By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
IT seems the National Judicial Council, NJC, had by its decision to recall six suspended Judges, re-ignited the cold war that hitherto existed between the Judiciary and the Executive arms of government.
The NJC which is headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, reinstated the Judges owing to failure by the Federal Government to charge them to court, eight months after they were temporarily suspended from the Bench over allegations of corruption.
The affected superior court Judges were arrested after a supposed “sting operation” the Department of State Service, DSS, conducted between October 7 and 9, 2016. Their suspension had at that time, brought to the fore a frosty relationship that had existed between the President Muhammadu Buhari- led Executive arm of Government and the Judiciary.
President Buhari had barely a year after his inauguration, alleged that corrupt Judges and senior lawyers were hampering his anti-corruption efforts.
Specifically, the President described the Judiciary as his “major headache”, an assertion that did not go down well with the then leadership of the Judiciary. In a retaliatory move, the then CJN, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, at a conference that was organised by the National Judicial Institute, NJI, gave it back to the Executive, accusing it of conducting wishy-washy/shallow investigations before rushing suspects to court.
The cold war between these two arms of government persisted until eight superior court Judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court, were arrested. Even though the NJC initially refused to suspend the affected Judges, it subsequently succumbed to pressure from both outside the judiciary and from the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA.
However, eight months after the incident, the Council decided to recall some of the Judges, an action the Presidency described as pure betrayal and outright sabotage on President Buhari’s avowed war against corruption. While Justifying its action, the legal body, stressed that out of eight Judges it asked to recuse themselves from their judicial duties on the request of the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, pending the conclusion of investigations on corruption allegations against them, only three of them have been charged to court.
It gave names of those that were dragged to court for prosecution as Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court and Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court. The NJC noted that the trial of Justice Ademola had been concluded, even as he was discharged and acquitted of all the 18-count corruption charge the Federal Government preferred against him.
Consequently, the Council, in a decision it took at the end of a meeting it held on Thursday, June 1 2017, asked various Heads of Courts to direct the six suspended Judges to resume their judicial duties with effect from June 7, “as there are already backlog of cases in their various Courts for the past eight months”.
Specifically, those the NJC recalled to the Bench were Justice John InyangOkoro of the Supreme Court, Justice Uwani Abba Aji of the Court of Appeal; Justice Hydiazira A. Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court; Justice A. F. A. Ademola of the Federal High Court who has been discharged and acquitted; Justice Musa H. Kurya of the Federal High Court; and Justice Agbadu James Fishim of National Industrial Court of Nigeria.
Expectedly, the Presidency immediately expressed its displeasure with the action of the NJC which it accused of indirectly promoting corruption by reinstating the judges. According to Special Adviser to the President on Prosecutions, Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla, the NJC was fully aware of plans by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, to arraign the judges on fresh corruption charges.
Credibility of the judiciary
“Some of those judges also have several petitions written against them to the knowledge of the NJC, so what is the hurry? We were in the process of charging them to court and the NJC is aware that the EFCC was in the process of charging these judges to court and as I said earlier, there are also complaints and petitions from members of the public against these judges; so, why have they not looked into some of these petitions?
“The impression is that they (NJC members) are trying to protect some of these judges. The NJC will just have to suspend them again. The judges should be stopped from sitting from today (last week) because they will soon be charged to court; I can assure you”.
The President’s aide said he was particularly disappointed that the NJC reinstated Justice Ademola, whose case is still on appeal. He said: “An appeal is not tantamount to a stay of execution but we are talking of a judge’s integrity; the reputation of the judge, the credibility of the judiciary. This is a judge whose credibility is at stake.
“He was arraigned for allegedly collecting bribes. He was discharged and acquitted and the decision was appealed. If I were that judge, I would not sit until the appeal is heard because members of the public will not have confidence in his court and the judicial system relies on the confidence of the people.”
Obono-Obla maintained that it would be unethical for Justice Ademola to preside over cases when his integrity was still in question. Meantime, the development has equally elicited varying reactions from senior lawyers in the country, with Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, describing the action of the NJC as belated.
Ozekhome equally maintained that the FG ought to apologise to the affected Judges “for the public odium, embarrassment, obloquy and shame their unjustified arrest, detention and media trial impacted on them”. However, the Executive and the Judiciary are still trading words on the fallouts of the NJC’s recall of the Judges.