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Reinstatement of Justice Ajumogobia and matters arising

By Editorial Board
31 January 2023   |   3:55 am
The reinstatement of Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia by the National Judicial Council (NJC), after she was sacked on the recommendation of the same council, has expectedly continued to generate mixed reactions and raised posers about the propriety of the extenuating circumstances.

[FILE] Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia.

The reinstatement of Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia by the National Judicial Council (NJC), after she was sacked on the recommendation of the same council, has expectedly continued to generate mixed reactions and raised posers about the propriety of the extenuating circumstances. While some are of the opinion that it was the proper thing do to in the circumstance, others, however, believe that the NJC’s action was hasty and calculated to protect its own at the expense of public interest. The underlying theme, however, is that the judge of the Federal High Court was let off the hook of grave allegations of wrongdoing against her without exhaustive proceedings to prove her innocence, as she was neither prosecuted nor discharged on merit.

As a prelude, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia was dismissed by President Muhammadu Buhari, as recommended by the NJC, on November 7, 2018. Prior to the dismissal, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had arraigned Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia and Godwin Obla, SAN, before Honourable Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the High Court of Lagos State on alleged offences bordering on perversion of the course of justice, graft, unlawful enrichment, providing false information and forgery. However, Justice Oshodi struck out the entire 31 counts against the Defendants due to the Commission’s failure to follow the precedent set by the Court of Appeal in the case of the Federal Republic of Nigeria V. Hon. Justice Nganjiwa.

In Justice Nganjiwa’s case, the Court of Appeal had held that a serving Judge cannot be prosecuted by the EFCC or any prosecutorial agency unless the Judge had first been probed by the NJC, found guilty and dismissed. It further held that the “NJC is created by the Constitution to solely regulate affairs of the appointed judicial officer without interference from any authority and that it is only when the NJC has given a verdict and handed over such judicial officer (removing his toga of judicial powers) to the prosecuting authority that he may then be investigated and prosecuted by the appropriate security agencies.” This judgment was endorsed by the Supreme Court on May 27, 2022.

Sequel to the ruling of Justice Oshodi, the EFCC had to petition the NJC, which in turn, indicted Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia over the allegations against her and, accordingly, recommended her dismissal. Armed with this authority, the EFCC then re-arraigned the embattled judge before Hon. Justice Ambrose Lewis-Allagoa of the Federal High Court. Again, this case was ill-fated as all the charges against the learned jurist were quashed. The ruling of Justice Lewis-Allagoa, which was delivered on November 19, 2021, was predicated on an earlier decision by Justice Binta Nyako which had nullified all the recommendations of the NJC against Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia on November 28, 2019.

Consequently, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Terhemba Tsoho, by a circular dated December 5, 2022, announced that the NJC has reinstated Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia. However, this action has thrown up fundamental legal issues deserving of due consideration.

Agitated by the development, Access to Justice (‘A2J’), a Civil Society Organisation, described the recall of Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia as “a brutal agonising stab on the soul and body of Nigeria’s Judiciary.” It further remarked that the decision of NJC, in the face of serious and damning accusations against her lordship, “which the Council itself investigated and substantiated, is deeply unfortunate.” It believes that the reinstatement “will cast a long, dark shadow over the Judiciary for a long time to come and amplify questions whether the Nigerian judiciary can continue to legitimately exercise judicial power.”

Maintaining a different stance, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, commended the NJC for its “uncommon act of observance of due process and the rule of law” by restoring Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia to her former position. He opined that any criticism of the development “can only be accommodated within the precincts of the clear provisions of Sections 6, 153(1)(i),158, 292(1)  and Paragraph 21(b) of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, which clearly spells out the plenitude and amplitude of the functions of the NJC – and no more.”

Ozekhome further explained that the role of the NJC over allegations of misconduct against judges is purely investigatory and where such allegations are unproven or disproved, the NJC should “unhesitatingly reinstate such Judges and under no circumstances should it go so far as appealing against a decision of a court which exonerates a judicial officer-as it is currently doing with respect to the cases of Hon. Justice Gladys Olotu and Hon. Justice Agbadu-Fishim.”

Notwithstanding this contention, Judges are expected to be second only to God in terms of probity, morality and transparency, particularly because they sit on the seat of God on earth. Logically, it should be considered a sacrilege for any judicial officer to be linked with fraudulent and dishonest dealings. Where such happens, the NJC is duty-bound to thoroughly investigate the same, and ensure that any judge found wanting is diligently prosecuted, up to the apex court, if necessary.

To be continued tomorrow.