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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Probe of Tribunal Judges: A Way to Credible Judgments – By Sanusi Muhammad



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It was part of the policy thrust of the Buhari change mantra in 2015 to expose the level of corruption near perfection in the temple of justice. The arrest of some eminent jurists, Justices of the Supreme Court – Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro – and four other Judges on October 10, 2016 by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) caused loud acclaim and denunciation among Nigerians. Those who spoke on the matter include; eminent jurists, senior lawyers, civil society activists and other concerned Nigerians. It was hard to find any Nigerian indifferent to the development considered as laudable and in the best interest of all.

In view of the societal status of those arrested and the deep implications of the action, one is constrained as a classless citizen to join the debate but that does not mean one can watch criminals having their day, in the temple of justice without being exposed.

I find the opinion quiet untenable that arresting judges amounts to a slide to dictatorship. It is equally difficult for some Nigerians to accept that the actions and inactions of former President Buhari as military Head of State could be likened to his moves as an elected President in a democracy subject to the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

First, could all the statutory actions of security agencies be blamed on the President? Nigerians are known to have canvassed that institutions of state should act independent of political office holders and that was exactly what former president Buhari encouraged and displayed.

There is no evidence in the public place to indict the former president that he directly ordered the arrests of the suspected criminals in wig, nor were Nigerians informed that it signaled a possible wave of arrests targeted at judicial officers only.
The former President was known to have vigorously campaigned on the need to combat corruption if our Nigeria is to survive economically and as a viable entity. That the government had been doing since it was inaugurated on May 29, 2015 but with reservation. Reservation in the sense that there were certain celebrated cases involving members of the ruling party, APC that were either suspended or thrown out entirely on suspected presidential directive. The cases of Sen. Danjuma Goje, Godswill Akpabio and erstwhile minister, Musiliu Obanikoro are fresh in our minds.

Military top brass were arrested, detained and arraigned before the courts of competent jurisdiction. The former Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, probably spent more of his official time attending court rooms than in the hallow chambers of the senate since he took over as Senate President (2015-2019).

Some former ministers, particularly Diezani Ali-son Madueke and Muhammed Bello Adoke hitherto considered untouchables and ‘powerful’ who did what they did in the Goodluck Jonathan brand of government were on the run having realized it could soon be their turn to answer charges on how they stole Nigeria blind. But the first batch of ‘unfortunate’ former ministers, for not being in the ruling party, APC had to battle for their freedom.

It has also been said that the DSS solicited the support of retired Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmoud Muhammed in apprehending the suspects but he ignored the request which rightly was considered a show of solidarity with the suspects or an attempt to shield the corrupt as comrades in syndicate.

Nigerians were convinced with sufficient evidence that the DSS took enough caution to accord the justices the honor due the offices they held. It is not sufficient that the National Judicial Council (NJC) that has the constitutional duty to investigate and appropriate action on professional misconduct against judicial officers had performed its duty. How well did it do that, given the way it refused to reopen a case it said it had decided in favor of a judge accused of corrupt practices when video evidence was eventually made available to it? Was Justice Mahmoud not the same person that chaired the NJC? What should be said about its handling of the case of a judge accused of collecting bribe but the NJC simply asked the culprit to refund the bribe in installments and to go and sin no more? But the same Justice Mahmoud could have had the guts and temerity to shamelessly sentence a village goat thief to jail with the claim to ‘serve’ as deterrent to others.

In view of the shoddy manner the NJC handled those and other cases, it was only expected that serious law enforcement bodies, in their attempt to rid the society of crime and ensuring that criminals are punished, would moved in to discharge their constitutional responsibility to Nigeria as the ‘shortchanged’ are now appealing for a search light on those judges who have served on the various Election Petition Tribunals. In most of the delivered judgments by the tribunals, there were suspected cases of gruesome murder of justice for a pot of porridge. Evidential cases of perjury were ignored and victories awarded to favored candidates at suspected fee and other obvious reasons.
The case of Plateau State is typical of such cases where confusion was brought into judgments. The ruling PDP in the state was said to have no valid structure to contest the 2023 elections. But ironically, the same tribunal ruled in favour of certain PDP candidates in same Plateau State while using the sledge hammer to murder flies on its other judgments for ‘lack’ of structure.

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For instance, if the PDP in Plateau State had no valid structure as claimed, why was it allowed by the electoral umpire INEC to contest in the elections? Why was the Plateau State chapter of the PDP duly recognized by INEC as a contesting party? Why were all PDP candidates cleared by the relevant government agencies for the contests? Is there any portion of the Nigerian Constitution or Electoral Act 2022 that says a party must have a constituted executive before it can contest election? Are issues dealing with executives of any party not the internal affair of the parties that has nothing to do with general elections? One may be wrong in his assessment of the situation but the Plateau State Elections Petition Tribunal may be more wrong in its judgments.

Added to that, the Plateau State Elections Petitions Tribunal relied on a said High Court order handed to the PDP in 2020 to conduct its congress election which was ignored by the party. The said court order has no relationship with the eligibility of PDP to contest an election. If there is any relationship, where is it stated in the relevant section of the law that says a party can be denied its victory for disrespecting a court order? Is disobedience to court order not a contempt of court? What is the punishment for contempt of court in the law? Does it include robbing the victory of the offender? The tribunal that delivered such a judgment deserves a probe for miscarriage of justice.

Miraculously, despite dismissing several cases for lack of structure against the PDP, on Friday, September 22, 2023, the same Plateau State Elections Petition Tribunal announced the 2023 PDP gubernatorial candidate as duly elected. The issue of no structure was no more an issue. What a confusion to wonder!

It is on record that as Danladi Halilu, former NJC secretary vacated office at the heat of the scandals that rocked the judiciary, allegedly it was said that he moved out some hefty bags that probably contained valuable items and files from the office he vacated to his residence to possibly destroy facts that might have nailed him and his accomplices in crime. This attracted the attention of security agencies. While several petitions were waiting prompt action against some senior staff of NJC, on Thursday, November 3, 2016, the Council hurriedly confirmed the appointment of one Ahmed Gambo Saleh, as NJC secretary, who was another suspect of corrupt deals.

Those judges were not arraigned before a court of competent jurisdiction to answer the charges against them. It was unfortunate that judges of the Federal High Court, Abuja, in solidarity with their corrupt colleague, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, shamelessly refused to sit on a penultimate Monday. It was similar to the actions of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) who chose to take the side of one of their own, Rickey Tarfa, who was accused of shielding a suspected economic saboteur, and the solidarity of senators who abandoned their task of making laws to accompany their president (Bukola Saraki) to court any day.

They did not feel diminished by the alleged action of their colleagues and called for diligent prosecution of the various cases.

Nigerians however, hope that given the extent to which the DSS said it had gone in investigating the matter and the cast-iron evidence it claimed to have obtained before arresting the suspects, was enough, to charge the accused to court.

The most shameful conduct in the arrests was the extent to which former Rivers State Federal High Court judge, Justice Muhammed Liman, obtained extra-judicial cover to frustrate the law from taking its course. He summoned the State Governor, a suspected accomplice, Nyeson Wike, who mobilized political functionaries and party miscreants to form a cauldron around the judge to prevent arrest. Could that be evidence that the judge had something to hide? Why inviting a state governor to ‘rescue’ him from arrest by law enforcement agents he uses to enforce the law? Why did he choose to invite Wike instead of the State Chief Judge or the Commissioner of Police or State Director of Security Service? Or was the Governor a comrade in syndicate?

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Arguments that the operation was carried out in the night has no place in law, or the suggestion that only the police are empowered to conduct investigations. Could the operation have been conducted with less drama? Perhaps yes if the police was involved. The state should not be seen at any time as deriving special pleasure from the discomfiture of citizens, especially since suspects are deemed innocent until they are proven guilty. There must be more civil, yet effective means of apprehending suspects. Given their conduct in this matter, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), the CJN and the NJC failed woefully to play their respective parts. The question to ask the former NBA and its president who suddenly found his voice in deprecating the manner the anti-corruption war was being fought is what he and his body have contributed to the anti-corruption war. At all points, senior lawyers took the side of the accused more than the society. They have not conducted themselves as respected officers of the temple of justice that they are expected to be. If anything, they appeared more like beneficiaries of the old order. Nigerians wonder where the NBA was when Ekiti State former Governor, Ayo Fayose tore the dress of a presiding judge in court. On their part, two former Chief Justices of Nigeria (CJN) whose tenure, were adjudged the most scandalous in the history of Nigeria’s judiciary did not as characteristic of them show effective leadership. If they were truly concerned on fighting corruption in the judiciary, they could have waged a serious and determined war than what they did that eroded respect of the judiciary.

Fortunately for Nigerians, they have vacated the seat and now in retirement watching helplessly how those they shielded are still facing corruption charges and the judiciary ridiculed. But the question to be asked by Nigerians is that of the mindset of former CJN Justice Ibrahim Tanko when he took over from the sacked Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen. What did he intend to do to all those suspected compromised judgments of the N/State Assemblies, Gubernatorial and Presidential Elections Petitions Tribunal? He did nothing up to his disgraceful retirement.

The media should as usual play a vital role by beaming its searchlight on all election petition cases before the Appeal Courts to expose derailment and compromised judgments. NJC was corruption-ridden over the years that served more as a social club for judicial officers than a serious clearing house. NJC needs a general overhaul if the present CJN means well.

From the grapevine it was learnt that those left to pilot the affairs of NJC were planted by the former CJN for business as usual. That is a serious allegation that deserves further investigation.

The President Tinubu administration is at liberty and enjoys the support of Nigerians to embark on a whole some reform of the judiciary including Customary/Shari’ah Courts at state and local government levels.

As the last hope for aggrieved citizens and one whose actions are meant to check the resort to self-help and jungle justice, the Nigerian society deserves better service. It is thus not enough to punish erring judges; a framework must be provided to prevent such unwholesome development in future while activities of the NJC must be thoroughly probed as Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen and Ibrahim Tanko exited disgracefully. There are several known scandals rocking the NJC and revealed through several petitions but covered by sacked Chief Justices that should now be brought to the front burner.

For the judiciary to regain its fading glory and place in history, all judgments delivered by Elections Petitions Tribunals nationwide should be reviewed and complains addressed in the spirit of justice to all and stability of the democracy.

Muhammad is a commentator on national issues

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