ENUGU TRIBUNAL: WHY NJC MUST INVESTIGATE JUSTICE AKONO-LED PANEL WITHOUT DELAY

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ENUGU TRIBUNAL: WHY NJC SHOULD INVESTIGATE JUSTICE AKANO-LED PANEL WITHOUT DELAY

By Chuma Ajoku Esq.

In my university days, a visiting Court of Appeal jurist, Hon. Justice Ubaezeonu J.C.A (as he then was) while addressing law students on judicial rectitude, during a law dinner, told a story of a certain English judge who resigned shortly after rejecting a bribe from a stranger. According to the Court of Appeal Justice, the stranger wanted to buy judgement at all costs in a land matter in which he was the sole plaintiff.

The question we then had in our minds was ; why did the English judge resign having rejected the bribe? Had he not made sacrifice already?

The erudite Justice who promised to give us the name of the English judge but who later forgot to , stated that the said English judge in his resignation letter explained that he had himself to blame for what happened to him and not the bribe giver. According to the learned English judge, the stranger could not have been bold enough to approach him if he, the judge, had not conducted himself in a manner which made him to believe that he was not an honourable man despite being a judicial officer.

For parading such a horrible public persona which encouraged dubious people to approach him to offer bribe, he was no longer fit and proper to continue as a judicial officer. That according to the Appeal Court justice was the standard set by the founding fathers of the legal profession. An intergrity standard which required judicial officers to not only live above board but also above public perception of reproach. The jurist went further to state that every judicial officer by reason of being consecrated to play the role of God on earth had a duty to uphold the highest standard of integrity to succeed. I remember hearing him state as follows;

‘Judgement is of God and not of man. It’s therefore the prerogative of God to judge mankind and not anyone else’s. However, by consecrating certain mortals to sit in judgement over fellow mortals, meting out punishments and sanctions as they deem appropriate for the benefit of mankind, those chosen to play such a role must be careful to follow God’s dictates, principles and ordinances’

The principles according to him were those of impartiality, fairness and readiness at all times to dispense justice without fear or favour. By playing a role reserved for God alone, a judge is addressed as ‘My Lord’ an appellation reserved for God alone. The urbane justice went ahead to educate his listeners that aside from judges, priests called to the holy order of Melkizedek also represented God on earth for doing one thing God alone is permitted to do; forgiving sins. For that too, a priest is addressed as as ‘My Lord’

For the avoidance of doubt, my intention in this inquisition, is not to probe whether judicial officers of today are still above board and abide by the rules of engagement as their forbears did, as that’s a matter for another day. My preoccupation is to determine whether a judge who is presumed to know the law could escape temporal punishment by merely feigning ignorance of the law, even when its provisions are as clear as crystal and leaves no room for pontification, obfuscation or discretion.

It has been argued in favour of not punishing ignorant judges on the basis that even though they’re presumed to know the law, the presumption is in most cases rebuttable as laws are made almost on a daily basis, requiring industry and tenacity on the part of every judicial officer to keep pace with. It is probably for this reason that lord Denning, the British judicial icon was once quoted to have said; ‘God forbid that a judge should know all the law’ He shouldn’t know all the law because human knowledge is limited.

However, despite this argument, there’s a dividing line between what a judge ought to know being basic aspects or rudiments of the law such as rules of interpretation of statutes especially unambiguous ones with judicial precedents and those not so clear and perhaps without judicial precedents.
Where a judge consistently misapplies the law, in a single judgement for example, occasioning a miscarriage of justice, it is appropriate to ask pertinent questions with a view to determining whether ignorance or corruption is actually to blame.

It’s against this background that the recent judgement of the Enugu State Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal which unabashedly ignored strategic constitutional provisions, has been causing goosebumps not only among legal minds but also compatriots across the country.

After a certificate forgery trial which generated heated national interest even before it began, involving the governor of Enugu State Mr Peter Mbah and in which the NYSC’s Director of Corps certification appeared and tendered evidence as PW1, showing that the governor forged the NYSC discharge certificate which he presented to the Independent National Electoral Commission, many Nigerians are dismayed at how the case was mishandled by the justice Kudirat Akano- led panel. If the tribunal applied the constitution as it swore to do, it would have sent the right signal to criminals masquerading as politicians, that certain public offices are no- go- areas for them, having been reserved for men and women of honour.

In that very judgement, justice Akano’s panel also refused to consider certified true copies of results generated from the BVAS and which showed that voting in most parts of Nkanu East Local Government Area of Enugu State were conducted without the use of the BVAS contrary to the new Electoral Act 2022.

Pertinent questions being asked ever since the judgement include; could justice Kudirat Akano claim to be ignorant of the import of section 182(1)(j) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and which spells out consequences for presentation of forged certificate to the Independent National Electoral Commission? Could the learned judge be said to be too ignorant to know that sections 177 and 182(1)(j) of the constitution are not mutually exclusive but meant to be satisfied saperately by every gubernatorial candidate in Nigeria before becoming governor?

Is ignorance of the law or selective technicality responsible for justice Akano-led panel’s decision to reject the vital evidence of PWI ( the NYSC’s Director, Corps certification ) to the effect that his organization did not issue the discharge certificate Peter Mbah presented to the Independent National Electoral Commission? Is it really ignorance or something else which made a high court judge to hold that forgery only takes place where an original of what is forged is presented for comparison? Is the definition of offence of forgery not too elementary for a high court judge not to know?

Also, could ignorance of the law be to blame for the panel’s finding that even though Peter Mbah presented a forged certificate to the Independent National Electoral Commission, pursuant to section 182(1)(j) of the constitution, it was not so presented in aid of his qualification? I do not think ignorance played any part in any of those as abundant evidence show that there’s more than meet the eye.

It is interesting to note that It was only after Justice Akano’s shocking judgment that facts emerged that the judge was being investigated by the National Judicial Council for bribery and corruption prior to her appointment as chairman of an election tribunal. If so, what formed the basis for appointing a corrupt judicial officer to handle a sensitive national assignment such as election petition when there existed able and honest judges to deliver the job?

It has become necessary to recall that some persons in Enugu raised an alarm the very first day Justice Akano and her panel assumed duties within the premises of the Enugu High Court. On that fateful day, a total of 19 vehicles noisely formed the panel’s motorcade as it entered the high court premises, attracting undue attention, which is unbecoming of a judicial activity or function, usually characterized by solemnity and quietude. Out of the number, three vehicles were spotted as former Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s official cars with Government House number plates and accompanied by Government House policemen who escorted the judges right into the court room.

Despite the concerns raised then, the matter was downplayed as unfounded by Peter Mbah’s men while those raising the alarm were branded busybodies.

After the panels’ sittings and adoption of final written addresses, a dependable source disclosed that two senior lawyers hired by Peter Mbah were spotted in a certain private premises( outside her lodge) in Independence Layout, in company of the chairman of the tribunal; justice Kudirat Akano but that too was dismissed as nonsense by the Peter Mbah- led government in Enugu.

Two days to the judgement, fear enveloped the coal city as Labour Party faithfuls who knew that justice was on their side, both in terms of majority of lawful votes cast in the March 18 governorship election as well as the governor’s constitutional disqualification, began to sense that the rumour of the Akano panel recieving a bribe of #3 billion from Peter Mbah , was too strong to be ignored. That was especially so taking into account Peter Mbah’s record as a notorious graft fixer.
In fact, it was then reported that every insider in Peter Mbah’s government already knew how the judgment would go and were fixing other appointments on the very day and time of the judgement, just to show their confidence about its outcome.

On Thursday September 21st 2023, Justice Kudirat Akano did not disappoint her pay master by playing her own part in the deal. Those who were physically present in court while the judgement was being delivered, had no difficulty smelling a rat as justice Akano would intermittently stop reading in order to trace the next line , something which took her more than ten minutes to sort out, each time she did, before resuming. Was the judgement also prepared for her team by Peter Mbah’s lawyers as generally believed today in Enugu hence the protracted stoppages? There’s always no smoke without fire.

While justice Akano and her disgraceful team freely walked out of Enugu after their dog’s breakfast, their judgment has yet to do the same having continued to generate daily conversations on media stations across the country with lawyers calling for the immediate arrest of all members of the panel.

There’s thus a growing consensus among stakeholders all over the country that those who sent Justice Akano for an election assignment even though they knew that she was facing bribery investigation by the NJC, should take full responsibility for the Enugu disgrace and which has brought shame and disdain to the judiciary as one that has become a ‘cash -and -carry’ business.

Despite what happened, It will be no surprise if justice Akano again makes the list of election petition judges for 2027 general elections. That’s Nigeria for us.

The National Judicial Council should therefore swing into action by setting up an administrative enquiry with a view to ascertaining the veracity or otherwise of the allegation of#3 billion bribe received by justice Akano and her team to turn justice upside down. If indicted, members of the panel should not only be dismissed from service in the public interest but also handed over to the police for prosecution to serve as a deterrent to others.

If the NJC can actually bite and not only bark as the CJN assured while inaugurating 23 new judges of the Federal High Court recently, this is the time to prove so. Nigerians still recall with nostalgia when the NJC under Honourable Justice Salihu Modibo Alpha Belgore among other chairmen of the council, booed as many as 30 corrupt judicial officers, including justice Egbo Egbo, justice Ofili Ajumogobia, justice Stanley Nnaji , justice Innocent Umezulike and others, out of the judiciary between 2004 to 2015. If it happened before, it can happen again to show the world just how capable the third arm of government is to cleanse itself. The National Judicial Council has no need to wait for fresh corruption cases when there’s already a low hanging fruit in Enugu’s shameful outing. Failure to probe the Enugu corruption allegation will not only encourage more Akanos to go on the prowl but also enable certificate forgers like Peter Mbah to continue business as usual knowing full well that all what it would take is sufficient cash for the law to bend in their favour. Bad, very bad, very very bad.

About Dons Eze

DONS EZE, PhD, Political Philosopher and Journalist of over four decades standing, worked in several newspaper houses across the country, and rose to the positions of Editor and General Manager. A UNESCO Fellow in Journalism, Dr. Dons Eze, a prolific writer and author of many books, attended several courses on Journalism and Communication in both Nigeria and overseas, including a Postgraduate Course on Journalism at Warsaw, Poland; Strategic Communication and Practical Communication Approach at RIPA International, London, the United Kingdom, among others.

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