THERE were mixed reactions on Saturday as officers of State Security Service (SSS) otherwise called Department of State Security (DSS) began a clampdown on some judges.
About 48 hours to his final consideration as the next Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), the most senior justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, has been put under security surveillance, Sunday Tribune exclusively learnt at the weekend.
Officers of the Department of State Services (DSS) Friday night stormed his official residence in Abuja but later left, claiming they mistook the residence for another justice’s, who is also of the apex court and under alleged corruption probe.
The officers later arrested two justices of the apex court, Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro, the same night.
While Ngwuta was said to have been released after interrogation, Okoro was reportedly held by the DSS.
It was gathered that the probe was about the 2015 election petitions involving Akwa-Ibom and Rivers State as well as other alleged bribery issues.
Tribune had months back, exclusively reported the commencement of sting operations against senior judicial officers by security agencies.
Sources, however, revealed in the wee hours of Saturday that the sudden onslaught against justices of the apex court might be the final attempt to ensure that Onnoghen didn’t emerge as the next CJN in about a month’s time.
The incumbent, Justice Mohammed Mahmud, will exit on November 10 and has strongly supported Onnoghen as his successor.
The Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) which he chairs had nominated Onnoghen as the next CJN, with the National Judicial Council (NJC) fixing an emergency meeting for Tuesday to recommend Onnoghen to President Muhammadu Buhari who is the appointing authority.
The council, as is the tradition, will recommend alongside Onnoghen, the next most senior justice of the court, Justice Mohammed Tanko as a standby, in an event of Buhari’s rejection of the original nominee.
While Onnoghen is from Cross River State, Tanko is from Bauchi. No Southerner had been CJN in 29 years.
Seniority issues have kept playing out between Onnoghen and Tanko.
While Onnoghen was called to the Bar and Supreme Court bench before Tanko, the latter reportedly joined the High Court bench ahead of the CJN-designate.
Shortly before Onnoghen’s nomination and after it, the issue reportedly reared its head at a function at the National Judicial Institute with the outgoing CJN in attendance.
Seniority at the apex court is traditionally measured by dates of appointment, making Onnoghen to be the most senior.
It was gathered that the anti-Onnoghen forces in the executive arm of government launched the latest attack, following the realisation that it could be difficult to stop him once the entire appointment process was concluded.
Sunday Tribune was informed by a top security source that the probe being conducted against the two justices of the apex court was actually targeted at implicating Onnoghen, though utmost care was being taken not to create an impression of putting him under security searchlight.
Forces within the anti-Onnoghen camp were said to have been tethered up till now from moving against him because of the ethnic tension it would generate.
During the security raid, a judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja (names withheld) reportedly scaled the fence in his home to escape the midnight arrest. His brother, who the DSS officers met at home, was reportedly made to stand in for him.
Another judge of the same court who is a grandson of a popular late jurist, reportedly had the door to his home blown apart by the security agents to have access to him.
He was said to have run upstairs, with the officers in hot pursuit, before he was eventually picked up.
A judge in Kano State who was recently exited from service for alleged corruption by the NJC was also arrested and brought to Abuja.
Another senior judge of the Court of Appeal, sacked by the council, is also being detained by the DSS.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has issued a statement, on the arrest of judges, while declaring a state of emergency and condemning the action of the DSS.
NBA President, A B Mahmoud, while addressing a press conference at Eko Hotel in Lagos, on Saturday, in the company of four former presidents of the association, demanded the immediate release of all judicial officers arrested by the DSS.
According to him, the action of the DSS was an affront on the rule of law, which must not be condoned. He threatened that there would be consequences if the security outfit failed to release the judges, immediately and without conditions.
The NBA president, therefore, called on President Muhammadu Buhari to caution security agencies to respect the rule of law and to follow the due process in their operations.
Part of the statement read:
“Any issues affecting the judicial officers, there are established procedures for handling them and we demand that this constitutional process must be obeyed.
“Given the unfolding nature of the event and the seriousness of the situation, the NBA hereby declares a state of emergency as it affects the affairs of the judiciary and I hereby constitute a crisis management team, comprising all past presidents of the association.
“I want to, on behalf of the association, make the very following clear and unequivocal demands: we demand the immediate and unconditional release of all the judges abducted from about 9pm yesterday (Friday).
“The release must be done immediately and without any conditions. Two, we demand that the Department of State Services should limit itself to its statutory and constitutional responsibilities.”
Fayose, Ohanaeze Secretary-General, others react
Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State in his reaction Saturday decried what he said was “harrassment and intimidation of the Nigerian Judiciary” and described the arrest of some judges as “the height of it.”
Governor Fayose, who addressed newsmen lamented that “the invasion of residences of five judges, including those of two Justices of the Supreme Court – Justice Walter Onnoghen and Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, is a direct assault on the judiciary.”
The governor, said “it should now be obvious to all Nigerians and the international community that democracy is under threat in Nigeria and Nigerians must rise to save democracy from being truncated.
“I am particularly worried over the involvement of Justice Walter Onnoghen in the invasion, and I hope this is not a plot to prevent his appointment as the next CJN just because he is from the South South region.
Former Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada and Secretary to the State Government in Ekiti State, Ambassador Dare Bejide also berated the DSS action.
“I see it as a sad development for our democracy. If there is evidence of corruption against any individual (judicial officers inclusive), there are procedures laid down to deal with such misconduct.
“There is no doubt that some judges are corrupt, but they should be dealt with in accordance with the law,” he said.
The National Secretary-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Dr Joe Nworgu, in a telephone interview with Sunday Tribune said that he had only read the reported abduction of the judges in newspapers, adding that he was yet to verify the truth of the matter.
“However, whatever happened, let the authority or the Federal Government as well as the Department of Security Service (DSS) follow the rule of law. In a democratic setting, the rule of law is supreme.
…Wike alleges assault
Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State has said he was rough-handled by operatives of the police and the Department of Security Service during a failed attempt to abduct a Federal High Court judge in Port Harcourt, in the early hours of Saturday.
The governor, in a statement issued by his media aide, Simeon Nwakaudu, also claimed that the failed illegal abduction was part of a plot to declare a state of emergency in Rivers State.
He pointed out that the failed abduction of the judge (whose name was not disclosed), residing at Number 35 Forces Avenue in Port Harcourt, was led by the state Director of the Department of State Services (DSS), Mr Tosin Ajayi and the state Commissioner of Police, Mr Francis Odesanya.
“Not under my watch will I allow this kind of impunity to take place. That is why we are here. I don’t know which judge they were detailed to abduct. I didn’t bother myself to know which judge. All I am interested in is that, at this level, it is not allowed.
“He is not a criminal and he is not an armed robber. If the person has committed an offence, invite him. It is only when he refuses to honour the invitation that you can adopt this commando style.
“The Commissioner of Police is here, the Director of DSS is here. Their operatives cocked their guns and threatened to shoot me. I have never seen that before. Again , this is to tell you what we are facing. We know that more will come. For us in this state, we shall continue to resist it.
According to the statement, the DSS operatives rough-handled Wike, dragging and pushing him around and injuring his hand in the process, while a few of them cocked their rifles and threatened to shoot him.
They were allegedly irked by the governor’s arrival at the scene shortly after the failed abduction process began, having received security information on the illegal moves, minutes after the operation started.
While the security operatives were said to have insisted on taking away the judge, the state Director of DSS was said to had jumped into his vehicle and fled the scene, upon the arrival of some newsmen.
The state commissioner of police however said the two security agencies were at the scene, acting upon a privileged information, adding that he was particularly there as a peacemaker.
Speaking on behalf of his boss, the state Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr Nnamdi Omoni (DSP), said, “It is a misnomer to associate us (police) with abduction (of a judge). If they had said police abduct, then it is most unfortunate.
“We (police) were only called up (sic) to assist and we went there to discharge our constitutional mandate by ensuring that there was no breakdown of law and order.”
DSS arrested Justices Ademola, Dimgba
Some reasons have been adduced to the arrest of Justices Adeniyi Ademola and Nnamdi Dimgba of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court by Department of the State Security (DSS), on Saturday.
Unconfirmed information gathered by Sunday Tribune from a source stated that the arrest of the two members of the Bench may not be unconnected with some of the judgements they have pronounced against the service.
The DSS, it was gathered, is said to be displeased with some of the pronouncements.
According to a top source, who did not want his name mentioned, “the DSS is not also comfortable with their vocal criticism over allegation of rights’ violation of persons detained at its facility, thus making it look bad in the eyes of Nigerians”.
However, when Sunday Tribune got in touch with the media aide to the CJN, Mr. Ahuraka Yusuf Isah for confirmation of the invasion of the official residences of the two Justices, he said he was driving and will get back to our correspondent, but he never did until press time.
We recall that Justice Dimgba of the Federal High Court, Abuja, had blasted the DSS for flouting an order of the court to remand a defendant in prison.
He had ordered that a retired Air Commodore, Umar Mohammed, who was arraigned before him be remanded in Kuje Prison pending the hearing of his bail application but the DSS had refused to carry out the order and to produce him in court.
“I take a strong exception to this type of behaviour; when the court orders that someone be kept in prison custody, the person ought to be kept in prison and not in the office.
“If the people at the DSS want to become judge and do their job as well, I am ready to vacate my office for them, but as long as I am still here, I take an exception to them flouting the orders of the court,” Dimgba was quoted to have said.