subtly coerce the judiciary to convict those being charged to court.

But in its reply, the APC leadership said it was not losing sleep about who the PDP planned to pick from the North as its presidential flag bearer in the 2019 elections. John Oyegun, national chairman of the APC, said in a statement, that his party ”will not join issues with the childish and laughable conspiracy theories being bandied by the Peoples Democratic Party in relation to the 2019 presidential election.”

Oyegun said the president was much concerned about delivery of his electoral promises than thinking about 2019. On the alleged directive to security agencies and judiciary to “coerce” and “convict” PDP leaders and officials, the APC leader said the perception was borne out of fear of the immediate-past administration with corruption charges. “Clearly such abuse of presidential directives was a concept invented and effectively deployed by the PDP during its defunct 16-year rule. The APC is a law-abiding party and cannot adopt such diabolical concept. The APC believes strongly in the rule of law, as against the kind of impunity Nigeria witnessed under the PDP for 16 years,” he said.

Also, Garba Shehu, senior special assistant to Buhari on media and publicity, said the presidential media chat showed that the president was real and honest. Shehu said Buhari did not pretend, adding that he was not trying to impress anyone. The president’s aide said: “He was unpretentious throughout. This alone had the effect of reinforcing his reputation for candour. But he also showed a softer side of himself. He joked, he laughed and showed flashes of frustration and he was characteristically himself: calm, self-confident, composed and not for a moment did he try to be someone other than himself.”

Wike
Wike

He added: The important take-away from my point of view is, beyond there being a “New Sheriff in Town” in the president as commander-in-chief, the president used the occasion to go over the heads of the editors to engage the millions of viewers, forcefully driving home his sometimes bitter points of view on a wide variety of issues. He put up a brave presence and a brave defence on key issues of the day–security, corruption, economy and the indivisibility of the country.”

Whatever, the suspicion by the opposition goes beyond those who are already in trouble with the law or those who are likely to be pick up soon. The Buhari administration has also been accused of trying to use the judiciary to get what get what it could not achieve through free and fair elections.

The pointer has been the controversial decisions of election tribunals across the country.  Indeed, the suspense is now palpable in Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Rivers and Taraba states as people are made to wait with bated breath for justice to take its course as they look forward to the Supreme Court verdict on the gubernatorial elections held in their states on April 11, last year. The current governors of the states have been in legal tussles with their opponents since the elections results were released.

So far, results of the legal battles have been mixed. In Akwa-Ibom and Rivers states, appeal courts have returned an outright cancellation and ordered rerun of elections in the states. In Abia and Taraba states, the fight has been narrowed to who are the rightful persons to be governors of those states.

Until the appeal court said otherwise, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State had been declared winner of the gubernatorial election held in the state on April 11, by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. The verdict was endorsed by the state election tribunal, which dismissed his opponents’ suit on November 3, 2015. But the appeal court, sitting in Owerri, Imo State, on Thursday, December 31, sacked Ikpeazu by ruling that Alex Otti, candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, winner of the April 11 governorship election in the state.

Ikpeazu, a candidate of the PDP, has taken the matter to the Supreme Court to challenge the annulment of his victory. The five-man appellate court upturned Ikpeazu’s victory, saying that Otti scored 164, 444 valid votes to defeat the PDP candidate who scored 114, 444 votes.

The court declared that the cancellation of the elections held in Obingwa, Osisioma Ngwa and Isiala Ngwa local government areas by the returning officers after the results were uploaded to the INEC was wrong.

“In the Electoral Act, the Returning Officer has the right to only declare results of elections and not to cancel elections. This panel discovered that the earlier results uploaded to INEC headquarters correspond with the correct valid registered voters in the three LGAs, while that awarded to the respondent, shows over voting and therefore null and void,” Justice Oyebisi Omoleye who read the judgement said.

Emmanuel
Emmanuel

While the case of Ikpeazu must have baffled his legal team, it was a dance of victory for Governor Darius Ishaku of Taraba State, as the appellate court in Abuja upturned a tribunal verdict, which had earlier sacked him from office. The court of appeal with a five-member panel led by Justice Abdul Aboki has decided in favour of Ishaku, candidate of the PDP, by ruling that his nomination by his party could not be questioned by a non-member of the party and thus stating that his nomination complied with section 85 of the electoral act.

By the verdict, Aisha Alhassan, candidate of the APC and current minister of women affairs, was floored once again. Dissatisfied, Alhassan has taken the matter to the Supreme Court for adjudication.

Similarly, the apex court is expected to examine and give judgement on the disputed gubernatorial election cases of Akwa-Ibom and Rivers states.

The governorship election petition brought against Governor Nyesom Wike of River State and the PDP by Dakuku Peterside, candidate of the APC, has been taken to the Supreme Court. The appeal court had agreed with the state election tribunal, nullified the election and ordered a fresh poll but Nyesom, faulting the judgement, took the case to the apex court.

Also, in Akwa Ibom, the election petitions tribunal annulled the governorship election in 18 local governments of the state even. But the court of appeal sitting in Abuja, on December 17, 2015, went a bit further and cancelled the entire election and ordered a fresh election within 90 days. Udom Emmanuel, governor of the state and candidate of the PDP, has also taken the matter to the apex court. Umana Umana, candidate of the APC in the election has challenged Emmanuel’s election all the way.

With the verdict of the Supreme Court on the four states governorship elections being expected in the first quarter of the year, the PDP has been crying foul that the verdict could be manipulated in favour of the ruling party which has been accused of planning to turn the country to one party state.

However, a rerun election in Akwa-Ibom and Rivers is envisaged to done in a politically charged environment where both parties will fight to finish.

More importantly, there are also allegations of corruption against judges hearing election petitions across the country. The allegations have been allowed to fester for so long that Nigerians, are for now expectant that the National Judicial Council would soon make scapegoats of corrupt judges. Whatever happens in the Supreme Court will determine how much faith Nigerians are likely to put the nation’s judiciary.

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