The chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Justice Danladi Umar, has been in the news recently for several reasons, including his tribunal’s trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki as well as allegations of graft against him. A SaharaReporters correspondent recently saw Justice Umar at an inter-agency anti-corruption workshop held in Lagos. We asked him to speak on some issues in the public space pertaining to him and the tribunal.
Below are excerpts from our interview:
Question: How would you react to the allegation that the Code of Conduct Tribunal, as presently constituted, is not properly formed owing to a lack of quorum?
Response: Well, once there is a chairman and one other member, the quorum of the Tribunal is duly constituted. When you look at the interpretation of the act, the tribunal can form a quorum when there is a chairman and one single member. And so the fact that the tribunal currently has a chairman and a member [means] the quorum has been duly formed and can adjudicate on any matter as if the other second member [were] around. So, in a nutshell, the absence of the other second member will not invalidate any proceeding, any decision or action taken by the Tribunal in that regard.
Question: There have been insinuations that many of the cases brought before the tribunal are politically motivated, and are targeted at perceived political opponents of the government of the day.
Response: That is not true. The Code of Conduct Tribunal is a court that applies to every public officer in the country. We are not selective. We have had cases involving councilors, and you can imagine that people working in the local government as councilors have been charged before the Tribunal. The bottom line is that, once you breach any of the provisions of the act—and that is to say, specifically, by not filling your asset declaration form or for failure to declare or late submission of asset declaration form within the prescribed time—it can attract punishment. Just because somebody holds a prominent office and he is brought before the tribunal, people say it is political. They don’t care about the majority of the downtrodden ones who have been several times summoned to appear before the tribunal in their hundreds. So, I don’t know why and there should not be that kind of misconception. The tribunal is for everyone and the law is no respecter of persons. I don’t know why people would begin to say that someone very important should not be punished in the society. That is not correct. Our justice is for all and that is just what I have to say.
Question: How would you react to those insisting that members of the Code of Conduct Tribunal are not judicial officers, especially considering a letter written to the tribunal by the Chief Justice of Nigeria expressing the same point that CCT members are not judicial officers?
Response: Let me put it to you this way. When you look at the Constitution, and, of course, the constitution is the ground norm, the constitution recognizes that members and chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal perform judicial functions, and then also the guidelines for appointment and removal of judges also include members and chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal. So, whoever has the insinuation that the members or the chairman of the CCT are not judicial officers may have his own interpretation, but the fact remains that we perform judicial functions. And that is why appeals from our decisions go to the Court of Appeal, just like [from] any other conventional court. So, I can tell you very clearly that the Code of Conduct Tribunal has simple jurisdiction as it is vested in it just like the Federal High Court or the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court or just like any high court of any state. So, that is it. It is just a misnomer and misinformation; people don’t get to know things, but that is just the point. We perform judicial functions, and we enjoy all the privileges that judicial officers enjoy.
Question: What do you think about the suggestion that the Code of Conduct Tribunal should be empowered and elevated to be the anti-corruption court of Nigeria, since there have been persistent calls for the creation of a special court to adjudicate on corruption cases?
Response: That is very good. The idea of establishing a special court does not even arise. If the Code of Conduct Tribunal can be empowered as you said—empowered, as you can see, contains a lot of meaning. Empowered, one, by way of adequate funding. Two, by way of enlarging the scope of the composition of the judges. Third, by way of infrastructure development. If that can be done, truly, there will not be any need to set up a special court for anti-corruption [cases] because the Code of Conduct Tribunal basically deals with public officers who enrich themselves in office. And that is the corruption we are talking about. Or, in another case, the Code of Conduct Tribunal deals with officers who breach any of the provisions contained in the fifth schedule to the 1999 constitution by either giving themselves, their cronies or their relations contracts from their political offices. That is an abuse of office. So, generally speaking, the Code of Conduct Tribunal has a wider jurisdiction. In fact, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the powers vested in the Code of Conduct Tribunal are enormous. And that is why you can see that the recommendation for the appointment of the chairman and members of the tribunal is being done by the National Judicial Council (NJC) side by side with that of other judges who are called judges of superior courts. We are appointed alongside with them on the same procedure and everything. But then, the president, in the case of appointment, will give approval back to the Chief Justice of Nigeria—[indicating] that he has given approval for the appointment of so so and so person as chairman or a member of the tribunal. Once the president has given his approval, that particular chairman or member cannot be [easily] removed even by the president who approved the appointment. It is a court that has enormous guarantee of security in the sense that, for you to remove a member or chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, he must have been duly investigated for committing a very serious misconduct. And such investigation must have been taken to the president. And the president must certify and address to the National Assembly, [stating] that this is what the chairman or a member of the tribunal did, and I’m imploring you to remove him from office. It is then that a motion will be tabled before the National Assembly. And the National Assembly I’m talking about are the two chambers—the Senate and the House of Representatives. And there must be two/third majority of these two chambers to remove the chairman or members of the tribunal. So, in a nutshell, I can say it is quite tedious. The procedure to remove a chairman before the end of his tenure of office is just like impeaching the president. And of course, to impeach the president, you know the difficulty and the procedure. That is just it.
Question: So much has been said about your refusal to honor the invitation extended to you by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over alleged bribery and corruption. What is your story?
Response: The whole episode was stage-managed just to tarnish my image because some people felt my profile was rising. How on earth could a person of my caliber be asking for a bribe? It is very embarrassing. And besides, the so-called petitioner before the EFCC (Rasheed Taiwo, a retired comptroller of customs charged before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for allegedly failing to declare his assets), if he said that I asked him for money, and he has paid that money—if he has done that with the intention of setting me up, what stops him from going straight away to the EFCC on the very first day that he paid that money? According to him, he paid the money to the account number of my personal assistant on December 12th 2012. What took him so long, up to eight months, before he went to report at the EFCC after I already ruled that I have jurisdiction, and I must try him? You can imagine the scenario here. If he knew he did that purposely to set me up, he would have immediately gone to EFCC and told them, but he did not until I ruled against him, [stating] I have jurisdiction against him, and I must try him. That was when he now went to cook up that issue. And, thank God, the money was not paid to me; the money was found in my personal assistant’s account. I had no idea he had collected any money from that man. And one thing you must be aware of is, this is somebody who was introduced to me by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice George Oguntade, who I did not even know myself but because we lawyers and judges, we do have respect for our elders. When the man (Justice Oguntade) called me—you know he stays here in Lagos—he called me to say that he has a brother who has a problem in my court and asked whether there was any way I could help him. For him to even open his mouth to ask whether I could help his brother was even wrong, which means he wanted me to commit an illegality. So, I now said to him, “My Lord, this is the position I’m going to take, and you should ask your cousin to look for a very good lawyer to defend him, and that is all I can do.” And that was all that happened. You see, at the time Justice Oguntade wanted to see me, I was putting up at Eko Meridian Hotel in Lagos. And so, when he called me, he got my number from a judge friend, Justice Sadiq. Justice Sadiq called me and said to me that one Justice Oguntade wanted to speak to me. “I was one-time his chief registrar when he was at the Court of Appeal. Please, can he call you?” Justice Sadiq asked. And I said, who am I? A retired justice of the Supreme Court wants to talk to me, I cannot say no. So, I said, “Give him my number.” And seven minutes later, Justice Oguntade called and said, “Ah my lord, how are you? I want to come to Abuja and see you.” And I said, “Well, incidentally, I’m in Lagos.” He said, “What! What a coincidence. Please where are you staying in Lagos?” I said, “I’m at Eko Meridian,” and he said could he come. I replied, “How can you come to me?
Rather send your driver to take me to you,” because of the respect I had for him as a retired justice of the Supreme Court. When I got to his house, I saw him, very old. Of course, he had retired from the Supreme Court since 2004, and so he clocked 70 as far back as 2004. When he saw me, he said, “You look so very young.” Usually, people who occupy the position I’m occupying are people who are above 60 years, because you must have been a retired judge or a retired chief judge of a state and then, after a year or so, you begin to vie for this particular office. So, usually they retire at the age of 65. And for them to actually get a position as the chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal may take them about another year, and so, they usually assume the position at the age of 66 and then they retire after four years. But in my own case, I became the chairman of the tribunal at the age of 36. And so, a lot of people have been wondering how I made it. To them, how on earth did I even get that and they have forgotten the fact that it is only God that gives power to whom He wishes. And so I begin to have a problem with some people based on that. And so, Justice Oguntade now said, “I would like you to help me.” And I told him I would see what I could do, “but I want you to tell your cousin to get a very good lawyer.” And at the time I met with Justice Oguntade, the man in question (Rasheed Taiwo) had not even been served because he was evading summons. So, I went back to my hotel and the next day, I flew back to Abuja. After about a week—my office is a public office, you can just fill in a form from my secretary and come in to see me—so he (Rasheed Taiwo) filled a form and requested to see me. He came him, and when he sat down, I said, “How can I help you?” He said, “I’m Rasheed Taiwo Owolabi from Justice Oguntade.” Now it clicked in my mind, and I said, “Okay, I have spoken about you with the Honorable Justice Oguntade and I told him that you should go and get a good counsel, and that is the only thing I can do for you. Go and get a counsel to represent you,” I told him, and in less than three minutes, the man left my office. That was the last I heard of him. So, whether he had given my personal assistant money, I don’t know what transpired after that. If he had given me money, would I have given judgment against him? Definitely I would have found a way to take him out of that situation. But [the accusation] was just arranged for some people to get me out of office, and they have forgotten that I did not give this position to myself, it was God who gave it to me, and it is only God Himself that can take it from me, but nobody. So, this is the situation. They have written all sorts of petitions against me to everywhere, and once I respond with my side of the story, that ends it because there is no substance whatsoever in their allegations.