How Nigeria’s judiciary was emasculated
One feature of an underdeveloped country, or to be politically correct, a developing country, is the personalisation of power by the leader. As a rule, state institutions are deliberately destroyed or weakened so that the entire machinery of government depends on the whims and caprices of the leader. As Senegal’s Leopard Senghor once said, sharing power in un-African and therefore not feasible regardless of the attempts to model our political systems after those of the West where separation of powers is seen as the greatest bulwark against abuse of power.
We also know historically that corruption is most rife in a polity with weak or absent state institutions. Leaders in such states have also realised the political value of launching wars against corruption. However, instead of fighting just corruption, they use the anti-corruption war as a blunt instrument to also whip political opponents and most importantly, blackmail other arms of government to submission.
Buhari, as a true African leader, abhors any checks on his powers and has not hidden his desires to control the other arms of government since coming to power in 2015. Luckily, he won election on a strong anti-corruption ticket and, as expected, began to use the anti-corruption war to illegally expand his powers to the detriment of the other arms of government. When Bukola Saraki defied him to emerge as Senate President, a case of false declaration of assets was instantly filed against him at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, hoping that will force him to resign or force Senators to impeach him as Senate President. It took Saraki real political sagacity to survive as Senate President and all of three years to clear his name at the CCT.
The indication that the judiciary was next was when he addressed Nigerians in a town hall meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February 2016 and basically chided the judiciary for being his main obstacle to his fight against corruption. Hear him:
“On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now. If you reflect on what I went through for 12 years when I wanted to be the President…In my first attempt in 2003, I ended up at the Supreme Court and for 13 months I was in court. The second attempt in 2007, I was in court close to 20 months and in 2011, my third attempt, I was also in court for nine months…All these cases went up to the Supreme Court until the fourth time in 2015, when God agreed that I will be President of Nigeria.”
It did not take long before he came for them. On October 8, 2016, the Department of State Security, in total disregard of all extant rules and procedures for the disciplining of erring judges, invaded the houses of three justices of the Supreme Court – Walter Onnoghen, Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro – as well as two judges of the federal High Court – Adeniyi Ademola and Nnamdi Dimgba – in the dead of the night, ostensibly based on tip offs for judicial misconduct. But while the real reasons for the invasion of the houses of the Supreme Court justices was not immediately clear, it was later discovered that Justice Ademola and Dimgba drew the ire of the DSS for ordering the release of suspects in the custody of the outfit, an order that they failed to comply with anyway.
Many lawyers and analysts foolishly supported the action of the DSS as a necessary step to fight corruption even when high-ranking members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) were granting interviews and singing a different tone
Many lawyers and analysts foolishly supported the action of the DSS as a necessary step to fight corruption even when high-ranking members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) were granting interviews and singing a different tone. Shortly, after the arrest of the judges, the national chairman of the APC openly criticised the arrested judges for not granting judgments in favour of the party on the election case in Rivers state. “I still find the judgement on the Rivers state governorship election totally astonishing. There is something fundamentally wrong in the judiciary,” Oyegun was quoted as saying. However, Oyegun later revealed his real intentions and desire further when he openly confessed that: “We have lost very important resource-rich states to the PDP. No matter how crude oil prices have fallen, it is still the most important revenue earner for the country.” Similarly, many of his party members – prominent among which is the Lagos publicity secretary, Joe Igbokwe, have been openly abusing the Supreme Court and labelling its justices as ‘corrupt’ and ‘fraudulent’ with some calling on the President to probe the Supreme Court for daring to deliver judgements against the party’s candidates.
While Onnoghen was never charged and later emerged Chief Justice of the federation to the consternation of the president, Justice Ngwuta was charged to the Code of Conduct Tribunal for false declaration of assets. Of course, the trumped-up charges were dismissed in 2018. And for Justice Okoro who was never charged, it took a whole of three years after the invasion of his house – a period during which he was besmirched and he suffered media lynching – for the DSS to clear him of any wrongdoing or misconduct and return to him the $38,000 taken away from his residence, among other items.
Of course, we know how Justice Onnoghen ended: He was illegally removed from office on the eve of the 2019 elections and a pliant judge appointed in his place. We could all see how the judges disposed of the electoral cases against the election of the president. Both the judges at the court of appeal and the Supreme Court were not just content to dismiss the cases for lack of proof, but they actively turned defendants of the president in the case on perjury.
The government thought it had completed the takeover of the judiciary until a stubborn judge insisted it releases Omoyele Sowore. Her court was not only invaded when she was sitting, she was chased away and Sowore was manhandled right inside her court. This was an obvious reminder to the intransigent judge that the DSS will not tolerate a stubborn and independent judge.