By Clifford Ndujihe, Vincent Ujumadu, Ikechukwu Nnochiri, Victor Ahiuma-Young, Bartholomew Madukwe, Chioma Onuegbu & Anozie Egole ABUJA— Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, yesterday, described the arrest and detention of two Justices of the Supreme Court and two High Court Judges by the DSS as very “saddening, regrettable and distressing” and urged Nigerians to remain calm and prayerful. He said the National Judicial Council, NJC, will hold an emergency meeting today to comprehensively look into the matter.
Meanwhile, as angst over last weekend’s crackdown on judges by the Department of State Service, DSS, continues, high court judges shunned sittings in Abuja, yesterday. Most courts Vanguard visited were open but not conducting any proceedings. Most of the judicial workers, especially at the Federal High Court, where one of the detained judges, Justice Ademola Adeniyi, was serving, were seen in clusters discussing the issue in hushed tones. Some prominent cases hitherto slated for hearing could not go on, yesterday, including continuation of the corruption trial of former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh and money laundering charge against former governor of Imo State, Chief Ikedi Ohakim.
There were indications that the arrested judges may be arraigned before a Chief Magistrate Court at Life Camp District, Abuja. This came as the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, insisted that the crackdown was unconstitutional and illegal as the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN, and the Body of Benchers, contrary to tradition, shunned a valedictory court session held in honour of Justice Suleiman Galadima, who bowed out of the apex court bench, yesterday, having clocked the mandatory 70 years retirement age.
The CJN, who doubles as chairman of the NJC, broke his silence on the issue at the valedictory court session. While extolling the virtues of Justice Galadima, who he said rendered 47 years of committed and selfless service to the nation, the CJN, said: “My Lords, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, not to detract from this occasion, it is indeed very saddening and deeply regrettable, the distressing and unfortunate incident, which occurred on Friday October 7, and Saturday October 8, 2016.
“However, I must ask all Nigerians to remain calm and prayerful, as an emergency meeting of the NJC which will take place tomorrow (today), will comprehensively look into the matter. Furthermore, I must express my sincere appreciation to the executive of the NBA ably led by the President, Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN, and indeed all members of the legal profession, for their prompt action and continued support.” Meantime, contrary to the tradition of such valedictory court proceedings, Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN, not only shunned the event, he also failed to send a representative. Similarly, the Body of Benchers, which is an umbrella body of SANs in the country, was not represented on the occasion. Atmosphere at the session, held at the main courtroom of the Supreme Court, was tense and gloomy, with only 13 justices of the apex court in attendance. DSS operations were illegal, unconstitutional, NBA insists Meanwhile, in its speech at the valedictory session, the NBA insisted that it was wrong for President Muhammadu Buhari to justify the DSS action against the judges.
President of the association, Abubakar Mahmoud, SAN, said: “Perhaps it may not be out of place if I say a few words on the events that took place two days ago. The events are now quite known. Between the night of Friday October 7, operatives of the DSS conducted series of raids into the homes of judges of various courts across the country, including homes of two senior Justices of the Supreme Court. “The justices were taken into custody after several hours of searches. On October 8, the DSS held a press conference to justify the searches. It described the operation, in quote: ‘series of sting operations on allegations of corruption and other acts of professional misconduct against few and suspected judges’. It also stated that its action was in line with its core mandate, that they have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious life style of judges. “The NBA has already issued a statement condemning this action in the strongest possible terms. At the press conference, which I addressed in Lagos, on Saturday, I condemned the action of the DSS and demanded that President Buhari calls the security agencies responsible for this action to order. We deem these actions illegal and unconstitutional as it is against the independence of the judiciary. “It is aimed at intimidating the judiciary and indeed the legal profession.
This military style operations are totally unacceptable in a democratic society. “It is unacceptable to private citizens and more so, justices of the superior courts”. NBA said it was concerned that President Buhari, through a statement by his special assistant on media, attempted to justify the arrest and detention of the judges by the DSS, on the premise that it was targeted at corruption and not the judiciary as an institution. “The NBA rejects this explanation and justification that this so called surgical operation is targeted at corruption and not the judiciary. We found it absurd that the President will accept assurances from the DSS. We maintain our position that these operations were illegal and unconstitutional. I want to reiterate that the position of the NBA is not aimed at protecting any Judge or to shield any Judge from investigation”.
The NBA leadership called for the DSS to be restructured, saying it is not the mandate of the Service to investigate corruption allegations or to conduct sting operations in the home of judges at night, warning that the DSS should not be encouraged to act outside the law as “the dangers of this kind of action are replete in our history.” Judges are corrupted by senior lawyers – Sagay Speaking on the issue, yesterday, Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee againmst Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, SAN, said: “It is a major development in our legal history, it is unusual. Where do you think such money (N360m) came from? And if such huge sum of money can illegitimately be in the house of judges, then what is this system we are operating? Can one get justice in such a situation? This is what is troubling my mind.
I have always said that judges deserve dignity and to be treated with utmost respect; that is what I will call reverence and it has always been so. “In a situation where there is such degeneration in a society, that has now spread to the judiciary that is normally treated with sanctity and reverence, what is to be done? When you have a god that you are worshipping and the god brings himself down to your level, then what it is saying is that you should stop worshipping him and you should treat him like any other person. That is the phenomenon we are dealing with. “Respect for judges is based on their conduct, record and attitude. When that conduct fails, then they have exposed themselves to the situation, which they are treated. Judges, according to the law, enjoy immunity against searches and arrests. In regard to how judges are treated, as people who are above god, people of the greatest moral authority, when that is gone and they are like you and me in conduct, scrambling for money and taking money from parties before their courts, in order to abuse their position, then the law applies to them as it applies to every other person. NJC should not be condemned over the said money found in judges homes. NJC was not established to deal with the epidermic that is seen in the judiciary, in terms of judicial corruption.
We are facing an epidermic. It means if you don’t have money you can never get justice. So I think there is a need to really introduce drastic measures to purify the system.’’ We must not undermine the credibility of the judiciary – Nwabueze Legal icon, Professor Ben Nwabueze, SAN also deplored the manner the arrests were made and cautioned that we must not do things that could bring the judiciary to disrepute. In a statement, yesterday, he said: “Whilst judges are not granted immunity from criminal process, the vital and sacrosanct role of the judiciary in governance entitles them to great respect over and above that accorded to the ordinary citizens. To disgrace a judge, as by a degrading treatment, is not just the disgraceful treatment of an individual; it brings the entire judiciary, as the third organ of government, the Third Estate of the Realm, into disrepute and undermines its credibility in the eyes of the public. It diminishes our country, and all of us. The matter therefore counsels and demands cautious handling. “We are in a constitutional democracy, not a military dictatorship, and the law must be respected and obeyed in the way the affairs of the country are handled, including the handling of the fight against corruption which we all wholeheartedly support.’’
Anti-graft war must follow due process – Sodipo Also, speaking, former President, Intellectual Property Law Association of Nigeria, IPLAN, Prof Bankole Sodipo, said: “I am against corruption and corrupt judges but I am against the manner the judges have been treated. The rule of law is a safety valve. No investment takes place in a country where the rule of law is not respected. Leaders who do not respect the rule of law often become despots. Buhari was once a despot. We must oppose the agencies that are depicting Buhari as a leader that has not changed. I voted for Buhari, who vowed he is not that same person who ruled us a little over 30 years ago with Decree 4 and fear.
I implore Buhari to dispel this fear as Idi Amin started like that. Once the judiciary is ridiculed, the last hope of the common man is gone. Let us follow due process.’’ It has done serious damage to Nigeria’s image – Labour Organised Labour, also condemned the crackdown, saying that it contradicted known democratic norms and undermined Nigeria’s democratic practices. Speaking through the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC faction led by Mr. Joe Ajaero, Labour contended that while it gave total support to the anti-corruption fight of the present government in the three arms of government, the process that was employed in the raid on the homes of the judges, had done serious damage to the reputation of the nation and made a mockery of the brand of democracy being practiced.
Labour in a statement by Joe Ajaero warned that Nigeria could slide back into a pariah state in the comity of nations should things continue in this way. The statement reads in part: “That the nation’s judiciary which ought to be the last hope of the common man is seriously corrupt just like every other arm of the nation’s governance is well known and historical. It is unfortunate that these allegations against judges whose chambers are considered hallowed and whose appearances sometimes bespoke of certain reverential powers are even made at all talk less of the presence of the alleged evidence in their possessions. We feel that this is truly a betrayal of trust and confidence and indeed contemptuous of the loyalty of Nigerian people upon that hallowed institution.
“However, no matter the quantum of corruption that is either perceived or observed in the Judiciary, we cannot pull down the laws and statutes we have set for ourselves to govern how issues of this magnitude are handled. Governance is built on certain pillars and anything that undermines these pillars undermines the government and can create instability that may cause the nation to implode. These safeguards are guarantees to protect the people from impunity and high-handedness of those that wield instruments of Power.’’ APC, CLO differ Meanwhile, the Conference of Publicity Secretaries of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, and the Civil Liberties Organization, CLO, have divergent views on the issue.
While the APC scribes in the six geo-political zones of the country commended the Federal Government for what they described as its demonstrable intent to clean up the judiciary and take it out of the commercial market, the CLO said the invasion of judges‘ homes by DSS operatives brought to the fore the reality that democracy, rule of law and respect for the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria were under serious threat. In a statement made available to reporters in Awka, the APC publicity scribes said the mission to clean the judiciary should not be questioned by anyone who meant well for Nigeria, especially those who had a first-hand experience of the perversion of justice in the country.
The statement read: “We urge Nigerians who do not as yet have sufficient information or are not knowledgeable enough on the technical issues involved in the combined operation of the security agencies leading to the arrest of some judicial officers across the nation to answer to various allegations, to remain calm and watch the unfolding situation. “Attempts to consign the issues in the latest development to legalities alone will fail flatly in the face of more serious considerations of how the nation degenerated to a point where those who would normally be looked up to as next to God in purity, now demand and collect bribes to declare otherwise unqualified persons to preside over the public life of innocent Nigerians, armed with immunity in some cases.’’
However, the South East zone of CLO disagreed with APC scribes, arguing that the gestapo style of the DSS operation in arresting the Judges was a sad reminder that after 17 years of return to civilian administration, dictatorship and other accompanying derivatives of the military regime still abound. South East zonal chairman of CLO, Comrade Aloysius Attah, said while not holding brief for the affected judges, even when the DSS had already declared them guilty, there were legally accepted procedures for criminal arrest, investigation, prosecution and conviction. Attah’s statement read: “Nigeria as a nation has relevant agencies and bodies charged with the responsibility of addressing corruption, financial malfeasance and other related offences. The DSS under President Buhari, if left unchecked, may become another strike force.
The DSS action is morally and legally reprehensible and there is nothing to cheer or justify their action over the huge sums of cash said to have been recovered from the Judges’ homes, after all the DSS is not a money recovering agency.’’ It’s a threat to Nigeria’s democracy – A/Ibom PDP, Onuesoke In like manner, the Akwa Ibom State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, called on Nigerians to resist attempts by the APC-led Federal Government to scuttle Nigeria’s hard-won democracy. The state Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Mr. Ini Ememobong, yesterday in Uyo, described the arrest of the judges as ‘burglary and kidnapping,’’adding that if Nigerians and professional bodies do not rise up to defend democracy and judiciary, and left them undefended, democracy will be threatened to its roots. A chieftain of the PDP, Chief Sunny Onuesoke, described the arrests as sacrilegious and desecration of the judiciary. Onuesoke who spoke to newsmen in Abuja, argued that while he is in full support of the government’s efforts to eradicate judicial corruption, he would not accept anti-corruption strategies and methods that patently offend the rule of law and undermine the authority, integrity, sanctity and independence of the judiciary as stipulated in the principle of separation of powers.