With the apparent return of Justice Sylvester Ngwuta to duty, the reputation of the Supreme Court has suffered no dent or impairment, neither has the apex court’s status or that of the judge been diminished in any way.
This was the summation of views of senior lawyers, who insisted that since he was not convicted by any court, Ngwuta was still eminently qualified to discharge his assignments.
Ngwuta was among judges whose houses were raided by the operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) in August 2016, over allegations of corruption.
He was later charged with money laundering before the Federal High Court in Abuja, and with assets declaration breaches before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).
The judge was subsequently asked to step down from the bench pending the conclusion of the criminal trial against him.
However, both cases were dismissed in 2018, following a Court of Appeal’s verdict, which prohibited the trial of a serving judicial officer without being first disciplined by the National Judicial Council (NJC), a body constitutionally empowered to do so.
Last Monday, Ngwuta made a public appearance, indicating that he has resumed duties when he joined other justices of the Supreme Court at the special court session marking the commencement of the new 2019/2020 legal year in Abuja.
This development immediately raised issues of ethical concerns, as there were no such precedents in the country’s judicial history, where a prosecuted judge, although not convicted, returned to continue sitting over cases.
But the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) said justice would not be served if Ngwuta resigns as a result of trumped-up charges.
His words: “Given my personal experience of the extent Nigerian security agencies go to frame one up, particularly when you are targeted, or they want to prove a point, I’ll be very hesitant in passing judgment on Ngwuta.
“Would justice be served if he is innocent, but was targeted and framed up and now has to resign on account of that?” He questioned.
Usoro explained that because his resignation was what his traducers wanted in the first place, they would achieve their purpose if he quits the bench even when he was not found guilty by any court of law.
“In my opinion, his evil traducers would have succeeded and it would embolden them to set many more people up that way. We should join forces to stop that set-up practice, otherwise, we are all doomed and evil will prevail,” he submitted.
Also commenting on the issue, Prof. Fabian Ajogwu (SAN) waxed rhetorical asking whether Justice Ngwuta has been convicted of an offense to warrant his resignation.
“Have we removed the presumption of innocence from the Constitution? How about I accusing you of crimes relating to journalism fraud and demanding that you resign in the interim? What would be your response, to resign isn’t it?” Ajogwu asked.
The professor of law said the country needs to improve upon its record of observance of the rule of law so as to evolve into a just society, citing the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court that checked the action of British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who suspended the parliament as worthy of emulation.
Similarly, the Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Mr. Auwal Musa is of the view that it would tantamount to denying Ngwuta his rights to continue with his work since he was not found guilty in all the allegations against him if he is asked to go.
“Nigeria must not blackmail innocent people for self-centered political reasons. If surely he is not corrupt or involved in any unethical behaviour, there is no basis asking him to stop being a judge in the Supreme Court, unless he voluntarily tenders his resignation.
“This is because the fight against corruption must be done based on justice, rule of law and integrity, not on political blackmail and gossip to destroy an individual, only to discover that all allegations were fake, dubious and for political reasons,” he stated.
According to Musa, “that is why the government is being encouraged to carry out proper investigation before arresting suspects because it would affect the integrity of the accused, as well as the fight against corruption if there is no established evidence against an accused person. All would amount to media trial.”
Toeing the same line of argument, Dr. Biodun Layonu (SAN) said Ngwuta’s resumption of duties is an indication that he is fully cleared of all the allegations against him.
His words: “At this point, it will become a personal decision for milord whether to take early retirement or simply stay on without sitting (which becomes another moral burden of being paid, yet not working). But his quitting has to be a personal decision.”
In his view, law teacher and human rights activist, Mr. Wahab Shittu said: “His lordship has not been found guilty of any offence and in the context of presumption of innocence, his lordship’s integrity remains unimpaired.”
It follows, Shittu argues, that Ngwuta’s moral authority and capacity to adjudicate proceedings remains intact.
Lagos-based lawyer, Ms. Lotanna Dim in her submission stressed that Justice Ngwuta was merely suspended and not sacked.
She explained that since he was acquitted, he can, of course, resume his position.
“The law stands for innocent until proven guilty. He wasn’t found guilty. Being accused of a crime is not a ground to lose everything he has worked hard for, especially his position in the judiciary. So, I don’t see anything wrong with it, rather there would have been an issue if he wasn’t allowed to resume his duties.
Also contributing, another Lagos-based attorney, Mr. Adekunle Oyesanya (SAN) stressed that if the criminal charges against Justice Ngwuta were struck out because he was still a serving judge who hasn’t been disciplined by the NJC and he has no pending petition at the NJC, then whatever allegations made against him by the EFCC or ICPC, or indeed any organ of state, remain simply allegations for which he is presumed innocent until he is pronounced guilty by a court of law.
He said: “If he was therefore under suspension because of those allegations, it would appear proper for him to resume his official and judicial functions until and unless the aforementioned agencies of the state trigger the necessary procedures to bring him to trial.”
Oyesanya, however, agreed that there is a moral side to the story. “While on the one hand it is not proper for the said agencies of state to bring up frivolous allegations against anybody, not to talk of a person of the calibre of a Supreme Court judge, only to find out that they are not sustainable, the damage that has been done is that in the eyes and minds of the public, such a judge has been badly tainted, so much that even the institution he represents is adversely affected.
“This is because in most cases, even before the judge is arraigned, there is a media trial orchestrated against him. That is definitely not fair at all. It is against this background that I would agree that his integrity may have been compromised in the eye of the public and even some litigants and lawyers who may appear before him henceforth,” he stated.
The lawyer on account of these, suggested his resignation honourably as soon as his name is cleared, adding that such a fine and the brilliant judge should not be destroyed or allow himself to be destroyed whimsically.
“That is why I added the rider that he resigns only when his name is fully cleared so that there will be no question or suggestion that he was forced to resign.
“It is a sacrifice that is necessary for the larger interest of our administration of justice system and the integrity of our Supreme Court,” Oyesanya said, adding that the judge may even sue the state for false prosecution and defamation after he has quit since he cannot do so as a serving judge.