As mixed reactions continue to trail the arrest and investigation of 15 judges nationwide for alleged corruption by the Department of State Services (DSS), it has emerged that the investigation into the judges started as far back as January or February this year, with the correspondence exclusively unearthed by THISDAY showing that the National Judicial Council (NJC) rejected the investigation into the judiciary, citing separation of powers and rule of law.
The NJC also informed DSS that it was not amenable to “invitations being extended to judicial officers by departments and agencies of government for any reason”.
It was the refusal by the NJC to co-operate with the DSS that prompted the crackdown on the judges around the country at the weekend.
Preparatory to their arrests, the DSS on October 5, 2016, had obtained search warrants from a magistrate’s court in Abuja for Justices Nnamdi Dimgba, Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta, A.A. Ademola and John Inyang Okoro.
In the search warrants sighted by THISDAY, all the judges were alleged to have engaged in corrupt practices, falsehood and under-declaration of assets.
The warrants granted the DSS the power to search their residences for money in Nigerian and foreign currencies, bank tellers, computers and other incriminating evidence.
However, after the crackdown the DSS late Sunday night released seven of the judges it arrested between Friday and Saturday, ostensibly because it did not get the co-operation of the NJC.
This was evident yesterday when the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed appealed for calm over the unprecedented arrest of two of his colleagues and other judges of lower cadre, and expressed deep regret over the “distressing and unfortunate incident”.
The CJN, who broke his silence on the issue during the valedictory session held in honour of a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Suleiman Galadima, also said he was saddened by the event.
Mohammed’s stance was reinforced in a number of letters between the NJC and DSS, which were obtained exclusively by THISDAY, showing that the investigation into the alleged corrupt practices by the judges started early this year.
The letters also showed the reluctance by the NJC to co-operate with the DSS in its investigation of the judges.
In one letter dated April 19, 2016, the NJC through its secretary, Mr. Danladi Halilu, on behalf of the CJN, wrote to the DSS, acknowledging its letter titled, Re: Corrupt Practices of Justice Pindiga, which was dated February, 26, 2016.
In the said letter, the NJC wrote: Reference your petition dated 26th February 2016, to the Hon. President of the Court of Appeal and copied to the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the Nigerian Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, against Hon. Justice M.A. Pindiga of the High Court of Justice, Gombe State on the above subject matter.
“I have been directed to inform you that your complaint has not complied with the extant Judicial Discipline Regulation 2014 of the Council, as it was not accompanied with a verifying affidavit deposed to by you before a court of record.
“In view of the forgoing, you may wish to comply, please.”
In yet another letter to the Director General, DSS, dated August 29, 2016 and signed this time by the CJN, the NJC acknowledged receipt of a petition dated August 5, 2016 on corrupt practices and professional misconduct by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court.
It further informed the DSS DG that action was being taken on the petition.
Then in a letter dated September 7, 2016, titled “Re: Corrupt Practices of Justice Pindiga”, which was signed by the secretary of the NJC, the council adopted a more dismissive tone saying that its investigation had not found Justice Pindiga wanting that would warrant his sanction.
It stated: “Reference your Petition No. DGSS.71/3161, dated February 26th 2016 to the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigerian and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, against the Hon. Justice M.A. Pindiga of the High Court of Justice, Gombe State, on the above subject matter.
“At its meeting of 1st and 2nd of June 2016, Council constituted a Fact Finding Committee comprising its members under the chairmanship of Hon. B.A. Adejumo, OFR, President of the National Industrial Court, to investigate the allegations contained in your petition, among others.
“At its meeting which held on the 14th and 15th of July 2015, Council considered and deliberated extensively on the report and noted that the officer that represented your office at the investigative committee, averred that your office could not conduct full investigation of the petition to obtain hard facts to support the preliminary report, as allegedly, your organisation was directed by the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, to stay further action on the matter to allow the National Judicial Council look into it.
“At the end of deliberation, Council found that the claim by your organisation is not correct, as the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, did not stop your office from conducting full investigation so as to obtain hard facts to support preliminary findings and proof of allegations without inviting Hon. Justice Pindiga to your office, having done so when he was serving as the Chairman of the Election Petition Tribunal.
“Consequently, in the absence of any patent evidence to substantiate the allegations contained in your petition against the Judicial Officer, Council was unable to find any act of misconduct to warrant His Lordship being sanctioned.
“Council further directed that while it is appreciative of the wonderful working relationship between the Judiciary and other Arms of Government, in fidelity with the Principles of Separation of Powers and Rule of Law, it is not amenable to invitations being extended to judicial officers by departments and agencies of government for any reason.”
The council’s letter elicited a swift and angry response on September 14, 2016 from the DSS, which first reprimanded the NJC for having the temerity to address the DG of DSS, Mr. L.M. Daura by his name, in its letter of September 7.
Signed by Mr. Ahmed Ahmad on behalf of the DG, the DSS made it abundantly clear that the NJC’s letter should have been addressed to the “Director-General, Department of State Services, simpliciter”, and all correspondence should henceforth bear the correct nomenclature and address of the DG, DSS.
After letting off steam over the correct nomenclature to be used for the DG, DSS, the letter stated: “I am further directed to note paragraph 5 of your letter in which it was stated that the “Council is not amenable to invitations being extended by Departments and Agencies of government for any reason” and to observe that if this is strictly adhered to, it would constitute a serious obstacle on the path of Agencies of Government saddled with the responsibilities of carrying out or conducting investigation into any criminal act by the Judicial Officers concerned.”
The letter went on to remind council that under the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution, “only the president, vice-president and sitting governors and their deputies are conferred with immunity”.
“Even then, this immunity does not exempt them from criminal or security investigation,” it noted.
It said: “In view of the foregoing, and the fact that Council has concluded action on the Pindinga case, I further directed to humbly request you to direct Justice Mu’azu Pindiga to report to the National Headquarters of the Department of State Service to see the Director Operations on 15th September, 2016 at 1100 hours unfailingly.
Responding on the day Pindiga was supposed to appear at the DSS, the secretary of the NJC wrote to the DSS reminding it that its manner of address in the letter of September 7 in which it used Daura’s name and his designation was not disrespectful, nor was it unusual and that the council had in the past written similar official letters to “Mr. President, Senate President, Hon. Ministers, State Governors and Heads of Government Departments, Agencies and Institutions in similar manner by addressing same in their names and designations as well”.
It stated, however, that the council had noted the DSS’ observations and would henceforth address all correspondence to the DG, DSS.
The NJC added: “I am further directed to inform your office that what was communication to the office on the above caption vide letter Reference No. NJC/HC.GM/5/1/134 of 7th September 2016, was the decision taken by the council at its meeting which was held on 15th July, 2016.
“Therefore, all the observations contained in the letter aforesaid, will be presented before Council at its next meeting scheduled for 28th and 29th September, 2016 and the outcome of which will be communicated to your office, instant.
“In the meantime, the Honourable, the Chief Justice of the Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, has directed the Hon. Chief Judge of Gombe State to immediately contact the Subject Judge and to ask him to appear in your office as requested; and the Judge has complied.
Ostensibly, the DSS was believed to have written another letter to the NJC requesting for the records of proceedings of deliberations and or decision of the council, but this was turned down by the council in a letter dated October 7, 2016, thus prompting the DSS to move in to arrest the judges under its watch.
In the said letter signed by Mr. Halilu to DSS, NJC said: I have been directed to inform the Department of State Security Services that by the precedents and practice of the Council with respect to the subject matter, no Record of Proceedings or deliberations and or decision of Council, including the Report of its Investigation Committee are released to the Complainant or Petitioner or Subject Judge or any Institution, save by an order of Court.”
Following the crackdown on the judges, DSS sources informed THISDAY yesterday that seven judges, including two of the Supreme Court – Justices Okoro and Ngwuta – who were arrested over the two-day raid, had been released.
Others that were released by the DSS included Justice Muhammad Ladan Tsamiya of the Court of Appeal; Justice Kabiru Auta in Kano; Justice Mu’azu Pindiga who was arrested in Gombe; the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Auta; and Justice Adeniyi Ademola.
DSS sources had revealed at the weekend that other than the seven who they said were to be arraigned before a court yesterday, another eight judges, including two more justices of the Supreme Court were also being investigated for alleged corruption.
But instead of arraigning them as planned, all seven judges in the custody of the DSS were released late Sunday night.
Sources in the agency said all the seven judges were released on self-recognition.
“They were all released on bail yesterday (Sunday) on self recognition,” one of our sources said.
“They reported this morning (Monday) and they have all gone back home. They will be coming back tomorrow. And everything went very procedurally well and was civil.
“They were released on self recognition, based on their standing in the society because they cannot run away. They were instructed that they should come back today by 10 a.m.
“They did report for investigation this morning and they have gone back home. And the investigation continues and preparation to charge them to court,” explained one source with the DSS.
He also disclosed that the seven judges were released due to lack of co-operation from the NJC, which refused to allow the affected persons to be questioned by the DSS.
“The action was sequel to lack of cooperation by the National Judicial Council, such as refusal by the NJC to allow the affected persons to be questioned by the DSS. Investigation started some seven months ago, precisely in April 2016,” he said.
‘Action is Regrettable’
However, the CJN has not taken kindly to the arrest of his colleagues on the bench of the Nigerian judiciary.
The CJN, who spoke for the first time on this issue monday at the valedictory session held in honour of a retired, said he was saddened by the event.
“My lords, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, not to detract from this occasion, it is indeed very saddened and deeply regrettable, the distressing and unfortunate incident which occurred on Friday, October 7 and Saturday, October 8, 2016.
“However, I must call on all Nigerians to remain calm and prayerful, as an emergency meeting of the National Judicial Council will take place tomorrow to comprehensively look into the matter.
“I must express my sincere appreciation to the executive of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) ably led by the president, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN) and indeed all members of the legal professions, for their prompt action and continued support.”
Although it is traditional for the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) to attend such valedictory sessions, the incumbent AGF, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN) was conspicuously absent. Neither did he send a representative.
Speaking at the event, the NBA president insisted that President Muhammadu Buhari should call the security agencies responsible for the arrest of the judges to order.
He said: “We view these actions as illegal and unconstitutional and a threat to the independence of the judiciary and must be aimed at intimidating the judiciary and the legal profession.
“This military style-operation is totally unacceptable in a democratic society. It is unacceptable against private citizens, but even moreso against serving justices of superior courts.”
Mahmoud said the NBA rejected the explanations and justification by the presidency, which had said that the surgical operations were targeted at corruption and not the judiciary.
“We find absurd that the presidency will accept assurances from DSS that it followed due process of the law!
“We maintain our position that these operations are illegal and unconstitutional. I want to reiterate that the position of the NBA is not aimed at protecting any judge. We are not also shielding any judges from investigation from charges of corruption.”
He also addressed the divisions among lawyers over the arrests and raids of the judges, saying: “We are clear that raiding the houses of justices of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night by masked armed men is not the way to go. We do not accept it.
“This portends real danger to Nigeria’s democracy. It is contrary to all civilised norms and accepted standards.”
He said the association was calling on DSS to restrict itself to its constitutional and statutory duties.
According to him, DSS’ core mandate is to guarantee internal national security.
“It is not its duty to conduct police investigations or arraign and prosecute cases of corruption. It is not its responsibility to conduct sting operations on judges for corruption or professional misconduct in the middle of the night,” he added.
He called on the CJN to immediately take the necessary and urgent steps to set in motion the process of cleansing the system.
He said: “Urgent steps to restore the confidence of the Nigerian people in the nation’s judiciary must be taken.”
He also called on lawyers to remain resolute and speak with one voice, adding, “This is not the time to be divided”.
Why Police Intervened in Attempted Arrest
In a related development, the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) yesterday explained that its intervention in the attempted arrest of Justice Limam Mohammed of the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt Division, was done to avert a break down of law and order in Rivers State.
Reacting on the involvement of the police when DSS stormed Mohammed’s residence to arrest him on allegation of corruption, the Force Public Relations Officer, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Donald Awunah, said the Commissioner of Police, Mr. Foluso Adebanjo, could not have folded his arms in the face of the ensuing crisis in Port Harcourt Friday night, adding that he had to intervene for peace to reign.
While denying speculation that the attempted arrest was done in collaboration with the DSS, he said the presence of the CP that night was not a joint operation between the Police and DSS.
He also explained that it was Goveror Nyesom Wike of Rivers State who drew the attention of the Commissioner of Police to the incident, knowing full well a fracas might have broken out at the gatehouse of the judge.
He said: “When the CP arrived the scene, he met the Governor of the State, Mr. Nyesom Wike. Apparently, the governor must have had pre-knowledge of the arrest, so what the CP went for was to arbitrate and mediate between all the stakeholders including ensuring the security of the judge.
“The governor, PDP chieftains and several other people running to about 200 persons had besieged the residence. The involvement of police in the arrest was only in Port Harcourt.”
According to him, what the CP did was to resolve the issue, so that it did not snowball into an unmanageable situation.
“So it was an intervention carried out for peace and security to reign at that material time,” the police PRO explained.
Financial Crimes Not DSS’ Business
However, more reactions continued to trail the arrest and interrogation of Nigeria judges yesterday, with several members of the House of Representatives insisting that their arrest was outside the jurisdiction of the DSS, as issues of financial crimes fall within the mandate of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other anti-graft agencies.
The lawmakers, in separate interviews with THISDAY, warned that deploying the DSS to carry out the duties of the anti-graft agencies amounted to weakening the institutions.
Hon. Kingsley Chinda (Rivers PDP) said the National Security Act (NSA) makes all issues of national security the mandate of the DSS.
These, he noted, include the killings by herdsmen, rising militancy, and Boko Haram.
“If they stumble on information regarding financial crimes, they should pass it to the relevant agencies. Corruption is a menace that is why the EFCC and ICPC were created. DSS’ action is therefore ultra vires to the law that set it up,” Chinda said.
The lawmaker further held the view that the anti-corruption fight of the Buhari administration was not a sincere one, as the president had refused to act on several petitions alleging corrupt practices by members of his cabinet.
“Very soon, the army would say it is fighting corruption,” Chinda said.
In the same manner, Hon. Diri Donye (Bayelsa PDP) described the arrests by the DSS as illegal and unconstitutional.
“We are in a constitutional government and all our actions should be guided by the constitution. They have no business assuming the role of the EFCC. It is unacceptable and must be resisted by the legislature, the judiciary and the media,” he said.
Lawmakers of the All Progressives Congress (APC), however, refused to comment on the matter on the record.
A member from one of the South-west states said the development was a sign of creeping dictatorship and should be condemned by all Nigerians.
“Nobody is saying corrupt judges should not be arrested, but due process must be followed. If a judge is arrested without due process, like an armed robber, what hope is there for the common man,” he said.
Another APC lawmaker from the North Central geopolitical zone, said the manner of the arrests had resulted in tension in the country, and was not necessarily good for the image of the country.
“We are inviting foreign investors, we are presenting ourselves as a government of the people. We must be seen to be doing the right thing always. This is something that should be done silently,” the lawmaker said.
Also, in his reaction, constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) also described the arrest of the judges as an onslaught against the judiciary, which according to him portends great danger to the country’s hard won democracy and the doctrine of separation of powers as enshrined by the constitution.
Ozekhome also warned that with the manner in which the federal government was going by arresting perceived enemies and opposition voices, the media might soon be the next target.
Speaking to THISDAY, he said: “The new onslaught against the judiciary signals great danger to our hard won democracy, freedom of liberties and human rights, independence of the judiciary and the doctrine of separation of powers ably espoused in 1748 by the great French philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu.
“The last time I checked, we are supposed to be operating a constitutional democracy, not a military dictatorship or tyrannical absolutism.”
Abuja Courts Grounded
Meanwhile, the impact of the judges’ arrest was apparent yesterday when all Federal High Courts in the Abuja division failed to sit on any of the cases billed for hearing, and no reason was given by the courts.
When THISDAY got to the court of Justice Okon Abang, where the case of the former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, who is being prosecuted by the federal government for alleged corruption, the court at well after 10 a.m. had not commenced sitting.
The former CDS, his legal team led by Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) and that of the prosecution turned up in court, but were told by the registrar that all cases billed for yesterday had been adjourned till tuesday.
Counsel to Badeh, who refused to comment on the failure of the court to sit, however, told journalists that he would be in court tuesday to defend his client.
Similarly, other Federal High Courts visited in Abuja did not sit and no reason was given for the inactivity by their registrars. However, lawyers were seen going in and out of the courts after taking the new dates for their cases.
Judicial officers were also seen loitering around their offices with no one ready to volunteer reasons as to why the courts did not sit.
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