The Chief Justice of Nigeria’s (CJN) recent warning against security operatives harassing judicial officers is timely and appropriate. Justice Tanko Muhammad, who warned that Nigeria’s judiciary has had enough of security operatives humiliating its officials, said the country’s judiciary would no longer tolerate such treatment.
“Those who regard the judiciary as a mere weakling will soon realise that it is from the calmest seas that we often experience the fiercest storms,” Muhammad said, referring to the humiliating invasion of Justice Mary Odili’s official residence on October 29, 2021. The time has passed for judicial officers to be oppressed, suppressed, and intimidated.” He claimed that Nigeria was not a lawless society, and that no law allowed anyone to enter and subdue any Nigerian citizen in his or her home based on a flimsy, fraudulently obtained search warrant.
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A search warrant had been issued in favor of a team known as Joint Panel Recovery under the Ministry of Justice by a certain Chief Magistrate, Mr. Emmanuel Iyanna, of Wuse Zone 6 magisterial division in Abuja. Armed security operatives stormed Justice Odili’s home based on this warrant. The search warrant was reportedly obtained based on information provided by a whistleblower, Aliyu Umar, an Abuja resident. Umar claimed that illegal activities were taking place at No. 9, Imo Street, Maitama, Abuja, and that law enforcement agents should intervene immediately. Due to misrepresentation in the first information application to the court, the chief magistrate has since revoked the search warrant.
At the Federal High Court in Abuja, 15 suspects allegedly involved in the raid have been arraigned so far. They were charged with an 18-count amended charge that included forgery, criminal trespass, intimidation, threats, and extortion, among other things. There were twenty-two defendants on the charge, but seven are still on the loose. The defendants entered not guilty pleas in response to the charge.
The ordeal that Justice Odili is going through is not the first. In the dead of night in October 2016, operatives from the Department of State Services (DSS) raided the home of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, now deceased, and six others. The raid was carried out as a result of investigations into allegations of fraud perpetrated by the judges, according to the operatives. They claimed to have recovered large sums of money from Ngwuta’s home in both local and foreign currencies.
The immediate past CJN, Walter Onnoghen, was ignominiously removed from office in April 2019 by the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal with a dubious ex-parte order. Onnoghen was found guilty of six counts of false asset declaration and was barred from holding any public office for the next ten years by the Tribunal.
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Most of the time, this type of raid and harassment is used to intimidate judges in order to achieve some nefarious goals. It could be to persuade them to rule in favor of certain individuals. It could also be a precursor to charges of various offenses being leveled against them, leading to their removal from office to make way for some preferred candidates in succession battles. This has been allowed to fester because no one has been held accountable.
This is one of the reasons why the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (BOSAN) has decried what it calls the ruling class’s systematic efforts to erode the judiciary’s independence in recent years. Intimidation, coercion, arm-twisting, divide-and-rule tactics, and outright harassment are examples of such tactics, according to the Body of SANs. It urged the judiciary to safeguard the country’s independence by preventing external enemies from invading its sacred sanctuary.
The Senate, as well as many other concerned Nigerians, condemned the raid on Justice Odili’s home, Nigeria’s second most senior judicial official.
Judges’ harassment, if not addressed, will have a negative impact on the country’s image. It has the potential to portray Nigeria as a country where citizens’ rights and the rule of law are abridged at will. Furthermore, people will lack trust and confidence in judgments issued by such a judicial system.
Allowing this type of harassment to fester poses the risk of undermining democracy’s core values. It’s important to remember that the judiciary is a sacred institution. It is the oppressed’s last hope and the government’s third arm.
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As a result, we must ensure that its independence, which is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society, is maintained and respected at all times. Judges’ homes are raided at will, undermining any respect they may have and affecting the entire justice system. We must all condemn this trend and urge the President to speak out about it so that it does not happen again. Judges should not only be respected, but their decisions should also be followed at all times by everyone, regardless of their status. We agree with the CJN’s warning because the judiciary must assert itself.