Ordinarily, Nigerians have an admirable level of solidarity when it comes to their citizen engaging in any contestation at a regional or global level for recognition, honour or public office. At such contests, Nigerian citizens usually bond together, jettisoning ethnic or religious cleavages, despite the well-documented division of the country along ethno-religious lines during national discourse or political contestations.
In recent times, there has been successful unified national clamour of Nigerian citizens with one voice to lobby international support for the second term re-election of Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina as African Development Bank’s president and support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the office of director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In both cases, their nomination was backed by the government and people of Nigeria. And while Dr. Adesina has been successfully elected, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is in the final lap of the race with bookmakers tipping her to clinch the top job. No Nigerian raised questions as to their tribe, tongue or religion.
Unfortunately, when President Muhammadu Buhari nominated the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Justice Ishaq Bello, to represent Nigeria as a judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, he did not receive the same solidarity that the above named duo enjoyed and still enjoy. Some wondered why Buhari must nominate a northerner, accusing him of always giving advantage to the north in terms of appointments.
While one cannot dismiss that with a wave of the hand, given Buhari’s clannish nature evident in his political appointments in the last five years, it does come across as an unfair basis to deny Justice Bello national support, which he deserves and obviously would have received had his name been anything close to Adesina or Okonjo-Iweala. As qualified and competent as Bello may be, the track record of the lopsidedness of Buhari’s appointments has clearly become an albatross around his neck, triggering a false narrative, which the people at The Hague cannot and could not have ignored in reaching a decision. No court will welcome a brilliant judge to its bench if there are discordant tunes from his country’s nationals.
Yet another group condemned the nomination of Justice Bello and cast aspersions on the nominee as not being a judge sound and competent in criminal law. They said he lacked knowledge of criminal law, citing his judgment in the Apo 6 killings, whereof he freed Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Danjuma Ibrahim for the failure of prosecution to prove a case of conspiracy and culpable homicide. Indeed, that verdict by Bello was completely against the public sentiment that greeted the dastardly killing of six young Nigerian traders in 2005 and the attendant call for the conviction of their killers.
While the verdict of the Chief Judge has become his albatross, it is noteworthy to recall that, during the trial and delivery of the considered decision of the judge in the Apo 6 trial, Justice Bello painstakingly x-rayed graphically the shoddy investigation conducted by the police, which made it difficult for the judge to acquiesce to the will of the people – the conviction of all the policemen and officer accused of complicity in the gruesome murder of six innocent Nigerians from the same tribe.
In his verdict, Justice Bello discharged DCP Danjuma Ibrahim, Nicholas Zakaria and Sadiq Salami “for absence of sufficient evidence linking them to the crime,” while convicting and sentencing Emmanuel Baba and Ezekiel Acheneje to death, based on their confessional statement and evidence-in-chief, wherein they admitted that it was the fleeing Divisional Police Officer Abdulsalam Othman that directed them to shoot the victims. There is no gainsaying that the Nigerian people, particularly families of the victims, have repeatedly described the judgment as a travesty of justice, since it freed the police chief.
However, for someone who meticulously followed the processes and proceedings during the trial, it is my considered view that the real blame must be placed at the doorstep of the police, whose investigators bungled the whole process ab initio by failing to be diligent and thereby leaving leeways for the “killer cops” to get away with murder. How do you accuse policemen of killing the victims with their guns and yet fail to audit the guns, count the bullets, establish which gun and whose gun was used to kill each of the victims? That ploy did not just smack of incompetence, it reeked of a high-level conspiracy to bungle the trial from the outset. That much Justice Bello said when he lampooned the police for a shoddy investigation, which has become pretty characteristic of the police whenever they have vested interest in a matter.
Again, it is curious that, following the street protests that trailed Bello’s judgment, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami, SAN, said he was reviewing the judgment of the trial court. However, no appeal has been filed to test the strength of Justice Bello’s verdict with a view to assuaging families of the victims and getting them closure of some sort. While all of these are pointers to how the case was compromised by government and the police hierarchy, one cannot but sympathise with Justice Bello, who had the onerous task of dispensing justice based on the weight of evidence before him without prejudice to the weight of sentiment in the court of public opinion, which he is not deaf to.
He delivered his verdict in March 2017 and one thing is sure – the verdict has become his albatross, an albatross that has made people describe a very sound and courageous jurist as a dull one not fit to be on the bench of the ICC. The love-hate relationship is so strong that some persons want to jeopardise the chance of an eminent jurist to sit on the bench of the ICC despite his many laudable contributions at the FCT High Court, where he introduced the fast-track court system to speed up the hearing and dispensing of cases, enhanced the welfare of judicial officers and created the enforcement procedure rules for the Child Rights Act. The African Bar Association (AFBA) had recently warned against the negative comments from the region against Justice Bello and other nominees from the region, saying it would work against the continent’s interest at the ICC and called for a sheathing of swords. Nigerians may do well to heed that advice.
•Ughegbe was judiciary correspondent with The Guardian and covered the Apo 6 killings trial.