The reinstatement of Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court by the National Judicial Council (NJC) has continued to generate furore in legal circles that may pit the Judiciary and the executive arm in a legal battle as indications emerged that President Muhammadu Buhari actually sacked the judge on November 7, 2018 based on the advice of the same NJC.
The poser now is whether the NJC has powers to reinstate a person sacked by the president based on its own advice. Furthermore, the sack was subjected to judicial interpretation before a Federal High Court and another judge confirmed that based on the sack by the president, Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia has ceased to be a Judicial Officer and therefore could be tried for offences preferred against her by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The Chief Judge of Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho had on December 7, 2022 announced the reinstatement of the embattled judge, quoting the December 1, 2022 meeting of the NJC. “Your Lordships are by this circular letter notified that at the Meeting of the National Judicial Council held on the 1st of December, 2022, the Council reinstated the Hon. Justice R. N. Ofili-Ajumogobia as a Judicial Officer. The reinstatement takes instant effect and there shall be consequential posting.”
However, on June 29, 2019, a Federal High Court, presided over by Justice Mohammed Rilwan Aikawa declared Justice Ofili-Ajumogobia as no longer a judicial officer, having been sacked by President Buhari via a memo dated November 7, 2018.
The embattled judge had in an application claimed she could not be tried for money laundering while serving as a judicial officer, but Justice Aikawa ruled she cannot stall her trial with a claim to being a judicial officer. The charge was brought against her by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC),
The judge read out the President’s memo of November 7, 2018, approving Ofili-Ajumogobia’s dismissal from the Bench as recommended by the National Judicial Council (NJC). “The president has approved the recommendation of NJC and has therefore approved the dismissal of the 1st defendant/applicant. In my view, the first defendant (Ofili-Ajumogobia) has been dismissed as a judicial officer”.
Justice Aikawa said further: “In the light of this, she can stand trial as she is no longer a judicial officer. The application lacks merit and is accordingly dismissed”.
Earlier in the ruling, the judge disagreed with the argument of the first defendant’s counsel that the exhibit marked ‘Restricted’ is a private document.
He held that the document, exhibit EFCC 02, though marked ‘Restricted’ but bearing the coat of arms of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, qualified it as a public document.
“An official letter from the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Chief Justice of Nigeria is a public document,” Justice Aikawa said.
In the same vein, the application filed by the second defendant in the case, Godwin Obla (SAN) to quash counts one, two and three for abuse of court process or in the alternative separate his trial from the charge against the Ofili-Ajumogobia and be tried separately was also dismissed by the court.
Referring to the trial of the defendants at the Ikeja High Court of Lagos State, Justice Aikawa said in that judgment, the case was only struck out. “The defendants in that trial were not discharged and acquitted”, adding that they could be re-arraigned before another court if the prosecution wishes to reopen the case.
The EFCC had charged Ofili-Ajumogobia and a Senior Advocate of NIGERIA (SAN) Godwin Obla, on 18 counts bordering on Conspiracy, Unlawful Enrichment, retention of Crime Proceeds and Money Laundering.
They pleaded not guilty and were each admitted to bail in the sum of N10 million with two sureties in like sum. The defendants were first brought before an Ikeja division of the High Court of Lagos State which struck out the charge on jurisdictional grounds.
The EFCC then preferred the same charges against them at the Federal High Court.
In the charge, EFCC alleged that the defendants conspired on May 21, 2014, to indirectly conceal different sums of money, in the Diamond Bank account of Nigel & Colive Ltd, a company alleged to be operated by Ajumogobia.
They were further alleged to have conspired to retain in the same account, the sum of N500 million, which they both reasonably ought to have known formed part of proceeds of unlawful acts of unlawful enrichment.
Specifically, Ajumogobia was alleged to have on different dates in 2014, retained sums of monies like: N5million, 150,000 dollars, 20,000 dollars, 30,000 dollars, 50,000 dollars, and 55,000 dollars in the Diamond bank account of Nigel and Colive.
Besides, the Commission also accused Ajumogobia of indirectly concealing the sum of 12 Million in the same account, and making a false statement to the EFCC that the money was payment for sale of a landed property.
The alleged offences contravene the provisions of Sections 15 (2) (a) and 18 (a) of the Money Laundering Prohibition Act.
Many lawyers that reacted to the reinstatement. Dr Misbau Lawal a law lecturer said in a law platform: “Even if she’s not guilty of any of the criminal allegations, the best in the circumstances would have been to allow her to retire quietly. The mud of what has happened thus far is too much to be splashed back on the bench. Now, the NJC may have unwittingly unleashed an avenger on the bench. I did appear before her both in Lagos and Abeokuta, and none of the experiences was anything good to write home about in terms of judicial insolence, arrogance, dereliction of duty, and even more. And then the drama that followed the arrest, detention, trial, etc. All of that should be enough to just allow her to retire in peace. It is a shame on the NJC,A shame on Nigeria, A shame on all those behind this kind of shenanigans.
Adeyemi Camdide-Johnson SAN said: “Administration of justice is rooted in the confidence of the public. A succession of own goals by office holders in our justice system have severely undermined the credibility of the system of justice. These officeholders have casually surrendered responsibility for personality and we will all suffer for their foolishness”.
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