May 27, 2024

My lord, the felon, by Chidi Odinkalu

Odinkalu, Deborah murder: Odinkalu pulls out of SPIDEL conference in Sokoto

Professor Chidi Odinkalu

MOHAMMED Ladan Tsamiya probably believed he was a commodities trader who happened also to moonlight as a Justice of the Court of Appeal. To him, both vocations seemed to provide mutually reinforcing revenue streams. Sometimes, he transacted business as one while doing the other. In keeping with this tendency, it was an unsuccessful transaction in the sale of beans that brought his vocation as a judge to an untimely end.

 The story began with the 2015 elections. In Abia State, South-East Nigeria, the parliamentary elections in 2015 were not without controversy. Nnamdi Iro Oji, a losing candidate in those elections, filed a petition with the National Judicial Council, NJC, in January 2016 levying serious allegations of misconduct against Ladan Tsamiya. What follows is from the 19-page report of the NJC Investigation Committee into these allegations. Sunday Akintan, a retired Supreme Court Justice, chaired the NJC’s investigation committee into Mr. Oji’s complaint. The other members of the Committee were Hakila Yalla Hemman, then Chief Judge of Gombe State; and Aloy Nweke Nwankwo, Chief Judge of Ebonyi State.

Mr. Oji complained that around October 12, 2015, after the conclusion of first instance proceedings in his case at the Abia State Election Petition Tribunal in Umuahia, the capital of Abia State, he got introduced to someone “who was in the system”, who took him to a house in Sokoto, North-West Nigeria, where they met with Ladan Tsamiya. After condemning the election petition tribunal as having been “influenced”, Ladan Tsamiya advised Mr. Oji to write a petition to the President of the Court of Appeal requesting a change in the composition of the Court of Appeal panel in Owerri. His application was granted but he was “shocked when he saw that Hon. Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya was one of those sent to Owerri Judicial Division to handle the appeal.”

Over a sequence of encounters which occurred in Sokoto, Gwarimpa (Abuja), and Owerri in Imo State, according to Mr. Oji, Ladan Tsamiya requested him to provide N200 million “to enable him discuss with the three (3) Justices who were to handle the appeal to influence the court’s decision in his favour.” When he seemed reluctant, the Justice of Appeal warned Mr. Oji that failure to deliver the requisitioned sum or a substantial part thereof “may bring a shocking outcome to the appeal.” Specifically, Ladan Tsamiya advised Mr. Oji that “the funds which should be in foreign currency should be brought to him in his private residence in Owerri, Imo State, which was where they met.” Despite having a strong case on the facts, the decision in Mr. Oji’s appeal went the way that Ladan Tsamiya had predicted after he failed to deliver the funds demanded. 

 These allegations may have been staggering in their substance, but Ladan Tsamiya’s response was not lacking in invention or audacity. According to him, this was a tale of a sale of beans gone awry. Sometime in November 2015, he said, three persons “one Hausa and his two Igbo friends met him in Sokoto and the Hausa man introduced himself as a buyer of beans and ginger which His Lordship said he had in commercial quantities.” He reportedly “assumed that the two Igbos were also interested in buying the commodities.” It was in the course of these conversations, according to Ladan Tsamiya, that “one of them” reportedly asked for his assistance in connection with a pending case at the Court of Appeal. He claimed he declined, telling them that he could not help because he was not their lawyer. The discussions over the sale of beans – according to Ladan Tsamiya – subsequently broke down and could not be consummated.

 Unsurprisingly, Ladan Tsamiya’s story of mixing commodity trading with judging proved to be unconvincing. In their report delivered on September 22, 2016, the committee of investigation found the case against Ladan Tsamiya to be “credible” and recommended sanctions against him. Eight days later, on September 30, 2016, the NJC announced its decision to compulsorily retire him from judicial service.

Twelve years earlier, it was arguably their inclination to do what Nigerians call “chopping alone” that ultimately ended the careers of two other senior Justices of Appeal, Okwuchukwu Opene and David Adeniji. In 2004, the NJC recommended the dismissal of both Justices of Appeal after they collected sundry items of bribery, including N15 million and N12 million respectively to award the contest for the Anambra South senatorial constituency in the 2003 general election to Ugochukwu Uba, who was not a candidate in the contest. James Ogebe, the senior Justice of Appeal then who headed the Court of Appeal panel drafted to Enugu to replace them after the scandal broke recalls in his memoirs that “there was clear evidence of bribery…. They brought a bag containing the money that was not properly closed. A cook who was cooking for them inside the official house even saw it. He was the one who carried the bag inside. They just gave him N10,000 from it.” 

 Eight years after the end of Ladan Tsamiya’s experiment in occupational cross-dressing ended his career, in May 2024, the NJC announced that they “cautioned” Amina Shehu, a judge of the High Court of Yobe State “for issuing Writ of Possession Conferring Title on the Defendant in Suit No YBS/HC/NNR/1cv/2020 when there was no subsisting judgement (sic) of any Court to enable His Lordship issue the Writ.” In ordinary parlance, the issuing of a writ of possession in the absence of an underlying judgement would be a felony crime of burglary, theft, conversion, or stealing. If committed by an ordinary citizen, such a crime would almost certainly have an additional element of fraud. Any person who can commit such an act surely should have no place in any judicial service worth its name. By concluding that the appropriate sanction in such a case is a mere “caution”, the NJC makes it difficult to distinguish a judge from the criminals whom they are supposed to hold to account. 

These three cases discussed here hardly differed in terms of gravity. Instead of accountability, the judiciary especially under the outgoing Chief Justice, Olukayode Ariwoola, has converted the myth of judicial independence into a charter for judicial impunity. In the case of Ladan Tsamiya, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, did launch an investigation after the conclusion of the disciplinary process by the NJC, leading to his arrest. He was later arraigned for trial before the High Court of Imo State in Owerri in July 2019. Five months before the trial, however, in February 2019, the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, NICN, in Abuja presided over by the recently deceased Noelita Agbakoba as judge, set aside the decision of the NJC for having been reached in violation of relevant provisions of the Judicial Discipline Regulations. Under Olukayode Ariwoola – as a discerning tweep has pointed out – “Someone who sprayed Naira got six months. Someone who issued a warrant of possession without a preceding judgement got a warning.”

Over the 20-year period that separates the disciplinary cases concerning Okwuchukwu Opene and David Adeniji in 2004; Ladan Tsamiya in 2016; and Amina Shehu in 2024, the sanction issued by the NJC for judicial misconduct of a criminal nature became attenuated from dismissal through compulsory retirement to a mere love letter, signalling the collapse of judicial discipline and accountability in the country

Over that time horizon, judicial process in the public perception became somewhat tarnished to a mere transaction in which outcomes are more likely than not to be determined by a quid pro quo between litigants and the presiding officers, and not by the strength of the evidence or a fair and dispassionate application of the norms. At the special session of the Supreme Court to usher in the new legal year organised on November 27, 2023, Ebun Sofunde, SAN, who addressed the court on behalf of the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, BOSAN, captured this well when he warned that judicial reputation “is at an all-time low… to a point where it may no longer be redeemable.” This sums up the state of Nigeria’s judiciary 25 years into elective government.

 A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]