The National Judicial Council on Friday described as “unacceptable” the request by the President of the Nigeria Bar Association that the seven judges recently arrested by the State Security Service be asked to step aside.
The NBA President, Abubakar Mahmoud, on Thursday requested the council to suspend the judges from presiding over court sessions till their innocence or otherwise is determined.
He said his request was to safeguard the sanctity of the judiciary.
But in its reaction on Friday evening, contained in a statement by NJC’s director of information, Soji Oye, the council said the demand went contrary to 2014 Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations of the NJC and the provisions of Nigeria’s constitution in general.
“Thus, the current position of the Nigerian Bar Association vis-à-vis its recommendation that the affected Judicial Officers involved in the on-going investigation of Judicial Officers by the DSS, be requested to proceed on compulsory leave until the conclusion of all disciplinary proceedings against them, is unacceptable to the NJC; as it breaches the 2014 Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations formulated by NJC pursuant to Section 160 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.
“It is to be reiterated also that by the provisions of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, NJC shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person while exercising its disciplinary power of control over Judicial Officers in the Federation.
“The Members of the public are hereby informed that the mechanism that will determine a Judicial Officer to be directed or requested to proceed on compulsory leave or be suspended from office, is a disciplinary power that NJC can only exercise after initiating disciplinary proceeding on the complaint or petition forwarded against the Judge, after he has been found culpable.
“Therefore, to act on the recommendation of the NBA, it is not only contrary to the provisions of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, but it means NJC will direct any Judicial Officer that has been petitioned even if the allegations contained therein are frivolous and baseless, to proceed on compulsory leave or be suspended from office without complying with the Rule of Law.
“That is not the understanding of NJC of the intention of the framers of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended vis-à-vis its Constitutional powers and functions on initiation of disciplinary proceedings culminating in suspension of Judicial Officers. Thus, to act on the request of the Departments of Government and the recommendation of the NBA, the 808 Judicial Officers that had been petitioned and accused of professional misconduct and or corrupt practices, without investigation by NJC, would have all been suspended or sent on compulsory leave and the Courts would have been deserted,” the council said.
It described the various comments by Nigerians on the matter as ‘judgment of the Court of public opinion.”
“The National Judicial Council (“NJC”) is not unaware of the judgment of the Court of public opinion on the recent events between the State Security Services (“SSS”) and the Judiciary; and the various views expressed by Legal Practitioners, Academics, Politicians and the general public, particularly the current position of the President of the Nigerian Bar Association to wit:- “We therefore strongly recommend that, without prejudice to the innocence or otherwise of the Judges involved in the ongoing investigations, they should recuse 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”.
“NJC is constrained to inform the general public that its Constitutional mandate is to process and recommend to the Executive at the Federal and State levels, the appointment, and or the removal of Judicial Officers from office, including exercise of its disciplinary control of suspending and or warning Judicial Officers; after complying with due process and the Rule of Law.
“Since the creation of NJC vide the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, it has exercised its powers and performed its functions within its Constitutional limitations,” the council said.
The council in its statement further said its recent condemnation of the raid on judges’ homes and their subsequent arrest was a unanimous decision of its members, including the leadership of the NBA.
“Suffice it to say that the decision of NJC in respect of the recent events and the current state of the Judiciary, particularly in condemning the invasion and arrest of the Judicial Officers by the DSS and considers it as a threat to Independence of the Judiciary, which portends great danger to our democracy; and a clear attempt by the DSS to humiliate, intimidate, denigrate and cow the Judiciary, was unanimously taken by the Members of the Council present, including the President and other Members of the Nigerian Bar Association at its last Emergency Meeting which was held on 11thOctober, 2016.
The council then listed attendees at its last meeting including the NBA President.
The NJC further said it was mindful of the concerns of Nigerians, but added that a decision to suspend the judges must first comply with set standards, triggered by initial petitions from the public.
“NJC is not unmindful of the concern of the public on a situation whereby a Judicial Officer is being investigated and or prosecuted for commission of a criminal offence such as Murder or Robbery; and whether he is not supposed to be requested or directed to proceed on compulsory leave or be suspended from office.
“In the circumstance, unless the Subject Judge accused of commission of the offence of Murder or Robbery is petitioned to NJC, it shall not assume the disciplinary power of control over Judicial Officers to suspend or direct the Subject Judge to proceed on compulsory leave. Thus, NJC can only direct any Judge alleged of committing such criminal offences, to go on compulsory leave or be suspended from office if he has been investigated and found by NJC culpable of misconduct.
“The participation of NBA Members in the Emergency Meeting of NJC was necessitated by the unfolding events between the DSS and the Judiciary, bordering on administration of Justice.”
SENIOR LAWYERS REACT
Two Senior Advocates of Nigeria spoke with PREMIUM TIMES on the decision of the NJC.
Simon Ameh said the decision of the NJC is premised on the fact that it has not come to full knowledge of the situation and as such cannot take any stand on the matter.
“The decision is because the NJC is not the body taking the disciplinary action, so it cannot take such a decision,” said Mr. Ameh.
Also, Akinolu Kehinde vehemently opposed the request by the NBA and reiterated the stance of the NJC.
“I do not agree with the position of the NBA; I vehemently oppose it as a person. It means that whenever a judge is accused by security operatives, that judge will have to step down; then what happens to the presumption of innocence.
“Another dangerous dimension is that it will further erode the core of the Judiciary which is the hope of the common man. It means that once a person is not pleased with the position of a judge, all he had to do is to write a petition against him to the SSS or any security agency and that judge will be asked to step down. I don’t think that is correct. The presumption of innocence is the fundamental of our jurisprudence and it should not be taken for granted.
“It is not as if one is asking that a corrupt judge should be shielded but let the NJC, which is the body, constitutionally recognised to discipline judges conduct their investigations and once they come up with a decision that the judge has infracted his oath of office, the judge will be recommended for retirement. After that, that judge can now be asked by any other agency to come and face any investigations.
“What if you ask the judges to step down and later you find that you have no prima-facie case against him?” Mr. Kehinde queried.
“Don’t forget that the NBA had problems with its recent election bordering on allegations of fraud, corruption and the case is still in court but the NBA is still running,” he said.