Whether it is about lawyers, judges’ conducts, financial autonomy for the judiciary or persistent harassment and embarrassment of judicial officers by security agencies, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, has been talking tough lately. Alex Emumah writes that these tough talks have not been matched with actions
Those who have been following the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, know that he has been talking tough lately.
Whether it is about judges’conducts, financial autonomy for the judiciary or persistent harassment and embarrassment of judicial officers by security agencies, or even lawyers’conducts, the CJN has taken a stern position, expressing displeasure and disapproval.
However, the CJN is yet to demonstrate that the judiciary can also bite as threatened by the Supreme Court during a recent criminal invasion of the residence of a Supreme Court judge, Justice Mary Odili.
Last week, the CJN warned individuals and agencies of the government against any form of harassment and embarrassment of judicial officers in the country, saying the judiciary would no longer tolerate their actions.
In a terse speech he delivered at the special session marking the official commencement of the Supreme Court’s 2021/2022 legal year, Jusctice Muhammad who appraised the performance of the judiciary in the just-concluded year, was very specific about the siege on the Abuja residence of Justice Mary Odili of the apex court.
Odili, a Justice of the Supreme Court and wife of former governor of Rivers State, Dr. 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 harassments of our judicial officers across the country and we can no longer take any of such shenanigans. The silence of the judiciary should never be mistaken for stupidity or weakness.
“By the nature of our work, we are conservative but not conquered species and should not be pushed further than this by any individual, institution, or agency of the government. With time, those taking the judiciary as a mere weakling will soon realise that it is from the calmest seas, we often experience the fiercest storms.
“The time to oppress, suppress and intimidate judicial officers is gone. No one should test our will because the consequence of such unwarranted provocation will be too dire to bear.”
Even though the CJN did not spell out likely actions he would take against perpetrators of any future harassment of judicial officers, he stressed that the judiciary would begin to resist any clandestine attempt to silence or ridicule judicial officers to oblivion. He added that the era of oppressing, suppressing, and intimidating judicial officers is long gone, adding that such action will no longer be condoned.
Justice Muhammad warned that no one, irrespective of his or her status or position in the country, should test the will of the judiciary, promising that the consequence of such unwarranted provocation would be too dire to bear.
He disclosed that they were making efforts to ensure that search and arrest warrants must be issued with the knowledge and approval of the Chief Judge of the respective state or federal high court going forward.
“Nigeria, to the best of my knowledge, is not a lawless society. We should begin to do things that will project us favourably and rightly, too, to the international community. No law permits anyone to invade, subdue or overawe any Nigerian citizen in his or her residence with a flimsy, fraudulently obtained search warrant,” the CJN promised.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s 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 Department of State Services (DSS) and many Nigerians cannot wait to see the judiciary fight back.
On October 6, 2016, Nigerians were roused by the sad news that operatives of the DSS had raided the residences of some judges in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe, Kano, Enugu and Sokoto.
The judges whose residences were raided include Adeniyi Ademola, Nnamdi Dimgba of the Federal High Court in Abuja, as well as Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro of the Supreme Court.
In Kano, the home of a high court judge, Justice Kabiru Auta was raided while in Enugu, another residence belonging to the then Chief Judge of the state, Justice A. I. Umezulike, was raided. The residences of a Gombe State judge, Muazu Pindiga, as well as that of his counterpart from Sokoto State, Justice Samia, were also raided in separate operations.
The raid at Justice Mohammed Liman’s residence in Port Harcourt was thwarted by Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike who came to his rescue.
Some of the judges were put on trial in the aftermath of the invasion, but the cases ended up being dismissed either for lack of evidence or on technical grounds.
Three years after the judges’ homes were raided, the Buhari’s government also, in an unprecedented manner, charged the then incumbent CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) in January 2019.
Under controversial circumstances, the CCT chairperson, Danladi Umar, issued an order suspending Onnoghen from office in January 2019, an order the federal government promptly complied with.
Justice 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 Justice Onnoghen to tender his voluntary resignation.
Days after Justice 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 President Buhari accepted Justice Onnoghen’s ‘voluntary’ resignation which he had tendered before his conviction by the CCT.
Instead of instigating the CCT to controversially order Justice Onnoghen’s suspension from office, the constitutional procedure which this present administration jettisoned was to send allegations against him to the NJC for a 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 Justice 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.”
Speaking at the recent 2021 biannual All Nigeria Judges Conference for courts of superior records in Abuja, Justice Muhammad had cried out that it would be difficult for the judiciary to be impartial and objective in a democracy when it is not autonomous. He lamented that the third arm of government still remains financially tied to the executive.
At the conference aimed at offering judges a chance to collectively strategise and tackle the problems of court inefficiencies, poor infrastructure and condition of service, decay of intellectual capacity and corruption, the CJN stressed the need for financial autonomy upon which the impartiality of the judiciary is anchored, calling for more funding for the judiciary.
The number one judicial officer in the country used the opportunity to again sound a note of warning to judges in the country to desist from giving incessant ex-parte orders in order not to project the judiciary in a bad light. He said the judges must rise and restore the public confidence bestowed on them by desisting from giving incessant ex-parte orders that have portrayed the judiciary in a bad light.
However, despite all these tough talks, neither the CJN or the NJC has sanctioned any judicial officer involved in these most recent condemnable practices to serve as deterrent to others.
A former CJN, Onnoghen was removed through such ex-parte orders and nobody was sanctioned. No judge has also been sanctioned for the shameful conducts on the Anambra State governorship election and the removal of the suspended National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Prince Uche Secondus from office.
In its reaction to the invasion of Justice Odili’s residence, the Supreme Court had vowed to demonstrate that the judiciary can also bite.
It also promised to conduct its own investigation into the raid.
Nigerians want these tough talks to be matched with tough actions to end any form of judicial rascality and also prove to the other two arms of government that the judiciary is not inferior to any of them.