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Nigeria’s judiciary in a bumpy ride under Buhari

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Justice Walter Onnoghen. PHOTO: TWITTER/PRESIDENCY


For the past three years, the Nigerian judiciary has been in the eyes of the storm. It has generated an unprecedented attention in the history of the country. This is as a result of the high expectations placed on it by the citizens and the government as well as the heat it has endured. President Muhammadu Buhari had made the fight against corruption one of the cardinal objectives of his administration in the hope that it would restore the dwindling economy and build a new Nigeria. Obviously, the quest by the presidency to deliver on the pledge to fight graft fueled the pressure on the judiciary.

Few months after he assumed office, the president during a town hall meeting with Nigerians living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, specifically gave an insight into what was to happen in the sector. He said in that occasion that the judiciary remained his main “headache in the fight against corruption.”

According to him, corruption is so pervasive in the country that it requires the strong support of the judiciary to effectively fight. The President, who stated that he needed the support of the judiciary to win the anti-graft war, recalled that corruption in the judiciary stalled his presidential ambition for years. He also promised to overhaul the country’s judicial system.

His words: “On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now.”With this kind of remark from the commander in chief, the discerning knew it was a matter of time before the arm of government, known as the last hope of the common man began to get all the attentions.

And surely it did. October 2016, Department of State Service (DSS), in what it termed “sting operation” stormed the residences of seven serving judicial officers of the Supreme, Federal and High Courts across the country at the wee hours of the night and arrested some of them.The affected Justices of the Supreme Court were, Sylvanus Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro. The affected Judges of the Federal High Court were Muazu Pindiga, Adeniyi Ademola, Abdullahi Liman and Nnamdi Dimgba.

The seventh judge, who is serving in Port Harcourt, Rivers state capital was saved from the raid and arrest by the prompt intervention of the state governor, Nyesom Wike. However, the DSS alleged to $2million was stashed in the judge’s house and that the governor assisted in moving the money away during his intervention.It was historic and unprecedented. Such “desecration” has never happened in Nigeria’s judicial sector before then. Therefore, the outcry was massive, especially among lawyers, the National Assembly and particularly, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).

The NBA president, Abubakar Mahmud (SAN) described the crackdown as illegal. According to Mahmud, NBA’s position was not to protect the judge’s but to stand up against corruption.He insisted that DSS should not be the ones to undertake the operations, adding that similar event in Ghana took two years of investigations before the judge’s were arrested and did not follow the gestapo action of the DSS.

But the president in a statement by his media adviser, Garba Shehu, described the raids as ‘surgical’ maintaining that due process was followed.Shehu said it was the aim of government to stamp out corruption and not to attack judicial officers. According to him, the President had high regards for the Judiciary and would never undermine its independence.

The statement read: “The Presidency assures that the President reserves his highest respect for the institution of the judiciary as the third arm of government. To this end, the President will not do anything to undermine its independence. “President Buhari remains a committed democrat in words and in his actions, and will not take any action in violation of the constitution. The recent surgical operation against some judicial officers is specifically targeted at corruption and not at the judiciary as an institution.”

Also, the Senate decried the ‘gestapo-style’ raid and arrest of judges. Senators jointly condemned the action as abominable even as they pledged support for the anti-corruption war. The lawmakers instituted an investigation through its Committee on Judiciary and Human Rights & Legal Matters. Meanwhile, while the conflict was raging, there were speculations that the Chief Justice of Nigeria-designate at that time, Justice Walter Onnoghen was actually the target because he was from the South and the next in rank to ascend to the office. Former Chief justices of Nigeria in the past years had come from the Northern part of the country.

True to speculations, Onnoghen’s confirmation as the substantial Chief Justice of Nigeria became a sore point the president’s general conduct to issues of governance. Not only did he go to London for medical vacation during that period without writing to the senate as required by law, he, for reasons best known to him, kept mute, while the tension generated by his conduct threatened peace in the country.

Onnoghen was appointed the acting CJN by President Buhari on November 11, 2016, following the retirement of the immediate past CJN, Mohammed Mahmud on November 10, 2016. Occupier of such office, by law can only act for a maximum of three months but two weeks to the end of his acting tenure, there was no certainty that his appointment was going to be validated by the National Assembly.

That was the first time the holder of the office was appointed in acting capacity for such a length of time in recent times. His three months in acting capacity was to elapse on February 10, 2017. So his removal from office was very imminent.This is because, Section 231 (5) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, stipulates that any person so appointed “shall cease to have effect after the expiration of three months from the date of such appointment, and the President shall not re-appointment a person whose appointment has lapsed.”

But the acting president, Yemi Osinbajo saved the situation by sending his name to the senate, few days to the end of his acting period.However, it is not all tales of woes for the judiciary. In the last three and half years, the sector seems to have reinvented itself, obviously aware of the demands of the times.Today, more politically exposed individuals are facing trial at different courts. Also, serving judicial officers as well as senior advocates of Nigeria have had their days in the courts within this period.

As a self-cleansing organ of government, the National Judicial Council (NJC), which is the body charged with the responsibility of hiring, firing and disciplining erring judicial officers appear to have heightened its activities lately. More judicial officers are now getting warnings for different judicial infractions, while others are recommended for dismissal or compulsory retirement periodically. A lot more are also under investigation following plethora of petitions before the NJC.

In addition, the CJN is driving home series of reforms aimed at improving quick dispensation of justice and also rid the system of bad eggs. It was on account of this that he adopted the use of new technology, through the introduction of Nigeria Case Management System (NCMS).Onnoghen also inaugurated a 13-man steering committee on judiciary reform. The committee headed by the Secretary of the National Judicial Service Commission, Mrs. Bilkisu Bashir, was tasked “to coordinate a comprehensive reform of the country’s judiciary”. Hopefully, the results of these efforts would soon begin to manifest.

The National Publicity Secretary of the NBA, John Austin Unachukwu, is of the view that the judiciary within the last three years confirmed that it is the bedrock of Nigeria’s democracy.He said: “It is said that judiciary is the last hope of the common man and we have seen it. Nigerian judiciary had worst experience in the last one year, when the judiciary was the target of attacks by state security agencies but the judiciary survived it. I am proud of Nigerian judiciary.

“In spite of the allegations and all the assertions of corruption here and there, no judicial officer has been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction of the allegations of corruption and other allied offences. “The executive arm of government had tried to cow the judiciary and intimidate it to submission even when it should be an independent organ of government. But the judiciary refused to bow. I encourage them to continue to weather the storms and challenges in the years ahead.”

Unachukwu stressed that the judiciary is the only arm of government that has self-cleansing mechanism, in which it uses to discipline erring members. The NJC, he noted, has done so much in this respect, although there is always room for improvement. He therefore, urged the judiciary to continue to do what it is doing in order to restore the confidence of Nigerians in the sector. “The body set up the Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee under the chairmanship of Justice Suleiman Galadima, retired, to investigate the causes of delays in court. The committee has just submitted its report. So, the judiciary should not rest on its oars in order to restore the confidence of Nigerians in that important arm of government,” he reiterated.

Similarly, the former attorney general of Delta State, Charles Ajuyah (SAN) said the judiciary has gone through thick and thin in the last few years. “We are all witnesses to what happened not long ago. Their conditions have not really improved. So they are working under very hectic conditions – a lot of cases, appeals and political cases coming up, which is quite a challenge for them.

“But taking all into consideration, I think they have done well. They have helped to sustain democracy in this country. Even though there are one or two bad eggs, we need to commend them for the effort and the work they are putting in spite of the challenges they are having,” he stated.


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