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SANs, Labour, others divided over suspension of judges

By Emma Amaize, Clifford Ndujihe, Victor Ahiuma-Young, Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Rotimi Ojomoyela, Bartholomew Madukwe & Chioma Onuegbu
ABUJA—LAWYERS and major stakeholders were divided, yesterday, over the position of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, that the judges, whose homes were raided by the Department of State Services, DSS, and arrested for alleged graft should step down until their innocence is proven.

Cross section of new Senior Advocates of Nigeria at their inauguration in Abuja on Friday
Cross section of new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (File)

While the National Judicial Council, NJC, is opposed to the affected judges stepping aside, the body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs wants them to suspend their functions until the issue is resolved to protect the sanctity of the Judiciary.

A senior lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, yesterday, faulted the NBA leadership’s position, warning that if implemented, the move could lead to the collapse of the Judiciary, undermine and harm the integrity of the third arm of government.

Olanipekun’s view had the backing of Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, a faction of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC and the Legal Defence and Assistance Project, LEDAP, which also challenged the powers of the National Assembly to summon or question any of the seven judges arrested by the DSS over allegation of corruption.

This came as former Provost Marshal of the Nigerian Army, lawyer and prominent South-South leader, Brigadier General Don Idada Ikponmwen, retd., disagreed with the submission of Afe Babalola, SAN, that the DSS usurped the function of the NJC, and went astray in the manner its operatives arrested the judges and backed calls for the smeared judges to step aside.

Three judges to be arraigned

Meanwhile, there are indications that three out of the seven embattled judges, who are currently enjoying administrative bail, could be charged to court, this week.

Among judges currently reporting to office of the DSS everyday include Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court Abuja; Kabir Auta of the Kano High Court; Muazu Pindiga of Gombe High Court; Mohammed Tsamiya of the Court of Appeal in Ilorin, and the Chief Judge of Enugu State, I. A. Umezulike.

Although about 21 judges are currently under the radar of the DSS, so far, only 15 of them have been hauled in for interrogation. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, is equally investigating some judges involved in alleged  dubious transactions.

Why affected judges should remain – Olanipekun

Speaking at Ikere Ekiti, weekend, after being conferred with the chieftaincy title of Asiwaju of Ikere land, Olanipekun said, though he supported the NBA President, Mr Mahmoud Abubakar, in his view that the bench should be rid of corruption, the same measure should be applied to all other arms of government.

Olanipekun, who promised to use his new status to unite all the warring factions in the town, particularly to find solution to the supremacy battle between Ogoga of Ikere, Oba Adejimi Adu and the Olukere of Ikere Ekiti, Oba Ganiyu Obasoyin, said:. “I support the idea that the judiciary must be rid of corruption, but I disagree with the NBA on this issue that judges accused of  alleged corruption should stop handling cases. This quickly suggests that politicians and petition writers will use the opportunity to continue to level allegations against judges and a time will come that there won’t be any judge on the bench to handle cases.

“If that will be the case, it has to cut across board. Let any president, governor or political office holder accused of corruption, also be asked to resign, for fairness, equity and justice.

“Some are saying that these judges should be dealt with like every other common Nigerian, the fact remains that they are not ordinary Nigerians. President Muhammadu Buhari heads the executive, Bukola Saraki leads the Senate, Yakubu Dogara leads the House of Representatives and likewise governors of the states, these are not ordinary Nigerians just like these Judges, they head the judiciary.

“Even if the judges are ordinary Nigerians, they must enjoy rights to dignity and self respect as enshrined in the constitution. So, the NBA should not oversimplify the issue. If you say a Judge has been accused of corruption and should leave the bench, it is very dangerous to the judiciary. There are so many things to think of here, what of if the judges are not found guilty eventually and they are given a clean bill, it means we have prejudged them.

The greatest form of corruption occurs when the Constitution is brazenly defiled – Ozekhome

Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, wants the judges to continue carrying out their functions. “The NJC had always made this stand very clear.  Only two petitions were received and worked on, no other.  The DSS is simply in a hurry to side-track the provisions of sections 153,160 and 292(1) of the Constitution, which guarantees independence of the NJC and the tenure of office of judicial officers.

“We operate a constitutional democracy, where things must be done constitutionally, using due process and rule of Law. Mere accusation against the judges without arraignment, let alone trial, and pronouncement of guilt and conviction is certainly not enough to force judges to recuse themselves from duties in the face of the clear provisions of section 36 of the 1999 Constitution, which presumes their innocence until first tried and found guilty beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.

Due process must be followed– Labour

Reacting to the issue, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson, the General Secretary of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, led by Ayuba Wabba, said NLC had not taken a decision on the matter.

He, however, said on a personal ground, the affected judges should step aside once they are arraigned because “nobody is above the law. If they are arraigned, they should step aside. In Civil Service, once you are arraigned, you are suspended until the matter is over.  So, on moral ground, I think they should resign until the matter is over.”

Factional President of NLC, Mr. Joe Ajaero, said due process must be followed in dealing with the judges in accordance with how judges are disciplined to avoid creating more problems. He said: “We should be careful not to create more problems. Corruption is what we all frown at but due process should be followed. If you ask the judges to step down, if they are proven innocent, they may never come back. We have to be very careful in this matter so that we will not end up creating more problems.”

Council of state should intervene – Raji

Worried that the issue may degenerate into a battle between the Executive and Judicial arms of government, Mr. Ahmed Raji, SAN, has urged the Council of State, comprising former military leaders and presidents, to intervene so as to avert a looming conflict between the Presidency and the Judiciary.

He said: “Both the DSS and NJC are very important organs of government. My take is that the matter should be carefully handled in such a way that no organ of government is diminished in any way. Perhaps, the Council of State should intervene in the interest of all. The composition of the Council is, in my humble view,  best suited to advise on this matter because of the serious security and legal issues involved. The Council has former Chief Justices and former Presidents who are security experts as members. A sub-committee comprising all former Chief Justices and all former Presidents or Heads of State with military background should be able to resolve the matter.”

DSS erred in not reporting to NJC – Abeny

Similarly, Mr. Mohammed Abeny, SAN, faulted the DSS over its refusal to file a formal complaint to either the CJN or the NJC after it raided homes of seven judges in the “sting operation” it carried out between October 7 and 8.

While imploring the affected judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court- Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta, to temporarily step aside from their judicial duties, Abeny, however, insisted that constitutionally, they could only be prosecuted on a recommendation from the NJC.

He said: “The NJC is the only body that is constitutionally saddled with the power to discipline judges, both from the Supreme Court to the Federal High Court. If anybody has any complaint against a judge, the first thing to do is to write to the NJC whose Chairman is the CJN.”

Corrupt judge worse than armed robber  – Ikponwen

Speaking on the issue, Ikponwen in a statement, said the NBA’s call on arrested judges to step aside pending the completion of their trial was highly commendable.

“It is to my mind, the right thing to do for the present situation in Nigeria. When I read some of our national dailies a few days ago, that the NJC abstained from suspending the judicial officers, I considered it a sign of grave danger not only for the judiciary, but indeed for the legal profession and by extension the nation at large.

“The awkwardness in the stand of the NJC became perhaps more obvious when one of the  affected judges of the Federal High Court re-appeared in his court fully robed and carrying on his job. I am sure that not a few Nigerians would have felt some discomfort if not apprehension for that kind of development,” he stated.

He also backed the DSS ‘sting operation’ saying: “I saw no serious error in the approach of the DSS. The business of investigating crime and prosecuting crime offenders, rests squarely on the executive arm of government, whose jurisdiction and indeed mandate extends to all tiers of government without prejudice to existing immunity clauses.

“I am constrained to further state my disagreement with all those, who have expressed the view that power has been vested on the NJC to exercise ‘disciplinary control’ that the disciplinary control in question cannot be interpreted to mean that when judicial officers commit crime of a serious nature, they can only be investigated by the NJC. To my mind, that is an injurious and traumatic interpretation of the concept of separation of powers.

“The separation of power doctrine, as far as the judiciary is concerned, means no more than that, in the execution of their judicial functions, the judiciary must be independent in terms of funding and free from undue interference from the other branches of government. Independence of the judiciary does not mean that the judiciary must have its own police to investigate its own members or its own court to try only judicial officers. In the same vein, my understanding of the powers vested in the NJC for the disciplinary control of judges must relate only to unprofessional conduct not amounting to strict criminal offences under our laws.

“Such misconduct includes not living up to the standard expected of their judicial oath, not carrying out their judicial functions properly with dignity and decorum, manifest disrespect to legal practitioners appearing before them, habitual lateness and unjustifiable absence from sittings and such other misconduct that do not necessarily constitute serious crime under our criminal provisions are what the NJC ought to address,” he said.

Ikponwen asserted: “When the NJC starts investigating and sitting in trial over the judiciary on serious criminal matters, there will, obviously, be a breach of the cardinal principle of nemo judex in causa sua (meaning no one should be a judge in his own cause)

“In so doing, the NJC would not only constitute itself into a court of law, but also be negating the concept of separation of powers, which is the hallmark of our executive presidential system of government. The best way to promote justice and ensure efficiency in the judiciary is to go for issues that would enhance judicial independence in the execution of judicial functions. It is no protection for the judiciary when the doctrine of separation of powers or the concept of independence of the judiciary are pushed to the extent of affording unjustifiable protection to judges at any level of court involved in criminal activities.”

Why NASS can’t summon arrested Judges – LEPAD

On its part, the  LEDAP, in a statement by its National Coordinator, Mr. Chino Obiagwu, said it was wrong for the National Assembly to summon the accused judges to appear before the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

It maintained that the legislature has no oversight powers over judicial officers under the constitutional principle of separation of powers as entrenched in sections 4, 5 and 6 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended and vowed to approach the courts to seek orders restraining any such invitation or summon of the arrested judicial officers as it amounts to attempt to brow-beat and intimidate the judiciary.

“LEDAP draws the attention of the National Assembly that under the Constitution, it is only the National Judicial Council (NJC) that has the power of control and discipline of judges and justices of superior courts in Nigeria. Any interference by the legislature or the executive into the conduct of judges in carrying out their judicial functions will amount to unlawful interference with the independence of the judiciary,” it said.

Justice Okoro’s claims self-indicting – A/Ibom APC

Menawhile, the  All Progressives Congress, APC, in Akwa Ibom State, has described the claims by Justice Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court that its governorship candidate in the last election Mr. Umana Okon Umana and other chieftains of the party solicited his assistance to win their appeals at the Supreme Court as fictitious

The party, in a statement by its Spokesman, Chief Ita Awak, said that there was no truth in the bribery allegations in Justice Okoro’s letter’ to the Chief Justice of the Federation because Umana Umana did not file any appeal at the Supreme Court. “As record will indeed confirm, the APC did not seek any relief from the Supreme Court except the affirmation of the concurrent findings of the two lower courts and dismissal of the appeals by Mr. Udom Emmanuel and the Akwa Ibom State PDP.”

APC govt waging vendetta war against Judiciary – PDP

The opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, yesterday, said the All Progressives Congress, APC, ruling Federal Government and the leadership of the party were waging war of vendetta on the judiciary.

The PDP in a follow-up on its earlier comment on the arrest of some senior judges said the country’s democracy was being imperilled by the ‘attack’ on the judiciary, adding that recent allegations made against some serving ministers by two of the indicted Supreme Court justices showed that the justices were targeted for political reasons.

In a statement issued by its National Publicity Secretary, Prince Dayo Adeyeye, the PDP said the second letter written to the CJN and Chairman of the NJC, Justice Mahmud Mohammed dated October 8, 2016, in which Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta, of the Supreme Court  “accused former Governor of Rivers State and now Minister of Transport, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, and former Governor of Abia State and now Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu on their involvement and hot pursuit to induce and subvert justice in favour of the APC Governorship Candidates of Rivers State and that of the Labour Party in Ebonyi State, who is to switch to APC if he had claimed victory at the Appeal Court, is ridiculous.

“This latest allegation is another indictment on the Executive Arm of Government and the serial complicity and involvement of the President, members and leaders of his Party, the APC, the DSS, especially, the former Governor of Rivers State who has been mentioned twice in both petitions written by the Honourable Justices of the Supreme Court within few hours interval.

“However, we are not surprised with the mention of President Buhari in the Statement by Justice Ngwuta because President Buhari has left no stone unturned to confirm the fact that he detests the Judiciary and the Rule of Law as seen in his body language and actions since he assumed office.”

Below comments also buttresses his detest and hostility towards the Nigeria Judiciary:

“On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the Judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now. In my first attempt in 2003, I ended up at the Supreme Court and for 13 months I was in Court. The second attempt in 2007, I was in Court close to 20 months and in 2011, my third attempt, I was also in Court for nine months. All these cases went up to the Supreme Court until the fourth time in 2015, when God agreed that I will be President of Nigeria.” (President Buhari, February 2016).

Nigerians will also recall that it’s not only President Buhari that is striving strongly to derail our nascent democracy, but his Party National Chairman, Chief John Odigie Oyegun who once lambasted the Judiciary on the outcome of the Supreme Court judgement in Rivers and Akwa Ibom states Gubernatorial Elections. He said: ‘I still find the Judgement on the Rivers State Governorship Election totally 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. There is obviously something fundamentally  wrong in Rivers State which needs to be investigated and addressed.’

From the two statements of President Buhari and Chief John Odigie Oyegun, National Chairman, All Progressive Congress (APC) above, it is obvious that the Judiciary can be said to have functioned appropriately only when they and their party wins a case. Otherwise, the Judiciary must be punished. How ridiculous!

 


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