Facts have emerged as to how a federal judge, Mohammed Yunusa, who stood trial for bribery charges for three years, was reinstated to his position after serving almost five years suspension.
The National Judicial Council (NJC), in July 2016, found Mr Yunusa culpable of acts of alleged misconduct different from the bribery allegation that was later levelled against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
In line with its adopted procedure, the NJC placed Mr Yunusa, then a serving judge at the Enugu Division of the Federal High Court, on suspension pending the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari for the judge’s compulsory retirement.
But since 2016, President Buhari refused to act on the NJC’s recommendation, creating a window for the judge to return to the NJC for a review of his case last year.
While the bribery case later filed against him by the EFCC was pending at the Lagos State High Court, the NJC in December 2020, issued a report clearing Mr Yunusa of the allegations of misconduct for which he was earlier suspended in 2020.
The NJC in a December 29, 2020 letter signed by its then Deputy Chairman, Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, who retired in March as a Justice of the Supreme Court, informed Mr Yunusa that his suspension had been lifted while the council “awaits the decision of Mr President on the recommendation.”
Although the President’s approval was still being awaited, Mr Yunusa, in January 2021, took the clearance letter issued by the NJC to the Lagos High Court judge, before whom he was being prosecuted over separate allegations of bribery, to get his trial terminated.
Acting on the letter, the trial judge, Serifat Solebo, gave the order discharging Mr Yunusa in a ruling delivered on January 25.
This prompted the EFCC to amend the charges to be able to proceed with other defendants in the case.
Chief Judge confirms judge’s reinstatement
The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, John Tsoho, confirmed Mr Yunusa’s reinstatement in an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
On why Mr Yunusa was cleared by the NJC, Mr Tsoho said the judicial decisions which were the basis of the sanction earlier imposed on him,had been approved by the Court of Appeal.
Mr Tsoho said the NJC had no choice but to recall the suspended judge following the presidency’s refusal to respond to NJC’s request for his compulsory retirement in 2016.
“The NJC felt that since the allegation against him (Mr Yunusa) seemed unfounded, he should return. So, the matter was referred to the presidency three years ago, and till now there has been no response.
“So, the NJC felt that in a situation like that it can’t wait indefinitely.
“For sure he is back on the authority of the NJC, and there was a press release to that effect,” Mr Tsoho explained.
Under the Nigerian constitution, the President is the approving authority for NJC’s recommendations on appointment and major discipline actions such as dismissal or compulsory retirement of federal judges.
“Even in the process of appointment (of judges), when judges are nominated, the NJC makes recommendation and then the presidency will approve. So, it is the approving authority,” Mr Tsoho said.
He further noted that “most of the complaints that were leveled against him (Mr Yunusa) bordered on matters he had tried.
“But it turned out that in all those matters, his decisions were upheld on appeal at the Court of Appeal. So, if you are alleging whether it’s bias or whether he didn’t reach proper decision, then a higher court vindicates him, what do you do?,” the Chief Judge wondered.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported that Mr Yunusa’s sanction was based on a petition by the Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) accusing him of arbitrarily giving orders to restrain anti-corruption agencies from carrying out their statutory duties of investigation and prosecution.
In January 2018, the EFCC arraigned him on three counts of taking bribes from a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Rickey Tarfa, who is also being separately prosecuted by the commission on similar charges.
The anti-graft agency, in February 2020, scaled the charges up to nine counts. It re-arraigned Mr Yunusa alongside Esther Agbor, a worker at Mr Tarfa’s law firm, who was accused of paying N1.5 million to the judge’s bank account.
The commission, in the amended charges, accused the two defendants of attempted perversion of the course of justice, corruption by a public official, use of office or position for gratification to the tune of N2.2 million.
The EFCC had called 10 prosecution witnesses when Serifat Solebo, the trial judge at the Special Offences Division of the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja, discharged Mr Yunusa in a ruling delivered on January 25.
The anti-graft agency has since appealed against the discharge of Mr Yunusa, urging the Court of Appeal to send him back to face trial.
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