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2017: An Eventful But Controversial Year For The Nigerian Judiciary

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Like the last three years, 2017 can be described as an eventful but very controversial year in the history of the Nigerian Judiciary, the issues of image and trust that have plagued the third arm of government refused to go away. OLUGBENGA SOYELE examines some of the major events that shaped the third arm of government in 2017.

The 2016 hangover of the appointment of a new Chief Justice of Nigeria and the raid by the men of the Department of State Services (DSS) on the residence of some judicial offices, between October 7 and 9, 2016, which led to their arrest and subsequent suspension from the Bench by the National Judicial Council (NJC) continued to form a major talking point throughout the outgoing year.

It was not until March 7, 2017, when the then acting president of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo swore in Justice Walter Onnoghen as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria that the controversy generated by the delay of President Muhammadu Buhari in sending his name to the senate for confirmation was finally put to rest.

The NJC had recommended the appointment of Justice Onnoghen as the CJN after the retirement of Hon. Justice Mahmoud Mohammed on the 10th of November, 2016 but President Buhari chose to appoint him in an acting capacity.

The controversial raid and suspension of eight sitting judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court  assumed a new twist on June 1, 2017, when the NJC recalled six of the suspended judges.

The NJC, chaired by Justice Justice Onnoghen, had argued that eight months after they were suspended over allegations of corruption only three of the judges, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court and  Justice Adeniyi Ademola were arraigned in court.

While Hon. Justice John Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, Hon. Justice Uwani Abba Aji of the Court of Appeal, Hon. Justice Hyeladzira A. Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court, Hon. Justice Musa H. Kurya also of the Federal High Court, and Hon. Justice Agbadu James Fishim of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, were never put on trial.

However, Justice Ademola, the only one that stood trial and was discharged and acquitted of the 18-count charge brought against him and was later compulsorily retired by the NJC over allegations of official misconduct.

The decision of the NJC to recall the six judges seemed to awaken the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, (SAN) from his slumber, as he, through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on June 13 arraigned Justice Nganjiwa before the Lagos State High Court and on July 11 Justice Fishim was also docked before the same court.

Till date no charges have been filed against Justice Okoro, Justice Abba Aji and Justice Kurya

But that was not the end of the controversy, because on December 11, following an appeal filed by Justice. Nganjiwa, challenging the validity of his trial, the Lagos Division of the Court of Apeal, presided over by Justice Abimbola Adejumo-Obaseki, quashed the 14-count charge brought against the embattled judge by the EFCC.

The appellate court ruled that a serving judge could not be investigated and prosecuted by the EFCC, stating that only the NJC had that power.

The court ruled that Justice Nganjiwa could not be charged by the anti-graft agency unless he is first dismissed or forced into retirement by the NJC.

The implication of this verdict is that the EFCC may not be able to proceed against all serving judges currently under trial until the Supreme Court rules one way or the other.

Perhaps, worried by the effects of all these controversies on the image of the third arm of government, the CJN on June 5 inaugurated a 13 -man steering committee on judiciary reform.

The committee, which is headed by the Secretary of the National Judicial Service Commission, Mrs. Bilkisu Bashir was tasked with coordinating a comprehensive reform of the country’s judiciary.

“Other members of the 13-man committee include Directors of Administration from the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the National Judicial Council, Federal High Court , Court of Appeal, Sharia Court of Appeal , Customary Court of Appeal, Federal Capital Territory High Court , National Industrial Court and the President of the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria.

The committee, which was given one month to summit its report, turned in its recommendations on July 16 and at the event Justice Onnoghen promised that the report will be implemented to salvage the judicial system.

Also on September 28, the CJN announced the setting up of a Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) initially to be chaired by a retired President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, who opted out for personal reasons. He was replaced by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Suleiman Galadima

The committee which has since began work, was set up in response to the concerns expressed by Nigerians on the very slow speed at which corruption cases were being heard and disposed of by the courts.

According to the CJN, the committee would drive the NJC’s new policy on the anti-corruption war by giving it feedback on the progress of cases in the designated courts, conduct background checks on judges selected for the designated courts, and evaluate the performance of the designated courts.

The decision of the CJN and the President of the Appeal Court, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa to appoint senior lawyers directly to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court early in the year also caused unease among Justices of the Higher Courts and lawyers. Although some lawyers have been nominated the process has so far remained inconclusive.

The judges were also busy in the courtrooms, one of the biggest cases resolved in the course of the year is the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leadership crisis case, the legal battle between the then Senator Ahmed Makarfi led caretaker committee and Senator Ali Modu Sheriff led executive was resolved in favour of Makarfi by the apex court of the land on July 12.

The trial of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki over allegations of false assets’ declaration took a dramatic twist on December 12, when the Justice Tinuade Akomolafe-Wilson-led Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja struck out 15 of the 18-counts filed against him by the federal government and ordered the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) to conduct a fresh trial of the Senate President on three of the charges.

CCT had earlier in the year cleared him of all charges.

However, in spite of these efforts and others made by the EFCC, ICPC and other agencies with power to prosecute criminal cases, the problem of delay in the process of justice delivery remains largely unresolved. It is a fact that none of the corruption related cases commenced since President Buhari came into power has been concluded.

The high profile cases that are still pending in court are those of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, the pension scam fraud in the office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, the now-infamous oil subsidy scam and the Central Bank of Nigeria currency scam.

Others are: fraud cases involving a former Head of the Federal Civil Service, Steve Oronsanye, corruption charges levelled against over 12 former governors, some of which have been pending since 2007.

Others cases yet to be resolved one way or the other includes those indicted over the funds for the purchase of arms to fight Boko Haram, former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, Olisa Metuh, former Chairman, DAAR Communications Plc, Raymond Dokpesi, Sambo Dasuki.

Some of the criminal case filed in 2016, which are yet to be concluded includes those filed against: Jide Omokore, Rickey Tarfa, ex-Chief of Air Staff, Mohammed Umar, Air Vice Marshal, Adeniyi Kayode-Beckley, Femi Fani-Kayode, Mrs. Nemadi Usuman.

Others are: former Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Adesola Amosu, Air Vice Marshal, Jacob Bola Adigun, Air Commodore, Gbadobo Olugbenga, Jide Omokore, a former Niger Delta militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo (aka Tompolo), Patrick Akpobolokemi, a former Defence Minister and Chairman, Board of Trustees, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Haliru Mohamed Bello who was arraigned with his son, Abba, and the former minister of Interior, Abba Patrick Moro.

Other high-profile cases to watch out for in 2018 includes the trial of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu and three others and the trial of billionaire kidnapper, Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike (popularly known as Evans).

2018 brings renewed hope that this cases will be resolved speedily.

One other issue that must be resolved as quickly as possible in the new year is the controversy generated by a graduate of the Nigeria Law School, Firdaus Amasa, who was barred from the Call to Bar ceremony in Abuja on December 13, for insisting on wearing her hijab under her wig.

Another event to look forward to in 2018 is the Nigeria Bar Associations general election which is already generating serious interest another members of the bar.



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