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Killing Nigerian judiciary softly

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Scale of Justice. Photo/Sealchambers

The year 2019 would for a very long time to come, remain one of the most treacherous seasons for Nigeria’s judiciary going by the self-inflicted but externally induced credibility catastrophe that befell it and successfully beheaded the once envied independence of that strategic arm of government. It started from small rumors and grew to a giant which later snow balled into a hydra-headed monster.

Although the problems associated with corruption in the judicial arm of government is as old as one can possibly hazard a guess, but this malaise of corruption was exactly the weapon which was deployed by some politicians just before the year 2019 general election to witch-hunt the then chief justice of Nigeria Walter Onnoghen just as the well-funded campaign of calumny orchestrated from the executive arm of government culminated in the kangaroo trial of the then chief justice of Nigeria.

The executive arm of government that masterminded the removal of the head of the judiciary through extra-constitutional ambush and a sham prosecution which was nothing less than a vicious persecution was however aided by some forces embedded within the judiciary to achieve this classical political coup against judicial independence. The National judicial council which was hijacked by forces affiliated with the executive was eventually the chief executioner of that plot which resulted in the removal of the then embattled chief justice of Nigeria. I had stated that the entire crises which engulfed the judiciary this year began as rumors because the rumor mills were aflamed with stories that the political party controlling the top echelons of government at the center which is All Progressives Congress (APC) was jittery that with a highly unpredictable chief justice of Nigeria in the person of Justice Onnoghen, it would be politically suicidal to let him stay on as chairman of the election Appeal Tribunal in the event that the 2019 presidential election becomes marred in litigation which is what it has now become as predicted by those who plotted the destabilization of the once cohesive judiciary.

What these plotters did so as to quicken the unseating of Justice Onnoghen was to recruit some ghost civil society stakeholders who connived with the powers that be at the code of conduct Bureau to obtain the declaration of assets made by the then chief justice of Nigeria and proceeded to allegedly forge certain aspects of these declarations to make it look like the then chief justice of Nigeria was a super billionaire who failed to make the correct declarations of his assets just before he was sworn in. It would be noted that this same code of conduct Bureau had severally denied many requests brought under freedom of information Act demanding the declaration made by virtually all top cabinet level officials currently serving.

Shockingly, this same code of conduct Bureau was quick to release all the information relating to the assets’ declaration made by the then chief justice of Nigeria, who is the first southerner to head the judiciary in 30 years. Northern moslems had headed the judiciary since the early 80’s or so. However, Justice Onnoghen maintained that what was tendered as his declaration of assets was forged. He was never granted fair hearing. Justice Walter Onnoghen told the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) sitting in Abuja that the two asset declaration forms he submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) were tampered with. He told the three-member panel of the tribunal, headed by Danladi Umar that the two forms he submitted to the Bureau in 2014 and 2016 were mutilated and in loose form.

Justice Onnoghen made the allegation while cross-examining a prosecution witness during the hearing of the hurriedly concluded trial when the federal government opened its case in the six-count charge of non-declaration of assets preferred against him by the federal goverment.   Onnoghen’s allegation came when the first prosecution witness, a senior investigation officer with the CCB, James Akpala sought to tender the two asset forms investigated by the Bureau. The attention of the defense team, led by Chief Adeboyega Awomolo (SAN) was drawn to the two asset declaration forms, which the prosecutions wanted to tender as evidence and the suspended CJN was consulted for verification of the forms. Onnoghen, after glancing through the forms spoke through his counsel, to the effect that the forms have been tampered with and that the tribunal will be addressed on the issue. In his evidence in chief, the witness narrated how the CCB referred a petition from the Center for Anti-corruption Initiative signed by one, Dennis Aganya (a onetime media aide of Muhammadu Buhari) referred to him and two others on January 10, 2019 during which his team met with Justice Onnoghen, obtained a statement from him and also applied for his account details with a commercial bank. The witness added that the investigation was concluded the following day the 11th of January when the team’s report was prepared.

Those who instigated the overthrow using a kangaroo trial of the judiciary were motivated by politics of the 2019 polls and geopolitical considerations. Mind you Atiku Abubakar the candidate of PDP enjoys overwhelming supports of Southerners in which case the APC feared that Justice Onnoghen may swing any post election litigation to favour their opponent. Also, the president has never hidden his disdain for the judicial arm of government which according to him needed to be weeded of corruption. The president gave his clearest signals of going after the judiciary in his first year by using the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to embark on the extensive campaign to decapitate the independence of the judiciary. His aversion for an independent judiciary is likened to his longstanding military dictatorial tendencies which he exhibited earlier when he ruled as a military dictator in the mid 1980’s. So, as soon as he got elected as a civilian president, the current president wasted no time to make a public declaration of intent to go after the judiciary hiding under the guise of fighting corruption.

As far back as February 2016, barely few months after he was inaugurated, President Muhammadu Buhari said as far his administration’s ongoing anti-corruption fight was concerned; the nation’s judiciary remained his major headache. He said the fight against corruption in Nigeria could only be effectively tackled with the strong support of the judiciary. According to a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, the President spoke in Addis Ababa at a town hall meeting he held with Nigerians living in Ethiopia. He said far-reaching reforms of the judiciary remained a key priority for the present administration. Buhari said his travails in courts during his failed bid for the nation’s Presidency on three occasions, which took him to the Supreme Court three times, were clear indications that the judiciary needed urgent reforms. The President stated, “On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now. “If you reflect on what I went through for 12 years, when I wanted to be the President, I attempted three times and on the fourth attempt, through God and the use of technology, it was possible for Nigerians to elect an APC candidate as President. “In my first attempt in 2003, I ended up at the Supreme Court and for 13 months, I was in court. The second attempt in 2007, I was in court close to 20 months and in 2011, my third attempt, I was also in court for nine months. “All these cases went up to the Supreme Court until the fourth time in 2015, when God agreed that I would be President of Nigeria.”

Reading through this statement, it would then appear that the fight against the independence of the judiciary may have been his own way of paying back that arm of government for his ordeals in the different court systems in almost all his attempts at wrestling presidential power from the incumbents. The first salvo was to deploy armed security forces to invade the private residences of judges which resulted in the prosecution of some of these judges. Some of the justices of the Supreme Court whose homes were illegally invaded by the DSS under the direction of the president were never charged to court. Those who were charged were never found guilty.

The fact that the executive arm of government failed to provide solid evidence of corruption against the judges, may have informed the decision to look the way of code of conduct Tribunal which is headed by Mr. Danladi Umar who is facing a #10 million bribery charges by the EFCC.
To be continued tomorrow
•Onwubiko heads Human Rights Writers Association Of Nigeria (HURIWA)


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