Furore as Bello Deploys ‘Onnoghen Style’ to sack Kogi CJ

Ajanah

The current face-off between Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State and the state Chief Judge, Justice Nasir Ajanah is again putting the state in the spotlight.

The disagreement between the two kinsmen from Kogi Central Senatorial district has brought to the fore the many illegalities that have become the state government’s hallmark.

First was the intimidation of the Chief Judge, when the source of light and water to his residence was cut. Later, a petition against him was sent to the NJC.

The state Deputy Governor suffered the same fate, as he was also deprived of electricity and water over a disagreement.

The executive/judiciary disagreement started when Governor Bello directed that all members of staff of the state judiciary present themselves before a committee for verification, biometric data capturing and undergo a “table payment’’ process.

However, the state judiciary leadership, led by Justice Nasiru Ajanah, and the Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), Kogi State chapter, felt uncomfortable with the move, because it was contrary to the doctrine of separation of powers and independence of the judiciary as enshrined in the Constitution and Kogi State public finance law.

Their contrary view stemmed from the fact that the recruitment, discipline and other issues pertaining to judiciary staff were meant to be under the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and not the executive arm of government.

But disregarding stipulated rules, the executive arm had taken the decision unilaterally, without recourse to the JSC.

Another concern is, should the judiciary succumb, it would amount to depriving it of its independence, which could impact negatively on judicial pronouncements.

The Governor, however, insisted that subventions due to the judiciary would not be remitted to it, until it complied with his directive.

As a result of the impasse, the subventions due to the judiciary were stopped by the executive sometime in June 2018, culminating in nonpayment of salaries to judiciary staff.

Apparently piqued by the outcome, Kogi JUSUN embarked on an indefinite strike action in December 2018, following the non-release of subventions to the judiciary for about six months. The industrial action had crippled court activities in the state.

And though members of the State Assembly are aware of the limit of their mandate, which does not extend to the removal or suspension of a Chief Judge, they went ahead to do the executive’s bidding to investigate the Judiciary.

So, a Public Accounts Committee was set up by the State House of Assembly in line with Section 103 of the 1999 Constitution as amended at its plenary sitting on December 24, 2018.

The committee was mandated to investigate reported cases of financial breaches, noncompliance with financial regulations and poor handling of financial records by various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). The judiciary was not left out.

After its findings, the committee recommended the sack of Justice Ajanah over alleged gross misconduct, including financial breaches.

This followed the adoption of the report and recommendations of the House Committee on “Public Accounts on the State Auditor General’s Report on 2016 Financial Statements” in Lokoja.

Presenting the report, chairman of the committee, Alhaji Ahmed Mohammed (APC-Ankpa I) indicated that the Chief Judge should step aside to defend himself over the indictment by the state Auditor-General.

He said in the year that ended in December 2016, Kogi Judiciary was said to have expended its budget above the approved limits provided in some subheads as contained in the 2016 Appropriation Law to the tune of N7, 574, 850 without the approval of virement application.

He said: “The State Auditor-General also reported that Kogi State High Court made huge cash withdrawal to the tune of N137, 607, 334.11. The cash was withdrawn from High Court Bank account in the year under review. This transaction breached the provisions of chapter 6, regulation 632, which stipulates that, “the use of cash for payment is hereby prohibited.”

The committee, therefore, recommenced the Chief Judge’s removal for gross misconduct or in the alternative, he should step aside pending his appearance before the House committee on Public Accounts to defend himself.

It also recommended that the Chief Registrar be referred to the state JSC for disciplinary action, while the state government should commence immediate payment of judicial staff salaries.

The Majority Leader, Abdullahi Hassan-Balogun (APC-Ajaokuta) moved for the adoption of the report and was seconded by the Deputy Minority Leader, Oluwatoyin Lawal (PDP-Yagba-West).

In his contribution, Haruna Musa (APC-Idah) urged the House to take cognisance of a subsisting court order on the impasse between the House and the Judiciary and be guided adequately.

On his part, the Chief Whip, Mr. Victor Adewale Omofaiye (APC-Ijumu) said efforts should be made to pay staff the nine months salary arrears while the investigation is going on.

The Speaker, Prince Matthew Kolawole adopted the report and recommendations, following majority voice votes by members.

This development has since thrown the state into another confusion as reaction has been trailing the decision.

The other likely reason for the rift between Governor Bello and the CJ, according to political watchers, is the CJ’s reluctance to play ball and ensure that Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West) was remanded at the Federal Prisons Koton-Karfe, when he was arraigned in Lokoja on the allegation of gun running and sundry charges.

Others, however, insist that the crack predates the Melaye episode. The Governor was so pained that during a statewide broadcast on the eve of the recently concluded House of Assembly elections, he alleged that the lawsuit filed against Kogi government by JUSUN over non-payment of their salaries was politically motivated.

Saying he was not surprised by the timing of the case, considering the season and politicisation of institutions all over the place, Bello pointed out that the refusal of the state judiciary’s leadership to forward their staff payroll for the pay parade with collusion of JUSUN leaders is well documented.

He said: “I have pleaded unsuccessfully with them for months on the need to spare their innocent members the unnecessary trauma. The state House of Assembly has also tried to intervene, only to be stopped by injunction from the Judiciary curiously obtained while courts claimed to be on strike. I have petitioned the Chief Justice of Nigeria to intervene since November last year, but we are yet to receive any feedback.

“We look forward to being educated on how a pay parade across all branches and cadres of our Civil Service is prejudicial to the independence of the Judicial Arm, but not to the Legislature.”

The Governor disclosed that several months’ salaries due to Kogi State Civil Servants working in the Judiciary are sitting in the banks.

“My preoccupation is how to get that money to innocent staffers without breaching applicable service rules or our Collective Agreement with Labour,” he said.

Some analysts said when it comes to fighting dirty Bello would not remember the good of the past. Otherwise, it was the same state Chief Judge that administered the oath of office on the Governor on January 27, 2016 without his deputy.

“Ajanah stood behind the Governor in all litigations that sought to remove him,” an analyst remarked

Having come to terms with the reality, Ajanah brought his professional experience to bear.

The Guardian investigation revealed that the Chief Judge, in his reply to the petition with the NJC, had retrieved all communication with the Governor in print out from the telecommunications providers, which he attached to his response to the petition.

It was, however, gathered that this did not go down well with the Government, knowing full well that some of the content may vindicate the Chief Judge regarding the directive to have Melaye remanded, which Ajanah professionally handled by granting Melaye bail.

The crisis took a new turn, when the state JUSUN dragged Bello and Ajanah before the National Industrial Court in Lokoja, the state capital, over unpaid salaries and non-remittance of funds due to the state judiciary.

The union sought the court’s intervention, as there has been no concrete effort by the state government towards resolving the strike action already in its third month.

In the original summons filed at the court by counsel to the union, Chief U. M. Enwere, other defendants in the matter are the state Attorney-General, the Commissioner for Finance, the Accountant-General, the Auditor-General, the Grand Kadi, the President of the Customary Court of Appeal and the state Judicial Service Commission.

The union asked the court to determine among others, whether Kogi State Judiciary is not entitled, as of right, amounts standing to its credit in the state Consolidated Revenue Fund and payable to the heads of courts in line with section 231(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and section 5 of the Kogi State Public Finance (Judiciary Special Provisions) Law No 6 of 1991.

The union also sought to know “Whether the governor and his appointees joined in the case have the power or right to withhold judiciary’s funds, thereby failing in the payment of monthly salaries, allowances and emoluments of judiciary staff.

“Whether the executive arm can place such conditions as staff screening, staff data capturing, table payment or any other condition as a prerequisite for the release of the funds without respect for the doctrine of separation of powers as envisaged by the constitution the Kogi State Public Finance Law.”

It also asked the court to declare that the executive lacks the power to withhold judiciary’s funds and the executive’s continued refusal to pay such funds due to the judiciary as unconstitutional, illegal, ultra vires, wrong, null and void and of no effect.

Before the lawsuit by JUSUN, the judiciary had obtained a court injunction restraining the two arms of government from interfering in the judiciary’s activities, particularly Justice Ajanah and the Chief Registrar, Yahaya Adamu.

The Koton-Karfe Division of Kogi High Court had restrained the Yahaya Bello-led administration and the House of Assembly from taking steps that would interfere in judicial duties.

The order, which was obtained by the Chief Judge and the Chief Registrar, came in the wake of the purported plan by the state Assembly to investigate the judiciary, following a petition to the Secretary to the Government (SSG), Mrs. Folashade Arike Ayoade.

Ayoade had requested from the Chief Judge the payroll of judicial workers as part of the recent ‘table payment’ by the government, in an effort to ascertain the workforce and prevent leakages.

The SSG herself is standing trial in High Court 1, presided over by the CJ, on charges against her by the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC).

The ex-parte application filed by Yemi Muhammed, counsel to the applicants, prayed the court to restrain the defendants from threatening or interfering in judicial activities, pending determination of the substantive suit.

The defendants include the House of Assembly, the Speaker Mathew Kolawole, the Chairman of the Ad hoc Committee, Hassan Abdullahi; the Governor and the Attorney-General.

In his ruling, Justice Alaba Ajileye granted the application as prayed. But despite that, the ad hoc committee was set up to look into an alleged “impasse between the judiciary and the executive arm of government with a view to providing guidance and way forward.”

Another reason adduced by some political watchers has to do with the feud between the Governor and his deputy, which ordinarily by now his deputy Simon Achuba would have been impeached for contrived anti-party activities, if not for the impasse with the Chief judge, who is crucial for any impeachment to sail through.

At this point, Bello wanted to get rid of Ajanah to enable him have a Chief Judge that will dance to his tunes, but the judiciary seems united in its efforts to frustrate him.

In another twist, the state Judiciary approached the state High Court in Koton-Karfe to seek nullification of the April 2 resolution of the state Assembly that recommended Ajanah’s sack.

The Motion was filed by Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) leading 11 other lawyers, including five Senior Advocates of Nigeria on behalf of the claimants/applicants, Justice Ajanah and Alhaji Yahaya Adamu.

The motion has Kogi State House of Assembly; Speaker of the House; Hon. Bello Hassan Abdullahi, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee; the Governor and the state Attorney-General as defendants.

The claimants/applicants contended that the House of Assembly defied the pendency of Suit NO. HC/KK/11CV/2018 and the interim injunctive Orders of the Court to have sat and issued a resolution in respect of the matter.

They prayed for a court order nullifying and setting aside the resolution purportedly passed by the House at its plenary sitting of April 2, 2019 in defiance of the pendency of the suit.

Commenting on the crises between the Executive and the Judiciary in the state, a legal practitioner, Mr. Ogu James Onoja (SAN), described the face-off as most unfortunate, and that by virtue of separation of powers as enshrined in the constitution, all arms of government ought to enjoy financial autonomy.

He said: “One cannot imagine a government planning a table payment for judges and other staff of judiciary, and the Chief Judge said it is not possible because judiciary is supposed to be independent to be able to discharge justice on behalf of the ordinary man.

“So, what we are seeing now is an attempt by the state government to emasculate the judiciary and totally subjugate it in this political era when we need an independent judiciary to mediate in political cases that will end in the judiciary.”

Onoja called on Nigerians to rise up and support the judiciary to retain its independence so as to save it from tyranny of the executive.

A Human Rights Activist and Executive Director, Centre for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Idris Miliki Abdul condemned the SSG’s actions, saying the act of sending petition to the House of Assembly has undermined the judiciary’s power.

He said: “Imagine a government inaugurated by law that is busy subverting the law. The present Kogi government is not obeying the rule of law.

This issue is constitutional and very clear. The fund meant for the judiciary should be given to them by the first line charge, which means that if a budget is approved for the judiciary, the executive should not tamper with it.

Another lawyer, Jibrin Samuel Okutepa (SAN) said the State House of Assembly’s resolution on the Chief Judge is suicidal, constitutional iniquity and insubordination.

He wondered if the state Assembly sought legal advice before taking such a step.

He said: “I do not think so; for if it did, it could have been properly guided. On February 17, 2012, the Supreme Court of Nigeria settled the point that no state House of Assembly and governor can remove the state CJ without going through NJC.”

He said it is quite plain from the provisions of Paragraph 21 sub-paragraphs (c) and (d) of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, that the National Judicial Council is the body assigned the duty and responsibility of recommending to Governors suitable persons for appointments to the offices of Chief Judges and other Judicial Officers.

But the Speaker, Matthew Kolawole debunked insinuation that the Governor Bello-led executive was using the House of Assembly to remove Ajanah.

He insisted that the House would not allow itself to be used against another arm of government, but would work within the framework of constitutional provisions.

The Speaker said the investigation of the House Committee on public accounts was as a result of the Auditor-General’s report on the 2015/2016 finances of the Judiciary.

He said the decision of the House had nothing to do with the executive-judiciary face-off that had been on since last year.

Kolawole said the Auditor-General indicted the Judiciary for spending more than the amount appropriated to it by the House.

The Speaker explained that the Public Accounts Committee invited the Chief Judge on three occasions to defend the allegations, but he failed to honour the invitations.

He said such action under the Constitution amounted to gross misconduct, and that it is one of the offences for which a Chief Judge could be removed from office.

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