As the myriad of reactions continue to trail the arrest of some judges by the Department of State Security (DSS) and the probe of others by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on allegations of corruption, leading to mounting pressure that the affected judicial officers step down until they are exonerated, the standoff between presidency and the National Judicial Council (NJC) on the fate of the judges has continued to linger.
This was evident Monday when the Chairman of the NJC and Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed inaugurated a 10-man Judicial Ethics Committee with a mandate to review the code of conduct for judicial officers in the country.
A former CJN, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, will head the committee while another retired justice of the Supreme Court and erstwhile Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, is also a member.
Other members of the committee include the former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi; President of the National Industrial Court, Justice Babatunde Adejumo; Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello; President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN); two retired justices of the Supreme Court, as well as a former President of the NBA, Chief Okey Wali (SAN).
The inauguration of the ethics committee, explained legal pundits yesterday, was indicative that neither the NJC, nor the presidency was willing to back down on the judges indicted for corruption.
A senior lawyer explained that the presidency would rather that the judges accused of corruption step aside until they are cleared of the charges.
However, the NJC has doubled down insisting that doing so would amount to cowing to the executive arm of government. Specifically, the CJN at the weekend described the arrest of the judges as an assault on the judiciary.
Justice Mohammed also said that two weeks after the DSS raided and arrested the judges, Nigeria’s secret police was yet to furnish it with any complaint against the indicted judges.
According to the lawyer, “If the NJC succumbs by asking the judges to step aside, the council will lose its independence forever.
“Besides, the general feeling among the judges and NJC is that the executive arm is persecuting judges whom it feels did not give the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) favourable judgments during the appeals on election cases challenging the victories of some PDP governors.
“This is seen by the NJC as a political vendetta, so the NJC cannot ask the judges to go on compulsory leave as suggested by the NBA and some other groups.”
He also explained that it would be foolhardy for the executive arm of government to think that it can arraign the judges, because their colleagues who would preside on the alleged corruption cases would never find them guilty.
“It will be foolhardy for the presidency to charge the judges, because they will not get rulings to jail the judges and the presidency knows this. It is for this reason it is getting the NBA, among others, to ask them to step aside,” he explained.
Under the circumstances, the lawyer said that the standoff between the NJC and presidency will continue until one side backs down.
While inaugurating the Ethics Committee yesterday, Justice Mohammed urged the members “to do all such things necessary to ensure a continuous high standard of judicial accountability and probity”.
The CJN acknowledged that corruption was a major problem in the nation’s justice sector.
He said measures were being intensified to curb the menace, which informed the unveiling of a National Judicial Policy (NJP) in Abuja yesterday by the NJC.
He said: “It would be stating the obvious to opine that the greatest single menace that challenges the justice system in Nigeria today is corruption.
“This endemic vice is not peculiar to any region and ethnic group, cutting across faiths, religious denominations, levels of education, and economic status.
“Corruption has serious implications for both the rule of law and access to justice, and must be fought both institutionally and individually.
“This is why the National Judicial Policy contains clear provisions restating the judiciary’s commitment to transparency and accountability.
“This is clearly spelt out in Paragraph 5.1 of the National Judicial Policy 2016, thus: ‘The National Judicial Policy recognises that the greatest and most damaging challenge to administration of justice is corruption and that tackling this challenge must go beyond mere exhortation and sentiments.’
“The policy gives the legal backing for several multifaceted strategies and guidelines to be developed while the judiciary continues to walk the talk in ridding corrupt judicial officers from its ranks, strictly in accordance with due process and the rule of law.”
Justice Mohammed, who spoke at the launch of the NJP, noted that the absence of the policy in the past had resulted in an uneven growth of the judiciary.
“Certainly, the absence of a blueprint has resulted in a demand for the transformation of the Nigerian judiciary into a modern judicial system.
“For a number of years, each jurisdiction has had to muddle along in developing core values and objectives and this has led to a mixed bag of standards and policies.
“This has also been compounded by the challenging deprivations and paucity of resources, without which critical development was limited.
“The National Judicial Policy is a charter of commitment to the values that elevate not only our judicial institutions, but also those who are employed by or involved in it,” the CJN said.
The committee was also mandated to conduct periodic surveys on behalf of the NJC to measure public perception of the level of compliance with ethical standards by the judiciary.
It will also “monitor and report on laxity by judicial officers in the observance of ethical standards in the performance of judicial duties”.
Justice Ayoola, who gave a synopsis of the new policy, said it is a “codification of best ways to ensure an integrity-driven judiciary whose hallmark is a reliable and effective justice system”.
A former CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, who was chairman of the policy launch, stated that the Nigerian judiciary in the past lacked a clear and over-reaching policy structure that defined its core ethics.
He described the new judicial policy as “a laudable and exemplary document that will set a better focus for an effective judicial system in the country”.
Legal luminaries at the unveiling ceremony included a former CJN, Justice Mohammed Uwais; CJN-designate, Justice Walter Onnoghen; President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa; Administrator of the NJI, Justice R.I.P. Bozimo; as well as chairmen and members of the Senate and House Committees on Judiciary.
Among issues covered by the new judicial blueprint are policies relating to the appointment of judicial officers, Judicial Discipline Policy, JudicialCode of Conduct, Judicial Education and Training, Judicial Performance Policy, Access to Justice Policy, Case Flow Management Policy, Judicial Administration and Court Management Policy.
Others are Transparency and Anti-Corruption Policy, Judicial Independence Policy, as well as issues relating to the office of the CJN.
Under the Judicial Code of Conduct Policy, judges and court employees are barred from accepting gifts from other arms of government.
According to the document, “Judges must be accountable for public funds and property in their care and should be prudent in the management and use of resources.”
Likewise, under Judicial Discipline Policy, allegations of misconduct against judicial officers or employees of the judiciary shall not be leaked or published in the media.
It gave institutions of the judiciary concerned with investigation or implementation of decisions taken on complaints against judicial officers to cease further action where such complaints are leaked or discussed in the media.
The Judicial Appointment Policy stressed that the process must be transparent, merit-based and skills-based.
“A transparent and carefully designed appointment process is indispensable to an efficient and independent judiciary, able to command public confidence in the administration of justice and capable of promoting and protecting the rule of law and human rights.
“Every aspect of the judicial appointment process should, therefore, be such as would command public respect and confidence that the best persons in terms of skills, learning, integrity and courage are appointed as judicial officers,” the document stated.
But as the judiciary seeks to clean up its act, Lagos lawyer and rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), has called on the NJC to commence investigation into the allegations of judicial corruption levelled against the embattled judges who are still in service without any further delay.
According to him, having regard to the embarrassing disclosures in the letters addressed to the CJN by the judges, the NJC should take the advice of the NBA by placing them on suspension, pending the conclusion of full scale investigation in line with Section 2.2.3 of the National Judicial Policy of the NJC which stipulates that the council shall have the “powers of interim suspension”.
He said: “However, both the NJC and the NBA should demand a public apology for Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, as the DSS has not been able to link him with any corrupt practice or misconduct whatsoever.”
He said it was wrong for the NJC to refuse to order the affected judges to step down, without allowing the judges to react to the advice of the NBA.
He argued that given the gravity of the allegation of judicial corruption and the far reaching implication for the image of the nation’s judiciary, the NJC should have instituted an inquiry into the matter, notwithstanding the fact that DSS had not submitted any report to it.
He said: “The NJC has allowed the allegation of judicial corruption to continue to hang menacingly on the heads of the judges like the sword of Damocles.
“If the NJC had treated this national crisis with the urgency required, it should have investigated the matter based on the avalanche of materials placed before it.”
He said the NJC had handled a similar complaint of judicial corruption about decade ago.
Falana recalled that in 2006, there were allegations that the members of the Akwa Ibom governorship election petition tribunal had received bribes to pervert justice.
He said: “Without prejudice to the innocence of the judges, the NJC suspended them and requested the Director-General of the DSS to conduct a discreet investigation into the allegation.
“Upon the receipt of the report of the investigation, it was found that each of the members of the tribunal had received a bribe of N10 million while a judge of the Federal High Court had acted as a conduit pipe in the scandal.
“At that stage, the judges were confronted with the allegations. As their defence was found unsatisfactory, the NJC recommended their removal from the bench.
“Furthermore, the NJC referred the matter to the Independent and Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Commission (ICPC). One of the indicted judges collapsed and died when the ICPC operatives wanted to arrest him in his house in Makurdi, Benue State!”
In a related development, more information has been unearthed on why Justice Rita Ofili-Ajimogobia of the Federal High Court in Lagos is currently being investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
It was gathered that the judge, among other allegations, is being investigated for transferring the sum of $900,000 abroad.
Operatives of the anti-graft commission were said to have been surprised over the huge sum of money with the judge, which raised a red flag.
Confirming that the anti-graft commission was aware of the huge sum transferred by the judge, the Head of Public Affairs of the commission, Mr. Sammin Ammadin, said the judge was not only being investigated over the transfer but for sundry offences relating to breach of trust.
Ammadin said the anti-graft commission was equally investigating other petitions against the judge and would make them public soon.
“It is not enough to say that the commission is investigating her for the transfer of funds. There are other allegations against her for which petitions were lodged and are being investigated. At the appropriate time, we will make them public,” Ammadin said.
The anti-graft agency had recently invited Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, alongside five other judges, but she told EFCC operatives that she was in the intensive care unit of a hospital and would not be able to honour its invitation.
The judge, after ignoring two invitations from the commission to appear before it, finally turned herself in voluntarily last week.
Before turning herself in, she had claimed to be ill for two days, a claim the operatives busted by storming the medical facility in which she said she was admitted. Upon swooping on the hospital, they discovered that she was not there.
Last March, the NJC had sanctioned Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, including precluding her from any promotion to the Court of Appeal or any ad hoc judicial appointment until her retirement from the profession.
It also put her on the “watch-list” of the council for four years.
The decision followed an electoral petition filed by one Victoria Ayeni, which the NJC appeared to find credible.
The petitioner had alleged misconduct and injustice by Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia for failing to deliver judgment in a pre-election suit between her and her political rivals.
Before the sanction, her residence was raided and “vital” documents were allegedly retrieved.