Posted by By Ise-Oluwa Ige on
IT is a lie. I did not travel to London with Ibori. Neither did my wife nor the Chief Registrar travel with him for any reason.
ABUJAó"IT is a lie. I did not travel to London with Ibori. Neither did my wife nor the Chief Registrar travel with him for any reason. I have been on the bench for 31 years. This is the first time ever in my career that I am being accused of taking bribe. It has been done twice in this Ibori case. Why? Why? Why should that be?" the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais, in a heavy-laden voice, queried, last Friday.
The CJN who spoke on the Ibori ex-convict case, for the second time, was reacting to a fresh allegation that he (Justice Uwais) travelled with Governor James Ibori of Delta State to London, late last year, to negotiate his (Ibori) November 8, 2004 legal victory at the Abuja High Court.
According to Justice Uwais, the allegation was not only embarrassing but also unfounded. Uwais said though the Supreme Court had the power of contempt to jail those who were behind the bribery allegations against him and some justices of the court, "we have to realise that we represent an institution which is very important to this nation. It is our duty not to do things that would bring down the reputation of the institution. And this is why we are prepared to suffer in silence.
"But the truth is that we have nothing to hide. We can assure you. If the various bodies charged with responsibility to investigate misconduct are interested in this case like the National Judicial Council (NJC), the ICPC and the EFCC, we are ready for probe. We are prepared to appear before them and explain our side.
"I say let them investigate. And if they establish these things, we are not immuned. We are just like other citizens when it comes to committing a crime and we are prepared to face the music if this is true," Justice Uwais said.
Justice Uwais who fielded questions from newsmen in his office for one and a half hours used the opportunity to explain why the National Judicial Council decided not to tackle an Abuja High Court judge who gave Governor Ibori a clean bill of health in spite of allegations that he went outside jurisdiction. He said NJC decided not to intervene because the subject-matter of the petition before the council is before a sitting Appeal Court in Abuja.
A group called Derivation Front had last year alleged that Justice Uwais took N250 million bribe to refuse a request that Governor Ibori should not be sworn into office on May 29, 2003 on account of a pending legal action challenging his eligibility to contest Delta gubernatorial election. He was also accused of collecting a N5 billion bribe from the same governor for sharing among his brother justices of the Supreme Court to order a denovo trial in the Governor Iboriís ex-convict case in order to buy time for him in government.
The fresh accusation being mouthed by two Deltans and lawyers, Messrs Moses Oddiri and Andrew Oru, against the CJN was that he travelled to England during the last court vacation with Governor Ibori, where 3.5 million pounds was allegedly splashed by the governor on some Nigerian judges including him (the CJN) to "purchase" the November 8, 2004 Abuja High Court verdict which absolved him (Ibori) of being an ex-convict.
The CJN was said to have travelled to London with his wife, Registrar of the Supreme Court, Danlami Senchi and Justice Galadima to strike the deal with Governor Ibori.
The duo of Mr Moses Oddiri and Mr Andrew Oru, in separate petitions to President Olusegun Obasanjo, dated December 7, 2004, had also alleged that Justice Uwais who is the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) frustrated their efforts to ensure that a committee was set up by the council to probe the November 8, 2004 controversial judgement of Justice Hussein Murhktar of an Abuja High Court which held that Governor Ibori was not an ex-convict in spite of alleged avalanche of un-controverted evidence.
According to them, Uwais influenced the council to refuse the setting up of the committee to probe allegation of misconduct against the trial judge in the matter, Justice Murhktar for the fear that the judicial officer could spill beans. They dismissed as arrant nonsense, an explanation by the NJC that there was no need convoking any panel since the plaintiffs in the case had gone on appeal in the matter with the allegation of sitting in appellate capacity on verdict of the Supreme Court as one of its grounds.
They said nothing could best be described as professional misconduct than a trial judge sitting in an appellate capacity over judgement of the Supreme Court which Justice Murhktar allegedly did in the controversial Ibori case. They were of the view that the verdicts of Justices Egbo Egbo and Stanley Nnaji upon which panels were set up by NJC were not as "criminal" as Murhktarís. They said both verdicts which were probed by NJC were also appealed against.
Below are excerpts from Justice Uwais interview:
Some people alleged that the judgement of the Supreme Court which ordered a denovo trial in Governor Iboriís ex-convict case leaked before it was actually delivered. Then there was this allegation of bribery in respect of the case. We want a clearer picture of your reaction on this?
I have issued a statement on that. If you remember, before we delivered the judgement, we issued the statement which we gave to lawyers and all pressmen who were there.
Yes, we were there. But there is this petition against Justice Murhktar of an Abuja High Court over his November 8, 2004 judgement, absolving Governor Ibori of not being an ex-convict. The petition said his judgement was like sitting as an appellate court over the verdict of the Supreme Court. The expectation was that a panel would be set up to consider the merit of the allegation as was done in Justice Egbo Egbo and Nnajiís cases but that NJC said it would not set up any panel. Why or how does NJC operate?
First of all, we must be very careful in dealing with the judgement given by Justice Murhktar of the Abuja High Court because that judgement is on appeal. And once a matter is pending in court, it becomes subjudice. We are not supposed to make any statement that will influence, in any way, the outcome of that case before the Court of Appeal. It is contempt of court. So we ought to be very careful about what we say about that. So, I am not going to say whether he has jurisdiction or he has no jurisdiction, whether he acted rightly or he acted wrongly. But I think you are here in respect of a petition by Moses Oddiri. Let us call a spade a spade. Moses Oddiri wrote me a petition.
You are all aware of it. He circulated it to the whole world. He said that the judge acted without jurisdiction, that the Supreme Court had given him specific directive and that he went beyond that and, therefore, he should be disciplined. The NJC doesnít work like that at all. What we always do or we look for is misconduct. We expect judges to make mistakes as human beings and this is why we have the appeal system so that if a judge makes any technical error, it can be corrected. But the NJC does not expect a judge to abuse his office. Abusing his office may take various forms. It could be in form of taking bribes, or like issuing ex parte injunctions carelessly without considering what inconveniences it will cause the general public or people in authority.
But when you talk of situations in respect of Justice Egbo Egbo or Nnaji, the two situations are quite different from what happened in Iboriís case?
Egbo Egbo issued an ex parte order against INEC. The case was filed before him here in Abuja. INEC is here in Abuja. They did not appear before him. They were not there. He issued an injunction against Ngige that he should be removed, that he is no more governor. It was not an election tribunal. His court is an high court. Election tribunal is the one charged with election petition. He shouldnít have done such a thing. It was obvious to everybody and this is what NJC has been saying. It is there in the code of conduct for judges that interim orders should not be issued carelessly.
A case came before Egbo Egbo. That day he finished the case and gave orders. It was taken to him in the house after office hours. He signed that order. And what was his excuseóthat he didnít read it when his clerk produced it. We all are judges, even in the NJC. Some have served and retired. So you cannot pull wool over the eyes of the NJC. We know the practice. You canít put blame on your clerk because you are supposed to study the order even as a lawyer. You know you canít sign a document until you study it because you know the implication. But if you sign it, you canít blame anybody for that. So that is the issue of Egbo Egbo.
When we talk of Nnaji, it is the same thing. Nnaji was sitting in Enugu and was issuing orders in respect of Ngige in Anambra State. Is that what Murhktar did? The complaint against him is that he disobeyed the order of the Supreme Court and the appeal is similar on the same issue. So how can NJC intervene at that stage? Let the Court of Appeal look at it and determine. We receive all sorts of petitions daily.
It is not every petition that the NJC receives that it would investigate. If the nature of the petition is such that whatever the fellow is complaining about is something that can be corrected by the appellate court and does not involve misconduct according to the code of conduct for the judiciary, NJC would not interfere. We donít go about witchhunting. We donít want to remove the courage that the judges have in handling cases independently. So that is what informed the instruction we gave.
But what follows thereafter? Petitions, circulated widely. Has this been done in good faith? Is that the situation of somebody who sincerely felt he was wronged and wanted it corrected? Is that how to react? Giving out letters to the press, start writing petitions against people saying that this is how they operate. I think it is for you to read between the lines. You need to go back to the beginning of all these things and see the sequence of events whether the right thing is being done. I hope we are falling into traps ourselves in being used for mischief.
But this is not the first time this type of allegation of bribery will be flying around. There was a time it was alleged that your honourable self collected N5 billion bribeÖ
(Cuts in) Yes, even before that, there was a paid advert in The Tribune when they alleged that.... Please wait, let me correct all these. Apart from Iboriís case, have you ever heard of anybody accusing the Supreme Court or its justices of taking bribe? I have been on the bench for 31 years. This is the first time ever in my career that I am being accused of taking bribe. 31 years as a judge in this country. For one day, nobody has accused me of taking bribe except in connection with Iboriís case. It has been done twice in this Iboriís case. Why? Why? Why should that be? Take time to think about this.
This is one of the reasons why we are here. This is not the first time this kind of allegation would be mouthed. Our concern really is: doesnít the Supreme Court have any power to fight back? To us, we feel the court has been annoyingly quiet about this. If it is not true, canít you scapegoat those who are mouthing unsubstantiated allegations against this institution?
There is a good reason for that. We have powers of contempt. Everybody knows it. We could get these people and send them to jail if we want to. But we restrained ourselves. Secondly, this matter has been referred to the police. The police conducted an investigation. You are all aware. The INTERPOL even came here. They asked for statements from the judges concerned. We asked them to help us investigate the so called leakage to know who is the culprit.
They interviewed all our secretaries and messengers. We are interested in the outcome of what they are doing. The NJC is interested because the matter was also referred to the NJC. The NJC wrote them two letters. The first one, they said they were very interested and that they should endeavour to make available to the NJC a copy of their investigation, there was no answer. The second letter was written to the IG, also to remind him that this report was required. Till now, there is no answer from them.
The Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court has been in touch with the Commissioner of Police in charge of the investigation. It reached a stage now that when he even telephones and they see his number, they switch off. Nobody answers. So what can we do in this situation? And as I have said, we donít want to be seen as using our powers to serve our purpose. Definitely, the few people who have spoken, I see that the Derivation Front is not faceless. We could get them. You will remember that it was alleged because there was a motion in the appeal brought here that Ibori should be stopped from being sworn-in as Delta State governor.
We decided we would not do so because when you look at it, by the 29th of May, 2003, there must be a government in Delta State. We cannot leave the state without a government. These people who have brought the appeal (Goodnews Agbi and Anthony Alabi) didnít contest the election even against Ibori. So they cannot say if Ibori should not be sworn in, they should be sworn in. Now can anybody in his common sense leave a state like that in the limbo? So we used that as part of the detailed reasoning in the ruling and said no.
We said if he was declared as the winner of the election, let him be sworn in and the case would go on. Whatever may be the outcome, if it affects him that he should not be there, he would not be there. Now what did they do? They went and published an advert in Tribune, a whole page, that I received a bribe of N250 million and that is why we didnít stop Ibori from being sworn in. We went ahead, heard the appeal, gave our judgement and what again is the next accusation that we received N5 billion to share amongst ourselves. The first one, we felt we could, it was against me.
The ICPC is there. The police are there. Why donít they go and report? Let them investigate and if they establish these things, we are not immuned. We are just like other citizens when it comes to committing a crime and we are prepared to face the music if this is true. Nothing happened there. Police are still investigating. This very Oddiri has a case in a Lagos High Court against The Guardian that they libelled him and we were joined, myself and a number of justices here and now the next step is to bring out all these spurious petitions of wrongdoing by us. Looking at the background of things, are these the kind of people you take seriously?
That is why we are concerned. When some people in Delta State boasted after the Supreme Court ruling that even if their accusers went to ICJ at The Hague, the judgement would be in their favour because they had pocketed the entire judiciary of the country?
How do I answer that (prolonged laughter) Anybody can brag. If their bragging corresponds with our judgement, what can we do? And if you are in our shoes, what can you do? We are here. We are not in Delta State to know what is happening there. Only God knows how many people brag on this sort of issue.
I can remember I spoke with two renowned legal practitionersóJustices Omotunde Ilori and Bola Ajibolaó when this issue of N5 billion bribery allegation was still fresh. Both of them have high regard for you and other justices of the Supreme Court. But in their view at the time, they said they were expecting the Supreme Court to engage their accusers the way the court did when Concord Newspapers accused the Supreme Court justices of collecting Mercedez Benz cars bribe from the Military President, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida or use your power of contempt to deal with them if the allegation was not true?
Yes, this country, you cannot satisfy people. You would not know that because we sued Concord over the Mercedez issue, a committee set up by Abacha recommended that all of us should be retired, that we should not have gone to the court in the first instance. This is an open secret. The eight of us were said to have taken a wrong step, that we were ridiculing the Supreme Court, that how could Justices of the Supreme Court before whom appeal would comewent and sued. The suggestion of that committee was that all of us be retired. Justice Ilori wouldnít know. He was sitting in Lagos as High Court judge then. Of course we didnít withdraw the case. Eventually, Concord accepted that they did the wrong thing and apologised and that terminated the case.
Even then I know Ilori as a judge would say that if the case had gone all the way, he would have convicted Babangida and so on which is neither here nor there. Gani Fawehinmi himself who was counsel to Concord felt that he would have proved his case and we also had Chief Rotimi Williams and a team of other lawyers. People can make a mountain out of a mole. We donít get carried away by such a thing. We have to realise that we represent an institution and this institution is very important to this nation. So it is our duty not to do things that would bring down the reputation of the institution. And this is why we have prepared to suffer in silence.
But, for how long will you, in your own words now, suffer in silence?
Well, I am sorry you canít push us to the wall. We own ourselves. Donít we? It is a free country. So we could do with ourselves just like you can do with yourselves. It is not a question of how long. I told you why we said we will not take any action in this matter. So, why are you asking this question again?
We are asking just because this issue of throwing allegation is becoming something like a vicious circle. This is because there is a fresh allegation again that you travelled, your wife travelled and the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court with Ibori to England to strike dealÖ?
Look, you believe this thing. Let us call a spade a spade.
No, donít worry I will deal with that. I will answer you. To be frank, I am not a corner corner person. I am a straightforward person. Yes, it has been alleged that I went to England with my wife with the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court with Ibori. That is a lie!
I was in England last year thrice. In May, I attended a conference in Spain. I was accompanied by Justice Niki Tobi who went to that conference. After that conference, there was to be a conferene in Italy. Justice Niki Tobi proceeded to Germany for his medical attention. I went back to London for my wife to join me and from there, the Chief Registrar came as well because other justices were going to be in Italy and we travelled from London to Rome and other justices were there from all the courts in Nigeria, maybe about 15 justices from Nigeria attended the conference in Italy. And it was the World Jurists Association of which I am the honourary President. After the conference, we came back through London because we flew British Airways and returned to Nigeria. I never set my eyes on Ibori. That was in May.
Way back in August, I travelled to England for my medical check up. I travelled alone, not with my wife or any member of my family or the Chief Registrar. I was there between August and September. I returned here in September and travelled to Tanzania after the swearing-in of the new SANs. After I returned from Tanzania, I was here till I travelled to Canada with my wife on October 26, 2004. Now when did I meet Ibori? When did we travel together. That petition you are talking about, when did he say we travelled?
Now there is another allegation that I gave contract to myself through my wife. That is rubbish. In fact, he didnít get his information correct. There was a time when there were series of petitions against me. They were sent to the president, Senate president and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. There was an allegation that when Abdulsalami Abubakar government was going, that I received N54 million to complete houses for Justices of the Supreme Court who were to be appointed and that I opened special account with UBA where I kept the money and that nobody knew about the money because I didnít complete the building.
I couldnít have received the money to complete a project being done by the Ministry of FCT and I challenged whoever said I had an account with UBA to produce evidence. The president referred their petition to me and I replied him. If I collected N54 million, they should be able to trace it in the presidencyís record and UBA is there to confirm too. I donít have a single account with UBA anywhere in this country. Later on the whole thing came out that the person who was responsible for those petitions was known.
The deputy chief registrar that was being used came to me. He had problem with Justice Uwaifo who was behind the petitions and told me that all those petitions were written between him and Uwaifo. He was crying while confessing before me. The NJC set up a committee to investigate everything including the allegation that I gave contract to my wife. What happened? Computers were bought worth N4 million for the court. My wife is a legal practitioner. She has her office and operate separately from me. I am not in charge of her chambers and she is entitled to earn a living on her own. She is practising in Abuja.
The company that supplied the computers, she happens to be solicitor to them. They were occupying a premises. Their rent expired. The owners refused to renew their tenancy. They got another premises in the same Maitama. But there was no telephone. So they asked my wife if they could use her office telephone for that business for the time being until they would get theirs installed and she agreed.
The company had been involved from day one when this building was under construction. They were attending site meetings to advise on the computerisation of this court. So they were not new to the court. The former chief registrar was in charge of contract award, not me. And they awarded contract to these people to compensate them because they were coming on their own expense. The records are all there, even from FCDA and contractors who built this building. You can go to them. They will show you that this company was participating in their site meetings, giving advice which corresponds with the computerisation of this place. And all they received was a contract of N4 million to supply computers which they did.
Now the allegation was that the contract was given to my wife because her telephone number appears on their letter headings. When these people who alleged were called to prove, they could not. There were series of allegations that they made. I can tell you one thing. If the NJC had concluded, Justice Uwaifo could have been dismissed but it was felt again that it has never happened in the history of this court and that to save the situation, he should be asked to apologise to me and I should have a large heart to accept his apology and that had been done in writing.
So what is all these talks and you tend to believe? This is the impression I have. You believe what is written all over the place.
No, no, no. By the way you put your questions. Oh yes! We have to work within the tradition of the judiciary. As much as possible, we avoid controversy because controversies come to us for resolution. So if we are part of the controversy, who is there to resolve it for us. So we ought to be very careful. As much as possible, we are very reluctant to to appear on television or involving in just any discussion.
This has been the tradition of the profession and we try to keep it. So we have nothing to hide. We can assure you. And if the various bodies charged with the responsibility to investigate misconduct are interested, the NJC, the ICPC, the police, the EFCC, we are ready. We are ready to appear before them and explain our own side. But we doníít want to go to the press.
We know what it is to the public to start talking all over the place. Politicians like that. They like to sell themselves all over the place. But we are not politicians.
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