VIVIAN OKEJEME looks at some of the high and low points of the judiciary in 2017, even as she sets agenda for 2018
In 2017, the nation’s judiciary witnessed a lot of ups and downs with so many events that shaped the year. While some are very good, others are not too good, or out rightly bad. And one of the issues that kept recurring during the year was the allegation of corruption against judicial officers.
The third arm of the government, in the year under review, stood its ground on the renewed mission of self-cleansing with a view to separating the wheat from the chaff.
The executive nearly locked horns with the judiciary over accusation and counter-accusation on issues surrounding the anti-corruption fight of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, and the manner with which some of the cases were decided.
The judiciary is vulnerable where democracy is weak, where interference by the executive is commonplace and where the budgetary allocations of the judiciary are grossly insufficient.
One of the major events that shaped the judiciary last year was the setting up of Special Courts to try corruption cases, which, according to many stakeholders, have been long overdue.
Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, in its bid to square up with the graft fight, announced the setting up of special courts to try corrupt cases.
Also, in order to effectively monitor and enforce the new policy, the CJN inaugurated an Anti-Corruption Cases Trial Monitoring Committee to ensure that both trial and appellant court handling corruption and financial crime cases key into and abide by the efforts at ridding the country of the cankerworm.
Former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, was appointed as the committee chair, but for personal reasons, he turned down the offer.
Subpoena on Jonathan and Dasuki
The trial of former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, over alleged laundering of N400milion used for PDP’s 2015 campaign activities, took a drastic turn when the defendant insisted that former President Goodluck Jonathan as well as the embattled former National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Dasuki Sambo, must appear in court to testify in his defence.
On October 24, 2017, the trial judge, Justice Okon Abang, ruled in favour of the defence and subpoenaed the former president to appear before it and testify as a witness in Metuh’s defence.
The Judge had earlier refused to grant Metuh’s request to sign the subpoena to be served on Dasuki, but the Court of Appeal in Abuja on September 29, overruled the judge and ordered him to sign the subpoena.
Dasuki who has been detained by the DSS since December 2015, through his lawyer, applied that his continued incarceration had negatively impacted on his state of mind, making him unfit to stand trial or give evidence in respect of Metuh.
He, however, lost the motion to stop the subpoena and eventually appeared before the court and gave his testimony. But the former president is yet to receive the subpoena issued on him even after court had given the defence leave to serve him through a substitute means.
PDP’s leadership tussle laid to rest
The leadership crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which began shortly after the party lost the 2015 election to the All Progressive Congress (APC), snowballed into fierce legal battle which saw courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction giving conflicting judgements. It was however, laid to rest by the Supreme Court.
Delivering judgement on the seemingly protracted legal battle that ruptured the party’s unity, a three-member panel of the court presided over by the CJN, upbraided Ali Modu Sheriff, for demonstrating “infantile desperation to lead the party.”
A member of the panel, Rhodes Vivour, said Sheriff was not within the category of an ‘unimpeachable leader’, stressing that the removal of the former governor was not necessarily expected to follow a vote of no confidence.
“He demonstrated an infantile desperation to lead the PDP by filing almost 10 different applications in various courts. They shall forever gather dust in judicial archives,” the judge said, referring to the various applications filed by Sheriff regarding the matter over the last few months of intense legal wrangling.
The Apex court added that the PDP constitution allows the deputy national leader of the party to stand in for his principal, adding that “when Mr. Sheriff abandoned the national convention in May 2016, the party asked his deputy to stand in for him, making his attendance noted at the convention.”
Consequently, the Senator Mohammed Ahmed Makarfi-led caretaker committee was recognized and duly upheld as the authentic leadership of the party.
CCT Saraki’s acquittal, retrial
A major highlight of the 2017 judicial year, was the acquittal of Senate President Bukola Saraki by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over corruption charges, bordering on assets declaration on June 14. Saraki was arraigned September 2015.
In his judgment, CCT chair, Danladi Umar, held that the allegations brought against the former governor by the federal government, was bereft of probate value and manifestly unreliable to hold the charges against the defendant.
The tribunal said the prosecution, at the close of the case, failed to establish a prima facie case against the defendant.
According to him, the four witnesses called by the prosecution to testify in the matter, gave contradictory evidences that were manifestly unreliable to convict the defendant or order him to enter his defense.
However, not satisfied with the ruling of the lower court, the federal government went to the appeal court seeking for a redress.
In its ruling, the appellate court dismissed 15 out of the 18-count charge and ordered the Senate President to return to the CCT and enter his defence on 3 of the count charges.
The three-man panel of the Appellate Court, led by Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson, held that there was no evidence to substantiate the 15 counts as valid charges.
He, however, said that prosecution was able to establish a prima facie case against the former Kwara governor on counts 4, 5 and 6 bordering on the purchase of House 17 A and 17B at Mac Donald Street, Ikoyi Lagos by the Senate president.
According to the court, the prosecution established that there were false claims in the asset declaration forms as to how the two houses in Ikoyi were acquired.
Justice Ademola’s dismissal
Also in the year under review, one of the judges arrested on October, 8, 2016, by operatives of the Department of State Security (DSS), Justice Adeniyi Ademola, alongside his wife, Olabowale and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Joe Agi, SAN, was discharged and acquitted of 18-count corruption charges by an FCT High Court.
Terminating further hearing on the criminal case, Justice Jude Okeke held that the federal government failed to establish that Ademola received gratifications from Agi to the tune of N38.5million, including a BMW Saloon 320i car gift.
Upholding their no-case submission, Justice Okeke held that the prosecution could not link the N30million Mrs. Ademola was alleged to have received from Agi, SAN, to any particular case being handled by her husband.
He also held that the federal government could not tender any evidence showing that the said N30million was at any time, transferred to any bank account that belongs to the 1st defendant (Ademola).
Meanwhile, Justice Ademola had tendered his resignation letter following the National Judicial Council (NJC)’s request for his immediate resignation over judicial misconduct occasioned by a petition brought against him.
Kanu’s release on bail
The self-acclaimed IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, was on April 25, 2017, released from Kuje Prison after meeting the bail conditions granted him by a Federal High Court in Abuja.
Kanu, alongside IPOB National Coordinator, Mr. Chidiebere Onwudiwe, a member, Benjamin Madubugwu and a former Field Maintenance Engineer, David Nwawuisi, was detained in Kuje prison since April 28, 2015, even after so many courts, including the ECOWAS Court of Justice, ruled on the bail application in their favour.
The trial judge, Justice Binta Nyako, on March 1, 2017, struck out six of the 11 counts brought against the defendants and released Kanu from custody on health grounds.
The judge barred the IPOB leader from granting press interview or participate in any rally or be found in a crowd of more than 10 persons in the course of the bail.
However, she refused the separate bail application filed by the IPOB leader’s co-defendants.
Sequel to Kanu’s freedom, he went ahead and flouted all his bail conditions threatening the peace and oneness of the country with his pro-Biafran loyalists.
These activities led to the clampdown on the separatist group in the South-East by the military in Operation Python Dance, which allegedly claimed the lives of many civilians and occasioned Kanu’s disappearance till date.
Consequently, the federal government, through the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Abubukar Malami, SAN, approached a Federal High Court, Abuja with an ex-parte order to declare the activities of the IPOB as a terrorist organization.
The acting Chief Judge of the court, Justice Abdul Kafarati, granted the motion, declaring the Biafra agitators activities an “act of terrorism and illegality.” He also proscribed the existence of IPOB throughout Nigeria, with particular attention paid to the South-East and South-South region.
Furthermore, during the year, Justice Onnoghen, on September 18, swore in 29 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SAN, to mark the beginning of the 2017/2018 legal year.
Though, 30 senior lawyers were initially okayed for elevation to the prestigious SAN rank, however, the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee, LLPC, suspended the swearing-in of the only female on the list, Mrs. Oluwatoyin Ajoke Bashorun.
The LPPC said it deferred Mrs. Bashorun’s confirmation to await the conclusion of investigation set up by the CJN who doubles as Chairman of the LPPC, into issues surrounding her eligibility for the rank.
The newly elevated Silks were drawn from the total of 156 senior lawyers applied to be conferred the prestigious rank, out of which 72 of the applicants were initially shortlisted.
The LLPC, pursuant to its powers under section 5 of Legal Practitioners’ Act, Laws of the Federation 2004 as amended, pruned down the list to 30. Four of the new SANs emerged from the academia.
The new SANs included a Lagos lawyer, Mr. Festus Keyamo and the Alliance for Democracy’s candidate in the last governorship election in Ondo State, and a former National Legal Adviser of the Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Olusola Oke among others.
NIC got 19 new judges
On 14th July, 2017, the National Industrial Court got 19 new Judges after the then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, approved the recommendation of the judges by the National Judicial Council.
With the 19 new judges, the judges of the NIC which has its divisions in 19 states of the federation and Abuja rose from 20 to 39, including the president of the court, Justice Babatunde Adejumo.
The swearing-in ceremony which had in attendance family members and friends of the new judges, also had Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State; the President of the National Industrial Court, Justice Adejumo; some retired and serving judges of the NIC and other courts, as well as some lawyers.
Change of baton
On September 16, the FHC received a new Chief Judge in a person of Justice Abdul Adamu Kafarati, who took over the affairs of the court in acting capacity.
His appointment followed the retirement of former Justice Ibrahim N. Auta, when curtain fell on his judicial career having attained the 65 years mandatory retirement age.
Justice Auta who hails from Marama village in Hawul Local Government Area of Borno State, took over the leadership of the court in June 2011.
In line with the tradition, Justice Auta, having clocked the retirement age, handed over the mantle of leadership to the most senior Judge at the FHC, Justice Abdul Kafarati.
The CJN administered oath of office on Kafarati as Acting CJ, pending the transmission of his name to the Senate by President Muhammadu Buhari for confirmation.
The Acting CJ who was born in 1954, became a judge of the Federal High Court on October 31, 1991.
With 2017 becoming history, the judiciary must seek to be up and doing in the huge task ahead in 2018. This is the only way it can continue giving hope to the masses. With the current administration’s resilience on the anti-graft war, much is certainly expected of the sector.