November 19, 2021 brought an end to Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia’s five-year-long nightmarish experiences. Overwhelmed by emotions she wept in the open court. This was a most unusual moment for a judge but the last five years had been anything but usual for the judiciary to which Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia belongs.
The years will forever stand out for being characterised by many cataclysmal moments that violently disrupted the order in the lives of a number of judges. Among the hardest hit was Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia.
By a chain of most unusual events, her position in the courtroom changed from the exalted seat of a judge to the lowly place in the dock where accused persons stand to face trial. Stripped of a judge’s aura of reverence, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission clamped her into detention and she found herself being arraigned on corruption charges before her fellow judges. At a point, the National Judicial Council even recommended that she be dismissed from the bench.
In positive response to an application by her counsel, Mr Wale Akoni (SAN), Justice Lewis-Allagoa quashed the 18 counts, bordering on unlawful enrichment, bribery and money laundering, which the EFCC had been hanging on Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia since 2016.
That ruling was significant not just for Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia but for the entirely Nigerian judiciary.
It marked a moment of respite and the close of a chapter for the judiciary, which had come under heavy onslaught since retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari took the reins of power in 2015 as the nation’s civilian President and began his anti-corruption campaign.
Apart from Justices Ofili-Ajumogobia and Onnoghen, the other judges put on trial were Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja (now retired); Supreme Court Justice Sylvester Ngwuta (now deceased); Justice Mohammed Yunusa of the Federal High Court; Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court; and Justice James Agbadu-Fishim of the National Industrial Court.
Before he eventually won the presidential election in 2015, he had contested three times earlier over an eight-year period and failed. He strongly believed that those elections were rigged and he had gone to court each time seeking to reclaim “his stolen mandate”. But each time, he met frustration and disappointment. Apart from the fact that it took so long for the courts to decide his case, he also felt that the outcome was not just.
So, when he eventually won and came to power, overtaken by emotions in January 2016 in faraway Addis Ababa, during a town hall meeting with Nigerians living in Ethiopia, Buhari pronounced that he was ready to go all out against corruption but the judiciary remained “my main headache for now.”
He pledged that his regime would see to “far-reaching reforms in the judiciary.”
Precisely on the night of October 7, 2016 hooded operatives of the Department of State Services, in an audacious and unprecedented style, broke into the homes of seven judges, in search of evidence of graft.
The affected judges were the now late Justice Ngwuta; Justice Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, Justice Ademola, Justice Mu’azu Pindiga of Gombe State High Court; former Court of Appeal Justice Mohammed Tsamiya; a former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Innocent Umezulike; and a former Kano State High Court judge, Justice Kabiru Auta.
In the ‘special sting operation’ that lasted nearly all night, the hood-wearing DSS operatives ransacked the homes of the judges and ended the operation shortly before dawn with some of the judges whisked off into detention.
The Nigerian Bar Association hurriedly convened an emergency press conference where it described the midnight raid as an attack on the judiciary and immediately declared a state of emergency in the judiciary.
But the feelings of disgust and horror felt by the nation began to shift to mixed feelings when hours after the novel raid, the DSS came out with shocking revelation that its operatives recovered filthy lucre from the enclave of the judges.
Addressing journalists in Abuja hours after the raid, a senior DSS operative, Abdullahi Garba, told the nation that the raids were informed by intelligence information on the alleged corrupt practices of the arrested judges.
He said, “We have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges, as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgments obtained fraudulently and on the basis of money paid.
“The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash (sums) of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.”
Though the NJC, through then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed (retd.) as its Chairman, initially condemned the raid on the homes of judges, it later put the judges on “technical suspension” for them to go and clear their names.
By November 8, 2016, it was the turn of Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia to be grilled.
He pleaded not guilty.
In that charge, the prosecution alleged that as a public officer, Justice Ngwuta engaged in “the private business of purchase and sale of rice, palm oil and other related products, in violation of Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.”
The judge, however, pleaded not guilty.
Justice Ademola, alongside his wife, Olubowale, was led before Justice Jude Okeke and arraigned on 11 counts, bordering on conspiracy and receipt of gratification.
The prosecution alleged, among other things, that between March 11 and March 26, 2015, Justice Ademola received gratification amounting to N30m from Agi’s law firm, with a view to compromising justice.
The prosecution also alleged that Justice Ademola on January 5, 2015 “corruptly received from Joe Odey Agi a BMW saloon 320i valued at N8,500,000 through your son, Ademide Ademola, as gratification in the exercise of your official functions as a judge of the Federal High Court of Nigeria.”
Furthermore, the judge was accused of attempting to receive N25m gratification from one Sani Shaibu Teidi on February 21, 2014.
In addition, the prosecution alleged that Justice Ademola received $520,000 from Johnson & Johnson Solicitors on May 6, 2013; N6m from Oshodi, Oshodi & Co between January 5 and June 23, 2016; N40m from Vertice Solutions Limited on February 20, 2014; and N34.08m from Omotayo Babefemi Aliyu between February 21 and November 7, 2014.
In Lagos, the EFCC, on November 28, 2016, dragged Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, alongside a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Godwin Obla, before Justice Hakeem Oshodi of the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja.
Furthermore, the judge was accused of receiving a total of $793,800 in several tranches from different sources between 2012 and 2015 “so as to have a significant increase in your assets that you cannot reasonably explain the increase in relation to your lawful income.”
In his testimony, Oshodi narrated to the court how he allegedly visited the chambers of Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia on May 10, 2013 to pick a cash of $120,000, which he assisted the judge to wire to a company, Silver Steps Incorporated, in the United Kingdom.
Asked why he split the transaction, Oshodi said it was because “the bank has a daily maximum of deposit of $10,000,” adding that the bulk of the $120,000 was kept in the custody of Diamond Bank till May 30, 2013 when the last $10,000 was wired.
Next for arraignment was Justice Nganjiwa, who was on June 23, 2017 taken before Justice Adedayo Akintoye of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere where he was confronted with 14 counts, bordering on unlawful enrichment to the tune of $260,000 and N8.7m.
The judge pleaded not guilty.
The EFCC claimed that Justice Agbadu-Fishim received the money from seven Senior Advocates of Nigeria, one other Lagos-based lawyer and one law firm between 2013 and 2015, using his First Bank account with number 3008199491.
But the judge pleaded not guilty.
Justice Yunusa was arraigned alongside one Esther Agbo, who works in the law firm of Rickey Tarfa & Co.
At the time, Tarfa himself was already being prosecuted by the EFCC before Justice Aishat Opesanwo of the Lagos State High Court in Igbosere, where he was charged with obstruction of justice and attempt to pervert the course of justice.
In the charge against Justice Yunusa, the EFCC accused him of engaging in constant private and confidential communications with Tarfa, while the SAN had three lawsuits marked FHC/L/CS/714/2015, FHC/L/CS/715/2015 and FHC/L/CS/716/2015 pending before him.
But the two defendants pleaded not guilty.
The prosecution called 19 witnesses and tendered a load of documents but in response, the defendants filed no-case submissions, insisting that the prosecution failed to prove the allegations against them.
In his ruling on April 5, 2017, Justice Okeke agreed with Justice Ademola and his co-defendants and struck out the charges against them.
Justice Okeke said the prosecution’s case was built on “strong suspicion and speculation,” as it failed to show that the N30m paid by Agi into Justice Ademola’s wife’s bank account was meant to influence the judge.
Other judges’ trial
The corruption cases initiated by the EFCC against judges proceeded fairly well until Justice Nganjiwa was served with charges against him dated June 8, 2017 and he responded by filing a notice of preliminary objection dated June 13, 2017 to challenge the competence of the charges and the jurisdiction of the Lagos State High Court to entertain them.
Justice Nganjiwa, through his counsel, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN), contended that by virtue of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution, allegations against him ought to have been reported to the NJC, the body responsible for disciplining erring judges, instead of him being arraigned in court.
Oyedepo argued that Section 308 of the Constitution, which confers immunity from prosecution on public officials such as the President, the Vice-President, state governors and deputy governors, did not have judges as beneficiaries.
He also filed an application for stay of proceedings of his trial pending the outcome of his appeal.
A three-member panel of the Court of Appeal, comprising Justices Mohammed Garba, Yargata Nimpar, and Abimbola Obaseki-Adejumo, in a unanimous decision, said Justice Nganjiwa’s appeal had merit. They quashed the charges against him and set him free.
Citing sections 6, 153, 158, 292(1) and paragraph 21(b) of Third Schedule of 1999 Constitution (as amended), Justice Obaseki-Adejumo, who read the lead judgment, declared that a serving judge cannot be prosecuted in court by the EFCC or any prosecutorial agency unless the judge has first been probed by the NJC, found guilty and dismissed.
Justice Obaseki-Adejumo declared: “The NJC is the sole body empowered by the Constitution to determine allegations of misconduct against judicial officers even on criminal allegations of bribery and corruption made against its officers.
“It is only and only when the NJC has given a verdict and handed over such judicial officer (removing his toga of judicial powers) to the prosecuting authority that he may then be investigated and prosecuted by the appropriate security agencies.”
Setting Justice Nganjiwa free, Justice Obaseki-Adejumo pronounced: “The appeal has merit and is hereby allowed. The ruling of the Lagos State High Court delivered on 23rd June, 2017, is hereby set aside. The preliminary objection filed on 13th June, 2017 by the appellant is hereby upheld and charge No. LD/4769C/2017 is hereby struck out.”
Through his lawyer, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN), Justice Ngwuta urged Justice Tsoho to abide by the Court of Appeal judgment and set him free.
It was by the same token that Justice Raliat Adebiyi of the Lagos State High Court on May 24, 2018 struck out the charges against Justice Agbadu-Fishim and set him free, relying on Court of Appeal’s decision in Justice Nganjiwa’s case.
EFCC changes tactics
Seeing how Justice Ngwuta had wriggled out riding on the Court of Appeal’s verdict in Justice Nganjiwa’s case, the EFCC decided to quickly change tactics to save the rest of its cases.
Though it immediately lodged an appeal at the Supreme Court against the judgment in Justice Nganjiwa’s case, the EFCC also decided to file petitions before the NJC against Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia and others.
In a press release on October 4, 2018, the NJC announced that it had probed EFCC’s allegations against Justices Ofili-Ajumogobia and Agbadu-Fishim, found them guilty and recommended them to the President for dismissal.
Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, who was incidentally represented by Chief Robert Clarke (SAN) that did Justice Nganjiwa’s case, contended that she could not be tried afresh, since the EFCC had on its own volition terminated her trial before Justice Oshodi, citing the Nganjiwa’s case.
But the EFCC argued that Nganjiwa’s case would not avail Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia because a petition had already been filed against her to the NJC and the NJC had found her guilty and recommended her to the President for dismissal.
“We have provided evidence that she has been dismissed,” he said.
In her judgment on November 28, 2019, Justice Nyako nullified her dismissal by the NJC, reinstating her as a serving judge.
Armed with Justice Nyako’s verdict, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, through her legal team, approached Justice Lewis-Allagoa, who took over her case from Justice Aikawa, and applied to be set free based on the principal in Nganjiwa’s case that a serving judge cannot be prosecuted in court.
And ruling on November 19, 2021, Justice Lewis-Allagoa granted the application and struck out the charges against Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia, bringing an end, perhaps temporary, to trial of judges by the Buhari regime.
Buhari has roughly 17 months to end his tenure.
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