The National Judicial Council (NJC) rejected initial attempts by the Department of State Security Services, DSS, Nigeria’s secret police, an appendage of the presidency, to initiate a crackdown on the judiciary, citing separation of powers and rule of law, a correspondence between the NJC and the DSS has revealed.
According to an exclusive report by Thisday, investigation into the judges started as far back as January or February this year.
The leaked correspondence however shows that the NJC also informed the DSS that its investigations into the cases of the accused judges showed that there was no evidence of corruption as alleged by the SSS and as such, the judges were not guilty of the allegations for which the DSS wanted to carry out a “sting operation” on them.
The correspondence also revealed that the NJC said it was not amenable to “invitations being extended to judicial officers by departments and agencies of government for any reason”.
The refusal by the NJC to co-operate with the DSS prompted the Buhari presidency to go ahead with the raid on the judges.
Preparatory to their arrests, the DSS on October 5, 2016, had obtained search warrants from a magistrate’s court in Abuja for Justices Nnamdi Dimgba, Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta, A.A. Ademola and John Inyang Okoro.
In the search warrants, all the judges were alleged to have engaged in corrupt practices, falsehood, and under-declaration of assets.
The warrants granted the DSS the power to search their residences for money in Nigerian and foreign currencies, bank tellers, computers and other incriminating evidence.
However, after the crackdown, the DSS late Sunday night released seven of the judges it arrested between Friday and Saturday, ostensibly because it did not get the co-operation of the NJC. A statement by the DSS said the judges were released on self-recognition.
This was evident Monday, October 10, 2016, when the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed appealed for calm over the unprecedented arrest of two of his colleagues and other judges of lower cadre, and expressed deep regret over the “distressing and unfortunate incident”.
The CJN, who broke his silence on the issue during the valedictory session held in honour of a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Suleiman Galadima, also said he was saddened by the event.
Mohammed’s stance was reinforced in a number of letters between the NJC and DSS, which were obtained exclusively by Thisday, showing that the investigation into the alleged corrupt practices by the judges started early this year.
The letters also showed the reluctance by the NJC to co-operate with the DSS in its investigation of the judges.
In one letter dated April 19, 2016, the NJC through its secretary, Mr. Danladi Halilu, on behalf of the CJN, wrote to the DSS, acknowledging its letter titled, Re: Corrupt Practices of Justice Pindiga, which was dated February, 26, 2016.
In the said letter, the NJC wrote: Reference your petition dated 26th February 2016, to the Hon. President of the Court of Appeal and copied to the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the Nigerian Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, against Hon. Justice M.A. Pindiga of the High Court of Justice, Gombe State on the above subject matter.
“I have been directed to inform you that your complaint has not complied with the extant Judicial Discipline Regulation 2014 of the Council, as it was not accompanied with a verifying affidavit deposed to by you before a court of record.
“In view of the forgoing, you may wish to comply, please.”
In yet another letter to the director-general of the DSS, Lawal Daura, dated August 29, 2016 and signed this time by the CJN, the NJC acknowledged receipt of a petition dated August 5, 2016 on corrupt practices and professional misconduct by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court.
It further informed the DSS DG that action was being taken on the petition.
Then in a letter dated September 7, 2016, titled “Re: Corrupt Practices of Justice Pindiga”, which was signed by the secretary of the NJC, the council adopted a more dismissive tone saying that its investigation had not found Justice Pindiga wanting that would warrant his sanction.
It stated: “Reference your Petition No. DGSS.71/3161, dated February 26th 2016 to the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigerian and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, against the Hon. Justice M.A. Pindiga of the High Court of Justice, Gombe State, on the above subject matter.
“At its meeting of 1st and 2nd of June 2016, Council constituted a Fact Finding Committee comprising its members under the chairmanship of Hon. B.A. Adejumo, OFR, President of the National Industrial Court, to investigate the allegations contained in your petition, among others.
“At its meeting which held on the 14th and 15th of July 2015, Council considered and deliberated extensively on the report and noted that the officer that represented your office at the investigative committee, averred that your office could not conduct full investigation of the petition to obtain hard facts to support the preliminary report, as allegedly, your organisation was directed by the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, to stay further action on the matter to allow the National Judicial Council look into it.
“At the end of deliberation, Council found that the claim by your organisation is not correct, as the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, did not stop your office from conducting full investigation so as to obtain hard facts to support preliminary findings and proof of allegations without inviting Hon. Justice Pindiga to your office, having done so when he was serving as the Chairman of the Election Petition Tribunal.
“Consequently, in the absence of any patent evidence to substantiate the allegations contained in your petition against the Judicial Officer, Council was unable to find any act of misconduct to warrant His Lordship being sanctioned.
“Council further directed that while it is appreciative of the wonderful working relationship between the Judiciary and other Arms of Government, in fidelity with the Principles of Separation of Powers and Rule of Law, it is not amenable to invitations being extended to judicial officers by departments and agencies of government for any reason.”
The council’s letter elicited a swift and angry response on September 14, 2016 from the DSS, which first reprimanded the NJC for having the temerity to address the DG of DSS, Mr. Daura by his name, in its letter of September 7.
Signed by Mr. Ahmed Ahmad on behalf of the DG, the SSS made it abundantly clear that the NJC’s letter should have been addressed to the “Director-General, Department of State Services, simpliciter”, and all correspondence should henceforth bear the correct nomenclature and address of the DG, SSS.
After letting off steam over the correct nomenclature to be used for the DG, SSS, the letter stated: “I am further directed to note paragraph 5 of your letter in which it was stated that the “Council is not amenable to invitations being extended by Departments and Agencies of government for any reason” and to observe that if this is strictly adhered to, it would constitute a serious obstacle on the path of Agencies of Government saddled with the responsibilities of carrying out or conducting investigation into any criminal act by the Judicial Officers concerned.”
The letter went on to remind council that under the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution, “only the president, vice-president and sitting governors and their deputies are conferred with immunity”.
“Even then, this immunity does not exempt them from criminal or security investigation,” it noted.
It said: “In view of the foregoing, and the fact that Council has concluded action on the Pindinga case, I further directed to humbly request you to direct Justice Mu’azu Pindiga to report to the National Headquarters of the Department of State Service to see the Director Operations on 15th September, 2016 at 1100 hours unfailingly.
Responding on the day Pindiga was supposed to appear at the SSS, the secretary of the NJC wrote to the SSS reminding it that its manner of address in the letter of September 7 in which it used Daura’s name and his designation was not disrespectful, nor was it unusual and that the council had in the past written similar official letters to “Mr. President, Senate President, Hon. Ministers, State Governors and Heads of Government Departments, Agencies and Institutions in similar manner by addressing same in their names and designations as well”.
It stated, however, that the council had noted the SSS’ observations and would henceforth address all correspondence to the DG, SSS.
The NJC added: “I am further directed to inform your office that what was communication to the office on the above caption vide letter Reference No. NJC/HC.GM/5/1/134 of 7th September 2016, was the decision taken by the council at its meeting which was held on 15th July, 2016.
“Therefore, all the observations contained in the letter aforesaid, will be presented before Council at its next meeting scheduled for 28th and 29th September, 2016 and the outcome of which will be communicated to your office, instant.
“In the meantime, the Honourable, the Chief Justice of the Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON, has directed the Hon. Chief Judge of Gombe State to immediately contact the Subject Judge and to ask him to appear in your office as requested; and the Judge has complied.
Ostensibly, the DSS was believed to have written another letter to the NJC requesting for the records of proceedings of deliberations and or decision of the council, but this was turned down by the council in a letter dated October 7, 2016, thus prompting the DSS to move in to arrest the judges that they had targeted.
In the said letter signed by Mr. Halilu to DSS, NJC said: I have been directed to inform the Department of State Security Services that by the precedents and practice of the Council with respect to the subject matter, no Record of Proceedings or deliberations and or decision of Council, including the Report of its Investigation Committee are released to the Complainant or Petitioner or Subject Judge or any Institution, save by an order of Court.”