Lawyers, who spoke with newsmen on the issue, agree that the allegations levelled against the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi, should be thoroughly investigated. But they are sharply divided on calls that both Amaechi and the judges should step down from their positions pending the outcome of investigations and trials.
Onyekachi Ubani, legal practitioner: If allegations have been made fingering Rotimi Amaechi or any other person, in the light and in the spirit of the fight against corruption, it is important that the allegation be painstakingly investigated. A lot of people had faulted some of the contents of the letters written by some of the affected Justices. For instance, one the judgments in question was said to have been delivered in January but Amaechi was alleged to have seen one of the justices asking him to ensure that the judgment is favourable to APC gubernatorial candidate in February. So, these are issues. If those things have been written and dates have been given it is something worthy of investigation. The investigation is very important for a government that is fighting corruption to either clear or indict those who allegedly attempted to corrupt the judicial system.
Having said that, to save the judicial institution, those who have actually been indicted and who are already being prepared to be arraigned in court should step aside. Nobody is asking them to resign, but they should step aside to clear their names. The institution of judiciary must not be denigrated further or be inflicted with collateral damage. It will not be proper to have a sitting judge who is under oath of office to be arraigned in court for criminal trial while he is still serving as a judge of the Federal Republic. We have seen some people write letters to the CJN admitting that they met with some politicians. If Nigeria is a country where public officers respect the institution and not themselves, you don’t need anyone to advise you to step aside.
Amaechi’s name has been mentioned two or three times over this matter. What he should also do is to step aside and have his name cleared before he comes back. His stepping aside will give room for a thorough investigation into the matter. We must build a system that is working; let’s elevate our standard, which had been so lowered as a nation.
We must, however, be very careful in that we must not tolerate a situation where people will just come up with allegations against a judge or public official tomorrow and we will just say the person should step aside because there has been a precedent. We must build a mechanism where any person that brings any false allegation against a judge would go in for it.
Chima Nnaji, legal practitioner: The truth of the matter is that it is a very messy situation. It’s unfortunate that they are now trying the matter in the media instead of bringing all the proofs of evidence to the court by the DSS, the judges and so on. The principle of law is that he who alleges must prove. The things that are being bandied in the media are within the domain of allegations. Talk is cheap; anybody can accuse any person of anything, anytime and follow it up in the media in order to tarnish somebody’s image even when sometimes it may not be true. So, I think that the person who is alleging that somebody has done something criminal should be able to follow due process and prove his case.
I also think that calls for both the judges and Amaechi to step aside infringes on the fundamental right of presumption of innocence until proven guilty. As an individual, somebody can allege that you asked him for N10 million bribe. Maybe people will not know that you had a land case with the person sometime in the past and that the person is not happy you are working and making progress in your family. So, if he sees making the allegation as an opportunity to finish with you, he can go to the media and canvass that since you have allegedly committed crime, you should be relieved of your job and if you are proven innocent you return back to it. It is not going to be the same; the job may not even be there for you again when the case ends. You may not even have the face to come back again after you have been thoroughly embarrassed in the media. So, I do not subscribe to the idea of anybody stepping aside based on mere allegations. If somebody is convinced that what he is saying is true, then let him institute an action in court so that the people will be charged formally. It is on the basis of that formality that the person can be asked to step aside while you clear yourself. But if there is no primafacial evidence for anything, then it must be thrown away and somebody must be charged for false information. So, neither Amaechi nor the judges should be talking of stepping aside.
Frank Agbedo, legal practitioner and President, Global Centre for Defence of Human Rights, Lagos: We need to approach issues concerning judges with caution especially when such issues border on corruption. Judges play the role of God on earth; that is why there is this general presumption that judges are incorruptible. This presumption is predicated on the belief that justice is rooted in confidence, and that confidence is deemed to have been eroded when a judge is seen to be corrupt. That is why anything that has to do with the integrity of a judge must be treated with the highest caution. This is because if at the end of the day the allegation turns out to be false, the judge would have lost his integrity while the public would have lost confidence in the ability of that judge to dispense justice. The collateral damage on the institution in most cases would be irredeemable.
Crimes are statutorily provided for in our statute book. So, when you level allegations against judges, you must be very sure of what you are doing because if it turns out that the allegation is false, you that made that allegation are not free from being prosecuted. In a case of bribery, both the person who made the allegation and the person involved are equally susceptible to trial before the court of law.
Therefore, I believe that a judge because of his training must be sure of his evidence before coming out to make an allegation. So, there is every need for the appropriate agencies to investigate it properly.
But what is happening now is outright media trial. The judges have not been charged to court yet. It is when they are charged to court that the prosecution will provide evidence to convince the court that the judges actually committed the alleged offence. And if at the end of the trial the defence feels that no case has been made against them, they will enter a no case submission and the case will be struck out. So, the judges just want to be heard. But ordinarily, it is premature; whatever is happening now has no bearing when the matter goes to court. The court will look at what is said or brought before it and not what is said in the media. The judges are simply playing into the hands of politicians. Politicians take their cases to the court of public opinion but matters are not decided based on public opinion but based on hard facts that are presented in the court of law.
There have been calls for the judges and even Amaechi to resign but my concern is the motive. If the motive is right, they should step aside but where the motive is just to shove them out of the system for some selfish reasons, they should remain there and clear themselves from those allegations.
Maxi Okwu, legal practitioner and politician: The whole thing is a very sordid and ugly development. I have been a victim of judicial corruption but I leave it at that. When I was very active as a litigation lawyer, I never for once participated in bribing a judicial officer. In fact, to me it was most unethical. But lately I have been more in politics than in litigation. So, when I now became a litigant and was trying to defend my mandate here and there, I discovered that the system had changed. It was a cash and carry arrangement and I felt sick.
A judge is not an ordinary Nigerian on the street; a judge has the power of life and death over citizens and should be above suspicion. My position now is that it is unethical for those judges who are now suspects to sit over the civil rights and obligations of fellow citizens. They should on their own step aside for the time being. If we are a moral society, morality demands that you cannot preside over my affair when you are a suspect; when you are an accused. It is very wrong. So, they should spare us the torture and on their own opt out until they are cleared.
“I am also surprised that the President has not called out Amaechi. A judge of the Supreme Court has made an allegation and sworn to an affidavit to back it up. It is a cogent matter that must be looked into. One of the judges quoted him as saying ‘oga is angry’; he is drawing the President into the matter. So, the President must take steps to clear his name if he must preside over this anti-corruption war. Amaechi has allegedly used the President’s name dishonourably as alleged by a judge; the President has a duty in his best interest to find out whether it is true or not. So, he must call out Amaechi.”