According to reports, the National Judicial Council (NJC) has strongly rejected the recent call by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) that judges recently arrested by the operatives of the Department of State Security Services (DSS) be asked to step aside from performing their judicial functions as judges pending full investigation of the allegations made against them by the security agency and possible trial.
In a statement issued yesterday and signed by the council’s Acting Director of Information, Mr Soji Oye, NJC said the position taken by the NBA was unacceptable and unconstitutional.
NJC said that suspending judges pending investigation would amount to a breach of its regulations.
The council said: “Thus, the current position of the Nigerian Bar Association vis-à-vis its recommendation that the affected judicial officers involved in the on-going investigation of judicial officers by the DSS, be requested to proceed on compulsory leave until the conclusion of all disciplinary proceedings against them, is unacceptable to the NJC; as it breaches the 2014 Revised Judicial Discipline Regulations formulated by NJC pursuant to Section 160 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended.”
NJC also maintained its position that to do what the NBA asked for was to surrender its authority to another institution which would be contrary to the provisions of the constitution.
The council said: “It is to be reiterated also that by the provisions of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, NJC shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person while exercising its disciplinary power of control over Judicial Officers in the Federation.
“The members of the public are hereby informed that the mechanism that will determine a judicial officer to be directed or requested to proceed on compulsory leave or be suspended from office, is a disciplinary power that NJC can only exercise after initiating disciplinary proceeding on the complaint or petition forwarded against the Judge, after he has been found culpable.
“Therefore, to act on the recommendation of the NBA, is not only contrary to the provisions of Section 158 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, but means NJC will direct any judicial officer that has been petitioned even if the allegations contained therein are frivolous and baseless, to proceed on compulsory leave or be suspended from office without complying with the Rule of Law.”
“That is not the understanding of NJC of the intention of the framers of the 1999 constitution, as amended vis-à-vis its constitutional powers and functions on initiation of disciplinary proceedings culminating in suspension of Judicial Officers.
“Thus, to act on the request of the Departments of Government and the recommendation of the NBA, the 808 Judicial Officers that had been petitioned and accused of professional misconduct and or corrupt practices, without investigation by NJC, would have all been suspended or sent on compulsory leave and the courts would have been deserted.”
NJC said it was not unmindful of the concern of the public on a situation whereby a judicial officer was being investigated and or prosecuted for commission of a criminal offence such as murder or robbery; and whether he was not supposed to be requested or directed to proceed on compulsory leave or be suspended from office.
It however, stated that, in the circumstance, unless the judge accused of commission of the offence of murder or robbery was petitioned to NJC, the council would not assume the disciplinary power of control over judicial officers to suspend or direct the affected judge to proceed on compulsory leave.
“Thus, NJC can only direct any Judge alleged of committing such criminal offences, to go on compulsory leave or be suspended from office if he has been investigated and found by NJC culpable of misconduct,” the statement added.
The council said that the participation of NBA members in the emergency meeting of NJC was necessitated by the unfolding events between the DSS and the Judiciary, bordering on administration of Justice.
It stated that the decision of NJC in respect of the recent events and the current state of the judiciary, particularly in condemning the invasion and arrest of the judicial officers by the DSS and considering it as a threat to independence of the judiciary, which portended great danger to the nation’s democracy; and a clear attempt by the DSS to humiliate, intimidate, denigrate and cow the judiciary, was unanimously taken by members of the council present, including the President and other Members of the Nigerian Bar Association at its last emergency meeting which was held on 11th October, 2016.
It also released the names of the NJC members who participated at the meeting and unanimously agreed with the NJC position and the geographical zones they represented.
The council said it was aware of the judgment of the court of public opinion on the recent event between the DSS and the judiciary as well as the various views expressed by lawyers, academics, politicians and the general public.
The council said it was constrained to inform the general public that its constitutional mandate was to process and recommend to the executive at the Federal and State levels, the appointment, and or the removal of judicial officers from office, including exercise of its disciplinary control of suspending and or warning judicial officers; after complying with due process and the rule of law.
Also yesterday, a Lagos based lawyer, Ebun Adegboruwa called on the NJC to reject the advice by the NBA calling for the suspension of the arrested judges saying that the NBA position was contrary to the provisions of the constitution.
He said: “The NBA is indirectly advocating a system of presumption of guilt, which is contrary to our Constitution.”
Adegboruwa cited section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution which stated that every person charged with a criminal offense should be presumed innocent until the contrary was proved.
According to him, this presumption of innocence, offered to all citizens of Nigeria, is even in relation to when the citizen has been charged to court, and not speculation and half-truths, based on ‘sting’ operations.
He said: “In the case of the judges, not a single charge has been filed in court yet, with some proof of evidence, showing some prima facie evidence of the allegations.
“In the case of My Lord the Hon Justice Ngwuta, he has deposed to an oath, barring the details of the disgusting attempts made by members of the ruling APC to pervert the course of justice, involving two of the party’s serving ministers. Do we ask such a judge to step aside so that the ruling party will laugh over him, or what?”
He said that NBA was already privy to the decision and stand point of the NJC to the extent that the judges would not be suspended based on mere unproven allegations from the DSS, which has now become the security wing of the ruling APC.
He said: “This decision is binding on the NBA, whose accredited representatives were in attendance at the various sessions of the NJC when its decision was taken.
“I noticed that the NBA executives recently visited Aso Rock Villa and they were hosted by the Presidency, and so the latest turn around by the NBA President in capitulating to pressure from politicians and the ruling APC, to disown the judges, who by tradition, are unofficial members of the Bar, bears no justification whatsoever,” Adegboruwa added.