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Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, on Saturday rejected the call on the National Judicial Council by the Nigerian Bar Association to suspend judges who were recently arrested by the Department of State Service over corruption allegations.
The CJN said the demand by the NBA was unnecessary and hasty in view of the fact the DSS had yet to complete its investigation of the arrested judges.
This came barely 24 hours after the NJC, which the CJN also heads as its chairman, pushed back the call by the NBA.
A statement by a Special Assistant to the CJN, Mr. H. S. Sa’eed, conveying the position of the head of the Nigerian judiciary, came on the day the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria met in Lagos and reportedly backed the call by the NBA for the suspension of the arrested judges.
Four out of the seven judges arrested by the DSS between October 7 and 8 are still in active service while the rest of the three had earlier been recommended for either compulsory retirement or dismissal by the NJC.
The NBA President, Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), made the call on Thursday in Abuja at the valedictory court session held in honour of a retiring Justice of the Court of Appeal, Justice Sotonye Denton-West.
Mahmoud said at the event, “We therefore strongly recommend that, without prejudice to the innocence or otherwise of the judges involved in the ongoing investigations, they should recuse themselves from further judicial functions or they are required to proceed on compulsory leave until their innocence is fully and completely established or until the conclusion of all judicial or disciplinary proceedings”.
But rejecting the NBA’s call on Saturday, the CJN said the body of Nigeria’s legal practitioners was hasty in its demand as the affected judges were still being investigated by the DSS.
The CJN stated, “On the call by President of the Nigerian Bar, to suspend judicial officers whose residences were invaded and who were subsequently arrested and detained by the DSS, we believe that the call was unnecessary and hasty as the said judicial officers are still being investigated by the DSS.
“Furthermore, the DSS is yet to forward any complaint or any official communication regarding the seven judicial officers to the National Judicial Council.”
When asked to react to the reported position of the Body of SANs also backing the NBA on the need to suspend the affected judges, media aide to the CJN, Mr. Ahuraka Isah, said the judiciary would not succumb to pressure that lacked constitutional basis.
“The CJN is following the law and will not dance to the gallery because of pressure that lacks constitutional basis, no matter where the pressure is coming from,” Isah said.
The CJN’s statement contained a mixed reaction to the problem of corruption and the steps being taken by President Muhammadu Buhari Administration to tackle it.
While he expressed full support for the “anti-corruption drive” of the administration, the CJN maintained that the raid on the houses of the arrested judges by the DSS operatives in different parts of the country was an assault on the independence of the judiciary.
He added that the judiciary remained committed to upholding the constitution and as such it would continue to function as courts would remain open for anybody seeking remedy.
The CJN in his statement reiterated that the relationship between the judiciary and the executive arm of government remained cordial.
While calling on Nigerians to continue to have faith in the judiciary, the CJN said the judiciary was neither a party to the ongoing case, nor was it on trial.
He stated, “Under the powers provided by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and as the head of the third arm of government, the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman National Judicial Council, Honourable Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON is calling on all Nigerians to continue to have faith and full confidence in the Nigerian Judiciary.
“He is indeed deeply concerned by the rising antagonism over the recent arrest of our judicial officers and other issues pertaining thereto.
“Furthermore, it must be reiterated that the current misunderstanding is only between the National Judicial Council, which was established by the Constitution and the Directorate of the State Security, in the Presidency. Hence, we must emphasise that the judiciary continues to maintain cordial relations with the other arms of government, that is, the Executive and the National Assembly.
“The Hon. CJN reiterates that the Nigerian judiciary, as an arm of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is not a party in this matter, nor is the Nigerian judiciary on trial.”
He said the NJC would never shield judges accused of corruption, adding that the council would make appropriate recommendation to the president or governor, as the case may be, after completing ongoing investigations against some judges.
He said, “Indeed, some of the affected judicial officers have already been investigated by the NJC, which found some culpable and recommended their removal from office by dismissal or retirement to the President and respective governors as provided under the constitution.
“While some are still being investigated by the NJC, in respect of others, no complaint against them has been received by the NJC whose powers to suspend must be exercised in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution establishing it.”
The arrested judges were Justice Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro, both of the Supreme Court; Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, and Justice Muazu Pindiga of the Gombe State High Court.
Others who were arrested had been placed on suspension by the National Judicial Council pending when President Buhari and their various state governors would approve its recommendation for their sacking.
They are a former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I. A. Umezulike, the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Tsamiya; and judge of the Kano State High Court, Justice Kabiru Auta.
The DSS later said after the raid that it recovered large sums of money in both local and foreign currencies from the homes of three of the seven judges.
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