How Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign in judiciary hit a brick wall (1)

OLADIMEJI RAMON writes about the effort of the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to fight real or perceived corruption in the nation’s judiciary

November 19, 2021 brought an end to Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia’s five-year-long nightmarish experiences. Overwhelmed by emotions she wept in the open court. This was a most unusual moment for a judge but the last five years had been anything but usual for the judiciary to which Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia belongs.

The years will forever stand out for being characterised by many cataclysmal moments that violently disrupted the order in the lives of a number of judges. Among the hardest hit was Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia.

By a chain of most unusual events, her position in the courtroom changed from the exalted seat of a judge to the lowly place in the dock where accused persons stand to face trial. Stripped of a judge’s aura of reverence, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission clamped her into detention and she found herself being arraigned on corruption charges before her fellow judges. At a point, the National Judicial Council even recommended that she be dismissed from the bench.

But by a pronouncement on November 19, 2021, a fellow judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ambrose Lewis-Allagoa, brought an end to Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia’s five-year-long travails.

In positive response to an application by her counsel, Mr Wale Akoni (SAN), Justice Lewis-Allagoa quashed the 18 counts, bordering on unlawful enrichment, bribery and money laundering, which the EFCC had been hanging on Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia since 2016.

“An order is granted striking out/or quashing the charge against the applicant in its entirety for being incompetent and this court lacks the jurisdiction to try same,” Justice Lewis-Allagoa held.

That ruling was significant not just for Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia but for the entirely Nigerian judiciary.

It marked a moment of respite and the close of a chapter for the judiciary, which had come under heavy onslaught since retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari took the reins of power in 2015 as the nation’s civilian President and began his anti-corruption campaign.

In an unprecedented manner, the Buhari regime had put no fewer than seven judges, including then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen (retd.), on trial for alleged corruption.

Apart from Justices Ofili-Ajumogobia and Onnoghen, the other judges put on trial were Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja (now retired); Supreme Court Justice Sylvester Ngwuta (now deceased); Justice Mohammed Yunusa of the Federal High Court; Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court; and Justice James Agbadu-Fishim of the National Industrial Court.

Except for Justice Onnoghen, who was harassed, convicted and humiliated out of office, all the judges put on trial have become free today, the charges against them having been quashed or struck out.

Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia was the last to breast the tape of freedom, thus bringing the Buhari anti-corruption campaign against the judiciary to an uneventful end or a pause.

How it all began

Buhari, a former military dictator, rode to power in 2015 on the back of his acclaimed anti-corruption credentials.

If what he said during the electioneering campaigns was anything to go by, it was clear that the Buhari years would spell trouble for all corrupt elements.

For any close observer, it might have been an easy guess that the judiciary would not be spared in Buhari’s anti-corruption war.

By his utterances, Buhari had given away his lack of high opinion of the judiciary.

Before he eventually won the presidential election in 2015, he had contested three times earlier over an eight-year period and failed. He strongly believed that those elections were rigged and he had gone to court each time seeking to reclaim “his stolen mandate”. But each time, he met frustration and disappointment. Apart from the fact that it took so long for the courts to decide his case, he also felt that the outcome was not just.

So, when he eventually won and came to power, overtaken by emotions in January 2016 in faraway Addis Ababa, during a town hall meeting with Nigerians living in Ethiopia, Buhari pronounced that he was ready to go all out against corruption but the judiciary remained “my main headache for now.”

He pledged that his regime would see to “far-reaching reforms in the judiciary.”

Seventeen months into his reign, Buhari eventually moved his anti-corruption campaign into the judiciary.

He adopted a novel strategy that took the nation by storm and sent the judiciary reeling.

Precisely on the night of October 7, 2016 hooded operatives of the Department of State Services, in an audacious and unprecedented style, broke into the homes of seven judges, in search of evidence of graft.

The affected judges were the now late Justice Ngwuta; Justice Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, Justice Ademola, Justice Mu’azu Pindiga of Gombe State High Court; former Court of Appeal Justice Mohammed Tsamiya; a former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Innocent Umezulike; and a former Kano State High Court judge, Justice Kabiru Auta.

In the ‘special sting operation’ that lasted nearly all night, the hood-wearing DSS operatives ransacked the homes of the judges and ended the operation shortly before dawn with some of the judges whisked off into detention.

The nation woke up to the horror of the novel raid.

The Nigerian Bar Association hurriedly convened an emergency press conference where it described the midnight raid as an attack on the judiciary and immediately declared a state of emergency in the judiciary.

But the feelings of disgust and horror felt by the nation began to shift to mixed feelings when hours after the novel raid, the DSS came out with shocking revelation that its operatives recovered filthy lucre from the enclave of the judges.

Precisely, the DSS said it recovered cash sums in various currencies — N93,558,000; $530,087; £25,970; and €5,680 – totalling N270m (then) from the homes of three of the judges.

It said a judge in Rivers State hid $2m, after the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, foiled the raid on his home.

Addressing journalists in Abuja hours after the raid, a senior DSS operative, Abdullahi Garba, told the nation that the raids were informed by intelligence information on the alleged corrupt practices of the arrested judges.

He said, “We have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges, as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgments obtained fraudulently and on the basis of money paid.

“The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash (sums) of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.”

Though the NJC, through then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed (retd.) as its Chairman, initially condemned the raid on the homes of judges, it later put the judges on “technical suspension” for them to go and clear their names.

That midnight raid marked a sour turning point for the judiciary and ushered in an era when it became commonplace to see judges being led into the dock to face corruption charges.

After the DSS had shown what was possible, the EFCC stepped in next.

It began on October 17, 2016, by summoning two judges of the Federal High Court – Justices Yunusa and Nganjiwa – into its Lagos office and grilled them for hours.

It followed with the invitation of Justice Musa Kurya of the Federal High Court in Lagos on October 18, 2016.

By November 8, 2016, it was the turn of Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia to be grilled.

Eventually, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation filed corruption against Justices Ademola and Ngwuta and arraigned them in court.

The EFCC also filed charges, bordering on unlawful enrichment, bribery and money laundering against Justices Ofili-Ajumogobia, Agbadu-Fishim, Nganjiwa; and Yunusa, one after the other.

The charges, arraignment and trial

First to be arraigned was the late Justice Ngwuta.

On November 8, 2016, he was taken before the Federal High Court in Abuja and arraigned on money laundering and age falsification charges, among other things.

He pleaded not guilty.

While this trial was ongoing, the AGF filed a second charge, bordering on assets declaration breaches, against him before the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja.

The embattled Justice Ngwuta was again arraigned on April 20, 2017 on amended eight counts before the CCT.

In that charge, the prosecution alleged that as a public officer, Justice Ngwuta engaged in “the private business of purchase and sale of rice, palm oil and other related products, in violation of Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.”

The judge, however, pleaded not guilty.

Justice Ngwuta

With his second arraignment, Justice Ngwuta began to shuttle between the Federal High Court and the CCT to answer corruption charges.

Next, the AGF arraigned Justice Ademola on December 13, 2016 before the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Maitama, Abuja.

Justice Ademola, alongside his wife, Olubowale, was led before Justice Jude Okeke and arraigned on 11 counts, bordering on conspiracy and receipt of gratification.

The charge was subsequently amended to 18 counts and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Joe Agi, brought in as a co-defendant.

The prosecution alleged, among other things, that between March 11 and March 26, 2015, Justice Ademola received gratification amounting to N30m from Agi’s law firm, with a view to compromising justice.

The prosecution also alleged that Justice Ademola on January 5, 2015 “corruptly received from Joe Odey Agi a BMW saloon 320i valued at N8,500,000 through your son, Ademide Ademola, as gratification in the exercise of your official functions as a judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria.”

Furthermore, the judge was accused of attempting to receive N25m gratification from one Sani Shaibu Teidi on February 21, 2014.

In addition, the prosecution alleged that Justice Ademola received $520,000 from Johnson & Johnson Solicitors on May 6, 2013; N6m from Oshodi, Oshodi & Co between January 5 and June 23, 2016; N40m from Vertice Solutions Limited on February 20, 2014; and N34.08m from Omotayo Babefemi Aliyu between February 21 and November 7, 2014.

But the judge, alongside his co-defendants, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In Lagos, the EFCC, on November 28, 2016, dragged Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, alongside a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Godwin Obla, before Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja.

They were arraigned on 30 counts, in which Obla was accused of offering Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia N5m gratification to allegedly influence the judge’s decision in a suit marked FHC/L/C/482c/2010.

Furthermore, the judge was accused of receiving a total of $793,800 in several tranches from different sources between 2012 and 2015 “so as to have a significant increase in your assets that you cannot reasonably explain the increase in relation to your lawful income.”

But Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia and Obla pleaded not guilty and trial started immediately, with the EFCC fielding a banker, Adedamola Oshodi, as its first witness.

In his testimony, Oshodi narrated to the court how he allegedly visited the chambers of Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia on May 10, 2013 to pick a cash of $120,000, which he assisted the judge to wire to a company, Silver Steps Incorporated, in the United Kingdom.

The banker claimed that he wired the foreign currency in tranches of $10,000 over 12 days.

Asked why he split the transaction, Oshodi said it was because “the bank has a daily maximum of deposit of $10,000,” adding that the bulk of the $120,000 was kept in the custody of Diamond Bank till May 30, 2013 when the last $10,000 was wired.

“I filled the tellers for the transactions on behalf of Honourable Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia. I wrote the name of Honourable Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia as the payee on the teller,” he told the court.

Next for arraignment was Justice Nganjiwa, who was on June 23, 2017 taken before Justice Adedayo Akintoye of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere where he was confronted with 14 counts, bordering on unlawful enrichment to the tune of $260,000 and N8.7m.

The EFCC claimed that Justice Nganjiwa could not explain the source of the funds, adding that he acted contrary to Section 82(a) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, No. 11, 2011.

The judge pleaded not guilty.

Next, the EFCC arraigned Justice Agbadu-Fishim on July 11, 2017 before Justice Raliat Adebiyi of the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja.

Justice Agbadu-Fishim was arraigned on 19 counts, in which he was accused of unlawful enrichment to the tune of N3.5m.

The EFCC claimed that Justice Agbadu-Fishim received the money from seven Senior Advocates of Nigeria, one other Lagos-based lawyer and one law firm between 2013 and 2015, using his First Bank account with number 3008199491.

But the judge pleaded not guilty.

Next, the EFCC arraigned Justice Yunusa on January 17, 2018 before the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja presided over by Justice Sherifat Solebo.

Justice Yunusa was arraigned alongside one Esther Agbo, who works in the law firm of Rickey Tarfa & Co.

In the five counts filed by the EFCC, Justice Yunusa was accused of collecting N1.5m from Agbo’s boss, Mr Rickey Tarfa (SAN), for the purpose of compromising justice.

At the time, Tarfa himself was already being prosecuted by the EFCC before Justice Aishat Opesanwo of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere, where he was charged with obstruction of justice and attempt to pervert the course of justice.

Tarfa was alleged to have on February 5, 2016 frustrated the attempt by EFCC operatives to arrest two fraud suspects, by allegedly hiding the suspects in his SUV for about five and a half hours.

The EFCC claimed that while the suspects were being hid in his SUV, Tarfa made phone calls to Justice Yunusa.

In the charge against Justice Yunusa, the EFCC accused him of engaging in constant private and confidential communications with Tarfa, while the SAN had three lawsuits marked FHC/L/CS/714/2015, FHC/L/CS/715/2015 and FHC/L/CS/716/2015 pending before him.

Furthermore, the EFCC alleged that Tarfa, through Agbo, paid N1.5m into Justice Yunusa’s UBA account, numbered 1005055617 on May 14, 2015.

Justice Yunusa and Agbo were accused of violating Section 64(1)(a) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State No.11, 2011.

But the two defendants pleaded not guilty.

The arraignment of Justice Yunusa brought the number of judges arraigned for corruption by the Buhari regime to six as of January 2018.

Legal fireworks, manoeuvres, cases’ collapse

Justice Ademola’s trial was the fastest. By April 5, 2017, the trial had come to an end.

The prosecution called 19 witnesses and tendered a load of documents but in response, the defendants filed no-case submissions, insisting that the prosecution failed to prove the allegations against them.

In his ruling on April 5, 2017, Justice Okeke agreed with Justice Ademola and his co-defendants and struck out the charges against them.

Justice Okeke said the prosecution’s case was built on “strong suspicion and speculation,” as it failed to show that the N30m paid by Agi into Justice Ademola’s wife’s bank account was meant to influence the judge.

The judge said the failure of the DSS operative, Babatunde Adepoju, who investigated the case, to link the gift of N30m to any case Agi had before Justice Ademola was fatal to the charge.

“A court of law reckons with hard core evidence placed before it and not on speculation as to why the payments were made,” Justice Okeke said, striking the charges and freeing the defendants.

The prosecution was displeased and challenged the ruling at the Court of Appeal.

But the Court of Appeal, in a verdict delivered by Justice Olabisi Ige, on December 17, 2018, said the appeal lacked merit and equally dismissed it.

Other judges’ trial

The corruption cases initiated by the EFCC against judges proceeded fairly well until Justice Nganjiwa was served with charges against him dated June 8, 2017 and he responded by filing a notice of preliminary objection dated June 13, 2017 to challenge the competence of the charges and the jurisdiction of the Lagos State High Court to entertain them.

Justice Nganjiwa, through his counsel, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN), contended that by virtue of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution, allegations against him ought to have been reported to the NJC, the body responsible for disciplining erring judges, instead of him being arraigned in court.

Clarke argued that arraigning a serving judge in court amounted to usurpation of the constitutional role of the NJC.

But the EFCC lawyer, Mr Rotimi Oyedepo, disagreed, saying Clarke’s proposition was tantamount to asking the court to clothe the judges with immunity.

Oyedepo argued that Section 308 of the Constitution, which confers immunity from prosecution on public officials such as the President, the Vice-President, state governors and deputy governors, did not have judges as beneficiaries.

In a ruling on June 23, 2017, Justice Akintoye agreed with the EFCC and dismissed Justice Nganjiwa’s preliminary objection.

Unhappy, Justice Nganjiwa, through Clarke, appealed the ruling at the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division.

He also filed an application for stay of proceedings of his trial pending the outcome of his appeal.

The EFCC opposed the application and Justice Akintoye, in a ruling, declined the request for stay of proceedings, paving the way for Justice Nganjiwa’s trial to continue.

The trial, however, only continued for six months, as the Court of Appeal on December 11, 2017 gave judgment and upheld Nganjiwa’s appeal.

A three-member panel of the Court of Appeal, comprising Justices Mohammed Garba, Yargata Nimpar, and Abimbola Obaseki-Adejumo, in a unanimous decision, said Justice Nganjiwa’s appeal had merit. They quashed the charges against him and set him free.

Citing sections 6, 153, 158, 292(1) and paragraph 21(b) of Third Schedule of 1999 Constitution (as amended), Justice Obaseki-Adejumo, who read the lead judgment, declared that a serving judge cannot be prosecuted in court by the EFCC or any prosecutorial agency unless the judge has first been probed by the NJC, found guilty and dismissed.

Justice Obaseki-Adejumo declared: “The NJC is the sole body empowered by the Constitution to determine allegations of misconduct against judicial officers even on criminal allegations of bribery and corruption made against its officers.

“The NJC is created by the Constitution to solely regulate affairs of the appointed judicial officer without interference from any authority.

“It is only and only when the NJC has given a verdict and handed over such judicial officer (removing his toga of judicial powers) to the prosecuting authority that he may then be investigated and prosecuted by the appropriate security agencies.”

Setting Justice Nganjiwa free, Justice Obaseki-Adejumo pronounced: “The appeal has merit and is hereby allowed.  The ruling of the Lagos State High Court delivered on 23rd June, 2017, is hereby set aside.  The preliminary objection filed on 13th June, 2017 by the appellant is hereby upheld and charge No. LD/4769C/2017 is hereby struck out.”

Ruling terminates other judges’ trial

That ruling was the game-changer and by it, the charges against all the judges put on trial by the Buhari government collapsed like a stack of cards.

Pronto, Justice Ngwuta obtained a copy of the judgment and took it before Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court in Abuja, where his trial had gone on for 17 months.

Through his lawyer, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN), Justice Ngwuta urged Justice Tsoho to abide by the Court of Appeal judgment and set him free.

For anyone who understands the power of precedents or stare decisis in judicial pronouncements, it was a no-brainer that Justice Tsoho would grant the prayer.

In a ruling on March 24, 2018, Justice Tsoho struck out the entire 13 counts filed by the AGF against Justice Ngwuta and handed the embattled judge his freedom.

Next, Justice Ngwuta went before the CCT, where his second trial had gone on for nearly one year, and equally flaunted the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Nganjiwa’s case.

Ruling on the application on May 16, 2018, the Chairman of the CCT, Dandali Umar, said, “Our hands are, therefore, tied in the light of the aforesaid decision.

“Based on the above, the application of the defendant/applicant is found meritorious and he is hereby discharged accordingly.”

With the cases against Justice Ngwuta prematurely terminated, there was no pronouncement on whether or not the mind-boggling corruption allegations against him were true or not.

It was by the same token that Justice Raliat Adebiyi of the Lagos State High Court on May 24, 2018 struck out the charges against Justice Agbadu-Fishim and set him free, relying on Court of Appeal’s decision in Justice Nganjiwa’s case.

“The suit is struck out due to non-compliance with the conditions precedent,” Justice Adebiyi held.

EFCC changes tactics

Seeing how Justice Ngwuta had wriggled out riding on the Court of Appeal’s verdict in Justice Nganjiwa’s case, the EFCC decided to quickly change tactics to save the rest of its cases.

Though it immediately lodged an appeal at the Supreme Court against the judgment in Justice Nganjiwa’s case, the EFCC also decided to file petitions before the NJC against Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia and others.

Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia

In a press release on October 4, 2018, the NJC announced that it had probed EFCC’s allegations against Justices Ofili-Ajumogobia and Agbadu-Fishim, found them guilty and recommended them to the President for dismissal.

Subsequently, on April 16, 2019, the EFCC applied to Justice Hakeem Oshodi to withdraw charges against Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, citing the Nganjiwa’s case.

Justice Oshodi granted the application, struck out the charges and set Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia free.

However, her freedom was short-lived as the EFCC immediately arrested her on stepping out of the courtroom.

Two days later, the EFCC took her before Justice Rilwan Aikawa at the Federal High Court in Lagos for fresh arraignment on the same old charges.

Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, who was incidentally represented by Chief Robert Clarke (SAN) that did Justice Nganjiwa’s case, contended that she could not be tried afresh, since the EFCC had on its own volition terminated her trial before Justice Oshodi, citing the Nganjiwa’s case.

But the EFCC argued that Nganjiwa’s case would not avail Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia because a petition had already been filed against her to the NJC and the NJC had found her guilty and recommended her to the President for dismissal.

EFCC lawyer, Oyedepo, presented to the court a letter from the Presidency stating that Buhari had approved Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia’s dismissal from the Federal High Court bench.

We have provided evidence that she has been dismissed,” he said.

But Clarke argued that “There is no official communication with respect to the removal of the judge. In the absence of such, she remains a judge.”

Meanwhile, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia went before Justice Binta Nyako at the Federal High Court in Abuja to challenge the verdict of the NJC recommending her for dismissal.

She contended that EFCC’s petition against her was submitted and probed by the NJC at a time she was already being prosecuted by the same EFCC in court.

In her judgment on November 28, 2019, Justice Nyako nullified her dismissal by the NJC, reinstating her as a serving judge.

Armed with Justice Nyako’s verdict, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, through her legal team, approached Justice Lewis-Allagoa, who took over her case from Justice Aikawa, and applied to be set free based on the principal in Nganjiwa’s case that a serving judge cannot be prosecuted in court.

And ruling on November 19, 2021, Justice Lewis-Allagoa granted the application and struck out the charges against Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, bringing an end, perhaps temporary, to trial of judges by the Buhari regime.

Buhari has roughly 17 months to end his tenure.

It took the Court of Appeal only six months to hear and uphold the appeal filed by Justice Nganjiwa to challenge his trial.

Conversely, by January 24, 2022, it will be exactly four years since the EFCC appealed against Nganjiwa’s discharge at the Supreme Court,  but the apex court has not touched the case.

When asked about the status of the appeal, EFCC lawyer, Oyedepo, told our correspondent that “Appeal is pending before the Supreme Court; no date yet.” PUNCH

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