•As EFCC re-arraigns Belgore, Sulaiman By Lukman Olabiyi Timothy Olaobaju, the first prosecution witness in the ongoing trial of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Muhammed Dele Belgore and a former Minister of National Planning, Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman, yesterday, before the Federal High Court, Lagos, revealed how former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke,…
In one of its very rare attempted macho power, the National Judicial Council once grabbed the headlines by recommending some judges for dismissal, retirement or prosecution as the case might be. The action was not more than a tame response to unending public and media criticisms of unceasing allegations of corruption on the bench. Somewhat innocently, an opinion in a section of the press concluded patronisingly that the NJC (at last?) was on the offensive. Either to rightly stop the critical public from being carried away or acting separately on its own, the State Security Service, SSS, (Nigeria’s secret police), later revealed allegations of suspected massive corruption among serving judges in High Court, Appeal Court and even Supreme Court.
In what turned out to be precipitate reaction, it was grandstanding time for even lawyers known to be complicit in the corrupt practices of serving judges and, of course, frustrated politicians rendered rudderless since the 2015 elections. They planked their efforts on the purported limits of the law enforcement powers of the SSS and conveniently on the agency’s method in arresting the corrupt judges. There should be no surprise that members of the National Assembly, for obvious self-serving purposes, commandeered the debate on the corruption mess of the judges by allegedly making moves to amend the laws setting up the State Security Service, to strip the agency of the power under which the judges were arrested. Since the return of civilian rule in 1999, one member of the national assembly or another, including former state governors, had been arraigned for alleged corruption. Such trials were either deliberately prolonged to frustrate public interest or the accused were clandestinely set free. Meanwhile, there are still many cases in court for criminal offences, involving members of National Assembly.
The frightening claim made by critics was that the arrest of the judges by the State Security Service was an assault on the judiciary and a violation of separation of powers of law enforcement agencies. Such claim is an act of blackmail and desperation to rescue the corrupt judges. Before mounting the bench, judges are first of all, Nigerians liable to civil and criminal laws to which an ordinary citizen is anwerable. Judges cannot, therefore, be sending fellow citizens to prison, only to turn round and commit the same offence. And then this nonsense that only the National Judicial Council is statutorily mandated to discipline judges? Should judges indulge in the criminal act of serial gang-raping, false declaration of assets or false tax returns, only law courts or the Code of Conduct Tribunal, and not the NJC can try such cases. What, therefore, is the difference between these charges and official corruption/money laundering? On account of being judges, such criminal suspects should be untouchable if caught in the act?
It is also legalistic montrosity to harp, as in this case, on strict separation of powers of specific agencies in matters of prevention or detection of crimes. Otherwise, why are ordinary citizens implored to give information on potential crimes, to security agencies? On some crimes, are ordinary citizens not conferred with power of arrest? If arson or rape is to be committed or actually commmtted in the next house, must a neighbour remain indifferent and allow the culprit to escape because only law enforcement agencies have the power for prevention and detection of crimes? What is more, the SSS gave the necessary background for its action in arresting the judges. It was, therefore, not a case of arresting the judges without reason or usurpation of the powers of allied agencies. According to the SSS (admittedly, an allegation), a huge sum of half a billion (not a million) naira was traced to one of the judges, who was accordingly invited and confronted with the facts.
Admitting guilt, the judge concerned rolled about on the floor and was captured (either on camera but more probably on video). The evidence, as the SSS alleged, was sent to the National Judicial Council for second investigation and necessary disciplinary action, The NJC allegedly returned a verdict of not guilty on the same judge. That is the same body credited with the power to discipline judges. If, therefore, other judges were earlier sanctioned, it is obvious they lacked the luck to enjoy favour in the necessary quarters. And Nigerians were asked to offer prayers on this matter. That the allegations of criminal corruption against the judges might wither away or be covered up or be rendered forgotten, as it is the practice in Nigeria? Whatever happened to the many trials for the fuel subsidy scandal. Nigerians have forgotten, after the lawyers collected their huge fees.The lot of critics should be understood. With the dislodgement of their accomplices from the bench, alarm has been sent to survivors to, henceforth determine cases on their merit and in quick time too.
We must not underestimate the disturbing performance of the judiciary in the past few decades. Such would qualify for one of two charges in the police crime book – threatening behaviour or conduct likely to cause breach of peace, each with the risk of leading to anarchy, often played down as self-help in all matters of disagreement, for which law courts, all over the world are established to adjudicate. From the proof of purchase of injustice (as justice) by otherwise guilty parties corrupting judges, sometimes, through their lawyers, it was a question of time for cheated litigants in ever increasing numbers to fight back. How, where or when, nobody would know. That was the national danger posed by corrupt judges, a provocation to law-abiding Nigerians. Therefore, nowhere in the world are judges above the law or specially treated. Yes, they are interpreters of the law, including conduct of judges under prevailing laws.
Could the claim of State Security Service be true that huge amount in foreign and local currencies suspected to be proceeds of official corruption was found on or traced to the arrested judges? If true, what would it matter since the end of detecting a financial crime justified the means adopted by SSS? The conduct of the arrested judges should no longer be handled by the NJC. They obviously lose any moral to continue sitting. Instead, they should be charged to court by the competent authority. All the sanctions recently imposed against plain erring judges were more of slaps on the wrist. A judge who committed perjury, a very criminal offence, should have been prosecuted rather than being retired. Also, whether a judge refunded in part or full, any proceeds of official coruption should not have saved him from prosecution. And once a judge was disqualified from future promotion or portions of official schedule for life, the bench no longer needs the services of such a judge.
There is also this observation which Nigerians might have missed. Before the SSS revealed magnitude of the financial crime allegedly committed by the judges, the National Judicial Council was summoned for an emergency meeting, which was supposed to last one day. Proceedings extended to the third day, obviously because of the nation-wide shock over the scandal. Could the meeting conclude one way or another? Not at the time of writing.
Some critics with vested interests faulted the SSS for invading the official quarters of the judges. Why not? How else could the the vivid evidence of financial proceeds of official corruption have been recovered? The element of surprise was very vital or the entire purpose would have been defeated. Anyway, even when the SSS provided NJC with evidence in the case of a judge, did the NJC not clear the judge of the crime? Is it the law in Nigeria that a judge or a criminal can stock millions of naira in local or foreign currency in his house? More importantly, how did he come about such huge amount? If the SSS claim should be true that a judge owns a house worth over one billion naira in Abuja, how wealthy could such a judge be? Surely, not from his official earnings. Above all, if the EFCC invaded the Kaduna house of former National Security Adviser, retired Colonel Sambo Dasuki, and his father’s house in Sokoto, both in his absence, what is so special about judges to be treated differently? The same EFCC (under Obasanjo) invaded the house of Glo boss, Mike Adenuga, who was not even under trial or investigation for any offence. Did Nigeria Bar Association express any concern for them? By the way, the NBA should thoroughly investigate speculations, even by some lawyers that some of their colleagues serve as conduits for influencing corruption on the bench
The role of Governor Nyesom Wike in protecting a judge in the state against armed SSS operatives should be worrying. That was risky. Suppose there was accidental discharge on either side? Nnamdi Azikiwe comes to mind that “…only a madman would argue with a man carrying gun.” Any fatal shooting from any side would have resulted in bloodbath, a sad event in which only the last man would be alive. Such survivor might not be determined by status but luck. The governor’s excuse that he resisted to avoid the judge being murdered if taken away, was not tenable. None of the other six judges arrested by the SSS was murdered. Urgent official contacts at top level would have clarified the situation. A commissioner of police on the scene was not enviable. Did he report the problem on his hand instantly to his boss, the Inspector General? If not, why not? If the IG denied knowledge of the emergency operations, did he (IG) inquire from from the Director General of SSS? If the latter confirmed, the commissioner of police should have been directed to co-operate with the SSS operatives. It was relieving that all ended well.
Mike Ozekhome got it wrong that only judges from the South were stung by SSS. Justice Mohammed Liman of Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, is a northerner and Governor Wike forcefully shielded him. SSS should not be lamed for that.
With the arrests and huge evidence against the judges, the reputation of the SSS is at stake to ensure full and early prosecution. The SSS can also indulge in some self-praise, leaving the courts, even in their notoriety to decide the fate of the suspects. At least, impunity and recklessness of bribery on the bench have been checked if not halted. A way of ensuring this is to make very good examples of the accused judges. Theirs are not cases for plea bargain in which, after purging them of proceeds of corruption, they will be retired.
For their courage and sincerity, the views of two prominent lawyers, Itse Sagay and Femi Falana on this sad episode should be documented for future references. William Shakespeare is memorable that “even among the ruins, there are traces of architecture.”
Last line: During a debate for the American elections, Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump, vowed that if he won, he would ensure his rival, Hilary Clinton, went to jail. Angry Americans thumbed down Trump that his threat operated only in Banana republics. As Donald Trump, so was former President Olusegun Obasanjo when his Housing Minister, Olusegun Mimiko, defied him (Obasanjo) to pursue challenging the incumbent (now decesed) Olusegun Agagu for the governorship of Ondo State in 2007. Obasanjo publicly threatened to send EFCC after Mimiko for defying him.