The controversy trailing the arrest of some judges by the Department of State Services (DSS) continued when the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) made a dramatic U-turn on an earlier position condemning the action. Speaking in Abuja, Thursday, at the valedictory session of the Court of Appeal in honour of retired Justice Sotonye Denton West, NBA President, Abubakar Mahmoud called on the affected judicial officers to excuse themselves from further judicial functions.
The DSS had, between October 7 and 8, arrested Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro of the Supreme Court; Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja and Justice Muazu Pindiga of the Federal High Court, Gombe Division. Another judge of the Abuja division of the Federal High Court, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba’s residence was also searched, but, he was not arrested.
In a swift reaction to the incident in Lagos, the NBA, led by Mahmoud, declared a state of emergency in the Judiciary, even as it asked President Muhammadu Buhari toORDER the immediate release of the affected judges or “there would be consequences.” Mahmoud, who was accompanied by four past presidents of the association – Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN); Mr. J.B. Daudu (SAN) and Augustine Alegeh (SAN) said the NBA condemned what it termed the ‘Gestapo-style operation of the DSS.’
He announced the constitution of an emergency or crisis management team, comprising past NBA presidents to engage the government. This position was re-affirmed in Abuja where the association also addressed a press conference on the incident. But, in a dramatic U-turn, yesterday, the NBA said it was better for the arrested judges to step aside in order to safeguard the public image and sanctity of the judiciary. “It has become necessary for the judges involved in the ongoing investigations to excuse themselves from further judicial functions or proceed on compulsory leave until their innocence is fully and completely established.
“In the interim, particularly, having regards to what appears to be ongoing accusations and counter accusations between some of the judges and other personalities or agencies, it appears to the NBA that it is extremely important that the NJC takes very urgent steps to safeguard the public image and sanctity of the courts. “We, therefore, strongly recommend that, without prejudice to the innocence or otherwise of the judges involved in the ongoing investigations, they should be required to excuse themselves from further judicial functions or required to proceed on compulsory leave until their innocence is fully and completely established or until the conclusion of all judicial or disciplinary proceedings.
“We believe this will be necessary in order to protect the sanctity and integrity of judicial processes that may involve the judges concerned, and safeguard the public image of the institution,” the NBA president said. Mahmoud further added that the association has set up a Task Force after its meeting with the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Abubakar Malami, as well as past and serving leaders of the Bar to urgently review current developments and come up with clear, specific recommendations on “how best to clean up the nation’s Judiciary and rebuild confidence of Nigerians.”
He added that the report is expected to in two weeks. On her part, Justice Sotonye Denton-West, who, in her valedictory speech, admitted she had been a victim of judicial corruption, described as unfortunate, the news making the rounds about the nation’s justice system. Stressing the need to uphold to the tenets of justice and fair play, she charged judicial officers to always dispense justice to all manner of men without fear or favour, affection or ill will. “How we treat those who can’t fight back, should matter. It is only when this culture is imbibed that the Rule of Law would be restored. “The Bar and the Bench must join hands to cleanse our profession. “Let us revert to the hallowed traditions of integrity, fairness and steadfast diligence that was the stock in trade of the legal profession,” she said.
Speaking on recent development where courts of coordinate jurisdiction gave same orders, Justice Denton-West urged judges to always ensure they study cases assigned to them with diligence to avoid giving discordant judgments in similar cases. “We should strive to uphold the sanctity and the dignity of the courts. Courts of coordinate jurisdiction should not undermine each other.
“As the oldest serving female judge, I have been a recipient of such unbecoming attitude by a judge in the same jurisdiction. “It was very unfortunate,” she added.