…Litigants now bypass lawyers to see judges directly
Special Adviser to the President on Prosecution, Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Okoi Obono-Obla, has accused the National Judicial Council (NJC) of shielding corrupt judges.
He said the NJC “descends heavily” on judges who have no godfathers or connection, but leaves judges known to be corrupt on the bench because of their family history and other considerations.
Obono-Obla said corruption has become so rife in the judiciary that some litigants approach judges directly, bypassing their lawyers.
He said a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) once confided him that that lawyers’ income was dropping because litigants prefer to go to judges directly.
The presidential spoke in an interview with our correspondent in office in Abuja.
Obono-Obla disagreed with those who complain about loss of high profile cases.
He said critics should wait until all the cases have been decided by the Supreme Court.
Obono-Obla said he agreed with the view expressed by Prof Itse Sagay (SAN) that the NJC was working against the anti-corruption crusade.
“I support Prof Sagay’s position. There is no doubt about it. We’re not saying that if we take people to court, if there’s no evidence you should convict them. Just do the right thing. We hear a lot of stories. We have eyes. We know the system. I have practiced law for over 20 years. I know how the system works. We know the judges who are bad. It’s not all the judges who are bad. We know the bad ones.
“NJC is not doing enough. If they’re doing enough, all judges that have undergone criminal investigation, that have allegedly collected money from lawyers, they should make a list of them and send to Mr President, and recommend their retirement from the Bench. And they should stop protecting some judges,” he said.
Obono-Obla said several complaints have been taken to the NJC without being treated.
He said judges who were expected to be sanctioned because of the severity of their offence were merely warned and placed on a “watchlist”.
“We have taken complaints to NJC and they don’t want to handle them. Let me give you an instance. We reported a judge of the Rivers State High Court to the NJC. We got a petition from a woman who was elected a member of the River State House of Assembly under the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
“Her opponent challenged her case. He went to the tribunal and lost. He appealed and lost. The Court of Appeal ordered that a certificate of return should be issued to her. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) issued a certificate of return to her.
“Her opponent went to the Rivers State High Court to file a lawsuit against her. The judge issued an ex-parte order restraining her from taking her sit for one year. For one year, she was not allowed to be inaugurated in the Rivers State House of Assembly.
“We petitioned against the judge as to why he should dabble into an election matter that the Court of Appeal had given a final judgment on.
“National Assembly election petition cases terminate at the Court of Appeal, so any judge who is knowledgeable, who has integrity should know that he should not issue an ex-parte order to restrain somebody who has been elected and gone through the litigation process to the end.
“Do you know what NJC did? It said that judge should be warned. And that he’s in their watch-list,” Obono-Obla said.
He recalled that NJC once warned a judge in Akwa Ibom who restrained anti-graft agencies from arresting a former governor and placed him on a watchlist, but retired a judge who committed a lesser offence.
“So, you see the inconsistency of the NJC,” he said.
He called for a reform of the NJC, saying it was not objective in handling corruption cases against judges.
Obono-Obla said: “I’ve expressed the view that you cannot be a judge in your own cause. That is a fundamental principle of the law of natural justice. Why should judges be the judges of judges? NJC should be made up of members of the civil society. They don’t need to be judges. They don’t need to be lawyers. We have a lot of members of the civil society who are people with integrity. They can look at complaints against a judge dispassionately and objectively.
“We see them (NJC) trying to protect some classes of judges. Some because their parents or grand-parents were eminent jurists, their grand-fathers were Chief Justices of Nigeria, their fathers were at the Court of Appeal, then they’re seen as a children of the judiciary, then they have to protect them.
“But if another judge who does not have that sort of pedigree commits an offence, they will descend heavily on that judge. We have seen it. That is why we have a lot of judges who have misbehaved but have become ‘institutions’.
“A friend of mine who is a SAN filed a complaint against a senior judge of Federal High Court. He was very certain NJC would retire the judge. But the judge was exonerated. And the judge has dirty records. We know them.
“Lawyers know them but they’re afraid to speak out because they fear judges will punish them or not give them good recommendation. But we have to change the system, because lawyers are no longer making money.
“An SAN told me: ‘We may not come out and clap for you (the Federal Government). But we’re very happy with what you’re doing to cleanse the judiciary. As a SAN, I cannot pay my bills. Litigants don’t come to us again. They prefer to go to judges directly.
“In the past, judges will not allow a politician to visit them and begin to discuss pending cases. But now you see Supreme Court justices allowing politicians to come and discuss cases before them. And they will not order their arrest?”