The ruling of the Court of Appeal on Monday, which appears to confer partial immunity from prosecution on judicial officers, is a clear attempt at turf protection and illegal immunity, I can say positively.
The Appeal Court had ruled that judicial officers can only be prosecuted for offenses such as murder, stealing and others if not committed in the course of these discharge of their duties.
However, if such offenses were committed in the course of their recognized duty, erring judicial officers must first be tried by the National Judicial Council (NJC), dismissed or retired before the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) can investigate or prosecute them.
This, however, is at variance with the position of the NJC, which has administrative powers over judicial officers. In a letter to the Acting EFCC Chairman, Mr. Ibrahim Magu, the NJC held that all the EFCC that SaharaReporters obtained says all EFCC needs do is to send a petition to the NJC on a judicial officer in respect of corruption or any other misconduct to enable the Council to take appropriate disciplinary action, leaving the EFCC with the liberty to take legal action against an erring judicial officer.
The two-page letter (Ref No, NJC/10/1/03/1/33), exclusively obtained by SaharaReporters in an earlier report, was signed by Mr. Garba Gambo Saleh, NJC Secretary, on behalf of the Council Chairman and Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
Dated July 24, the letter was in respect of the cases of three judges accused of corruption. The judges are Justices Rita Ajumogobia, H.A Ngajinwa, both of the Federal High Court, and James Agbadu-Fishim of the National Industrial Court.
The letter stated that, following the Council's meeting of November 2 and 3 2016, the NJC decided that indicted judicial officers should not perform judicial duties until the anticipated cases against them are concluded.
It equally stated that the NJC decided, on June 1st, judicial officers against whom charges have not been filed be directed to resume duties pending the time charges are filed.
"In respect of Justice Rita Ofili Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court, Her Lordship was directed to stop sitting based on the above Council decision of November 2016 and has not resumed since then," the NJC said.
However, in the case of Justices Ngajinwa and Finshim, against whom charges were filed on 8 and 21 June respectively, the letter stated that the Chief Justice of Nigeria directed that they should stop sitting in accordance with the NJC decision of November 1 and 2 2016, as charges have been filed against them.
"It is important to note that under the NJC rules, disciplinary action can only be commenced against judicial officers upon receipt of a petition against such a judicial officer. In respect of the three judicial officers under reference, no petition was ever received from the EFCC or any other agency against them. Consequently, the Council advises that in future and in order to aid effective working collaboration between the Council and EFCC and indeed, to effectively tackle the issue of corruption in the judiciary, EFCC should send petitions against judicial officers to enable Council to take appropriate disciplinary action.
The EFCC will be at liberty thereafter to take appropriate legal action against such judicial officers," said the NJC in its letter. The Council noted that the threshold of proof of misconduct before the NJC Disciplinary Committee is much lower than the threshold of criminal conduct. As such, the NJC stated that it might be in a position to sanction an erring judicial officer even if the conduct may not be criminal in nature.
The Council added that it is at the forefront of confronting judicial corruption and is ready to cooperate with the EFCC and other agencies to enable them to function optimally and rid the judiciary of bad eggs.
It is now known according to Saharareporters that the lead judge in the matter that yielded the ruling at the Appeal Court is the wife of Justice Adwjuno of the National Industrial Court, which has a disproportionately large number of lawyers and judges involved in alleged bribery.