Wanted: A Failed Judges Tribunal



Finding a lasting solution to the crisis in the judiciary

NBA, Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud President

By Anthony Opara


Economic historians may have forgotten but one of the landmark event of the Sani Abacha government was the manner corruption was dealt with in the banking sector at that time. Time was when Nigerian banks were going under with Nigerians losing millions of Naira in the process. The outcry of failed banks went so high that the Abacha government sought of a way to deal with the situation. The major reason for the collapse of the banks was the collusion of bank owners with criminal elements to borrow money from the banks without security such that when the loans were called in they could not be repaid with the result that genuine bank depositors were left holding the short end of the stick.

To stem the tide and clean up the rot in the banking sector a panel was set up to examine the issue more thoroughly and after the submission of their report the government decided to establish a failed banks tribunal. With usual military fiat a failed Banks Tribunal Decree was rolled out which established all the offences that would be tried by the special court which was also set up slightly out of the normal court system to enable quick dispensation of justice,

The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Belgore was asked to nominate judges that would constitute members of the tribunal to be headed by Justice Roseline Ukeje, who later became the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court. Other judges were called into service including the newly appointed Justice of the Supreme Court Justice Amina Augie who was as erudite as they come. It was a court packed with men and women of integrity the Federal High Court could boast of at the time. The government also put in place measures to isolate the judges from the corruptive influences of the caliber of men and women that would appear before them. The Judges were placed on allowances different from their salaries and brand new cars were bought for them to ease movement from their homes to the courts in the different divisions of the Failed Banks Tribunal. The Panel had found out that most of the perpetrators of the actions that collapsed banks were senior actors in the banking industry, people that could be called the leading lights of the banking industry including leaders of the Chartered Institute of Bankers. Some of them had registered having their children as board members. These companies then took unsecured loans from the banks they headed. This was in clear violation of the Companies and Allied Matters Act.

To ensure that the guilty ones did not escape, the government set up a team that sought out qualified lawyers to prosecute these alleged offenders and the stage was set for what would be referred to as epic battle to save the banking industry from collapse. At the initial stage the government used finance correspondents to cover the trials but they were not getting enough coverage and they called in a Senior Judicial Correspondent from Nigerian Television Authority who organized judicial and crime correspondents to start covering the cases from all the locations of the Tribunal.

The lawyers on the government side had iron cast cases against some of the accused persons and many of them got very long terms of imprisonment for their roles in the banking scams of the time. Nigerians were happy that top banking chiefs had their days in court, were defended by high prized lawyers but In the end many of them bagged very long jail sentences, in one case, one Chief Kingsley Ikpe who stood trial for selling shares of his client was sentenced to 160 years in prison. It was a common happening then for top bankers and other financial operators’ to bag very long jail terms. Some appealed the judgements where the sentences were either reduced and in very few cases quashed outrightly. With one swift blow, the government dealt a big blow to the perpetrators of the banking meltdown of the Abacha era and in the process saved the banking industry from annihilation and restored confidence in the industry.

Today, not a few Nigerians believe that the happenings in the judiciary deserve similar treatment. In the aftermath of the operations of the Directorate of State Security (DSS) who invaded and arrested judges of the Federal High Courts and even Justices of the Supreme Court over allegations of corruption, the question agitating the minds of the populace is this- which courts will try these alleged corrupt judges. The DSS mentioned huge sums of money in both local and foreign currencies said to have been found in the homes of the judges. From media reports its apparent that Nigerians support the war against corruption in the judiciary as the thinking is that if the judiciary is corrupted then the last hope of the common man has been dealt a severe blow.

Many deprecate the manner in which the DSS went about the operations adding that the operational incompetence displayed by the DSS the cases may not be won against the judges in a court of law. It’s been alleged by some of the judges whose homes were raided that the DSS did not obtain search warrant to search their homes and in one instance the warrant produced for the home of one of the judges being investigated was wrong and when the judge pointed out the grace error he was shoved aside and the search went on. Some of the judges have added to the drama by their own claim that chieftains of the party in power, the All Progressives Congress (APC) notably the Transport Minister Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi and his counterpart in the Science and Technology Ministry, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu made attempts to buy favourable judgments for their party in the Governorship petitions that came to some of the judges for adjudication.

Nigerians were aghast at the now infamous statement said to have been made by Amaechi to one of the judges that “Oga is not happy” in apparent reference to President Mohammed Buhari which has been denied by the Presidency. Efforts by some senior lawyers to seek the suspension the judges or make them step aside in the face of the allegations met a brick wall at the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC). The council comprising judges and Senior Lawyers said it would not ask the judges to step aside as it was not in their place to do so. Some other lawyers also argued that asking the judges to step aside means believing they are guilty of the alleged offence.

The way things stand now it appears only a tribunal like the failed banks one can sort out the mess in the judiciary. With Judges who issues conflicting judgements, it appears a tribunal with special powers can untie the knot of corruption in the judiciary. Some Nigerians have suggested that retired Supreme Court Jutices may be invited to sit on this special tribunals to try the cases of these allegations of corruption in the bench. Government should also spend the required money to procure qualified trial lawyers to try these judges.   The excuse of recession should not hold water as Nigeria cannot afford to lose as the judiciary is the last hope of the common man


NBA President, Mahmoud Abubakar, SAN


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