Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Segun James write that there are examples of monumental judicial pronouncements preceding the recent conviction of two former governors.
Pressured from many quarters, the Nigerian judiciary is going through one of its worst moments of crisis of integrity. It is no secret that lawyers, judges and staff of the judiciary have perfected an unholy triangle to, among other things, adjourn the hearing of cases and deliver justice, only to the highest bidder.
Against this background, the often touted truism that the court is the last hope of the common man falls flat on its face. However, a few outstanding examples of landmark judicial pronouncements that stopped the heartbeat of the Nigerian nation abound.
Expectedly, every case involving high profile politicians or high net worth individuals reverberate through the society with so much consequence. Owing to the personality of the individuals involved in these cases, so much interest is generated in the proceedings, largely, because politicians constitute the top echelon of the society. Usually, the eventual judgment is enmeshed in controversies and exposed to different interpretations. Mr. Victor Abasiakan-Ekim, a former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Abuja branch reasoned that cases involving high profile politicians generate so much interest and the eventual judgement breeds controversy for a plethora of reasons. He submitted that, “Politicians see themselves as being above the law. The principle of equality before the law does not apply to them. This is largely visible in reckless abuse of power as manifest in corruption and pilferage of the common wealth. The politicians in military uniform took the practice to its zenith during the era of several military governments. The law appeared helpless. Only a handful of these crooks in political garbs were brought before the court of law to account for their malfeasance. Even when these politicians were brought before the court for trial, the slow grinding of the machinery of justice eroded the confidence of the masses. The delay in prosecution, sometimes lack of will and/or expertise to diligently prosecute the culprit occasioned a discharge and/or acquittal.”
Abasiakan-Ekim concluded that, “The vast majority of the people therefore believed that the law is an ass in the face of the gargantuan cleansing of the state coffers by some politicians or that the political class are ‘untouchable.’ Thus, any time there is a criminal trial of a high profile politician, it generates a lot of interests and debate amongst the citizenry. It is only natural to expect a stiff punishment where conviction is secured after trial. However, until recently, the convicted criminals in this category were mostly given a slap on the wrist or a pat on the back kind of sentence. This was the case where an Abuja High Court convicted a pension thief but gave a two year jail term or fine of N250, 000 which the convict paid from the dock and walked home same day.”
“Naturally, the outcry was deafening and the learned trial judge was suspended for misconduct by the National Judicial Council in order to serve as a deterrent to other judicial officers while also restoring confidence in the judicial system. This incident led to the development and issuance of sentencing guidelines by the heads of several courts in Nigeria,” said the former NBA Abuja branch chairman.
Advancing more reasons for public interest in this class of cases, Abasiakan-Ekim said, “the trials are sometimes politically motivated to silence the opposition and voice of dissent. A classic example was the trial and conviction of the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti by the then military junta for economic crime/money laundering because of his beliefs aired through his music as a social and political crusader in the 1980s. The trial and conviction or better still, the farce of a mistrial and conviction were subsequently set aside due to public outcry. The trial and conviction of late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was obviously designed to silence the voice of opposition.”
Mr. Ayinoluwa Akinyemi, a Lagos-based legal practitioner of Hightower Solicitors and Advocates agreed with his Abuja-based colleague that, “politically exposed persons and high net worth individuals are usually deemed as untouchables or beneficiaries of a system that benefits only the ‘big men’ in the society.”
According to Akinyemi, “Many Nigerians consider it a rarity having these types of people convicted in the Nigerian courts. These big men are often perceived to have figured out a perfect scheme to rig the system. They are thought to have resources to pervert justice, breach fairness, delay court proceedings, hire the best defence lawyers, access patronage from public officers, and bribe judicial officers.”
Not since a military tribunal pronounced prison terms on second republic politicians (some as much as 100 years) has there been a proper trial and conclusive case against high profile politicians as the recent sentencing of two former governors; Jolly Nyame of Taraba State and Joshua Dariye of Plateau for corrupt enrichment.
That pronouncement immediately drew attention to Justice Adebukola Banjoko of the Federal High Court, Abuja. Her personality gained national attention also because of the way the Federal Government promptly rewarded her with a secondment to the post of the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT.
The timing of her promotion/reassignment is perceived in some quarters as a masked ‘thank you’ for doing the bidding of the master. Abasiakan-Ekim dismissed this assumption by exposing the portrait of an incorruptible judge and the force of constitutional obligation. He said, “A judge is a carefully selected person of impeccable character He is fearless, courageous and impartial, doing justice to all manners of persons without ill-will or affection. He is a representative of God, imbued with enormous powers, including the powers to restrain liberty or even order the termination of life. A judge therefore must be a person whose life is above board at all times like Caesar’s wife.
The judicial oath of office contained in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) is designed along these lines. It is pertinent to state that one arm of government that has endured all the difficulties of our evolution as a nation is the judiciary. Even in the face of military despotism, we had some fearless, honest and courageous judicial officers and we still have a sizeable number on the bench today. That is not to say that there are no bad eggs on the bench serving as judges. The National Judicial Council is doing a great job of ridding the system of men/women of low morale and judicial content.
It is therefore a disservice to the hardworking judges on the Nigerian judicial bench to attribute their promotion or reassignment to higher responsibilities as a mark of patronage by the executive arm of government. The judiciary at the federal level is independent and to a large extent, this must include financial independence.”
Akinyemi was emphatic in his view on the recent judgments involving former governors Nyame and Dariye. “I do not think that there is any deliberate attempt to induce judicial officers to do the bidding of any one or group of people. The matters must be decided on evidence, and a strict interpretation of the criminal laws of Nigeria. Judges worth their salt owe allegiance to Justice. As long as they adjudicate matters and preside over the interests of citizens who plead their cases before them, they must be blind to other extraneous factors, such as social standing, wealth, religion and tribe. The symbol of the blindfolded Greek goddess, Artemis, is symbolic in this regard. Justice is blind to creed, wealth, affluence, tribe, religion, and other extraneous considerations. Justice must be done even if the heavens fall.”
Abasiakan-Ekim did not mince words, even drawing from his personal and professional interaction to support his stance. “I see a veiled reference to the Hon. Justice Adebukola Banjoko of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, who recently convicted two politically exposed persons on charges of embezzlement of public funds. It has been said that she has been seconded to head the Code of Conduct Tribunal after concluding the trials. I strongly believe that if there is any such appointment/secondment, it is clothed in merit. Fortunately, I practice in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and have appeared many times before the Hon. Justice Banjoko. She remains one of the finest judges on the bench of the High Court of the Federal capital Territory, Abuja. She is intelligent, hardworking, firm and courageous. It is therefore disrespectful, uncharitable and demeaning to refer to her secondment to the Code of Conduct Tribunal as a ‘thank you’ gesture for ‘doing the bidding of the master’. Such appointments are done upon scrutiny by and recommendation of the National Judicial Council. It is unfortunate that such allusion is made against the integrity of a dutiful judicial officer who may never have the opportunity to join issues with her accusers.”
Justice Banjoko sentenced Senator Joshua Dariye, a former governor of Plateau State to 14 years imprisonment for corrupt practices perpetuated while he was governor of the state. The judgment came two weeks after she gave a similar judgment in a related matter involving a former Taraba State governor, Jolly Nyame who was also jailed for 14 years for misappropriating state funds.
Sentencing Dariye, Banjoko said, “there should not be compromise in corruption. Corruption is corruption.”
Banjoko is not the first judge to jail a politician in Nigeria. The audacity to commit high profile politicians to jail was set by Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo. He presided over the most controversial trial in newly independent Nigeria. He set the precedent that would be repeated many times later in the future.
In November 1962, Nigeria witnessed what became the trial of the 20th century.
For the first time in the country’s history some of the most respected politicians were docked for treasonable offences and it was up to one man to make a decision that he understood would change his life and that of the accused forever. That man was Justice Sowemimo.
The trial was that of the one-time Premier of Western Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo along with 24 others. They were accused of planning to overthrow the civilian government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa just two years after Nigeria attained independence.
The sensational trial was the first of its kind. Awolowo along with other members of his party, the Action Group (AG), including Dr Chike Obi, Joseph Tarka, Chief Alfred Rewane and Victor Olabisi Onabanjo were arrested and put on trial. Chief Anthony Enahoro who was in the UK at the time was extradited to Nigeria. After a 10-month trial, with a total of 95 witnesses, 383 exhibits examined. Judge Sowemimo delivered an 8-hour judgment, the outcome followed thus: Chief Anthony Enahoro – 15 years; Mr. Ayo Akinsanyo – 7 years; Mr. Sunday Ebietoma – 7 years; Mr. Lateef Jakande – 7 years; Mr. Anomuogharan Okotie – Yesin – 7 years; Mr. Michael Omisade – 7 years; Mr. Uzodinma Nwaobiala 5 years; Mr. Samuel Onitiri – 5 years; Mr. Gabby Shasore – 5 years; Mr. Joshua Akamo – 5 years; Mr. Adeyiga Akinsanya – 3 years; Mr. Josiah Olawoyin – 3 years; Mr. Simeon Oyeshile – 3 years; Mr. Sebastian James Umoren 3 years; Mr. Sunbo Jibowu – 2 years; Chief S. T Oredein – 2 years; Mr. Samuel Otubanjo – 2 years.
Discharged were Mr. Tunde Amuwo, Mr. Joseph Tarka, Chief Alfred Rewane, Mr. Victor Olabisi Onabanjo’ Dr Chike Obi, Chief G. Ekwejunor-Etchie and Mr. Muri Badmus.
The (T)rial (J)udge Mr. Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo stated: “Whatever others may say, this is my personal view. I am not speaking as a judge but as a Nigerian. Here, we have one of the first premiers of the autonomous region standing trial.”
“If you were the only one before me, I would have felt that it was enough for you to have undergone the strain of the trial. I am sorry, I cannot do so now because my hands are tied.
“Having sentenced those young chaps, whatever happens, I have to pass some sort of sentence. If I made up my mind to sentence the other accused persons who I find were tools in the hands of others, and if my conclusion is right, it is for me to see that a punishment by me in my court is such that others would see that there is no preferential treatment.
“I do not see what useful purpose a sentence of imprisonment will do to you, but I have come to the conclusion that these things emanate from you. To get yourself involved in this thing is enough shame.
“But this is a political crime. There are things which one may never know. All I know is what is before me and I am bound by the evidence. You mentioned about the delay in giving judgment, but I wish you were in my position and had to read some of these things – the evidence which was about 800 pages and the notes of submissions also about 600 pages. I was never hoping or thinking that I would be called upon to try a former head of government and leader of opposition. I am only happy that this is a court of first instance. ”
At the conclusion of the speech by Justice Sowemimo, Awolowo was sentenced as follows: First count – 10 years I.H.L (Imprisonment with Hard Labour) for treasonable felony, contrary to Section 41(b) of the Criminal Code. Second count – 5 years I.H.L for conspiracy to commit a felony, contrary to Section 516 of the Criminal Code. Third count – 2 years I.H.L for conspiracy to effect an unlawful purpose, contrary to Section 518 (6) of the Criminal Code. The sentences ran concurrently.
Chief George Sodeinde Sowemimo, SAN, CON, GCFR who passed on in 1985 rose to become the Chief Justice of Nigeria in 1983; succeeding Justice Atanda Fatai-Williams.
In 1979, another case involving Awolowo rocked the nation to its foundation, following the general election that returned the nation back to democracy after 13 years of military rule in the country.
The Awolowo versus Shagari case was a lawsuit in which Awolowo challenged the declaration of Shehu Shagari as the President-elect in 1979 presidential election.
The Court was called upon to interpret Section 34 A (i) (ii) of Electoral Decree No 73 of 1977. Awolowo contested the declaration of the First Respondent as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the grounds that Section 34 A (i) (c) (ii) of the Electoral Decree (winning two thirds of all the states of the federation) had not been satisfied. The Election Tribunal dismissed the Appellant’s claims, affirming the Election of the First Respondent. The Appellant appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision of the tribunal and dismissed his appeal.
In a lead judgment read by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Atanda Fatai-Williams, the court decided that two-third of 19 is not 13 but 12 (2/3). It was a controversial decision, which is still being debated till today.
Decided on September 26, 1979, the court held that “Shehu Shagari won two-third of the total votes cast, having polled a total votes of 16.8 million votes with 11.9 million votes ahead of Obafemi Awolowo who polled a total votes of 4.9 million.”
The Judges included Chief Justice Atanda Fatai-Williams, Mohammed Bello, Mohammed Uwais, Andrew Otutu Obaseki, Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, Chike Idigbe and Kayode Eso, who wrote a dissenting judgment.
In his opinion, Justice Eso wrote: “With the greatest respect to the learned tribunal, it fell clearly into a serious error when it equated the words ‘two- thirds state’ with two-thirds of the total votes cast in that ‘state’ and not the physical or territorial area of such state.”
He also held that the first respondent (Shagari) did not satisfy the Section 34 (A) subsection (1) (c) (ii) of the Electoral Decree, 1977.
“It is with the greatest regret that I find myself unable to agree with the majority judgment of the court just read by my Lord, the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria.”
Of judges who were party to the ’12 two-third judgment’, Justices Mohammed Bello, Mohammed Uwais and Ayo Gabriel Irikefe rose to become Chief Justices of the federation.
In 1993, following the annulment of the June 12 presidential election, the nation was thrown into crisis and an embattled President Ibrahim Babangida was forced to transmit power to an Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, an arrangement which was codified by a number of decrees. Decree No. 59 of 1993 ended the Babangida administration whilst Decree No. 61 created the ING.
Thus, at about 3.30p.m, on August 26, 1993, Ernest Shonekan was sworn in as the new ‘Head of State and President of the ING’ by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Bello, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. He was not, however, sworn in as the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the Armed Forces. This ‘oversight’ was apparently deliberate. Another interesting detail was that Decree 61 of 1993 that established the ING identified General Abacha by name as the Vice-President, Defence Secretary and ‘Senior Minister.’ The ‘Senior Minister’ was empowered to succeed the President of the ING in the event of resignation or other untoward event. Thus, Abacha was Shonekan’s designated successor and Shonekan had no operational control of the Armed Forces.
Shonekan addressed Nigerians on August 31. He begun the process of releasing most of those detained for their involvement in pro-June 12 riots like Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Mr. Femi Falana. He re-opened some universities that had been shut down and lobbied the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and the NLC to suspend industrial actions. To the military, Shonekan promised to start phased withdrawals from Liberia.
On the political front, the governors of Oyo, Ogun, Osun and Ondo States, for example, refused, at least in public, to recognise Shonekan as the Head of State and the legality of the ING was also challenged in court. Pro-democracy rallies resumed.
On November 10, 1993, the Shonekan-led ING was declared illegal in a ruling at the Lagos High Court presided over by Justice Dolapo Akinsanya. The previous October, a case had been brought by Moshood Abiola and Baba Gana Kingibe to declare the ING illegal, null and void.
The lead Attorney for the Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr. Dele Jegede, advised the court that Decree 61, which was supposedly the legal basis of the ING, did not exist. Decree 56 had previously fixed August 27, 1993 as the date of commencement of the 1989 constitution.
Justice Akinsanya reasoned that since Babangida had divested himself of power by signing Decree 59 of August 26th, he had no power to sign Decree 61.
She retired from the Lagos State judiciary in 2006.
Summing up his views, Akinyemi concluded that, “the recent court pronouncements are not controversial. I believe that many people were shocked to have them in quick successions. The decisions were celebrated by a large section of the public. Only a few people and groups with vested interests, and ethno-religious biases felt differently.”
Stating his empathy for judges, Abasiakan-Ekim said, “this is one of the hazards confronting judicial officers who handle cases involving politically exposed persons.”