By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
YEAR 2016 is quite an eventful one for the Nigerian Judiciary. It is a year both the Bar and the Bench experienced the bad, the good and the ugly. It could be argued that never in our annals had the judiciary faced the sort of turbulence that befell it this year. It was of such magnitude that almost rocked the boat-of-justice in the country.
Aside raid, arrest, detention and trial of sitting superior court Judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court, the year in review witnessed the passing of baton of leadership in the Judiciary. 2016 further prides itself as a year the President, in what judicial pundits consider an aberration to custom and recommendation by the National Judicial Council, NJC, decided to appoint an Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria to head the judiciary.
The year under review equally saw the delivery of conflicting judgments by various divisions of both the Federal High Court and the Court of Appeal, especially on political matters, mostly involving the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
It also hosted several landmark judgments, as well as several high-profile cum sensitive trials.
Hereunder are some of those cases, issues and controversies that shaped the Judicial landscape in 2016. The year began on a high-note, with all eyes focused on impending anti-corruption war as declared by the new government under President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressive Congress, APC.
The President already activated the ‘attention-mood’ from key players in the justice sector, having earlier accused corrupt Judges and senior lawyers of constituting a cog in the fight by conniving with treasury looters to thwart the course of justice.
On January 14, The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, entered a seven-count criminal charge against the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Mr. Olisa Metuh, who was then in detention. Metuh and his firm, Destra Investment Limited, were charged before the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court over alleged N400million diverted from account operated by Office of the National Security Adviser, NSA, prior to the 2015 presidential election.
On January 15, the defendants pleaded not guilty to the charge, even as trial Justice Okon Abang remanded Metuh in prison custody. He was subsequently allowed on bail in the sum of N400m with two sureties.
On January 21, EFCC again docked Metuh before an Abuja High Court on a 2-count charge that bordered on his alleged destruction of evidence while in custody. As public discourse revolved around perceived attempt by the ruling APC, which had just wrestled power from the PDP, to muzzle down opposition voices, on January 20, the Federal Government docked the detained leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu was arraigned alongside two other pro-Biafra agitators, Benjamin Madubugwu and David Nwawuisi before the Federal High Court on a six-count treason charge. In ruling on January 29, trial Justice John Tsoho denied the defendants bail, as well as okayed them to attend their trial from Kuje prison.
January was definitely a busy month for the Judiciary, with election cases at various courts almost at the concluding stages.
On January 27, the Supreme Court, upheld the outcome of the April 11, 2015, governorship election that brought Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State to power. The apex court in an unanimous judgment by a seven-man panel of Justices led by then CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, restored the declaration of Wike as the valid winner of the poll by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
It voided the concurrent judgments of both the Rivers State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal and that of the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, which were delivered on October 21 and December 16, 2015, respectively. On the same day, the apex court, in a separate judgment, also upheld the election of Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun state, even as it dismissed the appeal that was lodged before it by the governorship candidate of the PDP in the state, Mr Adegboyega Isiaka.
Meanwhile, on February 5, the Supreme Court, explained why it did not accord any probative value on reports from Card Reader Machines that were deployed by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, during the 2015 general elections.
The apex court maintained that though the use of the Electronic Card Reader Machine for accreditation of voters was provided for in the Approved Guidelines and Regulations for the conduct of the 2015 general elections, the device was never “intended to supplant, displace or supersede” the Voters’ Register.
It observed that the issue had resulted to various Divisions of the Court of Appeal, giving divergent interpretations on election disputes that were brought before them by appellants.
On the same day, the court dismissed an appeal by the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki lodged to stop his trial before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
The apex court held that Saraki has a case to answer, even as it gave the FG the nod to open its case on the 16-count charge it entered against the defendant over his alleged false assets declaration.
On February 19, the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, refused to conduct secret trial on treason charge against IPOB leader, Kanu and the others. Justice Tsoho dismissed the application which FG filed through the then Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, Mr. Mohammed Diri.
The court equally declined to allow the federal government to mask eight witnesses that are billed to testify against the defendants. While refusing to allow the witnesses to be masked, Justice Tsoho said there was need for the court to appraise the demeanour and character of the witnesses through their facial expressions.
Character of the witnesses
However, on March 7, the court made a U-turn by permitting FG to shield identity of the witnesses.
Dissatisfied with action of the Judge, Kanu and his co-defendants took the matter before the appeal court and the NJC, alleging bias against Justice Tsoho for allowing “masquerades” to testify against them.
On April 26, Justice Tsoho declined to suspend trial of the defendants to await decision of the appellate court. Earlier on March 7, the Federal High Court in Abuja, remanded the former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh,who was accused of diverting over N3.9billion from accounts of the Nigerian Air Force, in prison custody.
Trial Justice Okon Abang remanded the ex-CDS at Kuje prison, Abuja, after he pleaded not guilty to a 10-count criminal charge the EFCC preferred against him. He was later released on bail to the tune of N2billion.
On April 19, the NJC, sacked Justice O. Gbajabiamila of the Lagos State High Court and Justice Idris M. J. Evuti of the Niger State High Court over judicial misconducts.
It also found two other judges of the High Court of Niger State, Justices Evuti and Tanko Yusuf Usman guilty of allegations that they falsified their dates of birth.
On May 19, the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, reinstated the impeached Speaker of the Kogi State House of Assembly, Hon. Momoh Jimoh Lawal.
In a judgement delivered by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, the court equally restored the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Aliyu Akuh and seven other Principal Officers of the Kogi State House of Assembly, saying the process that led to their purported impeachment on February 16, 2016, was unconstitutional and illegal.
On May 25, the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja, dismissed appeal by IPOB leader, Kanu and other pro-Biafra protesters lodged against their trial.
The appellate court further declined to order release of the defendants on bail on the premise that allegations against them are “grievous and serious”.
Nevertheless, on September 26, Justice Tsoho disqualified himself from presiding over trial of the defendants, owing to the petition accusing him of bias. At the resumed sitting on the matter, Justice Tsoho who earlier denied the defendants bail, premised his decision to hands-off the matter on a petition pending against him before the NJC.
On June 27, Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, sacked Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State from office over alleged tax infractions, even as he directed INEC to issue fresh Certificate of Return to Mr. Sampson Ogah who came second in the gubernatorial primary election the PDP conducted in Abia State on December 8, 2014.
Justice Abang said he was satisfied that Ikpeazu perjured by giving false information in the Form CF001 and documents accompanying it, which he submitted to both PDP and the INEC to participate in the gubernatorial contest he eventually won ahead of candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, Dr. Alex Otti.
However, a five-man panel of Justices of the Court of Appeal in Abuja, in a unanimous decision on August 18, lampooned Justice Abang, who they said delivered judgement that was bereft of justice. October was undoubtedly the most intriguing month of the year for the Judiciary.
Aside the fact that the ECOWAS Court, in a judgment it delivered on October 4, ordered the Federal Government to immediately release the detained NSA, Col. Sambo Dasuki, retd, from detention. The nation was between October 8 and 9, jolted with news of the arrest of seven superior court Judges by the Department of State Service, DSS.
The Judicial officers, including two Justices of the Supreme Court- Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta, were detained after a “sting operation”, the DSS conducted in their homes across five states of the federation and the FCT.
Others arrested after the midnight raid were Justices Adeniyi Ademola and Muazu Pindiga of the Abuja and Gombe Divisions of the Federal High Court, the former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I. A. Umezulike, the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Tsamiya; and a Judge of the Kano State High Court, Justice Kabiru Auta.
Three of the superior court Judges are already answering to various criminal charges entered against them by the Federal Government.
Justice Ngwuta of the Supreme Court was on November 21, docked before the Federal High Court in Abuja on a 16-count charge bordering on money laundering, age falsification and his alleged illegal possession of multiple international passports.
Trial Justice, Tsoho slated January 18 to commence full-blown hearing on the matter, even as the FG has lined-up five witnesses that will testify against the embattled jurist who was said to have hidden N27million in his bathroom in Ebonyi State. Ngwuta was granted bail to the tune of N100million.
Exotic cars as gratification
Similarly, Justice Ademola of the Federal High Court in Abuja was arraigned on December 13 alongside his wife, Olabowale, before an Abuja High Court at Maitama on an 11-count criminal charge. He was alleged to have on various dates between 2014 and 2015, received huge sums of money as gratifications.
Trial Justice Jude Okeke granted the defendants bail on self-recognition to the tune of N50million each, just as he fixed January 18 to begin their trial.
The defendants were among other things, accused of receiving huge sums of money and exotic cars as gratification. Justice Ademola who is a grandson to a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, was also accused of being in possession of one Pump Action Rifle with serial number AVAR MAGNUM 6084 without a valid licence and thereby committed an offence contrary to section 3 of the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act, 2004″.
Equally facing trial is Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, who was alleged to have among other things, received N5m gratification from a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Godwin Obla.
She is answering to a 30-count charge before a Lagos State High Court sitting in Ikeja. On November 8, the FG re-arraigned the detained IPOB leader, Kanu, Madubugwu and Nwawuisi, on an amended 11-count charge.
FG amended the charges to include alleged National Coordinator of the IPOB movement, Chidiebere Onwudiwe, as one of the defendants. Trial Justice Binta Nyako of the FHC in Abuja became the third judge to handle the case-file. On December 1, Justice Nyako also refused to grant the defendants bail.
The following day, Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the same high court ordered the unconditional release of detained leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) otherwise known as the Shi’ite sect, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, Malami Zeenat, within 45 days.
The court held that continued detention of the applicants without trial amounted to a gross violation of his constitutionally guaranteed rights.
El-Zakzaky’s arrest and detention followed a bloody clash between members of the sect and soldiers attached to the Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Tukur Buratai, at Zaria, Kaduna State on December 14, 2015.
Meantime, the judiciary got new leadership on November 10, following retirement of Justice Mahmud Mohammed as the CJN upon clocking the 70 years mandatory retirement age. The NJC earlier approved the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Walter Onnoghen as his successor.
However, President Buhari rather appointed Onnoghen, who is the first Southern jurist to attain the position in about 30 years, to head the judiciary as an Acting CJN. The action has continued to dominate public discourse, with the fact being that Justice Onnoghen may lose his chance of becoming a substantive CJN, after three months.
On November 10, Justice Tsoho of the Federal High Court in Abuja, granted bail to detained former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, to the tune of N50million.
Fani-Kayode who was the Director of Media and Publicity in the campaign team of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, was released on bail after he was arraigned by the EFCC on a five-count charge bordering on alleged N26million fraud
The anti-graft agency alleged that the fund was illegally released to the defendant by the erstwhile NSA, Dasuki, before the 2015 general election, to boost media campaign for former President Jonathan.
On November 23, the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja declared Mr. Eyitayo Jegede, SAN, as the rightful candidate of the PDP for the Ondo governorship election , three days to the poll that held on November 26.
In unanimous judgement, the Justice Ibrahim Saulawa-led three-man Special Panel of the appellate court, vacated the June 29 judgement of Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, which directed INEC to recognise Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim as PDP gubernatorial candidate for the poll.
Meanwhile, on December 2, President Buhari approved the appointment of Justices Sidi Dauda Bage, and Paul Adamu Galinje to the Supreme Court bench.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court had reduced to 13, following Justice Mohammed’s retirement and suspension of Justices Okoro and Ngwuta over corruption allegations against them.
Elevation of the two new Justices took the number of jurists on the Supreme Court bench to 15.
On December 7, an Abuja High Court at Maitama, deferred Dasuki’s trial over alleged diversion of N2.1billion meant for the purchase of arms, till January 25, 2017. Dasuki is facing two separate charges the EFCC entered against him before the high court.
He is being tried on a 19-count charge bordering on alleged N32billion fraud, as well as another 22-count charge involving alleged N19.4bn fraud.
The next day, Dasuki who has been in custody of the DSS since December 29, 2015, wrote to the Acting CJN, praying the Supreme Court to expedite hearing on two appeals he lodged against his continued detention by FG after he was granted bail by various trial courts.
On December 9, the Supreme Court declined to sack Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State from office over allegation that he falsified his age.
The suit was lodged before the apex court by a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Mr. Joe Agi. On December 15, the Court of Appeal in Abuja adjourned sine-die (indefinitely), hearing on the leadership crisis rocking the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
The tussle is between Senator Ahmed Markafi-led National Working Committee of the party and the Senator Ali Modu Sheriff-led faction.
On December 16, the NJC sacked Justices Ugbo Ononogbo of Abia State and Nasir Gunmi of Zamfara State High Courts respectively over their alleged complicity in judicial malpractice. It ordered the two Judges to vacate their offices with immediate effect.
On December 20, EFCC, slammed a nine-count criminal charge against the immediate past Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, SAN, and eight others. The anti-graft agency entered the charge against Adoke who held sway as the AGF under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, before the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court.
The ex-AGF will be docked alongside an erstwhile Petroleum Minister, Chief Dan Etete, an oil mogul, Mr. Abubakar Aliyu, and six firms.
The defendants were charged over roles they allegedly played in an alleged $1.1billion Malabu oil deal. Firms listed as 4th to 9th defendants in the charge marked FHC/Abj/CR/268/2016, were Malabu Oil & Gas Ltd, Rocky Top Resource Ltd, Imperial Union Ltd, Novel Properties & Development Company Ltd, Group Construction Ltd and MegaTech Engineering Ltd.
As curtain draws on 2016, it is expected that 2017 will be more eventful and probably less turbulent for the Judiciary.