By Okanga Agila
The Department of State Security Service (DSS), a few days ago, created a novel chapter, unknown in Nigeria’s farthest history. In an attempt to take the anti-graft war of the current regime to the Landlords of justice, it embarked on a sting operation to fish out suspected corrupt judges.
Simultaneously, it stormed the houses of some serving Justices or His Lordships in Nigeria in locations like Abuja, Kano, Gombe and Port Harcourt over allegations of compromising their integrity and ethical codes, by suspiciously twisting the wings of justice.
The legality or illegalities of the DSS actions are not the main issues under contention in this piece. But evidence flaunted by the DSS after the midnight “raids” on the homes of select judges sumptuously attest to suspicions on how some members of the Bench live in opulence far beyond reasonable expectations of their lawful incomes. The State Secret Police recovered various sums of cash in local and foreign currencies during the sting operations in the private homes of these judges.
The incident has attracted a flurry of reactions, especially from members of the Bar and the Bench.
In a fashion reminiscent of the comradeship some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) rose in defence of Mr. Ricky Tarfa, SAN, who was arrested over allegations of bribing judges to influence the outcomes of cases brought to his chamber, the Nigerian Bar Association’s (NBA) President, Mr Abubakar Mamoud, SAN, did the same. He instantly addressed a press conference demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the Judges, especially the two Supreme court Justices, Sylvester Ngwuta and Iyang Okoro. Lawyers threatened courts boycott and court workers, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) joined the fray by lending their voice for the unconditional release of the judges. The DSS has released them, not necessarily because of these comradeships clamoring, but in compliance with the law, as the judges now report as stipulated to the DSS in preparation for their arraignment in court.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mahmud Mohammed, was cautious on the matter, but remarked that, “It is indeed very saddening and deeply regrettable, the distressing and unfortunate incident….”
But curiously, the comradeship spirit of some members of the Bar and the Bench has been expectedly high in condemnations; merely questioning the manner of the DSS sting operation was conducted. They should know the law better!
However, no one is thinking about national integrity and the anti- corruption campaign, cum the attitudinal change as presently canvassed by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. They are more preoccupied with treating the proverbial “symptoms, rather than the disease.”
The hordes of unions, associations and individual lawyers who have voiced out against the incident are hardly prepared to speak about the “raw” evidence of cash the DSS recovered from their forceful entry into the homes of these suspected judges. One of the judges was even smart enough to have allegedly carted away $2million in the full glare of security agents to destroy evidence. It is shocking that comrades of the judges are only satisfied playing safe, with blind comradeship, tinged with an obvious lip service pledge not to side with corruption.
But without a doubt, the unfolding scenario is a straight battle between the elites, presumed to have substantially contributed to the destruction of Nigeria’s judicial system and the mass of ordinary Nigerians who have lived under the crushing pains of an apparently tainted legal system for years.
Much as the comrades try to camouflage and confuse others with the impropriety of the DSS action on the judges, some Nigerians who have tested their bitter pills know the truth and the pains about seeking justice in Nigeria. So, they have backed the DSS and the Presidency on this score, only if this can mitigate the impunity in Nigeria’s justice system.
Some sound minds in the Bar like retired former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami puts it mildly recently that “You members of the Bar often tell sordid stories or tales of certain high ranking serving or retired judicial officers who act as ‘arrangees’ or couriers of bribe. That is, such are engaged at a fee to reach out to judges to influence or ‘purchase’ justice in certain sensitive cases.”
Human rights Lawyer, Femi Falana chided the NBA for shielding corrupt judges and lawyers, which he claimed, the association has abundant information “to the embarrassment of incorruptible members of the bar and the bench… the few lawyers who have plucked up the courage to expose corrupt judges and lawyers have been stigmatized and treated like lepers by their colleagues.”
More than a few Nigerians believe that the judicial system is tainted and needs surgical cleansing. The arrest of the judges by the DSS has resurrected these feelings among Nigerians very pungently for multiple reasons.
The first burden and pain of Nigerians is the expensive nature of the justice system, the constant wailings of the citizenry. Padded to it, is the puzzling nightmare aggrieved Nigerians seeking legal redress face in courts in the hands of some allegedly corrupt and fraudulent members of the judiciary.
The Judiciary in Nigeria, as a house stinks odiously because some of its members have redefined the meaning of the temple of justice based on fraudulent discretions. But like former President of the Appeal Court, Justice Ayo Salami stated in the wake of the DSS invasion of the homes of the Judges, Nigerians hate the truth and avoid it like a plague. But there comes a time, it has to be told and deceit tackled.
If Nigerians cast their minds back, it was just yesterday the National Judicial Council (NJC) under the chairmanship of the CJN had cause to recommend the suspension, dismissal or sack of some very senior judicial officers. The NJC’s action was necessitated based on proven misconducts, after a thorough probe by this statutory body.
Members of Bench as high as a Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya and another on whose shoulders the entire temple of justice in a whole state rests, the Chief Judge of Enugu State, the (in)Justice I. A. Umezulike and Justice Kabiru M. Auta of the High Court of Justice, Kano State are among those affected.
While expressly admitting that not all members of the Bar and the Bench are corrupt, it is also plausible to argue that the Nigerian judiciary has sufficient stock and share of its bad eggs, like any other profession in Nigeria. As a country, Nigeria has failed to check its institutions for years and practitioners of every profession feel freely at ease and delight more in ethical abuse than observance of the ideal codes of practice.
Nigerians, especially politicians who contest elections and have to further drag it to the Elections Petitions Tribunal can testify to the horror and cruelty of the Nigerian judiciary. At the end of every general elections and the ensuing season of litigations, the NJC receives petitions bordering on the misconduct of members of the Bench.
Some get sacked, quite okay! But to conclude that all judges who soil their fingers in filthy lucre, while presiding over election petitions get caught is untrue. Some still escape with their illicit funds and pervasive judgments.
Recently, two courts with coordinate jurisdiction- a Federal High Court in Port Harcourt and another in Abuja gave very conflicting verdicts in the stalled PDP national convention. The first judgment of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt consented to the conduct of the PDP National Convention and while it was in progress, another Federal High Court, (not an appeal Court), issued a contrary order to halt the convention. That’s where the Nigerian judiciary hangs its pride. There were two conflicting verdicts; on the same matter and by courts of equal adjudicatory powers. The same spirit created two governors for Abia state simultaneously months back.
President Buhari has lodged war against corruption from his first day into office and the EFCC under Acting Chairman Ibrahim Magu has arraigned scores of alleged looters of the states and Nigeria. But the first courts of adjudications have been unable to convict, discharge or acquit any suspect nearly two years after.
At a workshop for senior judicial officials in Abuja weeks back, President Buhari almost broke down into tears, explaining how the judiciary is frustrating his anti-graft war. But some Nigerians prefer to blame him, instead of the judiciary for failing to secure the conviction of alleged looters.
These are signs of an infested system and when the DSS’s sting operation also affects two Justices of the apex court in the land, the magnitude of the problem is better imagined. Those crying foul and calling President Buhari a fascist and a dictator like the opposition PDP, which has a blurred idea about the concept of separation of powers should note that the sting operation by the DSS on the suspected judges in not peculiar to Nigeria.
Far more advanced democracies like the USA also subject corrupt judicial officers or those suspected to have abused ethical codes to such secret surveillance and arrest of fraudulent judges as it happened in 2010 to a Senior U.S. District Judge, Jack T. Camp whom the FBI arrested and charged to court for drugs and firearms offences.
The Justice system of the neighbouring Ghana was such cesspit filth. But Ghanaians supported the sanitization of the system under Ghana’s Chief Justice, Georgina Theodora Wood, as over 20 judges were flushed out.
It is time Nigerians demonstrate that the conscience of a nation is in her people. The bandwagon effect which significantly blurs the sense of dispassionate judgment is injurious to national progress.
Even in churches, before the hallowed presence of God, people steal and some Nigerians would still remember how the expensive sandals of the then Military President, Ibrahim Babangida was stolen at the Central mosque in Abuja, during aFriday Ja’amat prayers. So, in the temple of justice too, there are bound to be deviants and let the law takes its course. Let the judges prove their innocence in court.
Okanga writes from Agila Benue State.