The full scale midnight assault on the residences of justices of the high court, court of appeal and Supreme Court marked an alarming new low in Nigeria’s history and a rapid descent into dictatorship of former military strongman-turned elected president General Buhari.
Never before has such highhandedness been unleashed on judges of Nigeria’s superior courts of record in such an ignoble and jungle like manner.
Firstly, Not even in the dark days of the brutal dictator General Abacha, the butcher of Abuja, did anything of this sort happen. Abacha’s highest action against the judiciary when they granted his political rival for the presidency, MKO Abiola bail, was to appeal the decision and refuse to appoint new judges to hear the case.
Similarly even president Obasanjo also a former military dictator only used a similar mechanism under the constitution by declining to forward names of certain judges recommended by the NJC to the senate for confirmation. Obasanjo ultimately appointed judges to the bench.
However Buhari’s current government’s action is worse compared to his prior record as a military dictator in the 80s. Buhari then retired many judges whom he felt did not give judgments against the ruling party. Furthermore he created special tribunals and rewarded judges who agreed to serve on these tribunals with promotions over and above those who didn’t.
Famous Musician/activist. Fela Kuti was the victim of one of Buhari’s special tribunals when Justice Okoroidogu visited the hospitalized inmate and apologized for being pressured to wrongly convict. Only after Buhari’s overthrow was Fela released and the judge retired.
Therefore Buhari’s actions this time around are deeply disturbing especially considering they were done under the toga of a “democratic” and constitutional dispensation.
Here is why the president goofed. In furtherance of the doctrine of separation of powers, the National Judicial Council is the body primarily charged with the discipline and appointment of judges involving violations of the Code of Conduct of judges in S.292(1) of the Constitution. This peer review ombudsman agency serves as a bulwark to arbitrary and vindictive attacks on judges from the executive or legislative by conducting internal self-cleansing.
Indeed just the day before the raid on the judges, NJC had listed almost 70 judges upon whom disciplinary action had been taken in a 5 year period. At 5% of the approximate 1042 judges, this is more than the number of governors, ministers or legislators ever sanctioned for misconduct in the past 16 years of democracy combined.
Some judges were retired for falsification of age and ordered to refund a year’s salary and gratuity.
Indeed NJC recently referred some to the government for prosecution!
As such the Buhari government had the option of filing a petition against a judge to the NJC under the 2014 Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations. Judges are the only federal officials that are regularly subjected to public petitions and required to respond to same.
While the DSS has claimed that this was a “sting operation”, implying a crime in progress under the lead of an agent provocateur, this does not appear to be truly the case as the judges are of disparate jurisdictions and judicial divisions. Indeed the nocturnal home invasions on a weekend are particularly sinister and disturbing.
The administration’s war against corruption is not a fiat for selective executive brigandage. Indeed even a former Abuja court official who was implicated and arraigned in court for one of the most fantastic frauds perpetrated in the judiciary is today proudly a member of president Buhari’s cabinet as compensation for a failed gubernatorial bid under the APC.
Worst of all, Buhari’s action falls beneath even his predecessor president Jonathan’s. The prior administration was caught in the maelstrom on a titanic feud between the CJN and the PCA with lawsuits filed by the second highest jurist against the head of the judiciary.
Ultimately, president Jonathan remained guided by NJC’s suspension recommendation after its investigation of the matter instead of using security reports of the executive to finish off a perceived pro-opposition jurist by wading into the issue directly.
Similarly during a bitter succession feud between the two most senior judges of the Supreme Court, Uwais CJN and Belgore JSC (as they then were) president Obasanjo simply mediated peace without desecrating separation of powers.
Given all of the above one can only recall the halcyon days of Idi Amin Dada of Uganda as a an example of such a brazen assault on the judiciary.
In recent times, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey similarly used the coup attempt as a pretext to attack opponents including judges much to the disdain of a civilized world but Buhari has no such excuse.
It is particularly grievous that in Rivers state where the judiciary is just recovering after the former APC governor grounded the judiciary to a halt until the current governor took office, the same governor had to come to physically restrain the DSS from abducting a judge in his state. The governor who paralysed both the judiciary and legislature is today a cabinet minister of Buhari’s.
It is truly tragic that the first time that Nigeria has an accomplished former Attorney General, distinguished law professor and Senior Advocate of Nigeria no less, as the number 2 citizen, a barbaric attack on the judiciary unlike we have ever seen occurred right after Nigeria’s 56th independence anniversary.
It is now clear that democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria is the next casualty of devaluation, after the naira and the economy, as General Buhari takes our nation on a recession into oppression and dictatorship. The proverbial dog has returned to its vomit and the world is now put on notice.
Incidentally, following its disregard to this week’s ECOWAS court ruling on Dasuki’s bail, this administration will go down in history to be the only one to dishonor the high court, court of appeal, Supreme Court plus the ECOWAS court all in one week.
– Emmanuel Ogebe, Esq
Washington DC, USA