From Godwin Tsa, Abuja
The judiciary is reputed to be the last hope of the common man. It is seen as the arm of government, which any man who feels wronged can run to for respite. Because of its importance, the judiciary is expected to live above board, free from political or monetary interference, to enable it function as an unbiased arbiter.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian judiciary has over the years been reported to sink further into the quagmire of political interference, corruption and unhealthy favoritism, making the common man reconsider where his faith actually lies.
Undoubtedly, in 2016, the judiciary came under unprecedented assault when the homes of some judges, including Supreme Court justices, were raided in a midnight ‘sting operation’ orchestrated by the Department of State Security (DSS).
Arrest of judges and lawyers
Among those whisked away and detained in the exercise were Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and John Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, and Justice Muazu Pindiga of the Gombe division of the Federal High Court.
Another judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba’s residence was also raided but he was not arrested.
A similar move to arrest a judge in Rivers State, Justice Mohammed Liman, was scuttled through the intervention of Governor Nyesom Wike.
At the end of the coordinated exercise, which took place between October 7 and 8, the DSS disclosed that it seized cash in various currencies totaling $800,000 from the residence of the judges.
The secret police, in justifying the gestapo-styled operation, said, “We have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some Judges as well as complaints from concerned public over judgements obtained fraudulently and on the basis amounts of money paid.”
In addition, the DSS in a statement, said it discovered “cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts of these judges.”
The action of the DSS almost swept the judiciary away following events that trailed the exercise. While the leadership of the judiciary and other stakeholders almost engaged the Federal Government in an open confrontation over the raids, which it described as an act of sacrilege and the executive arm’s attempt to intimidate and cow the third arm of government, others backed the DSS.
Those in support were of the view that the judiciary had descended to unprecedented depths of avarice and venality with justice often on sale to the highest bidder. Therefore, they submitted that cleansing the judiciary of the debilitating virus would not only restore integrity, but also help it to shine the torch of justice that will illuminate the way for nation to get out of the darkness of injustice and corruption.
However, after the initial resistance and condemnation by the National Judicial Council (NJC), under leadership of former Chief Justice of Nigeria Mahmud Mohammed, as well as the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), who insisted on the independence of the judiciary, they saw reason with the Federal Government, by directing the affected judges to step down from their judicial duties, pending when they were cleared of the allegations.
The arrested judges fought back by attributing their travails to the activities of some politicians, some of whom have already been charged and arraigned over corruption, money laundering and gratification allegations.
Specifically, Justices Ngwuta and Okoro of the Supreme Court separately traced their travails to their refusal to do the biddings of the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi and his Science and Technology counterpart, Ogbonnaya Onu, to give judgements in favour of their political platform.
Ngwuta has since been arraigned before Justice John Tsoho of the Abuja division of the Federal High Court, but Okoro is yet to be charged to court.
Another judge charged to court as a fallout of the DSS raid was Ademola and his wife. Ademola has marked out the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), as the man behind his ordeal in the hands of the DSS.
He accused the AGF of instigating his arrest to get back a pound of flesh owing to a clash they had while the minister was a practising lawyer in Kano State.
In another division of the Federal High Court, Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia was charged for corrupt activities by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The arrests in the judiciary were not restricted to judges as two Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Ricky Tarfa and Godwin Obla, were put on trial for alleged corrupt acts. They were alleged to have bribed some judges in a bid to obtain favourable judgements.
The judiciary during the outgoing year also witnessed the ugly, disturbing trend of conflicting decisions of courts of coordinate jurisdiction involving high profile political cases. Incidents of contradictory judgements assumed a disturbing dimension because, even when parties were served court processes and had joined issues, they rushed to another court to get pliable judges to grant them exparte and conflicting orders and judgements within days.
This trend was more prevalent in political cases, especially the one pertaining to the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It began with Justice Mohammed Liman of the Port Harcourt Division of the Federal High Court, who granted an exparte order in respect of the same issues and parties on May 23, 2016, 12 days after the Federal High Court, Lagos, had taken over the matter and gave orders that forbade the PDP from “conducting any election into the offices of the National Chairman, National Secretary and National Auditor occupied by the first (Sheriff), second (Prof. Wale Oladipo) and third (Alhaji Fatai Adeyanju) Plaintiffs, respectively, pending the determination of the substantive suit.”
The same court granted an order restraining the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from monitoring and/or recognising any election by the second “Defendant/Respondent (PDP) into the offices of the National Chairman, National Secretary and National Auditor occupied by the first (Sheriff), second (Prof. Wale Oladipo) and third (Alhaji Fatai Adeyanju) Plaintiffs, respectively, pending the determination of the substantive suit.”
Mohammed, then Chief Justice of Nigeria, who had expressed worry over the development, declared that “all the judges involved are being investigated and actions will be taken against them, accordingly.”
Mohammed added that “such decisions were made as a result of flagrant refusal of the panels of the Court of Appeal involved to be bound, not only by its own decisions, but by the decision of this court (Supreme Court).”
The trend caused an avalanche of petitions against the judges, some of which were sent directly to the President, contrary to laid down procedures.
Besides the PDP leadership crisis, the 2016 governorship election dispute in Abia State, between Okezie Ikpeazu and Uche Ogah, all of the PDP, and the Appeal Court panels in Abuja and Ilorin’s decisions on the Public Order Act also elicited judicial migraine.
In 2016, some of the most controversial cases included the Kogi State governorship tussle, which inched to a near political conundrum following the sudden death of the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Alhaji Abubakar Audu, before the election was declared inconclusive by INEC, and the election dispute in Abia between Okezie and Ogah, where Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court sacked the sitting governor in controversial circumstances.
For Kogi, the contest was between former governor Idris Wada of the PDP and James Faleke of the APC against the emergence of Yahaya Bello, also of the APC, who eventually clinched the governorship position of the state.
Generals on trial
Also, the EFCC, in the course of investigating the alleged diversion of $2.1 billion arms fund under the Office of the National Security Adviser, then headed by Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.), alleged that the money, estimated at over $15 billion (N2.3 trillion) earmarked for the fight against the Boko Baram terror group, was diverted by various personalities and agencies.
Accordingly, Dasuki and several ex-military chiefs, including former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh (retd.), and former Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Adesola Amosu (retd.), are currently standing trial on charges relating to the alleged fraud.
Justice Okon Abang
In the year under review, no judge courted controversy more than Abang of the Abuja division of the Federal High Court.
Some high-profile cases have been assigned to his court for adjudication by the Chief Judge, Justice Ibrahim Auta. They include that of Badeh, the former spokesman for the Peoples Democratic Party, Olisa Metuh, and the former governor of Adamawa State, Admiral Murtala Nyako (retd).
Controversial decisions and a deluge of petitions
One of such cases where Abang took a controversial decision was that of Ogah against Ikpeazu, where he ordered Ikpeazu’s removal from office for giving false information in the form he submitted to INEC to contest the governorship election.
Abang held in the two separate verdicts that Ikpeazu lied on oath by stating in the Form 8C001 that he had fulfilled all the requirements for qualification to the office of the Governor of Abia State when, in actual fact, he failed to produce the evidence of regular payment of personal income tax in the three years preceding the primary, as required under Article 14(a) of the PDP Electoral Guidelines.
The uproar that greeted the verdict almost wrecked the political landscape of the state but itwas overruled by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
It was the position of the Court of Apeal, led by Justice Morenike Ogunwumiju, that Justice Abang “raped democracy” when he ordered INEC to issue a certificate of return to Mr. Ogah, without evidence of forgery against Mr. Ikpeazu.
The judegment by Abang also attracted a litany of petitions against him before the NJC by some individuals and groups calling for sanctions against him.
Another ruling that put Abang on the spot was in the case bordering on the PDP leadership crisis, where he declared the Senator Ali Modu-Sheriff faction as the authentic National Executive of the party against the Senator Ahmed Markarfi-led faction.
As a fallout, Abang directed INEC to replace the name of Eyitayo Jegede with that of Jimoh Ibrahim as the party’s governorship candidate in Ondo State in the November election that was eventually won by Rotimi Akeredolu of the APC.
The ruling, which was set aside on appeal in favour of Jegede by the appellate court, also opened a floodgate of petitions against Abang.
However, the NJC dismissed all of the petitions as it claimed that it found no merit in four petitions that called for the judge to be investigated over judgements he delivered against the PDP.
Whereas one of the petitions queried the legal propriety of Abang’s verdict of June 27, 2016, which sacked Governor Ikpeazu from office over alleged tax infractions, the Senator Markarfi-led faction of the PDP equally dragged the judge before the NJC over his judgement that directed INEC to only recognise the PDP group led ny Modu-Sheriff.
The NJC maintained that the petitioners failed to substantiate their allegations against the judge.
The decision of the legal body was contained in a letter with Ref no. NJC/ F.3/FHC.44/V/131, which it wrote to the first petitioner, Chief Oyedele M. Ibini , another letter with Ref. no. NJC/F.3/FHC.44/v/129, to Charles Esonu. Others were letters to Emeka Eze and Chief Henry Balogun with Ref. nos. NJC/F.3/FHC.44/V/125 and NJC/F.3/FHC.44/v/127, respectively.
The four letters were all dated October 18, 2016. Specifically, the document revealed that Balogun accused Abang of abusing judicial powers. He told the NJC that the judge meted out injustice to the PDP and Governor Ikpeazu in the judgement he delivered in suit no. FHC/ABJ/CS/71/2016 Dr. Samson Okechukwu Ogah vs PDP.
However, the NJC, while absolving Abang of any wrongdoing, said it had, at the end of its deliberations, found no proof of misconduct against the judge.
Similarly, the council held that the petition written by the secretary of the PDP in Ondo State, Chief Ayodele Ibini, where he alleged Abang’s misconduct in suit no. FHC/ABJ/CS/439/2016, in the judgement he delivered recognising the Sheriff faction in Edo and Ondo states, lacked merit.
The NJC also exonerated Abang of any wrongdoing or misconduct in the petition written by Esonu of the PDP, who alleged that the order that directed Ikpeazu to immediately vacate the governorship seat was reckless. Besides, the NJC said the complaint by Mr. Eze that Justice Abang ought not have issued the enrolled order on suit no. FHA/ABJ/CS/71/2016 to INEC immediately the Abia judgement was delivered, lacked merit. It said the judge was able to prove that the judgement in contention was released to the parties after four days.