Assurances from the Presidency that corruption and not the Judiciary is under attack and that President Muhammadu Buhari reserves highest respect for the third arm of government have not assuaged some frayed nerves over the recent arrest and detention of some judges on corruption allegations by the Department of State Services (DSS). COBHAM NSA dissects different perspectives emerging from this contentious arrest saga.
From the skeptics whose voices are vociferous in criticizing government war against corruption as being selective, sectional and targeted at political opponents, there are palpable fears of a bad omen. Genuine or not, suspicions are rife that the Buhari’s administration may be setting the tone for ‘executive lawlessness and assault against the judiciarl arm of government in a manner never witnessed before in Nigeria’s history.’ However, that the judges have been granted bail and released on self-recognition should calm the ragging fury in the polity, especially by those shouting themselves hoarse that the DSS is not only involved in ‘brigandage’ but has committed an ‘ignominious and reprehensible act of violence against the judiciary and, by extension democracy.’ Expectedly, the cheer-leaders in these hues and cries are senior lawyers, who have lined up behind the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA)’s reasoning that the DSS over-reached itself by moving against the judges in this unprecedented raid. Among the commentaries in the public domain include one describing DSS action as ‘a mindless circumvention of the constitution; shameful, embarrassing and unacceptable that in a supposedly democratic government, the judiciary, a staunch pillar of the society, could be so brazenly attacked.’ But puncturing arguments that DSS acted illegally and outside its constitutional functions, Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay (SAN) declared; “The action is completely lawful.” For him, public anger should be channeled towards senior lawyers as those guilty of aiding and abetting corruption in the judiciary, adding that the NBA and senior lawyers’ outbursts and criticisms of DSS were quite unfortunate because they have been influencing the system unduly. “The NBA does not have the moral right to speak. Some NBA members, particularly the senior ones are responsible for where we are today in judicial corruption. It is the lawyers who have corrupted the judges. It sounds very ill and bad in their mouth to protest. They are the ones who have corrupted the judges; and are still corrupting our poor judges. They carry millions of Naira and even dollars to these judges to corrupt them. So, they have lost the moral right to criticize and it taste very bad in their mouth,” the Law teacher posited. Prof Sagay, who rejected public condemnations of the NJC on the grounds that it was not set up to deal with the epidemic being witnessed in terms of judicial corruption, said since “We are facing an epidemic, there is need to really introduce drastic measures to purify the system. It is a major development in our legal history, it is unusual.” However, rising from three days of brainstorming, the National Judicial Council (NJC) finally came out smoking and condemned the action “as a threat to the Independence of the Judiciary, which portends great danger to our democracy.” The Council, which condemned the “action in its entirety as a clear attempt by the DSS to humiliate, intimidate, denigrate and cow the Judiciary’, insisted that it “has never shielded nor will it shield any Judicial Officer who has committed any misconduct.” Debunking claims of being lethargic in addressing issues of professional misconduct and graft in the judiciary, the Council in a statement by Acting Director, Information, Mr Soji Oye said evidence abound to support its clear mandate execution over the years. According to the statement, “From year 2000, when the National Judicial Council held its inaugural Meeting to 2016, 1808 petitions and complaints against Judicial Officers, including Chief Justices of Nigeria, Justices of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal were received by the respective Honourable, the Chief Justices of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council. Eighty-two (82 No.) of the Judicial Officers were reprimanded (suspension, caution or warning), by Council, in the exercise of its exclusive Constitutional Disciplinary power over Judicial Officers. Thirty-eight (38 No.) of the Judicial Officers were recommended to the President or Governor where applicable, for compulsory retirement from office; while twelve (12 No.) were recommended to the President or Governor as the case may be, for dismissal from office.” Refusing to blink its eyelids over the face-off, the NJC maintained that “no Judicial Officer shall be invited by any Institution including the DSS, without complying with the Rule of Law and Due Process”, adding that, “The Council will not compromise the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.” Despite consternation from some individuals and groups that think ‘times like this require virile civil society organizations, a dynamic citizenry, a vocal populace and a Nigerian Bar Association that is bold enough to decry audacious abuse of state authority and powers’, many see the operations as promoting the ‘no sacred cows syndrome.’ This list has respected human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN) and Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Mr. Okoi Obono Obla among others. Readily, Falana tows the path of those knocking the NBA and some senior lawyers for shielding corrupt judges despite having information about their “fraudulent” activities. He considers NBA’s failure to deal with corrupt officials in the judiciary as a serious embarrassment to the “incorruptible members of the bar.” But in the fray on the opposing sides are current and former Presidents of NBA, whose position is that the DSS acted illegal and in breach of the National Security Act (NSA) setting it up. One of them, Olisa Agbakoba observed that there are civilized ways to carry out such an action without bringing the judiciary to public odium as is the case presently. Despite this argument considered by some as purely based on technicalities, the honourable Silk believes current happenings, though a breach of the law in some respects, present a wake-up call on the judiciary to re-asserts itself. “As lawyers, we must work hard to up our game in order to regain the people’s confidence”, he said. The former NBA boss summed up the Bar’s position thus: “The DSS did not handle the accused Judges in a humane way as required by the law. DSS’ action humiliated the judges in a manner not thought out by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015. Why did they not give the same treatment to those Generals alleged to have stolen the nation’s billions?’ Arguably, some commentators opined that the law profession has overtime failed to take advantage of relevant statutory disciplinary bodies to rid the bar and the bench of corrupt elements. They enjoy unreserved backing from the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, Mr. Okoi Obono Obla who amplifies the torrid public perception of ‘bought judgments’ and allegations of massive corruption in the judiciary. According to Obla, the Judges’ arrest was constitutional and the DSS acted within the ambit of the law, even as he considered the action as an ‘unprecedented achievement’ in the government’s anti-corruption fight. Obla said, “The problem with us is that when the ‘big man’ is arrested it becomes a problem or an issue because he can use money to stall many things. The Nigerian ‘big man’ wants us to have two standards of justice; one for the ‘big man’ and another for the poor man, and we say no to that. The ‘big man’ should not do anything and get away with it in this country. The poor people are being arrested every day and nobody talks about them.” Happily, the Presidency has fairly addressed allusion that ‘either way, the home invasion and arrest of judges is a sad commentary on due process of law, administration of criminal justice and the fight against corruption in Nigeria, in addition to being the shame of a nation.’ Senior Special Assistant to the President (SSAP), Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu said in a statement that “President Buhari remains a committed democrat, in words and in his action, and will not take any action in violation of the constitution.” According to Garba, “The recent surgical operation against some judicial officers is specifically targeted at corruption and not at the judiciary as an institution. In a robust democracy such as ours, there is bound to be a plurality of opinions on any given issue, but there is a convergence of views that the country has a corruption problem that needs to be corrected.” Expressing worries about some media reports, Garba said, “In undertaking the task of reporting, the media should be careful about the fault lines they open. It is wrong to present this incident as a confrontation between the executive and judicial arms of government”, just as he stated that “The Presidency has received assurances from the DSS that all due processes of the law, including the possession of search and arrest warrants were obtained before the searches.” Stoutly defending the nation’s overall interest, the SSAP counseled that for anyone to ‘suggest that the government is acting outside the law in a dictatorial manner is to breach the interest of the state.’ However, it is sad that in the conversation, the focus seems solely on the aptness or otherwise of the DSS action. Barely do we discuss the rationality of Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike’s action thwarting the process of arrest and obtaining the evidences from the home of a suspect. Amidst different opinions, the burning question is: “Have the lawyers missed an important opportunity to advocate for the cleansing of their profession?” At present, some senior lawyers and pundits are insinuating a possible return to the days of military rule, even as they declared support for ‘appropriate authorities such as the NJC’ to deal with allegations of corruption against judges and malfeasances in their own ways.’ Other contentious issues in the public space include ‘exempting judiciary independence from any kind of interference; ungodly time of effecting arrests; constitutionality of the action itself given the statutory functions of the DSS; and should the NJC henceforth recommend prosecution where necessary, rather than just retiring erring judges to go home and enjoy their loots.’ So, for those insisting the judiciary must be treated with great deference, critics are also insisting that respect for judges should be based on their ‘proper conduct, record, integrity and attitude.’ Also, arguments are that should there be reasons to question these sterling qualities, then Judges would have lost the moral authority and high ethical pedestal in society which therefore put them on harm’s way for ridicule. On the whole, those pontificating that history will harshly judge Mr President since he may have authorized the ‘unwarranted assault on the judiciary’, should also remember that things could be worst if we support those using technicalities of the law to romance, benefit and inadvertently encourage continuous festering of corruption within the polity.