Magistrates sign blank warrants for police, EFCC to raid homes, freeze accounts – Adegboruwa
In this interview with ENIOLA AKINKUOTU, human rights lawyer, Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), speaks about the raid on the home of Supreme Court Justice, Mary Odili, and other trending issues.
The home of one of the most senior judges in the country, Justice Mary Odili, was raided by security operatives last week. What do you think about the incident?
I think it speaks to the times that we are in our beloved country, where impunity and lawlessness seem to have found their way into the corridors of power. If you recall, this happened in 2016 when there was a midnight raid on the homes of justices of the Supreme Court and till now, nobody has been brought to justice even though the judges have since been vindicated of any allegation and this probably led to the death of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, who passed away before his retirement.
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This is only a signpost of the intolerance of this particular administration to judicial independence and autonomy. We have had a running battle to have judges get their salaries and allowances directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. As we speak, the EFCC and other security agencies always breathe down the necks of judges in matters involving the government. And so, we believe that the present All Progressives Congress government is intolerant of opposition and the invasion of Justice Odili’s residence is only a signpost of the desire to intimidate judges and beat them to the whims and caprices of the executive.
But the AGF, the police, the EFCC and the DSS have all denied raiding the home of Justice Odili…
The problem is that everyone is distancing themselves from the despicable invasion. The AGF, the IG and the EFCC have denied but we have video clips of armed security operatives, who invaded the place. So, what this means is that even if there is a genuine reason to issue a search warrant, this rogue action has thrown a lot of questions on the validity and authenticity of any such process, which in turn will affect the administration of justice, because even when genuine search warrants are issued, people will question them now that people can invade the house of a senior judge without identity.
Personally, I don’t accept the denials of the AGF, the EFCC and the IG. But for us at the Nigerian Bar Association, we have resolved to get to the root of this matter and lawyers have through the association set up a committee and we have taken far reaching decisions about the principal actors involved in this act; namely the magistrate, the policemen and lawyers, who applied for the search warrant and indeed the office of the AGF, where the recovery panel is said to be domiciled. We also resolved that we must ask the National Judicial Council to take proactive steps to protect judges.
Lawyers have expressed their displeasure over the docility and silence of the NJC, which represents the highest decision-making body for judges in Nigeria. So, there are three arms of government. They should be independent and separated and should be autonomous.
Why are magistrates always the preferred choice by security agencies for search warrants and arrest warrants?
Well, we have had audience with the relevant authorities in charge of the judiciary in the Federal Capital Territory, mainly the chief judge, and we have expressed our displeasure over the practice of magistrates signing blank arrest warrants, blank search warrants and even blank orders to freeze the accounts of citizens of Nigeria ex parte. They sign those papers and the security agencies will just go and fill in the names of innocent Nigerians, freeze their account behind their backs, arrest them, search their houses and so we are taking a holistic step in this regard to reform the system to prohibit henceforth any magistrate or judicial officer from signing blank documents for the arrest of citizens, or the search of houses of citizens, or for the freezing of the accounts of citizens.
This opportunity has thrown up a challenge for lawyers, both in the NBA and the Body of Senior Advocates, to interact with the heads of courts all over Nigeria to abolish that odious practice, which breaches the rights of citizens. So, we are taking a holistic step to reform and be able to abolish that system whereby the vested interest and rights of Nigerians can be violated behind their backs through ex parte blank orders or search or arrest orders. I can assure you that after this, the practice will come to an end.
It is not just because of Justice Odili’s status. Common citizens in Nigeria and the hinterland are suffering in the hands of the EFCC, the police and other security agencies on account of the capricious actions of magistrates, who are signing these warrants. And we do not accept the excuse by the magistrate that he was fooled, because no magistrate should put himself in a position that he would be fooled in any way whatsoever. And that is why we have made a decision to file a formal charge against the magistrate before the Judicial Service Commission. The NBA has resolved to do that. At our national executive council meeting held on Tuesday, we resolved to file a formal complaint against the magistrate; we resolved to file a formal complaint against the AGF and we resolved to engage the NJC to protect judicial officers.
Some lawyers complained recently about the extrajudicial activities of panels set up by the Ministry of Justice. What sort of reforms can help address this?
Like I said, this unfortunate incident has thrown up a challenge to the NBA and lawyers to X-ray the activities of the AGF and we have agreed to set up an independent body to really investigate each occurrence these ad hoc panels that seem to be exercising judicial powers without any law setting them up without any laid down procedures that you can use to checkmate the arbitrariness of these so-called panels and recovery bodies under the AGF. So, I am sure by the time our panel comes up with its report, we will inform Nigerians of the outcome of our exercise, but I can assure you that the days of these panels are numbered. I can assure you that somebody is going to be held accountable for the mess of these amorphous panels that have no statutory backing or law setting them up.
In 2016, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), said the judiciary was his headache. Also, while suspending the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, he said the CJN was not a good partner in the fight against corruption. Why is the judiciary not helping the current regime to fight corruption?
I think there is a general misconception on the part of the executive led by the President on the role and duties of the judiciary. The judiciary cannot be the headache of anyone who loves democracy, because democracy thrives on the rule of law and due process. You cannot accuse people of corruption without affording them the opportunity of a proper trial. Our Constitution in Section 36 says that every citizen is deemed innocent until the contrary is proved. It is the burden of the executive, either through the EFCC or the police or the ICPC, to prove allegations of corruption.
The judiciary is the gateway to fighting corruption. There is no way a judge will sentence an individual without subjecting him to trial. And what we have seen in this fight against corruption is that the bodies set up to fight corruption, including the EFCC, the ICPC and the police, are not properly equipped. They don’t have forensic equipment; they don’t have the infrastructure or adequate intelligence. Our experience in the court is that most of these agencies resort to torture. They resort to capriciousness in the investigation of crimes and offences and when these things get to court and lawyers take them up, you discover that the cases begin to fall one after the other.
So, it is not a problem with the judiciary but the law enforcement agencies that are not equipped to investigate corruption. Cases of corruption are won through documents. You go to the banks, you interview people. So, there is no business with the judiciary as regards frustrating the President. I think what we have seen is that the President is intolerant of due process. It is not the judiciary. The President wants us to suspend the constitution and the rule of law, and enforce security over and above the rule of law, which we don’t agree with.
When you want to fight corruption, you must fight it through the rule of law. When you want to fight national security, you must fight it under the rule of law. That is our departure point with the President. When he came to the NBA Conference in 2018 to say we should suspend the rule of law in order for the executive to fight against insurgency and corruption, we said no; it should be the other way around. You should fight your battle through due process of the rule of law. So, I am urging the President to fund the judiciary and get the law enforcement agencies to stop intimidating and interfering in the performance of the duties of the judiciary.
Justice Odili is the wife of a former governor of Rivers State, Peter Odili, who is a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party. The Nigeria Immigration Service recently seized his passport on the request of the EFCC, but a court ordered that the passport be returned to him, because he is still covered by a perpetual injunction restraining the Federal Government from probing or prosecuting him. How can the government proceed when it seems the judiciary is protecting him?
I think it is the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies to look through any judicial processes that they disagree with. If they are unhappy that there is a judgment granting perpetual injunction in favour of Peter Odili, they should engage the legal system either to challenge such judgments by appealing or to have it set aside. But once there is a court judgment, there are levels open to the court to question such decisions through the Court of Appeal and ultimately the Supreme Court. And I think the more we resort to self-help, the more we throw our system to ridicule.
I will advise the executive to explore the system of the judiciary in ventilating whatever grievances they have concerning Peter Odili. I was in court on October 18 when Justice Ekwo delivered that judgment directing the NIS to return the passport of Peter Odili. We have not heard of an appeal against it. It is for the law enforcement agencies to use the law. The man went to court to challenge the seizure of his passport. I do not think any law enforcement agency can take the law into their own hands and say because they are dissatisfied with a judgment, they will employ extrajudicial means. That will lead to anarchy and no society can thrive where everyone takes the law into their own hands.