Nigeria’s war against corruption has continued to make headlines in the media, but in reality, it has failed to end corruption in Africa’s most populous country.
Reasons: Judges’ penchants for issuing frivolous injunctions, delayed litigation tactics, late resumption, proceeding on endless holidays and the desire to live above their incomes.
Corruption in the Nigerian justice system had gained notoriety shortly after the 2007 general elections, which late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua admitted were flawed. The development opened a floodgate of opportunities for lawyers to exploit the systems following an avalanche of electoral court cases.
But in all these, judges have been pivotal to the successes of lawyers who sought to exploit the system. This notion has further been reinforced by a survey report entitled, ‘Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a Pilot Survey’. According to the report, the sum of N9.457 billion was corruptly demanded, offered and paid as bribe in Nigeria’s justice sector between 2018 and 2020.
The actions of some of these lawyers and judges are threatening and frustrating the fight against corruption in the country.
Some cases frustrated by judges
Celebrated cases of corruption have been thrown out of courts by some judges on grounds that they lack merits or were an abuse of court processes, though the grounds that the judges gave their verdicts were also shaky.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) had prosecuted the ex-Managing Director, Pipelines and Products Marketing Company (PPMC), Haruna Momoh and his wife, Ochuko Momoh, before Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja for laundering $700 million. The Judge had initially granted an interim forfeiture of the funds and property acquired by the Momohs.
However, in his final judgment, Justice Taiwo discharged and acquitted the former PPMC MD and his wife. He also ordered the return of the assets forfeited to the Momohs, notwithstanding the evidence of money laundering presented to the court.
The fight against corruption and money laundering also suffered a setback in March 2022 when a Federal High Court in Abuja overturned its interim forfeiture granted the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in its case against a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Andrew Yakubu.
The EFCC had in 2017 found $9,772,800 and £74,000 in a safe at the former NNPC GMD’s Kaduna residence after a raid by operatives of the EFCC. Yakubu had claimed the funds were gifts from friends and associates.
In his ruling on the case, Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court Abuja discharged and acquitted the erstwhile NNPC boss on charges of money laundering. The trial judge said the prosecution EFCC had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt to result in the conviction of the former NNPC boss. He ordered the refund of the money lodged in the coffers of the CBN to be returned to Yakubu forthwith.
The Judge did not ask the former GMD of NNPC to produce a list of all his richly endowed friends or what work he rendered to the friends to be gifted $9.77 million and £74,000.
There is also another case involving the FRN Vs Sanusi Isah Mohammed.
Sanusi Isah Mohammed was a personal assistant to the former Governor of Bauchi State, Isa Yuguda. He was caught in possession of 23 Estates with over 200 houses.
The ICPC is prosecuting Sanusi Isah Mohammed and the anti-corruption agency had initiated a civil forfeiture proceeding against him at the Federal High Court, Bauchi as a result of which an Order of Interim Forfeiture was secured by the government.
The defendant, however, filed a motion seeking the court to vacate the said order.
Delivering his ruling on July 22, 2022, Justice B.O. Quadri vacated the order of interim forfeiture and dismissed the suit on the grounds that the suit amounts to an abuse of court process, due to the pendency of a similar motion and criminal suit against the defendant in respect of the same subject matter before, Bauchi State High Court.
Judges caught in the eye of the storm
The Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a Pilot Survey 2020, revealed that the level of corruption in the justice sector was heightened by the “stupendously high amounts of money offered as bribes to judges by lawyers handling high electoral and political cases.”
The 84-page survey disclosed that the private sector ranked next to the judicial sector in corruption levels, noting that the graft in the private business sector contributed greatly to the national level of corruption.
Of the 901 respondents in the justice sector, 638 making 70.81 per cent were lawyers. Judges were 124 judges or 13.76 per cent, and 25 respondents at 2.77 per cent were court staff (clerks and registers).
Despite these revelations, many of the alleged corrupt judges are still on the bench and a number of them could be retiring soon. These judges have now a threat to Nigeria’s fight against corruption.
It will be recalled that the NJC had in 2018 recommended two judges – Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia and James Agbadu-Fishim — for the sack after they were probed for corruption. Between 2009 and 2014, the NJC disciplined 64 judges for various offences.
Their punishments might not have deterred others. During her 28-month tenure as CJN, Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar said she inherited 139 petitions against corrupt judges; 198 other petitions were filed during her term, which ended in November 2014. That is scandalous stuff.
Earlier in 2011, Ayo Salami, then the President of the Court of Appeal, dragged Aloysius Katsina-Alu to court, accusing the then Chief Justice of Nigeria of attempting to pervert justice in the long-running 2007 Sokoto governorship election case.
Retirement as an escape route
Professor Attahiru Jega, a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said in Ibadan, Oyo State capital in 2021 during a public lecture that corrupt judges use retirement as an escape route.
In a lecture he delivered at the Owolabi Afuye Memorial Lecture organised by the Nigerian Bar Association, Ibadan Branch as one of the events to mark its 2021 Law Week, Jega said some corrupt judges are usually made part of election petition tribunals in order to corruptly enrich themselves by selling judgments to the highest bidders.
Jega said some of these corrupt judges sold judgments to the highest bidders and quickly retired to avoid being sanctioned by the National Judicial Council.
The former INEC boss said the activities of these corrupt judges and lawyers were parts of the factors fuelling underdevelopment and insecurity in the country.
“Some senior lawyers have become stupendously wealthy defending corrupt public officials or handling electoral litigation for governorship and presidential candidates,” he said
“Similarly, many judges have become notorious for corrupt enrichment for ‘cash and carry’ judgments, especially in election matters generally and in election tribunals, more specifically.
“Some election tribunal appointments were in the past widely said to have been made to senior judges about to retire, who allegedly ‘sold’ judgments, most likely to the highest bidders, enriched themselves and quickly retired to avoid being sanctioned by the National Judicial Council.
“When lawyers use technicalities to subvert justice and ‘win’ cases without regard to the perpetration of injustices, they basically help to undermine, rather than enhance national development, peaceful coexistence and security.
“They discard ethical and professional conduct and put parochial and/or self-serving objectives in the forefront of their practices.”
The NJC needs to address the alarming rate of corruption in the judiciary and stem the tide of corruption among Judges and lawyers for the overall benefit of the citizenry and the country.