My DSS, NJC story, N632m allegedly traced to my bank account – Ex-Enugu CJ
Justice Innocent Umezulike, the compulsorily retired Chief Judge of Enugu State, was a professor of law before going to the Bench. He was among the judges whose houses were recently raided by the Department of State Security, DSS, in an operation, before he was recommended by the National Judiciary Council, NJC, for retirement. In this interview, he narrates the events that led to his forced retirement, the N632 million reportedly traced to his bank account by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other alleged controversies around his tenure as Chief Judge.
Do you consider the NJC recommendation for your retirement as a punitive measure?
I am delighted that this provides me an opportunity to give a synopsis of the events that culminated in my retirement. Prior to the NJC decision to ask that I retire, they had set up a four-man panel headed by Justice Umaru Abdullahi, the retired President of Court of Appeal. I give you a copy of the report they submitted (gives a copy of the NJC report) and a perusal of the report clearly shows that of the eleven allegations leveled against me by one Mr. Peter Eze, I was exonerated on ten. The only allegation the panel found to have merit was that I did not deliver judgment within three months after final arguments. Of course it is also not true that I did not deliver judgment three months after the lawyers’ final arguments. What happened was that I adjourned for judgment and unfortunately the judgment fell on Christmas public holiday, and the same Peter Eze and the other lawyer took a date that fell outside the three months constitutional provision.
Unsuspectingly, I returned after the vacation to deliver the judgment and my attention was not drawn to the fact that the duration had elapsed. It is the duty of the lawyer to direct the attention of the court that this judgment has exceeded three months or call for further final arguments but they didn’t do that.
That was the only infraction they found against me and recommended sanction out of the eleven allegations. Previously, such infraction on the part of a judicial officer always ended in the warning of the officer concerned; they give you a warning not to that do again but, unbelievably, my own ended in retirement. I will not call names but I’ve taken it in my strides and I am not going to challenge it in court.
Do you suspect there was political motive behind it?
There is no doubt that the person who started this campaign against me since 2014 was not acting alone.
He must have had some political figures behind him because this attack started in 2014 after I nullified a high profile politician’s delegate list in Enugu High Court. I declared the politician’s delegate list null and void and ordered that it should not be used for the selection of party delegates for the election of 2015. So I may have incurred his wrath because there was a lot of pressure on me to give judgment in favour of the allegedly forged delegate list.
After that, my court ordered the police to investigate an allegation bordering on the forgery of Architect Illoabachi’s will which was allegedly used to extort money from the two sections of the family and also the alleged forgery of R.O Nkwocha’s signature on his power of attorney to illegally convert Nkwocha’s property in the GRA Enugu. So hell was let loose. If you look at all the petitions, including the one that was filed at the EFCC in last few months, they are the same.
The first petition was in 2014. The NJC looked at it and cleared me and said I had no case. The same petition was repeated. NJC ignored it, and then the same petition was sent to the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation which innocently minuted it to the police to investigate and for the NJC to also reinvestigate. Instead of the NJC telling the Attorney General of the Federation that they had investigated this matter, NJC started another round of investigation, showing there had been pressure on the Council. The police came here at the instance of the petitioner, did their own invesigation and dismissed all the allegations. So it is politically motivated.
How come your case came at the same time with those of the Federal High Court and Supreme Court judges?
It is not a coincidence because all the cases at that time were before the NJC. Recall that it was in the same sitting of the NJC that I was retired. It was also in the sitting of the NJC that Justice Ademola was asked to face another panel. Justice Samirra of the Court of Appeal was retired by the Council in that same sitting while Justice Auta was dismissed and handed over to the police which was a very outrageous thing to do by the NJC.
The whole thing came up at the same time and they said they had to investigate us. It is good but that was doing the right thing in a wrong way. There is nothing illegal in investigating a public officer but the problem was with the approach adopted. The Supreme Court, in a number of cases, had said that when an employee is involved in any misbehavior which has criminal flavor, you should first of all hand the employee over to the police for investigation; it is the report of that police investigation that will determine whether the body or the agency or the establishment will descend on the employee, but the NJC said these judges had been accused of infractions bordering on criminality.
You first of all retire them, dismiss them, suspend them before handing them over to the police. To do what? You have already taken a final decision. What the Supreme Court in Garba and the University of Maiduguri said was that you get the police to do the investigation, then you can bring down the hammer but here the law was somersaulted; they first of all dealt with the employees before handing over to the police. It was very wrong.
Does that say the NJC was hijacked?
Certainly! I’ve been in the NJC and headed panels like this in the past. What you find in the NJC is a monologue. The Chief Justice of Nigeria is essentially the appointer of all the members except the members from the Bar who are the ones that have independent voices. Other members are people who just go there to listen to what the Chief Justice of Nigeria has to say. That is the problem! I was in the NJC when Justice Ayo Salami’s case came up. In disciplining judges, the members of the NBA in the NJC are always asked to go out; they don’t take part, so there is no debate. What you find is that the Chief Justice of Nigeria comes and says, ‘Well ‘we have received this report, this is my view’; and that is the end.
Is it true that your own house was equally raided by the DSS when the Supreme Court judges’ homes were invaded?
Yes, my house here was invaded.
What did they find on you?
They took away my international passport, about four of my laptops, my telephone handsets. With these items, they were able to do their investigation as to the mode of travel, the length and breadth around the world, the communications you may have had in the past and they found absolutely nothing on me and my items have been returned to me. Meanwhile, one good thing and what I really want people to note is that even though the approach was wrong, the result was helpful to the nation because, before now, when the media attacks the judiciary as being corrupt, what the NJC always did was to rush to the court and look for scapegoats, to sacrifice and pretend that the judiciary is cleaning itself.
And people are mostly sacrificed. Sometimes, people who have not been able to attend to their duties for days and months because of ill health, they say ‘we fire him, the judiciary is cleaning itself’. Those who have petitions against them, they retire them, dismiss them. But this time around, when the attack came, they rushed and started exhuming petitions that had been there for years and say ‘let us show the public that we are dealing with corrupt judges’. But this time, the DSS was not deceived. When all these trials were going on at the NJC, the DSS ignored them and invaded the Supreme Court quarters and made so many findings.
Are you now accepting that the judiciary is corrupt?
No, what I am saying is that the hypocrisy exhibited by the NJC is unwarranted. You don’t have to descend on the Court of Appeal or the High Court anytime there is an attack on the judiciary as if that is the only avenue where there is corruption in the judiciary and then present the Supreme Court as the home of angels.
How true is it that the EFCC traced N632m to your account?
Absolutely fiction. The DSS released me and said ‘please go and treat your eyes. I have to undergo surgery on my right eye because I had blood deposit on it. I’ve not been able to go because I don’t have money. I’ve been waiting for my entitlements to be paid before I go. If I have this type of money, I would not be in Nigeria today. This story was planted. I don’t want to mention names but it was a politician from Enugu who thinks he has a grouse against me. EFCC never said this. I have written to the EFCC to ask when they discovered over N632 million in my account and I’ve written to the DSS.
But the reporter who wrote the story obviously would have got the story from the EFCC?
The EFCC never said any such.
Did you try to confirm the story from the EFCC?
Yes, the EFCC never gave him that story and, according to one of their spokesmen, it is not even in their tradition for the EFCC to disclose their findings before the arrest of the person being accused. So the EFCC never gave this fellow any story. He must have put this publication out to embarrass me. Just take a look at my statement of account (produced the statement of account). And then you can now look at false nature of the publication. I was reading about my invitation by the EFCC to Port Harcourt in the newspaper.
So you did not receive any invitation to Port Harcourt by the EFCC ?
I got the invitation after the publication, that I was invited to Port Harcourt, which will tell you that the organizers of the publication are working hand-in- hand with some officers of the EFCC. I have referred the publication to my lawyer and I am sure action will be taken shortly. I have also written to the security agencies.
There were allegations that, as Chief Judge of Enugu State, you made sure that sensitive cases were assigned only to your court?
It is my duty to take sensitive cases. In fact, under Justice Uwais as Chief Justice of Nigeria, any sensitive case not handled by the Chief Judge will earn you a query because he said, as a head of the judiciary, it is your duty to take, especially political cases of necessity, the responsibility because if you assign such cases to other judges, there may be likelihood of political influence.