By Ajuma Edwina Ameh
In 2021, the nation’s judiciary — the court and its officers — was on the flip side and somewhat off colour. As a bulwark of peace, stability, and democracy, the third tier of government faced some serious challenges as its independence or autonomy was compromised in Nigeria.
The sector struggled with numerous carryover court cases from 2020 which were adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were also so many high-profile cases, conflicting rulings in election disputes, as well as strikes that crippled court hearings.
High profile cases
One of the high-profile cases is that of the former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN), who is standing trial on a 14-count charge of money laundering. On January 11, 2021, his case was stalled after his counsel, Chief Kanu Agabi (SAN) informed the court that he was stranded in the UAE over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similarly, some cases in Lagos courts, including the Osborne Estate case against the Lagos State Government were stalled over COVID-19 protocols as the courts chose to operate skeletal services.
Other high-profile cases included that of the former Chairman of the House of Representatives ad-hoc committee on Petroleum Subsidy, Farouk Lawan, and former Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), Abdulrasheed Maina.
Farouk Lawan, was sentenced to seven years in prison by a Federal High Court in Abuja, on June 22, 2021, over a $3million bribe.
Justice Angela Otaluka convicted Lawan on the three-count charge on which he was tried by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC).
Lawan was found guilty of the three-count charge bordering on corruptly asking for and obtaining a bribe from billionaire Femi Otedola in order to exonerate Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited from the list of companies in the fuel subsidy scam.
In another court ruling, the former Chairman of the defunct Pension Reforms Task Team, Abdulrasheed Maina, was on November 8, 2021, convicted on a charge bordering on money laundering by Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja.
Summarily, he was also sentenced to eight years imprisonment on each of the counts which is to run concurrently with effect from October 25, 2019.
The court also ordered Maina and his firm to restitute about N2.1billion that was traced to their bank accounts to the Federal Government after which it ordered that the company should be wound up.
The Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), on April 6, 2021, embarked on a nationwide strike over the non-implementation of the constitutional provision for judicial financial autonomy in the 36 states.
The strike, which lasted for two months, delayed the prosecution of thousands of civil and criminal cases, including those involving awaiting trial inmates.
Series of negotiations between JUSUN, the Minister of Labour and Employment and the Nigeria Governors Forum led to the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) for the implementation of financial autonomy.
However, it took the intervention of interest groups like the National Judicial Council and the Nigerian Bar Association before the National Executive Council of JUSUN suspended its strike on June 9, 2021.
Conflicting rulings in election disputes
There were also so many election disputes in 2021 with conflicting rulings delivered by courts of concurrent jurisdiction.
There was the issue of the disputed National Chairmanship of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) formerly led by Uche Secondus.
On August 24, 2021, Justice Okogbule Gbasam of the Rivers State High Court in Degema, in an ex parte application by some aggrieved PDP members, restrained Secondus from parading himself as PDP chairman pending the determination of the main suit.
However, the order was on August 26, 2021 invalidated by a Kebbi State High Court in Birnin Kebbi, which issued an order of interim injunction reinstating Secondus pending the determination of the suit.
The Kebbi State high court Judge, Justice Nusirate Umar, ruled that: “An order of this honourable court granting leave to the first respondent (Secondus) to continue exercising all the constitutional powers of the office of Chairman of PDP (second defendant) as enshrined in both 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as amended, pending the hearing and final determination of applicant’s motion on notice.”
In the same development, another Cross River State High Court presided by Justice Edem Kooffreh, granted an interim order restraining Secondus from resuming office as PDP chairman.
Anambra State governorship elections primaries also witnessed
The Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, had affirmed the candidacy of Prof. Charles Soludo as the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the November 6, 2021 poll in the state.
The appellate court dismissed the appeal seeking the setting aside of the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Jigawa Division, saying the court cannot sit as an appeal on a judgment delivered by the Kano division of the court.
Chief Victor Oye was also affirmed as the authentic national chairman of APGA.
Persecondnews.com recalls that APGA had been engulfed in intra-party crisis resulting into two factions, one led by Victor Oye and the other by Jude Okeke.
While Oye’s camp has Prof Charles Soludo as its governorship candidate for the November 6 election, the faction led by Okeke produced Chukwuma Umeoji.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) had on December 16, 2021, intervened and barred the three judges involved in the rulings — Justice Okogbule Gbasam of Rivers State High Court, Justice Nusirate Umar of the Kebbi State High Court and Justice Edem Ita Kooffreh of Cross River State High Court — from promotion following these conflicting rulings.
Invasion on Justice Mary Odili’s Abuja home
The most controversial event in the judicial arm of government at the seat of government in Abuja which attracted anger and condemnation was the invasion of the second most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Mary Peter-Odili.
On Friday, October 29, 2021, some security operatives and Federal Ministry of Justice personnel raided the Abuja official residence of Justice Mary Odili.
The visiting security operatives presented to Odili’s aides and security details, a search warrant alleged to have been issued by an FCT Chief Magistrate to search the house following “information by a whistleblower’’, Aliyu Umar, who claimed to have observed “illegal activities’’ being carried out in the justice’s house.
However, Odili’s security details were quick to identify some critical errors in the search warrant which contained neither the details, the name of the person carrying out the alleged “illegal activities” nor the actual address of Odili’s house.
Persecondnews gathered that the search warrant mandated the operatives to search house No. 9, Imo Street, Maitama. However, there is no Imo Street, but Imo River street in Maitama. Justice Mary Odili’s residence is also not Number 9 as written on the search warrant, but Number 7.
The Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), the Ministry of Justice, the Directorate of State Services (DSS) and the Nigeria police, all denied their involvement in the raid moments after the media broke the news.
The Attorney General of the Federation (SGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN) ordered a probe into the invasion as he denied giving the order.
Meanwhile, about 43 days after the invasion, the Federal Government hauled up 15 people before a Federal High Court, Abuja.
They were arraigned before Justice Nkeonye Maha on an 18-count amended charge bordering on forgery, criminal trespass, intimidation, and extortion against Justice Odili.
The defendants are also facing a charge of threatening Justice Mary Odili and members of her household “with injury to her person and reputation with intent to execute an illegal search warrant.’’
They are Lawrence Adjodo (a.k.a. Ola Ojo) , Michael Diete-Spiff, Alex Onyekuru, Bayero Lawal (a.k.a EFCC director), Igwe Ernest, Aliyu Umar Ibrahim, Hajiya Maimuna Maishanu, Dr Ayodele Akindipe (a.k.a. Herbalist), Yusuf Adamu (a.k.a. Godson to Chief Peter Odili).
Others are Bashir Musa, ASP Mohammed Yahaya, Stanley Nkwazema, Shehu Jibo, Abdullahi Adamu and Abdullahi Usman.
The seven defendants still at large include Ike Ezekwe, L/CPL Mike, Sani Bala, Godwin Lucas, Solomon Bagudu, Austin M. and Michael M.
The Prosecution Counsel, Mathew Omosun, from the Nigerian Police Force Headquarters, Abuja, told the court that he had an amended charge of 18 counts dated Dec.13 and filed on Dec. 14.
“We have a charge dated Nov. 21 and filed the same day. We also have amended charge dated Dec. 3 and file the same day. We equally have an amended charge dated Dec 10 and filed Dec. 13.
“Further to these, we have an amended charge dated Dec. 13 and filed Dec. 14. We seek to withdraw those aforementioned charges and amended charges. But we have an 18-count charge dated Dec. 13 and filed Dec. 14,” he told the court, urging that the charges be read to them to enable them take their pleas.
The accused, however, pleaded innocence of the offences.