By Udoka Obidike
Strong indications emerged at the weekend that the much expected trial of serving judges whose houses were raided before they were arrested would not commence after all until they have stepped down.
The decision contradicted its earlier position that it would arraign the judges regardless of whether or not they are suspended by the National Judicial Council.
The Presidency, it was learnt, is pursuing the new line of action because of what a source called government’s respect for the sanctity of the judiciary and the implication the trial of the serving judges could have on the third arm of government if the accused judges were arraigned while still on the bench.
It was also learnt that the Presidency had met with the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmoud Mohammed to seek his understanding on the matter but that he appeared to be unyielding.
The CJN had insisted that the judiciary remains an independent arm of government that must not kowtow to the whims and caprices of the other arms of government.
He is asking for evidence gathered by the operatives of the DSS for use to probe the arrested judges but the Presidency would not release it on the account that it would be prejudicial and could damage its case.
The CJN is consequently at a crossroad on what to do given the provisions of section 153 and 158 of the 1999 constitution and new rules on discipline of erring judges.
But in what appears like an arm-twisting strategy, the Federal Government is insisting that the two Supreme Court Justices and four others must step aside ahead of their trial for alleged corruption even as it faulted Chief Justice Mahmud Mohammed’s claim that the Judiciary only had issues with the Department of State Services (DSS) and not the Federal Government.
Those under investigation by the DSS are two Supreme Court Justices -Justice Sylvester Ngwuta and Justice Inyang Okoro; the suspended Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya, who was picked up in Sokoto; Justice Adeniyi Ademola (Federal High Court); the Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I. A. Umezulike; Justice Kabiru Auta of Kano State High Court; Justice Muazu Pindiga (Gombe State High Court); Justice Bashir Sukola and Justice Ladan Manir, from the Kaduna State High Court.
Of the nine judges, the NJC has recommended sanctions for Justice Tsamiya; Justice. Umezulike and Justice Kabiru Auta.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission(EFCC) is investigating six judges of the Federal High Court.
They are: Justices Mohammed Nasir Yunusa; Hyeladzira Ajiya Nganjiwa; Musa Haruna Kurya; Agbadu James Fishim; Uwani Abba Aji; and Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia.
But the NJC has refused to suspend six of the judges because, according to the Judicial agency, the DSS is yet to submit petitions and evidence against them.
The government however said the judges must step aside to clear their names instead of facing trial while on the bench.
A top government source, who spoke in confidence with The Nation said “The government has made its position known to the CJN on why the judges should step aside ahead of their trial. The government will not yield ground on this.
“If we go ahead to arraign them in court, the same CJN and NJC will accuse the government of desecrating the Judiciary. The right step now is to allow the judges to face trial and clear the allegations against them.
“It is unfortunate that what the CJN told the government on how to handle the case of the judges was different from the statement he issued.
“We are suspecting that the CJN might be under pressure from his colleagues or he wants to leave the fate of the judges to his successor.
“He cannot rationalise by making a distinction between the Federal Government and the DSS. The government was in support of the sting operations of the security agency. So, the DSS did not act unilaterally.
“We will not take up issues with the CJN because the Nigerian Bar Association(NBA), some former Supreme Court Justices and the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria have supported the position of the government that the judges should step aside.”
The source added: “Some of the judges in their letters to the CJN admitted having huge cash at home as if their houses are banks. In some jurisdictions, no judge can have up to $5,000 dollars at hand.
“We have a case of a judge who had never withdrawn a kobo from his salary account. How does he feed? Yet, the CJN was put into confidence on some of these issues at a meeting with some government officials. In what other way can the government respect the Judiciary?
It was learnt at the weekend that the NJC might meet this week or before the November 10 exit date of the CJN on the petitions against some judges.
It was gathered that the NJC session scheduled for Saturday was suddenly shifted following pressure from some quarters.
A member of the NJC said: “Yes, our meeting was postponed at the last minute because of certain circumstances. We are hopeful that we may meet this week, depending on the disposition of the CJN.
“What is however clear is that we will hold a meeting before the exit date of the CJN. We have to take a decision on some petitions against some judges before the council. One of the petitions is a high profile one.
“It is also statutory that we meet to bid the CJN a farewell and ratify some recommendations on some judges.”
It was gathered that the DSS refused to release evidence against the embattled judges to the NJC in order not to lay all the cards on the table before their trial.
The DSS suspects that there is no way the judges will not be privy to the evidence against them and they may begin to frustrate their trial with preliminary objection.
The agency prefers encounters with the judges in court instead of the NJC, which is a disciplinary body.
A security source said: “With the suspicious manner the NJC threw away some cases/ petitions against some judges, the DSS cannot take such a risk to make all its evidence available to the body.
“Take the case of a judge who was implicated in a N500million bribery, the Petition Review Committee of the NJC cleared him. This is a judge who admitted on tape to have collected bribe.
“It took some persistence by a petitioner before the NJC could accept to sanction the Chief Judge of Enugu State. He was retired after about four petitions against him.
“Another judge accused of demanding N200million was retired by the NJC when the law is explicit on what should be done.
“To give evidence to NJC will amount to prejudging the judges. The DSS conducted sting operations in some judges’ quarters; it believes the law should take its course through trial.
“Once the evidence are made available to the NJC, the trial of the judges will suffer a setback from the outset because they will know what the government has against them.”
With additional report from The Nation