By Fred Nwaozor
IT’s indeed interesting to realize that after all the grandstanding made by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) alongside its allies, following the recent clampdown on some judges by the Department of State Service (DSS), it has thought it wise to present reality.
Speaking a few weeks ago during the valedictory court session in honour of Justice Sotonye Denton-West of the Akure Division of the Court of Appeal, the association’s President Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN) noted that in safeguarding the sanctity of the judiciary, it has become necessary for the arrested judges to excuse themselves from further judicial functions.
He equally suggested that these judges could proceed on compulsory leave until their innocence is fully established. The NBA boss went further to state that the bar has set up a task force after its meeting with the Attorney General of the Federation as well as past and serving leaders of the association, to review the recent developments and come up with specific recommendations on how best to clean up the nation’s judiciary and rebuild the confidence of the citizenry. He assured that the report would be available in two weeks time, having called on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to suspend the judges if they fail to comply with the directive.
It’s noteworthy that four of the judges arrested between October 7 and 8, 2016 are still serving while the other three had been recommended for compulsory retirement and dismissal by the NJC prior to the clampdown. Suffice it to say that the NBA boss was actually referring to the four.
I was not surprised regarding the abrupt U-turn made by the NBA. I knew they would surely agree with the content of the constitution. The drama earlier was what is known as ‘self defence’. Self-defence is a legal measure required by one to save himself when his life is in danger, or when someone else is making physical attempt to claim it. If one commits murder while employing self-defence, the law is liable to forgive him for such crime committed if proven beyond doubts that his actions weren’t informed by any criminal intension.
So, the NBA, alongside the NJC were trying to safeguard the integrity of the judiciary that was ostensibly under ‘attack’ as was staged by the DSS. The Judges were taken unawares and they were of the view that their lives were in danger. As a result, they decided to employ self-defence tactics. Remember, the Judges hadn’t experienced such before. Hence, making such a U-turn was something I saw coming. I wasn’t taken unawares, that’s why I only smiled the moment I got the news on my desk. I am sure the NJC has also jettisoned its sword, even though the Chairman has disclosed that none of the indicted judges would be suspended.
Now, one is deeply perturbed. Some of the arrested justices, such as Justices John Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta, have alleged that the serving ministers tried to bribe them over a few of the court cases they handled recently. They made the shocking allegations via separate epistles they sent to the NJC. Should we fold our arms and allow such striking accusations to be buried? Something must be done. Doing otherwise will perhaps be the biggest mistake to be made by the relevant law enforcement agencies. Thus, investigations in that regard ought to commence without much ado. This is when the Federal Government needs to practically prove to the people that it is not biased.
One is baffled at the way and manner most of these anti-graft agencies have handled cases in recent times. Sometimes, we would observe that investigation commences after an accused person had been arrested; this is absurd and totally unconstitutional. Arrest is meant to be preceded by investigation, and not otherwise. An arrest marks the end of any ongoing investigation in respect of the case in question. As soon as an allegation or petition is tendered, investigation commences, then followed by an arrest. An arrest is constitutionally succeeded by arraignment; meaning literally that the moment an indicted person is arrested, you are expected to file a suit against him/her in relevant court of competent jurisdiction.
My other concern is the duration of court proceedings in Nigeria. Some prosecutions linger for many years. The legislature really needs to address this lapse if we must get it right. Let’s amend the constitution and other relevant Acts by creating a stipulated duration a certain prosecution is supposed to last. Civil, criminal, and electoral cases ought to have a particular period of time they are meant to last in any court of law they are being entertained, irrespective of its jurisdiction.
However, now that some judges have been charged, and they are required to be tried by a law court soon, the question is: who is going to try them? It’s obvious that they would be prosecuted and perhaps be convicted, if found guilty, by their colleagues. So, what’s the guarantee that the proposed prosecution, would be done dispassionately by these judicial officers?
Nwaozor writes from Owerri