Sunday, October 16, 2016

Avoiding mob mentality in Nigeria’s fight against corruption

Last weekend, precisely on October 7 and 8, 2016, the unprecedented happened in the history of Nigerian judiciary. Homes of seven Judges were invaded by the operatives of the Department of State Security Services better known as DSS. The exercise which was carried out at night in a Gestapo like fashion led to the arrest of Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro, both of the Supreme Court; the suspended Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Tsamiya; Justice Kabiru Auta of the Kano State High Court and Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja. Others arrested were a former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I. A. Umezulike, and Justice Muazu Pindiga of the Federal High Court, Gombe Division.

Opinions are divided among Nigerians about the propriety or otherwise of the purported sting operation of the DSS against the affected judges. Many Nigerians who subscribe to the notion that judiciary is the most corrupt arm of government lauded the action of the security operatives.  (I don’t know of any empirical or scientific study which has proven this). These Nigerians including senior lawyers swallow every information released by the DSS on the arrested judges hook, line and sinker. They concur to the saying of a philosopher that ‘a dose of autocracy is the cure for liberty misuse’. Left to this group of people, the indicted judges should not be tried in court but should be tied to stake and shot like armed robbers. They are quick to recite the immortal words of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais which says that:  “A corrupt judge is more harmful to the society than a man who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street. The latter can be restrained physically. But a corrupt judge deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals through abusing his office while still being referred to as honourable.”

Let me briefly recount what the DSS accused the judges of. It was alleged that they were corrupt having, in the opinion of the DSS, been living ostentatious lifestyle. It was reported that during the sting operation last weekend huge raw cash (sums) of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, were recovered from the suspects. DSS gave the summaries of these to include: N93,558,000.00; $530,087; £25,970; and €5,680 (a total of over N270m). A judge was accused of having 15 cars among which is a Rolls Royce and a house worth over a billion Naira. National Judicial Council which has the responsibility of disciplining judges was accused by DSS of shielding these corrupt judges by either not acting on its petitions or giving the accused judges light punishments which DSS referred to as  ‘soft-landing’.

Many gullible Nigerians believe all of these accusations and join the mob who wants these accused crucified. I refused to join the fray. I believe that irrespective of the alleged crimes, the onus of proof is on DSS as it is a dictum in law that he who alleges must proof. More fundamentally, since it is criminal allegations that have been made against these judges, DSS have to proof beyond reasonable doubt in a competent court of law. I am not in support of corruption but in fighting the menace due process must be followed. This is a democracy for God’s sake! I won’t fall for the bait that we need to go autocratic in order to solve our corruption challenge. During the military junta, various regimes make scapegoat of every other institutions except members of its constituency. Military claimed to be fighting corruption by arraigning politicians at its kangaroo tribunals and condemning accused persons to long terms of imprisonment without fair hearing. At the end of the day, it is now a common knowledge that the military as an institution is even more corrupt than the political class. There have been a lot of missing funds under the military junta while Abacha loot alone is in billions of dollars and is being repatriated almost twenty years after his demise.

The statement issued by the NJC last Thursday at the end of its emergency meeting of October 11 showed that DSS has been feeding the public with half-truth at best. Here are few examples: While DSS informed the public that it sent petitions to NJC on the Supreme Court Justices Ngwuta and Okoro, NJC claimed that it never received any petition against the aforesaid Judicial Officers. While DSS claimed that Justice Tsamiya received a bribe of N200m (Two Hundred Million Naira), NJC clarified that he only demanded but did not receive the bribe. Even at that, at its meeting of September 29 this year, NJC had suspended the judge and has recommended him to President Muhammadu Buhari for compulsory retirement from the bench.

Furthermore, the DSS allegation of corruption against Hon. Justice Mu’azu Pindiga of Gombe High Court was investigated with both parties sending legal counsels to defend their positions. According to NJC, “at the end of the investigation, the DSS could not substantiate any of the allegations of corrupt practices either by documentary or oral evidence against the Hon. Justice Pindiga. Consequently, at its Meeting of 15th July, 2016, Council decided to exonerate Hon. Justice Pindiga of the allegations of corrupt practices leveled against him by DSS”. NJC claimed that unlike the impression created in the media by DSS it only received two petitions from the security agency against Justce Nnamdi Dimgba and Justice Pindiga both of which were investigated. The Council dared DSS to contradict it on this claim if it is wrong.

The Council said all petitions and complaints forwarded against Judicial Officers bordering on corrupt practices and professional misconduct have been attended to and investigated, where applicable, by Council since year 2000 to date. It even went ahead to publish its scorecard. According to the NJC, from year 2000, when the National Judicial Council held its inaugural Meeting to 2016, 1,808 petitions and complaints against Judicial Officers, including Chief Justices of Nigeria, Justices of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal were received.  82 of the Judicial Officers were reprimanded (suspension, caution or warning), by Council, in the exercise of its exclusive Constitutional Disciplinary power over Judicial Officers. 38 of the Judicial Officers were recommended to the President or Governor where applicable, for compulsory retirement from office; while 12 were recommended to the President or Governor as the case may be, for dismissal from office”. Can both the executive and legislative arms of government come up with their own scorecard at self-cleansing?

There is no doubt that there are corrupt judges just like there are corrupt officials in every institution of government and even the civil society. NJC has been dealing with corrupt elements in its fold within the ambience of powers vested on it by the Nigerian Constitution. The wheel of justice does grind slowly but surely. We should allow due process to take its course in the fight against corruption. The alternative to judicial process is anarchy or self-help. Media trial of judicial officers as currently being done by DSS will erode people’s confidence in the institution and that in my opinion is very dangerous.  Many uninformed or misinformed criminals may seize the opportunity of this open ridicule of judges to attack even the innocent ones among them. We should not forget that some judges and members of their families have been kidnapped and attacked in the past. DSS should expedite actions to charge the accused judges to court and lay bare the purported overwhelming evidences it has against them to ensure their conviction.  In my own view, the best anti-corruption strategy is preventive measures.

Jide is the Executive Director of OJA Development Consult.