The National Judicial Council saturday announced the recall of Justice John Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, Justice Uwani Abba Aji of the Court of Appeal, Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, and three other senior judges, who were among eight judicial officers it had suspended with effect from November 2 last year following corruption investigations on them. A statement at the weekend by NJC’s director of information, Mr. Soji Oye, said Ademola, Okoro, Abba Aji, Justice Hydiazira A Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court, Justice Musa H. Kurya of the Federal High Court, and Justice Agbadu James Fishim of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria should resume duties from June 7.
NJC hinged its decision to recall the judges on a huge backlog of cases in their courts. It also said only three of the eight suspended judges – Ademola, Sylvester Ngwuta and Ofili-Ajumogobia – had been charged to court, stressing that Ademola has been discharged and acquitted of the charges filed against him, in what appears to imply that there is no reason to continue their suspension.
NJC also dismissed petitions written against Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, Chief Judge of Abia State, Justice Theresa Uzokwe, and 10 other judges. It based its decision on reasons ranging from withdrawal of the petitions by the petitioners to lack of merit in the petitions.
NJC had at its 79th meeting held on November 2 and 3 last year under the chairmanship of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, decided to suspend the judges who were being investigated by the Department of State Services. A statement then by Oye on behalf of the council said the “judicial officers shall not be standing trial for alleged corruption related offences and be performing judicial functions at the same time.
“Council, however, decided that it will ensure that judicial officers who are being investigated for alleged high profile criminal offences do not perform judicial functions until their cases are concluded.”
Though, NJC neither gave the names nor the number of the suspended judges in its statement last November 3, DSS had in a sting operation in the early hours of October 7 last year raided the official residences of two justices of the Supreme Court, Sylvester Ngwuta and Okoro. It also arrested five other judges, namely, Ademola, Muazu Pindiga, Mahmud Liman, Mohammed Tsamiya, Kabiru Auta, and Innocent Umezulike, between October 7 and 8 last year for alleged corrupt practices. The arrested judges were later released on bail. But before their arrest, Tsamiya, Auta and Umezulike were no longer in active service, as they had been recommended to the president and the relevant state governors for retirement.
However, backing down on its decision to suspend the judges, by Oye stated on June 2, “The National Judicial Council, under the chairmanship of Hon Justice Walter S N Onnoghen, GCON, at its 82nd meeting, which was held on 31 May and 1 June, 2017, considered the case of eight judicial officers who were directed to recuse themselves from duties on the request of the Attorney-General of the Federation pending the outcome of investigations against them. To maintain the integrity and sanctity of the judiciary and sustain public confidence, the judicial officers were directed to recuse themselves from office with effect from 2 November 2016.”
Recalling that only three of the judges had been taken to court, while the case against Ademola had been concluded in his favour, Oye said, “In view of the foregoing, council decided that the various heads of court should direct the following judicial officers to resume their judicial duties with effect from Wednesday 7 June, 2017, as there are already backlog of cases in their various courts for the past eight months: Hon Justice John Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court; Hon Justice Uwani Abba Aji of the Court of Appeal; Hon Justice Hydiazira A Nganjiwa of the Federal High court; Hon Justice A F A Ademola of the Federal High Court who has been discharged and acquitted; Hon Justice Musa H Kurya of the Federal high Court; and Hon Justice Agbadu James Fishim of National Industrial Court of Nigeria.”
The statement by Oye said NJC issued warnings to three judges, namely Justice Maureen Nkechinyereugo Esowe of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, Justice Adolphus Enebeli of the High Court of Justice, Rivers State, and Justice Bassey Etuk of the Akwa-Ibom State High Court, for various allegations brought against them. It said two of the three judges had been placed on a watch list by the council.
Oye stated, “Council’s decision to give Hon. Justice Esowe a serious warning and put her on its ‘Watch List’ for one year was sequel to a petition written against her by Mr. Jimmy Dirisu Aliu, alleging injustice for failing to deliver ruling in Suit No. NICN/ABJ/394/2013, until eight months after the final address of counsel on Notice of Preliminary objection to his suit.
“Council also decided to give Hon. Justice Adolphus Enebeli serious warning and place him on its ‘Watch-List’ for three years following its ‘findings’ that Hon. Justice Enebeli violated the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by granting ex-parte order in Suit No. PHC/983/2016, preventing the swearing-in of Victoria Wodo Nyeche as a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly, when the claim in the suit did not border on qualification or pre-election matter. The Hon. Judge was said to have granted the ex-parte order on 19th April 2016, three days to the swearing-in ceremony and adjourned the case to 21st April 2016 when the ceremony had been concluded.
“Hon. Justice Bassey Frank Etuk was warned following a petition written against him by Oro Youth Movement for failure to deliver judgement in Suit No. HOR/FHC/97/2014, a fundamental human right case, after hearing it to conclusion and adjourned same for judgement to the 8th June 2015. The Hon. Judge then proceeded on national assignment as an election petition tribunal member and did not deliver the judgement even after his return in November 2015, when he transferred the case file to the Chief Judge for it to start de-novo.
“The suit was filed by two officers of the movement to prevent the police from arresting them after they were reported for embezzling the sum of N20 million from the account of the movement. The decision of the council is with immediate effect.”
According to the statement, “Council also considered and dismissed petitions written against 12 other judicial officers. Council dismissed the petitions because three of the petitioners withdrew their petitions against Hon. Justice T. U. Uzokwe, Chief Judge, Abia State, Hon. Justice Okoroafor of the Abia State High Court, and Hon. Justice Judge Okeke of the FCT High Court of Justice. One petition written against Hon. H. A. Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court was also dismissed for subjudice.
“Other petitions written against Hon. Justices Adamu Abdu-Kafarati and O. E. Abang, both of the Federal High Court, Hon. Justices Mobolaji Ojo and E. O. Osinuga, both of the Ogun State High Court, Hon. Justice B. A. Oke-Lawal of Lagos State High Court, Hon. Justice A. A. Aderemi of Oyo State, Ntong F. Ntong of Akwa-Ibom State High Court, and the second petition written against Hon. Justice Bassey Frank Etuk of Akwa-Ibom State High Court of Justice were found unmeritorious.”
Two Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Wole Olanipekun and Mike Ozekhome, said the recall of the judges from suspension, though a step in the right direction, was long overdue. Olanipekun, however, added that any judge or lawyer found to be engaged in corrupt practices should be brought to justice.
Olanipekun, a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, said, “I align myself with the position of the NJC and I am convinced that the NJC is right in recalling those judges. Seven months down the line, if the state had gotten any evidence against the judges, they ought to have filed criminal charges against them. It does not take seven months to get evidence to prosecute. The evidence to prosecute should have been assembled before arrest.
“This has been my position all along and I am being vilified and called all sorts of names. But the Bible says blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake.
“From whichever angle one looks at it, I am prompted to be persuaded that the state has no case against those who have not been charged. The state should have apologised to them.”
He, however, added, “I must be understood to be saying that any judge who has been found to be corrupt or any lawyer, whatever might be the status, who has been found to be corrupting judges, and who is aiding and abetting corruption should be brought to book. Corrupt judges and corrupt lawyers, if they are found and evidence is found against them, should not be spared.
“We must not put the law under our jackboot; we must not subjugate the rule of law. It might be Mr. A today; tomorrow it might be Mr. B’s turn and that Mr. B might be in government today.”
Olanipekun said NJC should be alive to its constitutional responsibility of maintaining discipline among judges on the bench.
Ozekhome said, “Until the appellate court upturns the earlier judgement of the lower court, such judgement subsists and is enforceable. The only exception is if there was a stay of execution, since a mere appeal does not operate as a stay of execution.
“It is, therefore, right for the NJC to recall the judges to work. It was even long overdue and too late in coming. The state should actually apologise to the judges involved for the public odium, embarrassment, obloquy and shame their arrest, detention and media trial impacted on them.”