The coast is now clear for two Federal High Court judges to be prosecuted, following their indictment by the National Judicial Council, which investigated allegations of corruption filed against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Already, they have been suspended, pending their dismissal from service by President Muhammadu Buhari, as recommended by the NJC. The President should strike the iron while it is still hot.
In the eye of the storm are Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court and James Agbadu-Fishim of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria. Besides Ofili-Ajumogobia being the Director/Chief Executive Officer of a company, a recent NJC report said it discovered that “several personalities, individuals, government officials and business partners lodged funds into various accounts belonging to the Hon. Judge.” Also unfurled was the existence of an ex parte communication between the judge and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, during the pendency of his matter before the judge’s court.
In the case of Agbadu-Fishim, the NJC said, he “received various sums of money from litigants and lawyers with cases before his court,” just as he fleeced many influential Nigerians under the pretext that he was bereaved or that the payment of salary was delayed. The actions of these judges, the NJC stressed, were “contrary to the code of conduct for judicial officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
There are four other judges undergoing ethical scrutiny, according to the NJC, for which it empanelled committees to investigate. In Delta State, a judge, Joshua Ikede, is said to have falsified his age. A petition against him on this, which the NJC established, informed its rejection of his letter of voluntary retirement, with effect from October 1, 2018. He ought to have retired on October 1, 2016. The council, therefore, backdated his retirement and ordered the state government to recover salaries he collected for two years and remit it to NJC’s account.
For too long, the country has been immersed in the miasma of judicial corruption, leading only to the retirement of suspected judges without bringing any to book. Between 2009 and 2014, 64 judges were compulsorily retired by the NJC. This is just a slap on the wrist. A judge who has soiled his robe should have no other place to retire but to jail, upon conviction. It is the only course of action in decent societies. Until this paradigm is embraced here, any claim to reining in depraved judges is duplicitous.
It was in an attempt to arrest this drift that operatives of the State Security Service raided the homes of some judges in 2016. The action provoked diverse reactions; some Nigerians saw it as out of sync with the rule of law. The SSS claimed that it recovered N363 million from the houses of three of those judges.
One of the justices whose residence was raided, Mohammadu Tsamiya, of the Court of Appeal, was alleged to have compromised his position by demanding bribes from a litigant in a 2015 election petition. In its earlier report, the NJC said “that there was evidence that the petitioner met with Tsamiya thrice, in his residence in Sokoto, Gwarinpa, Abuja and Owerri, where on each occasion, he demanded from him the sum of N200 million to influence the Court of Appeal Panel in Owerri, or risk losing the case.”
Racketeering like this milled the “billionaire judges,” which the late Supreme Court Justice, Kayode Eso, inveighed against. There are probably more of such elements still on the Bench trafficking in their illicit trade than the number already discovered. This is why the NJC, chaired by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, should redouble its efforts to fish out all the bad eggs. Any act of corruption on the Bench diminishes the integrity of the judiciary. As one United States judge aptly put it, “corruption in a judge’s seat does not go unpunished.” In the US, mere demanding, let alone receiving, lands a judge in prison on conviction.
Judges are not alone in this disgraceful preoccupation. The NJC rightly observed that lawyers and others outside the legal profession acted as the conduits for the bribery. Therefore, these accomplices, especially the lawyers, should be subjected to the same due process of the law. That is the only way to fully restore sanity to the dispensation of criminal justice. Indeed, the society does not operate two sets of penal codes: one for the larger society and the other for judicial officers and lawyers.
The seeming existence of this perfidy is at the heart of the increasing trend of forgery of court judgements by lawyers. It is the height of unprofessionalism; which the CJN deprecated recently when some lawyers forwarded forged judgements to the Legal Practitioners and Privileges Committee as requirements for qualification for the award of SAN.
It is a concern shared by the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Opeyemi Oke, who stated that the practice had reached embarrassing levels in the state, citing the case of a lawyer who forged a Magistrate’s Court judgement recently and used it to evict a tenant. Periodically, embassies, notably of the US and the United Kingdom, make enquiries about the authenticity of such legal documents presented to them; a lot of them turn out to be false, the CJ lamented.
Therefore, the Nigerian Bar Association has everything to gain by taking seriously the advice of a former CJN, Mahmud Mohammed: to expunge from its ranks, those whose conduct may be improper, unfit and dishonest.