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Will corruption kill the Supreme Court?

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BY EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO

Typically, we in the media pride ourselves as members of the forth estate of the realm and this we do not hold lightly.

A recent book on media practice brought this point out succinctly and i will go to a great extent to pull out sizeable citations from this book.

The authors wrote thus: “Clearly, the media play an important role in the process of representing and communicating political policies, issues, and so forth. But in practice there are limits to democracy: in most democracies there are only or two three significantly powerful parties, so your voting power is limited to the policies and values they are willing to promote. Because of the need to appeal to the majority of voters, the views of the main parties will invariably be relatively conservative, mainstream position that are often rendered even more general by the media’s attempts to cater to the largest possible audience.”

The writers adumbrated further that: “The West is built on an ideology of individualism that stresses personal rights, freedom, and equality. Such beliefs are often legally enshrined in statutory rights and freedoms. This is in contrast to the restrictions of communist countries, such as China and other societies, such as Burma, which limit individual human rights in the face of collective social good. As individuals, you appreciate the freedoms that Western democracy offers you, and you are encouraged to believe they make the system just.”

 

The authors argues that because Western societies are well developed economically, they are able to offer a relatively high standard of living: most people have access to, possession of, a phone, a fridge, a television set, a DVD player, and a computer.

 

These societies, the authors affirmed also have welfare systems: many people receive benefits (in Australia and the United Kingdom it is possible not to work and still receive some money to live on, although this is getting more difficult) and health support. All these factors keep people relatively content and contribute to a belief that Western democracy is the best system available at present. Even if you do not believe in it, it is relatively easy to survive, and it is easier to go with the system than against it.

The authors therefore stated that such aforementioned ideas and beliefs are also maintained through a number of social institutions, one of which is the media.

The media the writers said and rightly so, are a central arena in which consent is won and maintained by representation, agenda setting, and other mechanisms that position certain values, issues, and attribute as being important, desirable, natural, or normal. ( see the book ‘Media & Society’, Forth edition by Micael O’shaughnessy & Jane Stadler).”

The few beginning lines in this piece drawn from that wonderful book on media prodession, emphasizes the significant functionality of the media which in our constitutional terminology is assigned the role of the national conscience of the nation in section 22.

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Closely related to the sacred duty of the media and even much more stronger is the sanctity of the court of law because of the fact that the courts of competent jurisdiction exercises the power of life and death as can be decoded from section 33(1) of the 1999 Constitution which confers on the judiciary the power to reach a determination based on the merit of a matter and incontrovertible evidence before it, the power to pass a death sentence on suspect appearing before the temple of justice. So understandably, media practitioners like this writer owes Nigeria an obligation to highlight the troubling effects of the hydraheaded monster of corruption and the ways this vice and sophisticated financial crime erode the public trust in the court system and weakens the integrity and independence of the judiciary which is adversarial to the qualitative practice of constitutional democracy.

And so precisely around the year 2007, at the All Nigerian Judges conference held in Abuja, justice M.A. Owoade of the Court of Appeal (as he then was) read out a thoroughly and well written essay titled “Sentencing: guiding principles and current trends.”

In this technically sound paper, His Lordship highlighted the sacred functions of the judicial arm of government.

The justice wrote: “To appreciate the problem of sentencing and society, one has to bear in mind that the ultimate aim of the criminal law itself is the protection of the society and the citizens. “the general purposes of the provisions governing the definition of offences” in the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code might be taken as a statement of the proper objectives of the substantive law of crime in a modern legal system. The purposes are: a) To forbid and prevent conduct that unjustifiably and inexcusably inflicts or threatens substantial harm to individual or public interests. b) To subject to public control persons whose conduct indicates that they are disposed to commit crimes, c) To safeguard conduct that is without fault condemnation as criminal; d) To differentiate on reasonable grounds between serious and minor offences”. He therefore advanced the theory that relatedly, the main purpose of punishment is that of expressing censure and denunciation. Society’s rejection of the offender’s wrongdoing must be publicly expressed. Sentencing is the most highly visible decision- making stage in the criminal Justice process. It is carried out in open court, and in public. It thus contrasts with earlier stages of the decision- making process either by the Police or the Attorney-General as prosecutors or by the trial Court itself. The Judge he stressed seeks to do by imposing the sentence the criminal deserves. But he also strives to be just in another and sometimes conflicting way- that is by treating the criminal before him equally with others who have an equal degree of moral guilt. Equality of treatment is commonly and rightly seen as fundamental of justice. And the judges are anxious to avoid the strong sense of grievance which arises from inequality.

A sentence he said can be defined as a definite disposition order issued by that court or other competent tribunal against a person standing trial, at the conclusion of a criminal trial, subsequent to the finding of guilt against him and must be an order which is definite in its nature, type and quantum. Both the criminal code and the penal code as well as other offence-creating statutes, he argued specify the quantum of sentences whilst their nature and type are specified by the Criminal Procedure Act and the Criminal procedure Code as well as the probating of offenders Law in the case of probation orders in the Northern States. The quantum of the sentences are specified in the offence-creating laws, with or without judicial discretion, the Justice of the Appeal Court averred.

As we all know, the judiciary as the last hope of the common man is ceded the Judicial powers of the federation as stated in section 6 of the 1999 constitution as amended. All the above scenarios graphically depict the fundamental essence of keeping away tendencies deemed to be corrupt far away from the temple of justice.

Sadly, as I write, the judiciary is competing with the political class for the highest medal of infamy on corruption just as the highest court in the land is so infested with corruption to such a loud extent that justices of the Supreme Court got split into factions resulting in a petition that led to a disgraceful exit of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria Muhammadu Tanko who used health challenge as an Alibi.

The economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the National Assembly have separately launched investigations of allegations of corruption at the highest echelons of the Judiciary. This situation is not strange because it has been long in coming.

One of Nigeria’s finest judicial minds Justice Chukwudifu Oputa has many years ago before he died warned against permitting corruption to permeate the nation’s judiciary, a mistake or intentional act that has just been escalated by the current hierarchies of the different court system in Nigeria.

A reporter with a newspaper wrote on May 15th 2014 about Justice Oputa and his earnest advocacy campaigns against corruption in the judiciary as disclosed by one of the sons of the late jurist described as Socrates, thus:“Justice Oputa had earnestly dreamt of a corrupt-free cum independent judicial system in the country- such that would have reinforced the age-long belief that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man. “It was my father’s earnest desire to see a corrupt free and independent judiciary in his lifetime. He strongly fought for the independence of the judiciary and always told us that the judiciary would have been better if it was separately funded.” “He usually buttressed this point with an adage that ‘he who pays the piper will always dictate the tune’. He wanted the judiciary to be properly funded, and told us that if the present crop of judges, are well taken care of, they will perform better. “He told us that if the judiciary, like the Nigerian police, if properly funded would drastically reduce corruption in the country”, the second son of the late jurist, Barrister George Oputa stated. Whether well funded or not, the current crop of leaders in the different divisions of the court system have come under increasing focus for their high appetites for financial and economic corruption. The Supreme Court of Nigeria has also been hit by the monster of corruption as will be mentioned in another few lines as we proceed. Suffice it to state that the professional body of lawyers is as concerned as some of us in the media profession I Nigeria anout the effects and consequences of cirruptikb at the highest levels of the judicial hierarchy.

The Nigerian Bar Association in a paper it served on the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar and the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohamed Bello Adoke, SAN, on April 30, 2014, the legal body, insisted that there must be consequences for any form of misconduct in the legal profession. According to the NBA, “These bad eggs are worse than the mob, they are doing more harm to this nation and they are worse than terrorist group in the world, Boko Haram. As 2015 approaches, they are getting more daring”, it warned. Corruption it must be stated comes in diverse ramifications including deliberate travesty of the cause of justice by judges who demand and are paid bribes by rich litigants.

In the words of Justice Christopher Chukwuma-Eneh who retired from the Supreme Court Bench, “Time has come for a critical appraisal of the efficiency or lack of it of the system of dispensation and administration of justice in this country.”

According to him, “The situation calls for a holistic overhauling of the system. If what judges and lawyers are doing in the court rooms, are to resonate with the litigating public, for whom the courts are meant, there must of necessity be some thinking out of the box approach”.

Justice Chukwuma-Eneh went ahead and suggested the “re-visitation and revision of the prevailing conventional wisdom in our system of administration of justice, a hard and critical look and stock-taking of the ways and means we have been doing things”, saying there was need for “Some deliberate and tenacious efforts to address the disconnect between what legally trained minds call justice and what the rest of the society know or perceive to be justice”.

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He said: “Time has come for us to take account of our local and peculiar environment in formulating rules and principles that are suited and tailored for our environment, stage of development, culture, mentality and tendencies.

“The question is: Need we go the way of some foreign jurisdictions when their system and circumstances are a world apart from ours. We have adopted the common law system of accusatorial procedure in criminal trials in tackling the ills of this society to our chagrin.

“The staggering impunity and lawlessness (particularly in the area of fraud and corruption) that have become the hallmarks of our daily life in this society are proofs that our justice delivery system in this area at least is just not working.

“No wonder why it should take so long as a matter of routine to get a legal dispute finally determined. In my view, the National Judicial Council, NJC, made up of eminent retired justices should be more proactive in dealing with the ills of the judiciary vis-a-vis the Judges/Justices, and should not wait to be prompted by petitions only.

“By acting proactively over matters affecting the integrity of the courts particularly, public perception in our justice delivery system is seen to be done on a proper pedestal and public confidence in the judiciary is thereby reinforced”, he postulated.

All the above presentation were made in 2014. Fast forward to 2022 and what you read on daily basis is how the judiciary stinks of corruption from the top to bottom.

Already, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, is reportedly set to examine the financial records of the Supreme Court of Nigeria from 2009 till June 27, 2022, covering the administrations of six past Chief Justices of Nigeria, CJNs.

The chief justices who were at the helm of affairs for the period were Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu (2010-2011); Justice Dahiru Musdapher (2011-2012); Justice Aloma Muhktar (2012-2014); Justice Mahmud Mohammed (2014-2016); Justice Walter Onnoghen (2017-2019) and Justice Ibrahim Muhammad (2019-2022), so reports a national daily.

A recent newspaper report said the wide task was informed by a petition dated May 30, 2022, authored by one Aliyu Mohammed purportedly on behalf of the concerned staff of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and addressed to the Chairman of the EFCC, Abdulrasheed Bawa.

In the petition, the anti-graft agency was invited to unravel the jigsaw puzzle relating to the true ownership of a bank account domiciled at the United Bank for Africa with Account Number 2027642863 from which a cumulative sum of N2.2 billion allegedly belonging to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, was purportedly diverted into.

The probe according to the detailed and meticulous newspaper report by Doctor Ise Oluwa is also to establish the source of monies that entered the said account during the period.

Besides, men of the EFCC are also expected to investigate the veracity of the allegation that the incumbent Executive Secretary of the National Judicial Council, NJC, Mr. Gambo Saleh, purportedly colluded with one Surajo, who is a staff of NJC and son of the immediate past Chief Justice Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to sell a property occupied by a Justice of the Supreme Court without the knowledge of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko.

The move by the EFCC to investigate the petition appears to coincide with the on-going efforts by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters to visit the Supreme Court of Nigeria, SCN on a fact-finding mission regarding an unprecedented memo written by 14 justices of the Supreme Court which detailed allegations of maladministration against the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko.

The committee has promised to announce a date for the assignment soon even as it promised to carry the media along in its assignment.

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The reporter recalled that It is now history that the said memo led to the resignation of Justice Tanko from office on June 27, 2022.

The Petition by Aliyu Mohammed against Justice Tanko-led S’Court and Ahmed Gambo specifically called on the EFCC to carry out a forensic audit on the activities of both the Supreme Court of Nigeria, SCN and the National Judicial Council, NJC under the watch of Justice Tanko Muhammad.

The petition reads in part: “Presently, there is disquiet in the court. Fingered as arrowhead in the on-going destabilisation and fraudulent activities are Mr. Surajo Muhammad who is the son of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammad and Secretary of the NJC, Ahmed Gambo Saleh.

“A few fraudulent activities in recent times are carefully highlighted hereunder. A thorough investigation is paramount.

“It will interest you to know that a residence of a Justice of the Supreme Court located at the Villa, Abuja was sold by Gambo and Surajo recently. It was sold to a federal agency. This was unknown to the CJN. The CJN expressed disaffection over the shady transaction when the shady deals got to him. The underhand dealings between Gambo, Surajo and the agency so pissed the CJN that he ordered the reversal of the transaction. Before any remedy, the house in question had been demolished; today, the JSC who ought to have been assigned the said residence is homeless.

“Some justices were sworn in on November 6, 2020. As tradition demands, they were supposed to be given three assorted brand new cars each: A Mercedes Benz, Land Cruiser and one utility vehicle. Under Gambo and Surajo’s shenanigans, they (the JSC) were given only a Land Cruiser, albeit refurbished. A Hilux was added after one year and till date, the Mercedes Benz is still being awaited by the Justices.

“This is notwithstanding the fact that these projects were captured in the Capital Budget as the projects were for 2020 fiscal year.

“Today, Surajo could be said to be a defacto Head of the SCN as his father seems to have relinquished the administration of the court to him even when he is not a staff. The Chief Registrar who is supposed to be in charge of administration has been relegated and pushed to the back seat as fraudulent activities fester. Let us be mindful of the fact that the abracadabra with which Gambo, who was elevated to the position of Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court in 2014, was appointed the Secretary of the NJC in 2017 when his case file allegedly oozes of corruption allegations remains a mystery. His elevation tallied with the time he was supposed to be answering pertinent questions of fraud. Indeed, his elevation is still a mystery to many of us in the anti-corruption community.

“The cases of economic and financial crimes which still hang on Gambo’s head like the sword of damocles are legion. Gambo was alleged to have diverted the sum of cumulatively N2.2 billion belonging to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He allegedly diverted the sum into his personal bank account domiciled at the United Bank for Africa PLC Account Number 2027642863.

“Following diligent preliminary investigation, same Gambo was alleged to have confessed that the money in question was his as the bulk constitute gift from friends. But further investigation revealed that he, indeed, outside of outright pilfering from the vault of the apex court, collected bribes from various contractors who ended up either executing shoddy jobs or outright abandonment of such contract which would have been paid 100 per cent.

“Further investigation revealed that he obtained N19 million gratification from Ababia Ventures Limited, a private contractor who provides services to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“Other of his fraudulent activities as investigation would further reveal include:

*Obtaining N21 million gratification from MBA Computers Limited, a private contractor who provides services to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

*Obtaining N2.4 million gratification from Welcon Nigeria Limited, a private contractor to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

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*Obtaining N6 million gratification from Welcon Nigeria Limited, a private contractor to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

*Receiving N10m gratification from Willysdave Limited, a private contractor to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

*Obtaining N16 million gratification from Dean Musa Nigeria Limited, a private contractor who provided services to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

“Even when investigation was successfully concluded, it remains a serious concern that the candidature of such a high profile suspect would be pushed for elevation as Secretary of the highest body of the judiciary, the NJC. Does that mean crime in which ever form, especially economic and financial crimes, are now being rewarded? This is a question begging for an answer.

“It is high time both the EFCC and the NJC took a second look at the activities of the SCN and NJC under Gambo’s watch.

“ There are enough reasons why this petition should not be swept under the carpet. He is believed to be worth over N10b. As a public officer, how did he come about this questionable wealth? He needs to offer some explanations to the anti-graft agency.

“I hope he is not one of the untouchables. His antecedents are enough suggestion on why this petition should not be ignored. A stich in time saves nine.

“Many thanks for your quick intervention,” Aliyu Mohammed signed off, leaving behind his GSM contact: 0702335070233.

Doctor Ise Oluwa posits that a critical study of the petition would reveal that it raised seven (7) major issues including alleged sale of a property occupied by a Justice of the Supreme Court in Aso Villa by the duo of NJC Executive Secretary, Gambo Saleh and Surajo; the son of Justice Tanko Muhammad; short-changing Supreme Court justices appointed in 2020 in terms of the official vehicles they are entitled to; that Surajo hijacked the administration of the Supreme Court from his father and the Chief Registrar of the court; that Gambo Saleh became the Executive Secretary of NJC in 2017 under hazy circumstances; that Gambo Saleh allegedly diverted the sum of N2.2 billion belonging to the Supreme Court into his personal bank account with Account Number 2027642863; that the Federal Government withdrew a N2.2b fraud charge against Gambo after he entered into a plea bargain; that Gambo Saleh purportedly collected N74.4 million gratification from five contractors of the Supreme Court; and that Gambo Saleh is worth N10 billion.

However, some of the allegations in the petition were not clear as sufficient information were not provided by the author, says the media reporter.

Understandably, the hierarchy of the judicial has fired back. The National Judicial Council stated thus: “The attention of the National Judicial Council (NJC) has been drawn to the fallacious publication by an online newspaper Peoples Gazette accusing the Secretary of the National Judicial Council, Ahmed Gambo Saleh of involvement in “N10 billion bribe and federal racketeering.”

The baseless publication said Barrister Soji Oye, went further to state that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is investigating the imaginary petition written by a faceless individual, Aliyu Mohammed, on behalf of ‘Concerned Supreme Court Staff.’

To set the record straight, we wish to state that;

* On enquiry, some credible journalists who got the petition and the NJC have discovered that there is no staff by the name Aliyu Mohammed on the Supreme Court staff list and his phone number, 07023358355 on the petition does not exist.

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* In the publication it was alleged “that the EFCC has launched a probe into the alleged racketeering by Supreme Court chief registrar Ahmed Gambo Saleh, said to have gobbled up over N10 billion in bribes from Court contractors and other persons with criminal cases with the judiciary.”

* In the publication alleging collection of N10 billion from Supreme Court contractors, Ahmed Gambo Saleh is not the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court. In fact, Mr Saleh left the Supreme Court in 2017 and could not have been awarding contracts in any capacity on behalf of the apex court.

It is worrisome that the writer of the fictitious petition and publication (Peoples Gazette) did not name a single contractor from whom the purported N10 billion was alleged to have been collected.

Mr Saleh was also accused of conniving with one Mr Surajo Tanko, purported to be son of the immediate past CJN, to sell off the residence of a Supreme Court Justice in the Aso Rock villa without the knowledge of Honourable Justice Dr I.T Muhammad GCON.

It may interest the public to know that the said house No 10 Ibrahim Taiwo Street on the way to the Villa was once occupied by the then CJN before he relocated to his official residence.

The house was next to House No 11 occupied by the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), and on their request and approval by President Muhammadu Buhari for an expansion of NFIU office, both houses were demolished for that purpose. Another house within the Villa was, however, approved for the use of the Supreme Court. How then could Mr Saleh have sold the house in question?

Mr Saleh was also accused of “withholding funds meant for purchasing exotic vehicles usually assigned to newly sworn in Justices of the Supreme Court.”

The question is, is Mr Saleh the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court who is the accounting officer? The anwer is emphatic NO. Mr Ahmed Gambo Saleh as the NJC Secretary does not superintend over the affairs of the Supreme Court because they are two distinct entities.

On the allegation of diverting N2.2 billion from to his personal United Bank for Africa (UBA) account number 2027642863, the truth is that the said account is the operational account of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, which can be verified by anyone.

Moreover, the said account was opened in 2009, five years before Mr Saleh became the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court. And so Mr Saleh could not have diverted the funds when he had not assumed office.

Besides, the N2.2 billion was the total transaction in the account of the Supreme Court from 2009 to 2016.

The petitioner only used the said account number which does not belong to Mr Saleh to deliberately and maliciously mislead members of the public.

On the issue of the Attorney-General of the Federation’s withdrawal of the N2.2 billion fraud charges against Mr Saleh on a purported plea bargain, the truth is that when the office of the AGF discovered that the charges could not be substantiated, the charges were dropped without any plea bargaining.

It is imperative for the members of the public to be aware that before his emergence as the Secretary of the NJC, some forces who tried to scuttle his appointment as the secretary of the Council have re-emerged with antics aimed at tarnishing his image and bringing his good name to disrepute.

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It is on record that these forces in a bid to stop his emergence as the NJC Secretary after the interview to consider his appointment, came up with false allegations in the media alleging that he had diverted N2.2 billion from the Supreme Court from 2009 to 2016 on the day the Council meeting was to hold.

It should be noted that there has never been a time when Mr Saleh admitted committing any crime before anybody or law court.

The sponsors of this malicious allegations believe they own the Judiciary and nobody can become anything within the Judiciary without their approval.

It is important to reiterate that there is no iota of credibility in the petition as they are not after the truth but are out to smear the good image of Ahmed Gambo Saleh at all cost, Soji Oye strongly argued.

For now, all eyes are on the investigative bodies to forensically investigate and reach a considered finding on these sets of allegations. However, given the overwhelming influence that the controversial Attorney-General of the Federation Abubakar Malami has on the Chairman of EFCC, we need not be hopeful of a comprehensive and thoroughly forensic investigation devoid of political interference. I therefore suggest that the ICPC be involved in this process to provide a second opinion.

* EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and one time National commissioner of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

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