Justice Ademola’s Endless Battle By Davidson Iriekpen

Four months after he was cleared of corruption charges Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court in Abuja is in the news again. This time, he is at loggerheads with the National Judicial Council (NJC), the highest judicial organ in the country. The council, which had previously frantically defended him, is bent on probing him over a petition it received against the judge.

Thus, to show that it would not tolerate corruption or anything close it, the NJC, last week, appealed the judgment of Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court in Abuja, which ordered that the council should not invite Justice Ademola for investigation over a petition written against him but later withdrawn by the petitioner.

The judge, while delivering judgment in a matter of judicial review in the form of orders for declarations, prohibitions and injunctions, filed by Justice Ademola, held that the author of the petition having withdrawn it, the NJC lacked the power to continue to investigate him over the allegations contained in the petition. He concluded that the judge could not be made to prove innocence over a petition that was voluntarily withdrawn by the petitioner. He also said the insistence of the NJC and three others that Justice Ademola must appear is contrary to the provisions of Section 36 (5 and 6) of the 1999 Constitution, is unconstitutional, illegal and unlawful.

Justice Ademola through his counsel, Oladimeji Ekengba, had dragged the NJC, Justice Umar Abdullahi, Justice Babatunde Adejumo and Mrs. Rakiya Ibrahim, before the Federal High Court, seeking judicial review in the form of orders for declarations, prohibitions and injunctions.

In his statement of claim, he noted that a petition was written against him by one Hon. Jenkins Duvie Giane Gwede, sometime in 2016, upon which he was invited through a letter dated July 25, 2016, for investigation before a three-man panel of the NJC, on August 8 and 9, 2016.

However, the applicant claimed that the petitioner, on his own volition withdrew the petition against him on July 27, 2016, on the grounds that it was written in error and misinformation. The withdrawal of the petition was said to have been supported with affidavit evidence, deposed to by the petitioner himself, in which he clearly stated reasons for the withdrawal.

Justice Ademola, however, claimed that on September 26, 2016, when he appeared before the NJC panel, comprising Abdullahi, Adejumo and Ibrahim, he was asked to still prove innocence of allegations that have been withdrawn by the maker. He claimed that all entreaties to the NJC panel that there was no petition against him any longer proved abortive as the panel was said to have insisted that he must go ahead to establish his innocence.

The plaintiff further claimed that his position that the NJC panel could not turn itself into the accuser, prosecutor and judge in the matter, was also unsuccessful. He therefore urged the court to prohibit the NJC from inviting him for investigation in a petition that had been withdrawn on the ground that his right to fair hearing would be violated in view of the fact that the respondents could not be the accuser, prosecutor and judge in the matter.

In his judgment, Justice Tsoho also agreed that the right of the plaintiff would be violated by the respondents on the strength of the withdrawal of the petition and the filing of affidavit in support of the withdrawal by the petitioner. The judge consequently stopped the NJC and its three-man panel from taking any further action in respect of the withdrawn petition so as not to violate the right of the plaintiff to fair hearing as enshrined in Section 36 of the Constitution.

THISDAY investigation revealed that the petition against the judge was from the Committee of Anambra State Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Assembly members-elect based on their dissatisfaction with his handling of a case assigned to him. They had petitioned the NJC, accusing Justice Ademola of corruption, judicial impertinence, miscarriage of justice, bias and of reading in the open court a judgment different from the written one.

Dated July 14, 2016 and addressed to the NJC Chairman, the petition referred to the case between Senator Annie Okonkwo & 43 others Vs Independent National Electoral Commission and 22 others (Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/177/2015). The complaints of the petitioners, among others, was that Justice Ademola’s decision to read in the open court, on July 8, 2016, a judgment at variance with the written one, the certified true copy of which was made available five days after he delivered judgment in the suit.

But dissatisfied with the judgment, the NJC in its 10 grounds notice of appeal, asked the Court of Appeal in Abuja to set aside the judgment of the Federal High Court in its entirety. Through its counsel, Dr. Elijah Okebukola, the NJC argued that the Federal High Court was wrong to have assumed jurisdiction over the matter and maintained that the Federal High Court assumed jurisdiction in the matter where the National Industrial Court of Nigeria had exclusive jurisdiction.

It stated: “The conduct in issue relates to the work of the respondent as a judicial officer and employee of the Federal Government of Nigeria under the supervision and regulation of the first appellant. In relation to the conduct in issue, the Respondent was summoned by the first appellant for investigations pursuant to the Judicial Discipline Regulations.

“The disciplinary control of judicial officers and matters connected therewith are employment matters. The National Industrial Court of Nigeria has exclusive jurisdiction in disputes relating to the disciplinary control of an employee by an employer or persons designated by the employer. The respondent alleged a violation or likely violation of his fundamental human rights. The National Industrial Court of Nigeria has exclusive jurisdiction in disputes relating to the breach or alleged breach of human rights of an employee by his employer.”

It also argued in another grounds of appeal that the trial court had the power to investigate a judge even after the petition against the judge had been withdrawn. It therefore stated that the Federal High Court “erred in law by holding that Sections 36 (5) & (6) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria preclude the first appellant from investigating the subject matter of a withdrawn petition.

The council also argued that the Federal High Court misdirected itself “by relying on the respondent’s assertion that he was required to prove his innocence over an allegation arising out of or in connection with a withdrawn petition,” stating that as part of the particulars of the alleged error committed by the trial court, “there was conflicting evidence as to whether the petition against the respondent was withdrawn.

“The Judicial Discipline Regulations empowers the first appellant to continue an investigation even where the petition against a judicial officer has been withdrawn. The investigation of the first appellant is a fact-finding exercise. The appearance of the respondent before the fact-finding panel of first appellant is not a call for the respondent to prove his innocence. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria I999 does not limit the supervisory or regulatory roles of the first appellant to only cases where there is a petition against a judicial officer.”

Justice Ademola and five other judges were last year, suspended by the NJC, following a Department of State Service (DSS) crackdown on judicial corruption. He was later discharged before Justice Jude Okeke, of the Federal High Court of the Federal Capital Territory alongside his wife, Olabowale, and a senior lawyer, Mr. Joe Agi (SAN), of an 18-count charge of fraudulent diversion of huge sums, ranging from local and foreign currencies, possession of firearms and involvement in bribe-taking.

Justice Okeke, who presided over the matter, said the prosecution failed to prove its allegation, stating that the case against the judge and his wife were built on speculations. According to him, the prosecution failed to prove that the N10 million transferred to Justice Ademola’s wife by Mr. Agi was offered as an illegal inducement. He also said the allegation that N30 million was given as an inducement to Justice Ademola was limp because the prosecution witnesses admitted not knowing the purpose for which the money was given.

On the allegation of embezzling huge sums of foreign and local currencies, Justice Okeke said the prosecution witness admitted that judges are entitled to estacodes, usually given in foreign currencies, especially American dollars.
It is not clear why the NJC, which had previously defended Justice Ademola was suddenly hell bent on having a thorough probe. But many analysts feel that it was to correct the erroneous impression by the presidency, anti-corruption agencies and even the public that it was shielding any of the judges from corruption.

However, the recall of Justice Ademola from suspension and the directive by the NJC for him to resume sitting had led to altercations between it and the presidency which felt that the council was colluding with corrupt judges to dispense questionable justice, thereby bringing the fight against corruption of the current administration to disrepute.

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