As hurdles dot the path of Justice Salami anti-graft c’ttee
Members of the anticorruption committee recently established by the National Judicial Council (NJC) has come under scrutiny as many hurdles await their assignment.
The NJC presided over by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, on September 27 set up a 15-member Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO).
The panel has former President of Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Ayo Salami as chairman. Other members are Justice Kashim Zannah (OFR), Chief Judge, Borno State; Justice P.O. Nnadi, Chief Judge of Imo State; Justice Marshal Umukoro, Chief Judge Delta State; Justice Munta Abimbola, Chief Judge, Oyo State; and A.B Mahmud (SAN), President, NBA.
Others are former NBA Presidents: Wole Olanipekun (SAN) and Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), J.B. Daudu (SAN) and Austin Alegeh (SAN); and members of NJC, Dr. Garba Tetengi (SAN) and Mrs. R.I Inga. It is expected that there will be representatives from the Nongovernmental organisations, Ministry of Justice, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and the secretary of NJC, Gambo Saleh.
The functions of the panel are: “the regular monitoring and evaluation of proceedings at designated courts for financial and economic crimes nationwide; advising the Chief Justice of Nigeria on how to eliminate delay in the trial of alleged corruption cases; giving feedback to the council on progress of cases in the designated courts, conduct background checks on judges selected for the designated courts; and Evaluating the performance of the designated courts.”
The setting up of the panel followed the speech by the CJN during the 2017/2018 Legal Year programme on September 18, wherein he directed all heads of courts in the federation to compile and forward the lists of all corruption and financial crimes cases in their courts.
He also directed them to designate one or two courts in their jurisdiction as Special Courts for the hearing and speedy determination of corruption and financial crimes cases. Since the NJC has no powers to create new courts of record, but the National Assembly, corruption and financial crimes cases in all the states, will be assigned to judges with higher flair for the offences. These judges will be excused from all other cases in courts.
The judiciary was compelled to act after the President Muhammadu Buhari administration variously identified the slow pace of the judiciary as a major clog in the nation’s anti-corruption fight. The president had during the inauguration of then Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen on November 11, 2016 charged him on the need for the judiciary to support the fight against corruption. Also, in February 2016 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia while interacting with Nigerians at a town hall meeting, the president further stressed that the nation’s judiciary remained his major headache in the fight against corruption.
The panel being made up of eminent jurists and legal practitioners is drawing high expectations from the public even as serious challenges stare it in the face. The chairman, Justice Salami left his office as PCA in 2013 after he was controversially suspended by then CJN, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu for refusing his elevation after he accused the CJN of irregularities in an election petition judgement. Though the NJC recommended his recall to the bench in May 2012, then president, Goodluck Jonathan refused to recall him, forcing him to retire voluntarily.
Justice Zanna was appointed Chief Judge of Borno State in 2015. He presided over the panel that nullified the election of a former Adamawa governor. He has great passion for courts automation and has been part of the use of ICT in the nation’s highest courts.
Justice Nnadi joined the Imo State Judicial Service as a senior Magistrate in 1992. He was Chief Registrar of the High Court from 1995 to 1998 and was elevated to the High Court Bench in April 1998, where he has served till date. He is a member of the NJC representing the South–East zone.
Justice Umukoro became Chief Judge of Delta State in 2015 after taking over from Justice Abiodun Smith. Justice Umukoro is a member of the NJC representing the South– South zone.
Justice Munta Abimbola was in August appointed the Chief Judge of Oyo State. He has promised to introduce reforms in the sector. He is a member of the NJC representing South–West zone.
Abubakar Balarabe Mahmud, the current president of the NBA, has made reforming the Bar and Bench as major focus of his administration. The former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Kano, is a member of the NJC for the North– West zone.
Wole Olanipekun (SAN) was president of NBA from 2002 to 2004. He was conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 1991. He has one of the reputed law firms in the country.
Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) was the NBA president from 2006 to 2008. He was conferred with the rank of SAN in 1998. The Lagos-based lawyer is a foremost pro-democracy and civil rights advocate. He is the founder of Human Rights Law Services (HURILAWS).
Joseph Daudu (SAN) was the NBA president from 2010 to 2012. He was a member of the Body of Benchers for eight years and also member of the International Council of Jurists. He is also a founding partner of the Rule of Law Development Foundation.
Austin Alegeh (SAN) was NBA president from 2014 to 2016. He was conferred with SAN rank in 2007. Before his emergence on the national scene, he had been an active member of the Bar in the Benin branch, Edo State. He is a member of the NJC, representing the South–South zone.
Dr. Garba Tetengi (SAN) is currently a member of the NJC from Niger, North–Central zone. He was conferred with the rank of SAN in 2012.
Mrs. R.I. Inga is a member of the NJC from Benue, and represents the North–Central zone. She is a retired permanent secretary in the civil service.
Saleh is currently the secretary of the NJC. He was elevated to the post following the retirement of Danladi Halilu, who retired on July 1, 2017. He was the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court from 2014 to 2017.
A major challenge confronting the Justice Salami committee is the membership of senior lawyers accused of defending financial crimes for which they allegedly caused the delay. Analysts believe this could result in a conflict of interest in their work for the committee.
For instance, Daudu has appeared both for former National Security Adviser (NSA), retired Col. Sambo Dasuki, who is standing trial before an Abuja Federal High Court over alleged diversion of arms funds. He also represented the Senate President, Bukola Saraki during his trial over alleged false asset declaration at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). While the case against Dasuki has not commenced fully since 2015, Saraki has been acquitted.
Olanipekun was counsel to former governor of Oyo State, Rasheed Ladoja, who is facing trial over alleged misappropriation of N4.7bn state funds since 2010. The case has dragged on for eight years.
In his submission, the Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, and the chairman of Special Presidential Advisory Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, Okoi Obono-Obla expressed lack of confidence in the committee because of Daudu’s role in the Dasuki trial.
“If he has integrity, he should step aside. As lawyers, we have ethics, and that is if you know that your client has done something wrong, and if a point of law is raised against your client, you can concede in the interest of justice because you are a minister in the temple of justice,” he said.
“This is a clear case of conflict of interest. You are defending a politically exposed person and now you are a member of a committee to monitor judges hearing politically exposed matters, you should step aside,” he added.
Also, the Human rights advocacy group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has asked the CJN to review the membership of the committee. In a letter to the CJN, SERAP’s executive director, Adetokunbo Mumuni stated that some lawyers on the committee are defence counsel in some of the high-profile cases that they have now been appointed to monitor.
Reacting on the composition of the panel, a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Dr Sadiq Radda said though Justice Salami has credibility to deliver on the assignment, “there is grave reservation as some of them (panel members) are interested parties.”
Another member of PACAC, Prof Femi Odekunle, said the rationale behind the setting up of the committee is good but have reservations about membership. He said he would have preferred that the committee is predominated by retired jurists and lawyers associated with integrity.
“Why don’t you call people listed Justice Shuabu, Justice Oyewole, and Femi Falana? These are people that are known to be against corruption. But the kind of people there, I am not against them personally, but it is like asking a retired Inspector General of Police to be the one to reform the police. At the end of the day, it will be the same old story,” he said.
But constitutional lawyer and executive director, Human Rights Monitor, Festus Okoye said both Olanipekun and Daudu, being SANs and past presidents of the NBA will understand the system and bring their wealth of experience to bear on the challenge.
“We should give them the support and see how they perform. Both of them cannot on their own manipulate all the members of the committee to deliver pre-determined outcome,” he said.
Another major challenge for the panel is exercise of independence over funding and human resources. SERAP also in a recent statement demanded that the committee be given free hand to manage its budget in order control the human and financial resources that would guarantee its independence to carry out the assignment.
A third major challenge for the committee is lack of powers to immediately deal with use of technicalities by lawyers to delay cases in court. This is because, the committee’s work is mainly to observe proceedings in the designated courts, also known as ‘Special Courts’ for corruption and financial crimes cases in all jurisdictions of the federation. Though the CJN, Onnoghen, has directed Heads of Courts to clamp down on both prosecution and defence counsel who indulge in the unethical practice of deploying delay tactics to stall criminal trials, this panel will have no powers to urgently act on the situation it would meet in the courtrooms.
Supporting this position, Okoye said the work of the panel is only to monitor and remain outside the adjudicatory system. He added that it is also the duty of the public to monitor and “hold all the members of the investigation, prosecution and adjudication chain accountable.”
“The prosecution of corrupt persons and the fight against corruption is a multi-stakeholder venture involving the investigators, the prosecutors and the adjudicators. The symbiotic functioning of these stakeholders ensures good prosecution and the securing of conviction,” he said.
Justice Ayo Salami (rtd)