By Innocent Anaba
The recent allegations against the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, which sat on appeal over the Abia Govwernorship Election Tribunal, has continued to elicit reactions. Nigerian Coalition for Justice, a civil society group,Â had petition the National Judicial Council (NJC), to investigate allegation of corruption in the process that led to the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt, declaring Chief Theodore Orji of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), duly elected Governor of Abia state.
The group in a petition by Messrs Bala Tukur and A.B Femi, dated March 4, 2009, addressed to the NJC, had alleged that the judges were compromised by accepting cash gift before delivering the February 19 judgment, that reversed the decision of the Abia State Election Petitions Tribunal, which had earlier voided the election of Orji.
It would be recalled that the Abia tribunal had in February, 2008, held that as public servants, Orji and his deputy, Mr. Chris Akomas, did not resign 30 days before the April 2007 election as stipulated by law. The tribunal agreed with Chief Onyema Ugochukwu of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDPâ€™s) claim that Orji belonged to a secret cult, called the Okija shrine.
The tribunal had also held that the Governor and his Deputy failed to prove that they resigned before the election and that the Governor failed to prove that he was not a member of a secret cult. But the Appeal Court said the Justice Yusuf Abdulahi-led lower tribunalâ€™s judgment was â€˜chame-leonicâ€™ and â€˜somersaulting.â€™
Justice Saka Ibiyeye in the lead judgement,Â rejected the grounds upon which the lower court annulled the Governor Orjiâ€™s victory. But Nigerian Coalition for Justice in the petition want the NJC to determine how come the Justices and the President of the Appeal Court had high volume of banking traffic in their accounts.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria,Â Justice IdrisÂ Kutigi, recently, noted that corrupt judicial officer would be handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Offences Commission (ICPC) for investigation and prosecution.
The CJN who spoke in Abuja at the opening of a two-week Induction Course for newly appointed Judges and Kadis, organised by the National Judicial Institute (NJI), reiterated that the judiciary was monitoring the conduct of judicial officers.
He had said, â€œas you are aware, the society expects much from the judiciary and as judicial officers, you are expected to live above board like Caesarâ€™s wife. The National Judicial Council is watching and any erring judicial officer will be appropriately sanctioned.
In addition, the powers of investigation and prosecution vested in the EFCC and the ICPC may also be exercised over Judicial Officersâ€, Kutigi said.Â Apparently to ensure that the issue was not swept under the carpet, Justice for Peace Foundation, another rights group also petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC), praying the Chief Justice of Nigeria in his capacity as Chairman ofÂ NJC to commence immediate investigation into allegations of corruption against the judges who presided over the Abia Governorship Appeal case.
The rights group in a petition by Mr Kehinde Bakare, alleged that the allegations of bribery earlier leveled against the judges by the National Coalition for Justice were grave, extremely serious and damaging to the image of the Nigerian judiciary.
The group had warned that unless the NJC conducts a thorough and in-depth investigation into the allegations as made by the National Coalition for Justice and publishÂ its findings, Nigerians and the outside world will continue to view the Nigerian judiciary, especially the Court of Appeal, with suspicion, considering the weight of the allegations.
It reminded the Chief Justice that as the head of the judiciary and a man reputed for his integrity, he has a moral and constitutional responsibility to get to the truth of this matter to ensure justice and safeguard the integrity of the judiciary.
â€œAs it is, the ICPCâ€™s investigation into these grave allegations is unhurried and lacks transparency. They are merely confirming being in possession of a petition said to have been filed in March three months after. The commission should be addressing the press to update Nigerians on the progress of their investigation but they are not doing that.
â€œThe allegations are too grievous to be swept under the carpet. If the judges are found to have compromised their position in that case by accepting bribes, then the judgment must be set aside and a new panel appointed to deliver judgment on the Abia Governorship appeal case in the interest of justice and transparency.
Justice Emmanuel Agboola,Â ICPC chair, it would be recalled had noted on corruption in the judiciary, that â€œtwo essential qualities that any credible judicial activity or any system of administration of justice must possess are, therefore, the twin qualities of judicial integrity and judicial independence and a corruption-ridden judiciary cannot lay legitimate claim to independence nor can it retain its independence for long as it looses confidence of and credibility in societyâ€.
Justice Agboola, who was concern about the image of the bar and its need to be above board, had said â€œjudicial integrity is policed by accountability. Integrity not monitored is subjective integrity that may make integrity an abstract virtue divorced from reality.
Accountability is the anchor of integrity. It is not a negation of judicial independence. If corruption is to be removed from the wheel of administration of justice, accountability must be deliberately and firmly pursued in all its ramificationsâ€.
A national dally, recently wrote in its editorial, on the decent comment by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, on corruption in the bench, saying â€œoften time, judicial officers have been accused of partisanship in the dispensation of justice, as they easily succumb to the dictates of the executive arm of government while handling politically related cases. This is dangerous, and perhaps accounts to the frequency of petitions and appeals against judgements delivered by the lower courts or tribunals, which often times sailed through at the apex courts/ tribunals. With the 2011 electioneering campaigns fast approaching, we expect Justice Kutigi to match his words with actionâ€.
Ironically, even before the groups petitioned the CJN over the allegations against the judges that sat at the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt, on the Abia governorship appeal, some judges had berated fellow judges for some of their pronouncements that fall short of fairness. For instance, in Osun State, another tribunal was ordered to be constituted to hear the petition of Action Congress (AC) governorship candidate, Rauf Aregbesola de novo. The same thing for the petition of All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) governorship candidate, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, in Ogun State.Â In Niger State, the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) governorship candidate, has gone back to the Court of Appeal in Abuja to challenge the dismissal of his appeal under some questionable circumstances.
In Imo State, the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) governorship candidate, Chief Martins Agbaso, is currently at the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal,Â challenge the dismissal of his petition by the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt in spite of the weighty evidence of the annulment of the April 14, 2007 election, which he presumably won in 22 local government areas of the state. In Abia State, indications have emerged that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate, Chief Onyema Ugochukwu is warming up to go back to the Court of Appeal, to seek to set aside the judgment delivered on February 11, 2009 in Port Harcourt.
In spite of the judicial activism and pragmatism recorded by the judiciary since the attainment of democracy in the country a decade ago, it still does not exonerate it from criticisms. The enthusiasm which had greeted landmark decisions of some courts, was later replaced by apathy, frustration, anger and revulsion when conflicting rulings and judgments started emanating from the both election petition panels across the country. From accolades, judges, especially of the Court of Appeal,Â were being held in silent contempt by Nigerians. The expectation that as cases go up the ladder of adjudication, whatever errors of law, evaluation of facts which may have been committed at the lower courts would be corrected at the Appeal Court was deemed.
Even the Justices of the Supreme Court did not spare some of the Appeal Court justices of the embarrassment they were causing the judiciary. In some of their rulings and judgments, they upbraided the justices of the appellate court for delivering contradictory judgments on matters that were similar in law and in fact.
Still fresh in the minds of most Nigerians was the way the court handled the petitions filed by Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, both presidential candidates in the 2007 election on the platforms of the ANPP and AC respectively. The two contenders were told that their petitions had no merit, thereby sending a wrong message to INEC and the PDP to continue to subvert the will of the people with brazen impunity.
In particular, the court refused independent observers that monitored the election to testify in the petitions filed by the presidential candidates. It is suspected that some of the judges might have been compromised in some of the controversial cases. For example, the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the governorship election petition appeal for Abia State was delivered on February 11, 2009. The hearing of the appeal was allegedly concluded on November 26, 2008 when the briefs were adopted. Exchange of briefs was purportedly concluded in May, 2008. Apart from the fact that the delay in the hearing of the appeal was at the instance of the appellants, the hearing notice for the judgment was allegedly issued on February 2, 2009 for a judgment date of February 11, 2009. In effect, the panel had enough time to deliver a type-written judgment, yet the judgment was said to have been delivered hand-written.
Against the backdrop of this and similar cases where the decisions or modus operandi of some judges were suspicious, many questions are being raised by critics as to what should be done to make judicial future rulings and procedure as transparent as a whistle. Here, the Chief Justice of Nigeria has a responsibility to fish out the rotten eggs among the judges and restore sagging confidence in the judiciary particularly in the way and manner it adjudicates electoral matters. If this is done early enough, it will help to rekindle faith in the system ahead of the fast approaching 2011 general elections.
It would be recalled that the judges that sat on the 2003 governorship election tribunal in Akwa Ibom state, were not spared by the National Judicial Council, following allegation that large sums of money were traced to their accounts. The intervention of the Chief Justice of Nigerian was commended by all, as Nigerians saw the judiciary as capable of dealing with the bad eggs within it. In the instant case, if for nothing else, for the integrity the bench enjoys, the current allegations against the Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt on the Abia governorship election should be investigated, to prove to Nigerians, once again that for the judiciary, not only will justice be done, but it will be transparently done for all to see.