One of the canons of President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign promises in the run-up to the epochal 2015 general elections was anti-corruption. Nigeria has consistently ranked low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Just a few months back, the immediate past Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, remarked that Nigeria was “fantastically corrupt”. Since his inauguration last year, Buhari at more than one occasion lamented the frustration of his anti-corruption crusade by the judiciary. There were hints that the President was shopping for upright judges to help fight corruption in the country. The President also set up a presidential advisory committee headed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Prof. Itse Sagay, to perhaps come up with a road map for him. Sixteen months after coming into office, the Buhari administration doesn’t seem to have made much headway in its campaign against corruption.
With a low public confidence in his administration as a result of the economic recession which has seen many Nigerians slip into unemployment and poverty, the President, it will seem, decided to overhaul the judiciary in order to rejig his anti-corruption war. He decided to clean the Augean stable by first attempting to weed out corrupt judges, fast-track his anti-corruption crusade, recover looted funds and assets to reflate the recessed economy and send the right signal to Nigerians that there would be no sacred cows in his anti-corruption campaign. Rightly or wrongly, however, there is a widespread notion that the Nigerian judiciary – the Bar and the Bench including judicial workers – is deeply corrupt. There is a growing impression that justice is for sale in the country and that with the right amount of money, a culprit can buy off punishment.
The above is my postulation of the mindset of the Presidency as facts begin to emerge on the melodrama which played out last Friday and Saturday when the Department of State Services, in what it called a sting operation, arrested Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro, both of the Supreme Court; the suspended Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Tsamiya; Justice Kabiru Auta of the Kano State High Court and Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja. Others arrested were a former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I. A. Umezulike, and Justice Muazu Pindiga of the Federal High Court, Gombe Division.
Nigerians including myself were outraged when news broke that the “Oracles of the temples of justice” were arrested in a Gestapo-manner in the dead of night. The case of Justice Ademola was most pathetic. His home was thoroughly vandalised as doors to his apartment were forcefully removed in order to arrest him as he was alleged to have informed his staff that he had travelled out of town when the DSS operatives swooped on his residence in the early hours of Saturday. The judge perhaps wanted to evade arrest by locking himself up in his bedroom but had to be smoked out like a common criminal for allegedly obstructing the course of justice. Eventually, when he was arrested, huge sums of money were alleged to have been recovered in his house.
While defending its action, a senior officer of the DSS, Mr. Abdullahi Garba, who spoke with journalists in Abuja on Saturday said, “The DSS action is in line with its core mandate, as we have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyles of some of the judges, as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgments obtained fraudulently and on the basis of money paid.” Garba stated further that “The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash (sums) of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.” He gave the summaries of these to include: N93,558,000.00; $530,087; £25,970; and €5,680 (a total of over N270m). The Presidency in defending the DSS raid on the judges’ homes said it was not the judiciary that was on trial but corruption.
Expectedly, mixed reactions have greeted the incident. The Nigeria Bar Association through its President, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), described the action as unconstitutional, declared a state of emergency on the judiciary, constituted a crisis management team to engage with the government on the issue and demanded immediate and unconditional release of the arrested judges. Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State described the DSS action as an assault on democracy. The judiciary workers union also threatened to embark on an indefinite strike if the arrested judges were not promptly released unconditionally while in his own first official reaction on the issue last Monday, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, described the development as “very saddening and deeply regrettable”.
However, the latest information has it that the arrested judges had been released on bail on self-recognition.
Even though I believe it was wrong for the DSS to invade judges’ homes at unholy hours of the day to forcefully arrest them, as the saying goes, if we must blame the hawk for wickedness, we must first blame the mother hen for exposing her children to danger. I think in the light of more revelations on the unfortunate incident, the National Judicial Council may have wittingly or unwittingly contributed to the inglorious happenstance of last weekend. According to the DSS, the poor cooperation of the NJC accounted for the dramatic way its men apprehended the judges. It said correspondences were exchanged between the NJC and the Federal Ministry of Justice for certain information and dossier. The Ministry of Justice complied but the NJC refused. The DSS was also unhappy with the soft landing the NJC gave corrupt judges it reportedly sanctioned at its meeting of September 30, 2016.
The NJC had wielded the big sticks on Justices Tsamiya, Umezulike, and Auta. It had recommended to the President the compulsory retirement of Tsamiya from the the Ilorin Division of the Court of Appeal and also recommended the Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Umezulike, for compulsory retirement and Justice Auta of the Kano State High Court for dismissal. The allegations against them were that of corruption and abuse of office. However, the DSS felt the judges ought to have received a more severe punishment such as prosecution and being made to serve jail terms for their ignoble acts. The NJC was also alleged to have cleared a judge who was accused of having received N500m bribe of wrongdoing despite the DSS security brief on him detailing the incontrovertible evidences of corruption against him.
It will be interesting to hear the NJC’s reactions to these allegations of shielding corrupt judges in its fold from arrest and prosecution. However, Buhari’s government should tread carefully in its bid to quicken its anti-corruption campaign. It should beware of unintended consequences as resorting to invasion in order to arrest unarmed judges may send signal of the government of the day wanting to use bully tactics to cow another arm or government. The judges could have been quietly picked up during the day and charged to court promptly with the supposed overwhelming evidences the DSS had on them. More so, shouldn’t the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission or the police have been the one to make the arrest and prosecute the accused judges since their offence was primarily corruption? Subjecting accused persons to media trial as the DSS is currently doing does not serve the course of justice as the law presumes an accused innocent until otherwise proved guilty. Indeed, until the rotten tooth is pulled out, the mouth must chew with caution.
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