By Lukman Olabiyi Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court in Lagos has fixed October 16, to rule on whether or not to discharge a former Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA ), Patrick Akpobolokemi, who was charged with N2.6bn fraud. The court fixed the date Friday after hearing…
RECENTLY, the war against corruption shifted to the judiciary, with the Department of State Security (DSS) storming the homes of seven judges and getting them arrested. The security operatives, who carried out the raids, did declare that large sums of money, in Naira and hard currencies, were found in the homes of some of the judges. And the conclusion is that the judges may have been taking bribes, in money-for-justice deals and, therefore, are guilty of corruption, as charged. The judges have been granted administrative bail and awaiting arraignment in court for alleged corruption.
The judges, on their part, have been talking, mentioning names of some ministers they said offered them bribes in the past, which they rejected but never reported. Now there is an obvious confrontation between the judiciary, with the National Judicial Council (NJC) figuratively crying blue murder, and the Presidency, which say that the judiciary stinks. The way it is, ego has come into the whole thing. Muscle flexing has set in. While the Presidency is vehement in demanding that the judges, whose integrity has been called to question with the allegation that they are corrupt, should not sit on the bench and preside in courts, the NJC, whose constitutional duty it is to administer the bench, as it were, insists that suggesting the suspension of the judges was the usurpation of its powers and, therefore, unacceptable.
In the court of public opinion, the judges so arrested have been found guilty. Many Nigerians believe that judges are corrupt and, therefore, if the DSS, nay Presidency, says those arrested are corrupt, they must be. Nobody is ready to listen to the defence of the judges. Not even their allegation that serving ministers in the current government approached them in the past, to influence their judgment, in some election matters, is jelling with the public, the majority of whom may wish that the judges were sent to jail without trial. The pertinent question is: Why is it that people believe the Presidency/DSS and nobody seems to believe the judges? Why is it that the judges are now presumed to be guilty until they are proved innocent, instead of being presumed innocent until they are found guilty in a competent court?
In all these, there is the need for thorough investigation of the matter, for the facts to speak for themselves. Yes, the DSS said it found large sums of money in the homes of the judges. Investigation should be carried out on the sources of the funds so recovered. The outcome of such investigation should be the basis for the next line of reaction. Where the judges are found culpable, let them be charged to court and, therefore, be given the opportunity to clear their names or be convicted. Likewise, the security agencies should not dismiss the allegation by the judges about attempt to bribe them by people they have named. The allegation should be looked into dispassionately. It should not be waved aside, as sour grapes or an attempt by the judges to take everybody down with them. It should be considered on its merit. If in the end investigation proves that the allegations are baseless, they should be discarded. But if investigation sees merit in it, action should be taken against the people so named.
I am in for the fight against corruption. I align with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s position that corruption is in all strata of the society, be it the Executive, Legislature or Judiciary. I also know that there is corruption in the business world, civil service, private sector and other fields of human endeavours. It is not everybody, in any case, that is involved. Just as there are bad eggs, there are also good people. Therefore, to make the blanket conclusion that judges, as in “all judges” are corrupt is wrong.
I do not believe that the NJC does not know that there are some corrupt judges. It is also a joke taken too far to say that the NJC is shielding judges from disciplinary action or prosecution. In the past, NJC did recommend the suspension, retirement and prosecution of judges found wanting in the discharge of their duties. This fact should be acknowledged. I guess that the issue here is the mode in which the sting operation was carried out. Inasmuch as the the law did not prescribe the one way to invite or arrest a suspect, the invasion of the judges’ homes in the dead of the night, with heavily armed security personnel breaking down doors, provokes resentment. Whatever happens to civil way of security operation?
I understand that the DSS investigated the matter for more than six months, which means the secret service could have mounted surveillance on the judges being investigated. This means that the DSS could have known the movements of the judges and could have followed them into their compounds on any day it chose to carry out the sting operation. But rather than do this, they elected to dramatise the arrests. It is possible that the NJC is resisting the suspension of the judges, not because it does not think it is necessary, but because of the way the DSS is going about it. Indeed, I do not want to believe that the NJC is ignorant of the fact that morality demands that the judges being accused of corruption should not preside in courts until their cases are dispensed with. The point, I guess, NJC wants to make is this: The DSS, Presidency or any other body could wish the judges were suspended, but constitution gives the power to act/take action only to NJC. If the DSS/Presidency wants to take over the responsibility of directly discipling judges, it should, first, seek constitution amendment on the sections that give the judicial council the mandate.
I am persuaded that the DSS and Presidency, could have got the judges’ suspended from office if they had acknowledged the fact that only NJC could do it and, therefore, followed the appropriate channel, using persuasion, to get the council to act. To be sure, if DSS had quietly contacted the NJC, on the matter, without making it a press thing, which the NJC is now interpreting to be imposition, I believe the judicial council could have acquiesced. NJC’s resistance could be borne out of rebellion against what it perceives to be an attempt to erode its authority and independence. It has, therefore, dared the Executive. This type of confrontation is too dangerous, as it would only inflict injuries on the nation.
For those applauding the Presidency for the way the judges’ saga is being handled, to the extent of saying that the NJC is talking nonsense insisting that it is the only body that could ask the judges to step down, there is a note of warning. If Nigeria succeeds in emasculating the judiciary or the legislature, the country is doomed. Democracy thrives on the principle of separation of powers among the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. No matter what is at stake, there is the need to encourage each arm of government to be independent of others. If the Executive could get a judge suspended on allegation of corruption or whatsoever, when the judge has not been found guilty in court, and we applaud, very soon we will discover that judges will be told what to do with cases before them. By then it will be too late have a proper democracy.