by Esosa Omo-Usoh
Beyond the distraction of the raid on judges’ residence by the DSS last week, beyond the for and against arguments over the action, beyond the leaked details of what the DSS raid allegedly recovered from the residences and the alleged confessions made by some of the arrested judges, beyond the rebuttals of those allegations by the judges which have all disturbingly found their way into print and electronic media, beyond the hubris and the rhetoric; there is something in the petition to the NJC by Hon. Justice John Inyang Okoro, JSC that should rankle every right thinking member of this society.
In the said petition, Justice Okoro stated in very certain terms his belief that the raid on his residence by the DSS was connected to his encounter with the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi on February 1, 2016. It is this alleged encounter, the alleged conversation that ensued thereat and the way the subject of the alleged conversation was handled (or more appropriately; not handled) that should be a cause of concern to all who have chanted the slogans that have constituted the common denominator in the debates sparked off by the DSS/Judges saga; Due process and Rule of law.
In Justice Okoro’s words:
“Mr. Amaechi said that the President of Nigeria(sic) and the All progressives Congress mandated him to inform me that they must win their election Appeals in respect of Rivers State, Akwa Ibom State and Abia State at all costs(sic). For Akwa Ibom State, he alleged that he sponsored Mr. Umana Umana, candidate of All Progressive Congress for that election and that if he lost Akwa Ibom appeal(sic), he would have lost a fortune. Mr. Amaechi also said that he had already visited you and that you had agreed to make me a member of the panel that would hear the appeals. He further told me that Mr. Umana would be paying me millions of Naira monthly if I co-operated with them… My Lord will recall that I also reported that Mr. Umana Umana visited my residence before Amechi’s visit. He also made the same request of assistance to win his appeal at the Supreme Court. Mr. Umana talked about “seeing” the justice who would hear the appeal. Pastor (Dr.) Ebebe Ukpong who led Mr. Umana Umana to my house intercepted and said that the issue of “ seeing” the Justices was not part of their visit and that as a pastor, he would not be part of such a discussion. Mr. Umana apologized. I advised them to go and pray about the matter and get a good lawyer. That was how they left my house.”
In the above words of Justice Okoro as contained in his petition to the NJC, the following serious allegations constituting offences under Nigerian law can be sieved out:
1. The President and the All Progressives Congress (APC) attempted to corrupt an electoral appeal in order to secure judgment for their candidates/party. (This stems from the allegation that Amaechi had alleged that the President and the APC had “mandated him to inform me that they must win their election appeals in respect of Rivers State at all costs”.)
2. Amaechi and the Candidates of the APC in Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Abia States attempted to corrupt electoral appeals in order to secure judgment for his candidates/themselves. (This stems from the allegation that Amaechi allegedly made statements to Justice Okoro from which this could be inferred)
3. Amaechi had violated the Electoral Act by donating money towards the election of a candidate that was in excess of the sum stipulated by the Electoral Act (This stems from the allegation that Amaechi had allegedly claimed to have “sponsored Mr. Umana Umana, candidate of All Progressives Congress for that election and that if he lost Akwa Ibom Appeal, he would have lost a fortune”. Section 91 (9) of the Electoral Act permits an individual to donate a maximum of N1m to a candidate, and Section 91 (3) thereof pegs the limitation of expenses in a gubernatorial election at N200 million. It would therefore stand to reason to conclude that for Amaechi to have alleged that he would have lost a fortune if the appeals failed, he must have donated more than N1 million or a substantial part of the maximum expenses of N200 million allowed which would both constitute a violation of the Electoral Act. Section 91 (10) & (11) of the Electoral Act prescribe fines and/or jail terms for a candidate and donor who violate this provision).
4. Mr. Umana Umana, the APC candidate in the Akwa Ibom State gubernatorial election had attempted to corrupt an electoral appeal in order to secure judgment for himself. (This stems from the allegation that Mr. Umana had visited Justice Okoro to solicit his assistance in this regard).
5. Mr. Umana and Pastor (Dr.) Ebebe Ukpong had conspired to corrupt an electoral appeal in order to secure judgment for the former. (This stems from the allegation that they both disclosed this intention to and solicited his assistance in carrying it through).
6. The Chief Justice of Nigeria had accepted bribe to corrupt an electoral appeal in order to secure judgment for the givers of the bribe.(This stems from the allegation that Amaechi had alleged that “he had already visited you and that you had agreed to make me a member of the panel that would hear the appeals”.)
7. Both the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Justice Okoro had been privy to conspiracies to corrupt electoral appeals in order to secure judgments for some parties to the Appeals and neither of them had taken steps to report the conspiracies to the appropriate authorities.(This would stem from the allegation that Amaechi had allegedly visited them, shared his intention and solicited their assistance but they had failed to report same to the appropriate authorities).
To put the above allegations in perspective; I will reproduce the relevant provisions of the Independent Corrupt Practice and Related Offences Act(the ICPC Act) below:
Section 9 (1)of the ICPC Act provides that:
“Any person who corruptly-
a) Gives, confers or procures any property or benefit of any kind to, on or for a public officer or to, on or for any other person; or
b) Promises or offers to give, confers, procures or attempts to procedure any property or benefit of any kind to, on or for a public officer or any other person, on account of any such act, omission, favour or disfavor to be done or shown by the public officer is guilty of an offence for official corruption and shall on conviction be liable to imprisonment for seven (7) years.”
Section 23 (1) (2) and (3) of the ICPC Act provide that:
“Any public officer to whom gratification is given, promised or offered in contravention of any provision of this Act, shall report such gift, promise or offer together with the name, if known, of the person who gave, promised or offered such gratification to him to the nearest officer of the commission or police officer.
Any person from whom gratification has been solicited or obtained or from whom an attempt has been made to obtain gratification, in contravention of any provision of this Act shall at the earliest opportunity or thereafter report such soliciting or obtaining or attempt to obtain the gratification together with the name, if known, or a true and full description of the person who solicited or obtained or attempted to obtain the gratification to the nearest officer of the commission or police officer.
Any person who fails, without reasonable excuse to comply with subsections (1) and (2) shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred thousand naira or to imprisonment for term not exceeding two years or to both fine and imprisonment.”
There is nothing in the petition to the NJC by Justice Okoro that suggests that he reported both encounters with Mr. Umana and Amaechi and the alleged offer of bribe/promises of gratification made to him by them to either the ICPC or the police.
On the contrary, his statement in his petition to the NJC clearly suggests that he did not report to the appropriate authorities envisaged and prescribed by the ICPC Act. In fact, had he acted as prescribed by the law the first time Mr. Umana allegedly approached and propositioned him, it would be a fair conclusion to say that perhaps, Amaechi would not have been emboldened to approach him with a similar proposition as he alleges.
In the same vein, there is nothing in the petition to the NJC by Justice Okoro that suggests that the Chief Justice of Nigeria took the necessary steps to inform the appropriate authorities when he too was allegedly propositioned by Amechi as alleged by Justice Okoro in his petition.
There is, however, ample grounds in Justice Okoro’s petition to conclude that the only steps taken by both he and the Chief Justice of Nigeria to address the incidents of their being propositioned to corrupt the outcomes of electoral appeals are as stated in the petition to wit; the former reported to the latter, and the latter “graciously left me out of the panel for Akwa Ibom State”. Not to forget; the former also took the additional step of advising Mr. Umana and Pastor (Dr.) Ukpong“…to go and pray about the matter and get a good lawyer”.
Having openly admitted to not following the due process of law as prescribed after becoming privy to a conspiracy to subvert the law, Justice Okoro attempts to claim a moral high ground by stating that “Over the years, from the Magistracy till date, I have done my best to eschew all forms of corrupt practices. I have not received any bribe from anybody. My Lord is quite aware of my position as regards those who take bribe in the judiciary. I detest it and have no room for any adjustment.”
With all due respect to his Lordship, the moral high ground is not his to claim in this circumstance. By his own admission, he was a witness twice to attempts to subvert the law, and twice he failed to take the steps expressly prescribed by the law to address the incidents. He may not have taken the bribes as he claims; he may have tried his best to eschew corrupt practices as he also claims, but in both instances, he enabled rather than eschewed corrupt practices. In fact, if it were the case that the law recognizes the efficacy of prayers, it could be argued that he provided a way out to achieve an criminal enterprise in advising Mr. Uwana and Pastor (Dr.) Ukpong“ to go and pray about the matter…”.
A trite legal refrain is that the law resides in the bosom of the court. Proceeding from this premise, it stands to reason to say that my Lords, the Hon. Chief Justice of the Federation and Hon. Justice Okoro, as justices of the apex court are veritable repositories of the law especially the provisions of the ICPC Act. Therefore, their apparent failure to report incidents in which they were both allegedly offered bribes to subvert the law constitutes a disturbing development and calls into question their integrity.
It should be pointed out at this juncture that whilst my conclusions herein (albeit premised on facts/allegations as stated in Justice Okoro’s petition to the NJC) do not in any way constitute incontrovertible proof of the veracity of the said facts/allegations and by extension my conclusions; two pertinent points stand out, to wit;
1. The facts/allegations were made by no less a personality than a serving Justice of the Supreme Court.
2. There is nothing in Justice Okoro’s petition to suggest that on the two occasions that he informed the Chief Justice of Nigeria that he had been propositioned by both Amaechi and Umana, the Chief Justice of Nigeria had denied being propositioned himself by Amaechi as alleged or at all, or that he had denied that he had disclosed to Amaechi that he had agreed to make Justice Okoro a member of the panel that would hear the appeals (ostensibly in furtherance of having acquiesced to the alleged proposition) as alleged or at all.
The foregoing, if true, portends grave danger to the rule of law and due process in this country, and especially in the much vaunted fight against corruption. Years back, as a sitting president, former President Obasanjo admitted in an interview to having been privy to an alleged confession by former Governor Chris Ngige of Anambra State and Chris Uba to having rigged the election in Anambra state in favour of the former.
As the then Chief Law Officer of the Federation, the irony of his complicity in the alleged confession of a crime in his presence without setting in motion the full machinery of the law to take its due course in addressing the alleged confession seemed lost on President Obasanjo.
Today, history seems to be repeating itself as it would seem two ranking officers of the apex court (the very institution vested with the responsibility of interpreting the literature that spell out the tenets for entrenching due process and rule of law) appear to have followed a similar path.
There is a Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers in Nigeria that guides them in the conduct and discharge of their duties. The Preamble to the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers states that:
“And whereas a Judicial Officer should actively participate in establishing, maintaining, enforcing, and himself observing a high standard of conduct so that the integrity and respect for the independence of the Judiciary may be preserved”.
Rule 1 thereof provides as follows:
“A Judicial Officer should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities.
1. A Judicial Officer should respect and comply with the laws of the land and should conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.
2. (a) A Judicial Officer must avoid social relationships that are improper or give rise to an appearance of impropriety, that cast doubt on the judicial officer’s ability to decide cases impartially, or that bring disrepute to the Judiciary”.
If the glimpse shot of the manner in which my Lords the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Hon. Justice Okoro had conducted themselves in this matter (as afforded us by the contents of Hon. Justice Okoro’s petition) is subjected to the scrutiny of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers(particularly, the provisions quoted above), it will most certainly not pass the smell test.
Particularly disturbing is the seeming ease with which litigants and persons with vested interests in pending litigations before the Supreme Court had access to the residence of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and a serving Justice of the Supreme Court to proposition them to subvert the rule of law.
Even more disturbing is the fact that these persons were apparently granted audience long enough for them to disclose the criminal enterprise for which they required the assistance of these judicial officers to bring to fruition.
As despicable as the manner in which the DSS carried out its raid on the residence of judges was, when viewed against the backdrop of the facts disclosed in Hon. Justice Okoro’s petition, it is my conclusion that the DSS raid did not bring the Judiciary to disrepute. The Judiciary had already brought itself to disrepute. The DSS raid, as unfortunate as it was, was a consequence and not a catalyst of the disrepute the Judiciary is currently enmeshed in.