A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Onueze Okocha, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, criticises the Presidency for seeking the resignation of judges and justices being probed for alleged corrupt practices
What is your position on the arrest of judges by the Department of State Service?
It is strange and very bizarre. Judges, including justices of the highest court in the land, are not common criminals that anybody who wants to arrest would go in the early hours of the day or at night to arrest them or to execute a search warrant under very suspicious and irregular circumstances. Secondly, we know that the body constituted to deal with discipline of the judges is the National Judicial Council and we all know that all the judges are under a chief judge, if they are at state (level); the Chief Justice of Nigeria; or under the President of the Court of Appeal, depending on their various courts. So, if one wants to invite such judges, one writes through the heads of their courts to invite them for interrogation or whatever, before one begins to raid their houses in the night, under the circumstances which we saw. For me, it is a most unbecoming situation and I feel very uncomfortable and unhappy about it.
Given the magnitude of the alleged corruption in the judiciary, some have argued that it would have been counterproductive to go against the judges using these conventional methods. Do you think they would have got the same result?
All they have alleged is massive corruption in the judiciary. It is an allegation. The judiciary’s budget is not up to one-tenth of the Federation Account, so I don’t know what they mean by massive corruption. They went to about seven judges’ houses. If there was massive corruption in the judiciary, it is not only seven judges whose homes would have been raided. I find it really strange. An allegation is an allegation.
What is your reaction to the presidency’s recent call for the judges who are under investigation to step down?
The presidency has no right or authority to ask any judge to step down. The judiciary is an independent arm of the government. They are not under the presidency. The judiciary is under the heads of its various courts and the authority established to look after the matters that pertain to their discipline and terms and conditions of service is the NJC — a constitutional authority established by our own constitution. The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, with all due respect to him, has no authority to query any judge. That is the whole idea of the independence of judiciary and the separation of powers between the three arms of government: the executive, legislature and judiciary. Can the President query the President of the Senate? Can he query any senator? People should understand that we have a constitution in this country and the best thing to do is to follow due process and abide by all the laws and provisions of our constitution and other laws that relate to the matter.
Isn’t it a global standard for public office holders who are under investigation for grievous allegations to step aside and clear their names out of honour?
I do not think so and I have said so in so many words. Other countries are not like Nigeria; Nigeria is peculiarly different from other countries. How many countries do you see them writing what one would call frivolous and baseless petitions against judges? How many countries do you see them making false allegations against judges? So, we must follow due process here. If there is an allegation against a judge, bring it up with evidence and let the authorities concerned investigate. If there is a situation where a judge is being bribed with money, package the money, mark the money as the police used to do in the olden days and they would be caught red-handed with the money. Nigeria is different from other countries. People can resign there because they want to preserve their honour and integrity and at the end of the day, they would come out and sue whoever it was that damaged their character. But we have had occasions like this. Have you forgotten the situation of (former President of the Court of Appeal) Justice Ayo Salami, who was suspended? Was Salami ever recalled before he finally bowed out of the judiciary? Nigeria is different. People make frivolous and baseless allegations here and I will not say once an allegation is made against anybody, it should stand. Allegations have been made against the President. Allegations have been made against the governors. Allegations have been made against ministers. Have they resigned?
Does the various sums of money in various currencies found in the houses of these judges surprise you?
Personally, I don’t believe that anybody found those monies in any judges’ houses. It is only the DSS that is telling us that. Let the judges themselves give their own explanation. They (DSS operatives) went to execute a search warrant at irregular hours. What is the integrity of that search warrant execution? Do you know that even in America, they plant evidence in people’s houses? One or two of the judges have spoken out that they planted the money in their houses.
But some of the judges have also claimed money had been offered to them to influence cases. Doesn’t this further implicate them?
Yes, that is why I said we must investigate. We must have a proper enquiry because they have accused some ministers and nobody has asked those ones to resign because they have denied just as the judges have denied. That is why I say we must have a full public enquiry. It is easy for one to deny that one didn’t visit a judge.