The National Judicial Council (NJC) has directed judges facing investigation by the Department of State Services (DSS), over alleged corruption, to step down from the bench. The decision is a remarkable shift from an earlier position and that of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, that directing the affected judges to step down would amount to infringing on their rights of fair hearing.
The NJC reached the decision at the end of a two-day meeting in Abuja presided over by Mohammed, who leaves office in a few days.
A statement issued at the end of the meeting simply said: “Council also decided that judicial officers shall not be standing trial for alleged corruption-related offences and be performing judicial functions at the same time.
“Council, however, decided that it will ensure that judicial officers who are being investigated for alleged high profile criminal offences do not perform judicial functions until their cases are concluded.
Between October 7 and 8, the DSS arrested Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro of the Supreme Court; Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court, Abuja, and Justice Muazu Pindiga of the Federal High Court, Gombe Division.
Another judge of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba’s residence was also searched but he was not arrested. Since then, there has been no love lost between the CJN, the NJC and the DSS over the incident on the issue as to whether the affected judges should abstain from judicial activities or not.
While the Presidency, the DSS, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) pressed for the judges to step down, the CJN, NJC and other groups were opposed to the idea.
Among other sundry issues considered at the meeting was commencement of the implementation of specific aspects of the National Judicial Policy (NJP), which came into force in April 2016 but was launched on Monday, October 24, 2016.
Also, the NJC set-up a three-member Transparency and Anti-Corruption Policy Implementation Committee headed a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, with the Chief Judge of Borno State, Justice Kashim Zannah and current president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Abubakar Mahmoud, as members.
A statement by Acting Director of the NJC, Mr. Soji Oye explained that section 6 of the NJP aims at putting in place multifaceted strategies and guidelines that will ensure transparency and eliminate corruption in the Judiciary.
The policy, according to him, seeks among other measures, to provide a platform and opportunity to citizens who profess factual and credible knowledge of information on the nature and modalities of corruption in the judicial system to ventilate such.
The action of the DSS has attracted divergent reactions from different quarters and groups for and against the incident. The streets of Abuja for instance, has witnessed protest marches by different groups since the incident.
While the Forum of non-Governmental Organizations in Nigeria (FONGON) called on the arrested judges to step down, a group of lawyers, under the auspices of Lawyers in Defence of Democracy (LDD) also staged a counter protest condemning the action of the DSS.