- DSS officials, in a sting operation, arrested 7 justices for alleged corruption suggesting that the hitherto untouchables are not above the law
In a dawn operation last weekend, officials of the Department of State Services, DSS, stormed the residences of some top officials of the country’s judiciary, taking away two justices of the Supreme Court in Abuja and three judges of Federal High Courts across the country.
By DSS account, a mind-boggling sum of N93, 558, 000, $530,087 and £25,970 among amounts in other currencies were recovered from the houses of some of the arrested judicial officers.
The development, which the DSS in a statement later said was a sting operation, saw Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro, both of the Supreme Court, the suspended presiding justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya, Justice Kabiru Auta of Kano State High Court, and Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, arrested.
All the judicial officials were said to have been released Sunday evening on self-recognition. A DSS source, said investigations of the judges started months ago, however, they were arrested because of the uncooperative stand of the National Judicial Council, NJC, in submitting the indicted judges for questioning.
While not a few Nigerians were shocked by the night raid on the chiefs of the constitutionally sanctioned third arm of the government when the news broke Saturday morning, as details of the hows, whys and wheres began unfolding as the day wore on, it became obvious that the hitherto veil of untouchables that somewhat shielded the nation’s judicial officials had been “lifted” and their supposed rectitude and honesty faulted in very worrying manner.
But the development was not without its drama, saga, blame game and politics from all connected to the raid and consequent arrests.
Why we struck – DSS
A statement by the DSS Sunday morning indicated that their sting operations were based on allegations of corruption and other acts of professional misconduct by a few of the suspected judges and that its action was in line with its core mandate, stressing that it had been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgment obtained fraudulently and on the basis amounts of money paid.
The statement read: “The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of Naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these Judges.
“Meanwhile, some of them have made useful statements while a few have declined even with the glaring evidences that were found against them in terms of material cash, documents and property recovered pointing to their compromise.”
The DSS said in one of the states where its operations were conducted, credible intelligence revealed that the judge had $2million stashed in his house.
“When he was approached for due search to be conducted, he in concert with the state governor mobilised thugs against the service team.
“The team restrained itself in the face of unbridled provocative activities by those brought in by the governor. Unfortunately, the judge and governor also engaged the tacit support of a sister security agency. These in addition to other banking documents, including real estate documents, have been recovered.
According to the service, its surveillance team noticed that upon frustrating the operation, the judge with the active support of the governor craftily moved the money to an unknown location which the service is currently making effort to unravel.
“Meanwhile, preparations are ongoing to arraign them in a competent court of jurisdiction in line with the laws of the nation.
“In addition, the service would like to put it on record that it has tremendous respect for the judiciary and would not do anything to undermine it or its activities.
“The service will also join hands with this noble institution in its fight to rid it of few corrupt Judges whose actions is undermining not only the Judiciary but the common bond of our national life,” the statement noted.
The BVN connection
However, Nigerian Pilot learnt that beyond the petitions and informal reports alleging corrupt tendencies against the judicial officers, enough intelligence was gathered by officers of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, when the Bank Verification Number, BVN, was introduced.
The development had exposed how the allegedly corrupt justices and judges opened several bank accounts in the names of their family members, including wives and siblings, without the knowledge of the latter. But like the proverbial ostrich that hides its head in the sand while unfortunately exposing its body for the predator, many of the affected judicial officials opened such accounts with different passport photographs but signed their regular signatures and applied same thumb print for the required biometrics.
Added a CBN official: “Before long, findings at the CBN exposed their monumental corruption. At that point, relevant security agency was alerted and today, we are seeing the result.”
DSS’ actions regrettable – CJN
Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed could not hold back his impression of the development yesterday, even as he appealed for calm over last Friday’s unprecedented arrest of his colleagues among others.
The CJN, who broke his silence on the occasion of the valedictory session held in honour of a retired Supreme Court Justice, Justice Suleiman Galadima, 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, 7 October, and Sunday, 8 October, 2016.
“However, I must urge all Nigerians to remain calm and prayerful, as an emergency meeting of the National Judicial Council will take place tomorrow (today)to comprehensively look into the matter.
“I must express my sincere appreciation to the executive of the Nigerian Bar Association 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 to attend such valedictory session, the incumbent AGF, Abubakar Malami, SAN, was curiously 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 viewed 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 operations are totally unacceptable in a democratic society. They are unacceptable against private citizens but even more so, against serving justices of superior courts.”
Mahmoud said the NBA rejects the explanations and justification by the presidency that these so-called 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’ houses, saying, “We are clear that raiding houses of Justices of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night by masked armed men is the way to go. We do not accept it. This portends real danger to the Nigerian democracy. It is contrary to all civilised norms and accepted standards.”
He said the association called on DSS to restrict itself to its constitutional and statutory duties.
According to him, DSS’ core mandate is to guaranteeing internal national security.
“It is not its duty to conduct police investigation 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 necessary and urgent steps to set in motion the process of cleansing the system.
No faith in the NJC?
Times without number, many Nigerians have had causes to ask if the judiciary and its officials are so much untouchable that in the face of glaring miscarriage of justice by presiding judges and at times, the Appeal and Supreme Courts, but the NJC remained the dull, colourless and toothless Alsatian dog that it refused to act.
“We do not reckon with the NJC. You file a petition against a Judge of an election tribunal or civil or criminal case, it takes donkey years for them to sit over it. They then come up with one decision that begs for explanation,” was how a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, described the supervisory and regulatory judicial body yesterday,
Citing the case of the three judges who were arrested on Friday as a typical example.
One newspaper report quoting a DSS source also reported the disdain with which the NJC is held currently.
In the case of three of the arrested judges, the DSS source said: “The NJC, having been satisfied that the three judges demanded and collected heavy bribes, merely recommended the retirement of the one who took a bribe of N200 million and asked him to be paying back in bits to the complainant. So, we ask, what happens to the proceeds of crimes? No answer was given until we stepped in.
“Similarly, the two other judges were retired with full benefits, smiled away. Since then, the NJC has not been cooperating with us and we cannot allow the rot to continue in the interest of Nigeria.”
It’s fight against corruption- Presidency
The reference the CJN made to explanations of the arrests by the presidency had to do with a statement issued on Sunday by presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, saying that the president reserved his highest respect for the judiciary as the third arm of government and would not do anything to undermine the independence of the judiciary, even as he urged the media to be careful in the way they report the issue.
Hear him: “President Buhari remains a committed democrat, in words and in his action, and will not take any action in violation of the constitution. 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.
“But reports by a section of the media are giving us cause for concern.
“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.
“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. To suggest that the government is acting outside the law in a dictatorial manner is to breach the interest of the state.”
DSS lied – Wike
Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike who earlier media reports said had encountered with DSS operatives when they stormed the home of a high court judge in the state capital, Port Harcourt, described as untrue claims by the DSS that $2 million (about N900 million) was found in the house of the federal high court judge.
Also, the chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in Port Harcourt, Victor Briggs, and the former national secretary general of NBA, NimiWalson-Jack, said the attempt to abduct a judge by federal security operatives was intimidation and abuse of the rule of law.
Wike said it was preposterous for the DSS to resort to deliberate misinformation and concocted stories “to justify its unconstitutional assault on the nation’s judiciary.”
He argued that DSS lacked the constitutional powers to be involved in the legal process to discipline a serving judicial official because there was a legal process that must be taken.
The governor, during a special dinner for the management and players of Rivers United at the Government House, Port Harcourt, questioned how the DSS operatives who remained outside the building would now declare that N900 million was found in the residence.
Where are the arrested judicial officers?
At press time yesterday, there was confusion in the polity as to when the arrested judicial officials would be arraigned and in what court.
While one popular social medium reported yesterday morning that DSS arraigned them before a Magistrate Court in Abuja, Nigerian Pilot gathered that efforts to effect any form of arraignment of the officials became impossible at the last minute following what sources called “delay in organising the charges.”
The source added: “There is a mix up in the charges proffered against the justices and the legal department is currently working on some fresh charges that will be filed tomorrow.”
Despite information that the judicial officials were released Sunday, at press time yesterday, Nigerian Pilot could not confirm the veracity of that claim.
Peculiar politicking: PDP vs. APC
As is typical with every development in the country, a twist in the matter is beginning to assume a worrying dimension.
While the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, sees the arrests as to politically intimidate and arm-twist the judiciary to kowtow to the whims and caprices of the executive in future political matters that would get to the courts, the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, believes otherwise.
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon in Enugu, the leadership of the party commended President Buhari for being man enough by doing what they described as “raising the bar of anti-corruption war in Nigeria.”
Enugu State publicity secretary of the party, Mrs. Kate Offor said, “Well done Mr. President for touching the untouchables. The judges thought they are untouchables and above the law. These are judges who are supposed to protect the law, defend our hard earned democracy and cleanse the Augean Stable, who regrettably are the ones subverting the law and mangling the war against corruption.”
The unfolding saga over the arrests is a reminder of the box office buster, The Untouchables, a 1987 American gangster film directed by Brian De Palma and written by David Mamet. But indications are that the end of the story, Nigeria will come off better.
“A Nigeria where everyone is equal before the law will pave the way for justice and the perfect environment to do business. It will encourage well-intentioned investors to come here. It may not be easy at first. But we will get there provided we see this through,” retorted the SAN.
For now, and in furtherance of the anti-corruption war of President Buhari, touching the untouchable is the in thing.