There was this story of a Chinese couple who gave birth to a child with Negroid features. At the elaborate party to welcome the newborn, they gave him the name Sum Tin Wong. Something was definitely wrong at the weekend when agents of the Department of State Services, DSS, launched midnight raids on the houses of some High, Appeal and Supreme Court judges. They ransacked the houses looking for evidence of corruption and arrested some of the judges, including two Justices of the Supreme Court.
Many things were wrong with the DSS operation, beginning with the English. DSS’ spokesman Abdullahi Garba told newsmen that the service carried out “special sting operations” against the judges. Check your dictionary, DSS; this is not the meaning of a sting operation. A sting operation is where a cop or journalist goes undercover and offers a bribe to a judge or other official, as British journalists did to FIFA officials. Such an operation is usually recorded or marked money is offered to the person. That is different from a judge receiving bribe from [an equally complicit] politician or lawyer, as is suspected in these cases.
Now, President Buhari once told an audience of Nigerians resident in Kenya that the judiciary is his big headache in the anti-corruption war. His administration has apparently decided to administer a shock treatment on the third arm of government. This is the most shocking blow dealt on the Judiciary since 1975 when General Murtala Mohammed purged a score of top judges, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria. This action was bound to elicit howls of protest. The National Judicial Council [NJC] has already condemned it. The Nigeria Bar Association [NBA] has declared a state of emergency and many civil rights groups have said it is an attempt to muzzle the judiciary. The danger is real that this crude measure, rather than give impetus to the anti-corruption campaign, could hamper it in the long term.
The hastily executed DSS operation almost caused a grave danger to national stability when its agents appeared at Justice Nkanu Walter Onnoghen’s door. Only days earlier, the Federal Judicial Service Commission [FJSC] had forwarded this man’s name to NJC for appointment as Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN. Onnoghen will be the first Southerner to become CJN since 1987. If he were to be stopped on account of any alleged wrongdoing, many people will see it as a Northern plot to hold on to the CJN’s plum office. DSS saw the danger involved and issued a statement vehemently denying that Onnoghen was under investigation.
Sum Tin was also Wong that it was DSS and not police, ICPC, CCB or EFCC that was looking for evidence of bribery. This country has many security agencies and their functions often overlap, though there are fairly distinct areas of concentration. We all thought that DSS has its hands full tracking Boko Haram insurgents, Niger Delta militants, economic saboteurs and other groups with internal sabotage potential. If a judge collected bribe to adjust an election case, that is what someone will call “ordinary bribe.” It is below the dignity of DSS to worry about that.
Since last year however, DSS has shown an unusual interest in Rivers State’s 2015 governorship election. Even when the election tribunal was still sitting, DSS usurped its duties by arresting the Resident Electoral Commissioner [REC] and some of her officials on allegations of receiving bribes. EFCC has since done a better job of it by showing where the bribe money came from and who collected what. I suggest that in future DSS should leave this task to EFCC since most bribe money ends up as money laundering.
After weekend’s raids, DSS tried to obtain a quick conviction of the judges in the court of public opinion by announcing the quantum of monies found in their homes. Sum Tin Wong there, too. Given the propensity of Nigerian elite figures to keep raw cash in their houses, the Nigerian public can make an informed judgement as to whether the monies found in the judges’ houses are huge only when DSS raids the houses of ministers, top civil servants, heads of lucrative agencies, political party chairmen and military service chiefs, including the Inspector General of Police and Director General of DSS. If every house in Nigeria is raided and the occupant is asked to explain all the money found in the house, there will be absolute chaos. What if, as was the case with Army Chief General Tukur Buratai, these judges have declared their wealth in asset declaration forms, own snake farms or have wives that are engaged in lucrative business? DSS didn’t wait to find this out before it rushed out a statement.
DSS said it raided a judge’s house in Port Harcourt because it had “credible intelligence” that he stashed away $2million. How credible was this credible intelligence? Most probably DSS heard it from [APC] politicians who lost the election and court cases to Wike, so it should have invited EFCC to look for evidence of money laundering. When DSS could not lay it hands on the money, it said “the Service surveillance team noticed that upon frustrating the operation, the judge with the active support of the governor craftily moved the money to an unknown destination.” Again, Sum Tin Wong here. Moving $2million is not such a huge logistic operation that it can be observed from outside the house. The entire amount, in $100 bills, is only 200 wraps, which can fit into a small suitcase.
According to DSS, it conducted weekend’s shocking operation “in line with its core mandate, as we have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyles of some judges as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgment obtained fraudulently and on the basis of amounts of money paid.” Is it really DSS’s core mandate to go about monitoring citizens’ lifestyles, except where involvement in terrorism or other subversion is suspected? In any case, lavishness of one’s lifestyle is not necessarily proportionate to his wealth and is not always an indicator of wrongdoing. Some people are frugal while others are spendthrift; the latter may even go into debt to finance a lavish lifestyle. As for complaints from the concerned public, I urge DSS to be wary of these because many Nigerians’ allegations are not worth the audio clip containing them.
Now, all of this is not to say that there is no corruption in the Nigerian judiciary. Stories told everyday by politicians, businessmen and other litigants as well as lawyers suggest that there is a lot of corruption in the judiciary. The people who tell these stories often claim to have paid bribes themselves or, in the case of lawyers, to have facilitated payment of the bribes. Politicians in particular have no secrets; sometimes I wonder if the judges know this before they strike deals with them. There is added circumstantial evidence from contradictory rulings, haste in granting ex-parte injunctions, strange acts such as a perpetual injunction to restrain officers from conducting an investigation, or a judge refusing to recuse himself from a case where a defendant questions his impartiality.
Sending DSS agents to selectively raid judges’ houses in the dead of night is a horrible way to pursue the anti-corruption fight, given the technological tools available for detecting corruption these days. But then NJC, which is responsible for disciplining judges, has so far done a very sloppy job of it. If it does not find a way to quicken and deepen its act, the temptation is always there for someone to wade in and do a messy job of it all.
Mahmud Jega is a columnist with Daily Trust where this article was first published.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.