The nation’s judiciary on Friday night and the early hours of Saturday was thrown into confusion, as gun-wielding security agents swooped on the residences of senior judges, breaking doors and threatening to harm their family members and aides.
The raids were carried out by agents of the Department of State Services in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Gombe. The judges affected are of the Supreme Court and Federal High Court. At least two of the judges had recently ruled against the DSS and condemned its disregard of the laws of the land during its operations.
The actions of these agents of state, observers say, are reminiscent of the executive lawlessness and human rights abuses that characterised the nation’s military era, including the period that President Muhammadu Buhari spent in power as a military dictator. Expectedly, the actions of the agents attracted widespread condemnation from Nigerians with the Nigerian Bar Association, declaring a state of emergency in the judiciary and asking for the immediate release of the judges.
The DSS, at the end of the operations, which lasted at least 12 hours, arrested Justices Sylvester Ngwuta and John Okoro, both of the Supreme Court bench, as well as Justice Adeniyi Ademola of the Federal High Court in Abuja.
The security operatives also searched the house of another judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, but he was not arrested.
Justices Ademola and Dimgba’s duplexes are separated by a fence at the Apo Legislative Quarters, Abuja. Justice Dimgba occupies 30A, while Justice Ademola lives at 30B. Both houses are on S.O Ogbemudia Crescent, Zone E, Apo Legislative Quarters.
A security guard and stewards, who witnessed the operation at Dimgba’s place, confirmed the incident to our correspondent. They said the DSS operatives had no cause to apply force as the judge had let them in without any resistance.
The DSS operatives left with a bag containing the drafts of judgments which the judge was meant to deliver next Tuesday.
People who witnessed the search at Justice Ademola’s residence said the event played out like a movie. The judge reportedly locked up himself in his room, on the second floor of the duplex, telling stewards on phone that he had travelled out of Abuja. Armed with a search warrant and the conviction that the judge was inside the house, the DSS reportedly pulled down the door at about 1 am on Saturday.
They also broke an iron door to the living room and made their way upstairs to the judge’s bedroom.
The components of the door lock to the living room were also found scattered on the ground. The doors to an empty wardrobe in an unused bedroom downstairs were met open. Dead insects littered the floor of the room which stewards said was not being used.
Both justices of the Supreme Court were arrested and driven away by security operatives.
In Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, the raid carried out by the DSS was also with a great deal of drama. It all started in the early hours of Saturday when scores of DSS agents besieged the house of a Federal High Court judge at No. 35, Forces Avenue.
The state Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Nnamdi Omoni, said the police was only at the scene to ensure there was no breakdown of law and order.
“The DSS went to effect the arrest of a judge and the atmosphere became tense. In his (state Police Commissioner, Mr. Francis Odesanya) wisdom, he was able to go there and calm the situation.
“We (police) were only called up to assist and we went there to discharge our constitutional mandate by ensuring that there was no breakdown of law and order,” the police spokesman stressed.
Governor Wike, who had rushed to the scene, was reportedly harassed by the operatives. His Special Assistant on Electronic Media, Mr. Simeon Nwakaudu, said Wike was pushed around by the DSS agents and policemen
The operatives of the DSS were said to have manhandled Governor Wike, pushing him around and injuring his hand. A few of the operatives cocked their rifles and threatened to shoot the governor.
Wike, who later spoke with journalists, described the action of the security agents as dangerous to the nation’s democracy and added that he was not sure that President Muhammadu Buhari was aware of it.
He said, “Not under my watch will I allow this kind of impunity to take place. That is why we are here. I don’t know which judge they were detailed to abduct. All I am interested in is that, at this level, it is not allowed.
“He is not a criminal and he is not an armed robber. If the person has committed an offence, invite him. It is only when he refuses to honour the invitation that you can adopt this commando style.
“The Commissioner of Police and the Director of DSS were here. Their operatives cocked their guns and threatened to shoot me. I have never seen that before. Again, this is to tell you what we are facing. We know that more will come. For us in this state, we shall continue to resist it.”
Governor Wike added, “Rivers State is under siege. If this type of thing happens next time, the people wiĺl resist it to the end. They are trying to do something funny in this state, probably to declare a state of emergency.”
The DSS on Saturday said its action was a follow up to what it described as an outcome of a “special sting operation” which it said involved some judges of Supreme, Appeal and High courts.
A senior officer of the security agency, Mr. Abdullahi Garba, who spoke with journalists in Abuja on Saturday, insisted that the action would be sustained.
Garba said, “The DSS action is in line with its core mandate, as we have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges, as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgments obtained fraudulently and on the basis of money paid.
“The judges involved were invited, upon which due diligence was exhibited and their premises searched. The searches have uncovered huge raw cash (sums) of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.”
While saying some of the judges had made useful statements on the allegations against them, he added that a few of them declined.
He added that in one of the states where the operations were conducted, intelligence report indicated that a judge had the sum of $2m in his house.
Garba said, “When he was approached for due search to be conducted, he in concert with the state governor mobilised thugs against the DSS team.
“The team restrained itself in the face of unbridled provocative activities by those brought in by the governor. Unfortunately, the judge and the governor also engaged the tacit support of a sister security agency.
“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 location, which the DSS is currently making efforts to unravel.”
He added that a large amount including foreign/local currencies had been recovered from three of the judges. He gave the summaries of these to include: N93,558,000.00; $530,087; £25,970; and €5,680 (a total of over N270m).
Garba further declared that the current operation would be sustained and followed “till sanity and sanctity are restored to the esteemed third arm of government and public confidence is regained.” He refused to take questions after the briefing.
At the NBA briefing, the association’s president addressed the press alongside four past presidents – Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Mr. J.B. Daudu (SAN), and Augustine Alegeh (SAN).
Others in attendance at the declaration, which held at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos State were Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi (SAN), Mr. Yusuf Ali (SAN) and Mr. Dele Adesina (SAN).
NBA President, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), said two Supreme Court justices, Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta, were “abducted” with their families, adding that he had yet to receive the full details of other judges who might have been arrested.
The NBA condemned what it termed the “Gestapo-style operation of the DSS.” He (Mahmoud) announced the constitution of an emergency or crisis management team, comprising past NBA presidents to engage with the government.
Mahmoud, who said it was not the responsibility of the DSS to arrest judges, described the DSS’ action as an unconstitutional means of intimidating the judiciary and undermining its independence.
Mahmoud said, “We, therefore, call on President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately caution all the state security agencies and to respect the rule of law and follow due process.
“On any issue affecting the judicial officers, there are established procedures for handling them and we demand that this constitutional process be obeyed.
“Given the unfolding nature of the event and the seriousness of the situation, the NBA hereby declares a state of emergency as it affects the affairs of the judiciary and I hereby constitute a crisis management team, comprising all past presidents of the association.
“I want to, on behalf of the association, make the very following clear and unequivocal demands: we demand the immediate and unconditional release of all the judges abducted from about 9 pm yesterday (Friday).
“The release must be done immediately and without any conditions. Two, we demand that the Department of State Services limit itself to its statutory and constitutional responsibilities. I’ll be meeting with the CJN later tonight or tomorrow. There will be consequences if these demands are not met.”
Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, described the invasion of residences of the judges as a direct assault on the judiciary. Addressing journalists on Saturday in Ado Ekiti, Fayose said, “It should now be obvious to all Nigerians and the international community that democracy is under threat in Nigeria and Nigerians must rise to save democracy from being truncated.
“For all intent and purposes, there is no how the Federal Government can justify the Gestapo(-like) crude action of the DSS against our judiciary, the last hope of the common man. I believe they just want to hide under anti-corruption fight to blackmail and intimidate the judiciary. If not, have the affected judges been reported to the National Judicial Council, the body saddled with the responsibilities of investigating and sanctioning erring judges?
“Were the affected judges ever invited by the DSS and they refused to honour the invitation? Nigerians should be reminded that I raised a similar alarm when this regime of impunity started with the invasion of the Akwa Ibom State Government House and later the Ekiti State House of Assembly.”
Fayose noted that two of the judges involved, Justice Adeniyi Ademola and Justice Nnamdi Dimgba, recently ruled against the DSS and condemned its impunity in the cases of former National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki (retd.) and a retired Air Commodore, Umar Mohammed.
“It should be noted that few days ago, the NJC sacked three judges for breaching the Codes of Conduct for Judicial Officers and went further to recommend that one of them, Justice Kabiru M. Auta, be handed over to the Inspector General of Police for prosecution for alleged corruption.
“If NJC could do this less than one week ago, has the same NJC been informed of any allegation of corruption against the judges whose residences were invaded?” the governor asked.
The Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, lawyers and some human rights groups on Saturday also condemned the invasion and arrest.