The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, has said judges would no longer tolerate harassment and embarrassment from anyone or agency of government.
In a terse speech on Wednesday at the special session marking the official commencement of the Supreme Court’s 2021/2022 legal year, the CJN recalled events in the outgone year.
“Unfortunate occurrences blighted our joy and presented some pensive moments to contend with,” Mr Muhammad said while referring to the invasion of Mary Odili’s residence by some security operatives in October.
Odili, a Justice of the Supreme Court and wife of former governor of Rivers State, Peter Odili, had her Abuja home raided by armed security operatives on October 29, on the strength of a search warrant that was said to have been fraudulently obtained.
“I must make it known to all and sundry that we have had enough dosage of such embarrassments and harassment of our judicial officers,” the CJN said in an angry tone while being flanked to his right by Mrs Odili.
“No one should test our will because the consequence of such unwarranted provocation will be too dire to bear,” Mr Muhammad warned, likening the judiciary’s calm disposition to the “calmest sea” with the “fiercest storm.”
“The time to oppress, suppress and intimidate judicial officers is gone,” the CJN declared.
Muhammad, who himself, emerged CJN, after his predecessor, Walter Onnoghen, was controversially removed from office by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, did not spell out likely actions he would take against perpetrators of any future harassment of judicial officers.
The Buhari administration appears to have gotten away with attacks on judges, starting with the invasion of the homes of some of them by the operatives of the State Security Service (SSS) in 2016.
Some of the serving judges were put on trial in the aftermath of the invasion, but some of cases ended up being dismissed either for lack of evidence on technical grounds.
Three years after the judges’ homes were raided, the Buhari government also, in an unprecedented manner, charged Mr Onnoghen, then incumbent CJN at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in January 2019.
Under shady circumstances, the CCT chairperson, Danladi Umar, issued an order suspending Mr Onnoghen from office in January 2019, an order the Buhari regime promptly complied with.
Onnoghen did not return to office up till when the National Judicial Council (NJC) concluded the probe of the petition sent by Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He had already been charged at the CCT and suspended from office by the tribunal.
Although the eventual report of the NJC was never made public, its findings were said to have compelled Mr Onnoghen to tender his voluntary resignation.
Days after Mr Onnoghen reportedly submitted his resignation letter, the CCT ordered his removal from office after convicting him of the charges of non-declaration of assets and other breaches of code of conduct for public officers.
The NJC would later announce that Mr Buhari accepted Mr Onnoghen’s ‘voluntary’ resignation which he had tendered before his conviction by the CCT.
Instead of co-opting the CCT to controversially order Mr Onnoghen’s suspension from office, the constitutional procedure which the Buhari administration jettisoned was to send allegations against him to the NJC for disciplinary action to be taken against him.
Startled that the search warrant issued by an Abuja magistrate court was fraudulently obtained by a “fake” police officer, Joseph Ajodo, to invade Mrs Odili’s Abuja home, the CJN disclosed that the “search or arrest warrant must be issued with the knowledge and approval of the Chief Judge of the respective court.”
‘ACJA implementation remains challenging’
The effective implementation of the provisions in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, has “remained a major clog in the wheel of progress,” the CJN also said.
The innovative piece of legislation intended to cure the issue of protracted criminal cases in Nigerian courts, has not fared too well in terms of its implementation.
In one of the provisions, the law sets time limit for carrying out investigations, arraignment and prosecution of criminal suspects.
It equally provides that the police may record electronically every confessional statement offered by a suspect to the police in the course of investigation.
This is to guard against the use of torture to compel suspects to confess to crimes that they may not have committed.
“Are we adhering to these provisions and the general tenets of the Act?,” the CJN queried.
‘Leaders’ insensitivity responsible for Nigeria’s woes’
The CJN had some advice for the federal government in respect of the deteriorating standard of living in Nigeria.
“I want to use this occasion to call on the executive, legislature and judiciary to work assiduously to better the lot of the citizenry,” Mr Muhammad said.
He added, “It is the insensitivity of some of our conducts as leaders that have brought us to where we are today.”
“I urge all the stakeholders of the Nigerian project to reconcile with our conscience…and align our actions with its dictates in order to evolve an egalitarian society,” the CJN advised.
Despite the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and a better part of 2021, a total of 746 corruption-related cases were dispensed with, the CJN revealed.
According to the CJN, the total number of forfeited non-cash recoveries made included: 51 automobiles, 16 real estates, 11 barges/tug boats and two schools in the outgone year.
In 2021, a total number of 1,143 suspects were convicted of various corruption and financial related crimes.
The number of non-cash forfeited assets stood at either aircrafts, seven filling stations, 48 real estates and 149 vehicles, amongst others.
In particular reference to the Supreme Court, Muhammad said a total of 681 cases comprising motions and appeals were entertained.
“Out of these, we heard 312 civil, 95 criminal and five political, making a total of 412 motions.
“Similarly, the court considered a total of 269 appeals, comprising 139 civil, 102 criminal and 28 political. A total number of 216 judgements were delivered in the year,” the CJN disclosed, declaring, “I will confidently say that this scorecard is impressive.”
Meanwhile, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) has urged the National Judicial Council to be courageous in approaching the National Assembly directly with its budget estimates.
Adegboyega Awomolo, who spoke on behalf of the body at the event, condemned the current practice of subjecting the judiciary’s budget proposals to the executive arm for onward transmission to the Parliament for appropriation.
“I urge the NJC to be courageous enough to approach the legislature directly with its budget estimates,” Mr Awomolo said.
He admonished the court to “stamp its feet for the independence of the Nigerian judiciary.”
The body called for improved welfare, security and safety of judicial officers.
Awomolo decried the invasion of Mrs Odili’s home, adding, “The judiciary has been the weeping boy.”
Similarly, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), likened the raid on Mrs Odili’s residence to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by riotous supporters of former President Donald Trump in January 2020 over disputed polls.
He called for the protection of judges from harm, adding that those who attacked Justice’s home must be brought to justice.
Olumide queried the process for the recruitment of judges, saying it is shrouded in “opaqucity.”
The NBA urged the NJC to tackle issues of indiscipline amongst judges.
The ceremony witnessed the swearing-in of 72 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria.