The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission does not have statutory powers to investigate or prosecute serving judicial officers except where such individuals have first been dismissed or retired by the National Judicial Council, the body saddled with disciplining erring judges, the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal ruled on Monday.
According to the appellate court, serving judicial officers can only be prosecuted for offences like murder, stealing and others if such offences were committed outside the discharge of their official duties. But once the offence was allegedly committed in the discharge of their duties, they must first be tried by the judicial council, NJC, and dismissed or retired before the EFCC can investigate or prosecute them, the court said.
A judge, Obaseki Adejumo, who delivered the lead judgment for the Court of Appeal, held that the condition precedent to filing for Charge No: LD/4769/2017 had not been fulfilled, adding that the NJC must first strip or remove the appellant (judicial Officer) of his judicial standing before he could be charged with such alleged offence allegedly committed in the course of discharge of his duties.
The Court of Appeal’s decision was in respect of a suit brought by the EFCC against Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, a judge of the Bayelsa Division of the Federal High Court, who was accused of unlawfully receiving $260,000 and N8.6 million through his bank account between 2013 and 2015.
The accused had challenged the jurisdiction of the Lagos Division of the Lagos State High Court to entertain the suit but was dismissed by the judge.
The Court of Appeal held that the High Court of Lagos State lacked the jurisdiction to hear and determine the charge against the serving judicial officer and accordingly set aside the ruling of the lower court. It also upheld the preliminary objection filed by the appellant in the high court and dismissed the charge against him.
Responding to the appellate court’s Monday ruling, the EFCC said it would appeal the judgment.
“The Commission considers the ruling a dangerous precedent that has no basis in law and, is confident that the Supreme Court will upturn the judgment,” the anti-graft agency said in a statement by its spokesperson, Wilson Uwujaren.
“Criminal trial takes precedence over administrative procedures and it is strange that the Court of Appeal wants to put the cart before the horse. This is ridiculous. The appellate court simply wants to confer immunity on public officers from prosecution for corruption, it will not stand.”
Mr. Nganjiwa was among the six judges recalled by the NJC last June after they had been earlier suspended following corruption allegations against them.
The decision to recall the judges was criticized by civil society groups who accused the NJC of attempting to paper over the cracks in the Nigerian judiciary.
But barely one week after he was recalled by the NJC, Mr. Nganjiwa was arraigned by the EFCC on a 14-count charge of corrupt enrichment and giving false information to an EFCC officer.