Justice Mary Odili
Nigeria seems to have joyfully entered a new era that is defined by its unknown-ness. Rapists are unknown. Gunmen are unknown. Assassins are unknown. Sponsors of terrorists are unknown. Last Friday we added to the list of the unknown, some security personnel who invaded the residence of Justice Mary Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Even the sponsors of the unknown security operatives are also unknown, according to all the denials we have heard from those who ought to know.
The story is that a search warrant was issued by a Chief Magistrate Mr Emmanuel Iyanna of Wuse Zone 6 magisterial division brought by officials who claimed to come from the Federal Ministry of Justice. Mr Iyanna signed the search warrant based on an affidavit by a whistle blower named Aliyu. Aliyu claimed that there were illegal activities going on at No. 9 Imo Street, Maitama, Abuja. Based on the search warrant a team called Joint Panel Recovery under the Ministry of Justice moved to Justice Odili’s residence.
There are several wrinkles on the face of this matter. Was this a case of mistaken identity since Justice Odili’s residence is not No. 9 Imo Street but No. 7 Imo River Street? Since there have been robust denials from the Attorney General and Minister of Justice Mr Abubakar Malami, DSS and EFCC, who did it? Was it the police or any of the other security forces? Were they gunning for Mrs Odili’s husband Dr Peter Odili, former Governor of Rivers State who recently sued the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) over the seizure of his international passport? The NIS said that its action followed a request from EFCC which claimed that Dr Odili was on its watch list. However, Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court, Abuja had on October 18, 2021 declared that the seizure of Odili’s passport was illegal.
This siege on Justice Odili’s residence represents the growing flame of harassments of judges which started in 2016. In that year, the DSS in a Gestapo fashion raided the homes of Justice John Okoro and Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, now dead, as well as those of Justice Adeniyi Ademola and Justice Nnamdi Dimgba of the Federal High Court, Abuja. In the Justice Odili incident the Chief Magistrate has claimed that he was misled into issuing the search warrant. He has therefore revoked it.
When the whistle blower idea was approved by the government with appropriate compensation to the blower of the whistle I knew that in the typical Nigerian fashion that all kinds of cranks with little or no information would seek to reap from a farm they did not diligently till. They would cobble some scanty, ill-investigated information and supply to the authorities for profit. And the authorities would not even do the preliminary facts-checking before rushing out with blazing guns for a kill, an effort to show that they are working very hard on their mandate. Such sloppiness is likely to result in mistakes in which a magistrate is misled into issuing a search warrant which he should not have issued if all the facts were placed before him.
This kind of overzealousness puts the issuer of the search warrant in a situation that paints him as either incompetent or sycophantic or sloppy in the handling of his assignment. When these matters are directed at members of the judiciary extra care, extra basic checks, ought to be embarked upon so that an impression would not be given or gained that the judiciary is being targeted with the aim of infringing on its independence. Such raids, no matter how high-minded, may in the final analysis stain the white garment of honour customarily associated with our judges even if some of them prove to be undeserving of the honour. With incidents such as what happened on Friday the reputation of our law enforcement agencies will definitely take a hit. In this case “sorry” doesn’t cut it. How many sorries are we going to get on this sort of pageant of shamelessness.
A few years ago in Abuja, the police raided the residence of Chief Edwin Clark, then 91, an elder statesman who has eminently paid his dues and fought relentlessly for the well-being of Nigeria. They turned the whole residence upside down, searching from bedroom to toilet saying they were combing for arms and ammunition. They found nothing of the sort but they left behind an image of their recklessness, lack of thoroughness and their penchant for eye service. The Inspector General of police said he was going to investigate how the search came about and that the culprits will be punished.
We have not heard anything on the matter anymore. They have moved on after needlessly embarrassing a statesman who has been a major trouble shooter for the Federal Government in the restive Niger Delta region for many years. Apparently our security men love the thrill of harassment and the more influential the victim the sweeter the thrill. The barbed wire of the issue is that we never ever get to do it differently, meaning that no lessons are ever learnt. We learn nothing and we forget nothing. We seem to run a society where there is much law in the land but little justice because we are looking for enemies where there are none.
In a country where people are being kidnapped or killed every day, those severe crimes ought to remain, if a hierarchy is constructed, in the highest echelon of crimes to receive maximum attention from our law enforcement authorities. Where is justice if we fail to track down and punish those terrorists, bandits, rapists, arsonists and their co-travellers but instead go wild-goose chasing in the homes of our respectable and self-respecting citizens? My thinking is that our security agencies are perhaps searching for justice in the abstract instead of justice in reality. Justice in the abstract can only be conjured by people who have no intention to be just and fair because abstract justice is meaningless and unobtainable.
There will always be criminals in every society. No society has yet wiped out crime. No society will ever achieve that apogee of crimelessness. So every society ought, therefore, to arrange its judicial and legal system in such a way that the most society-threatening crimes receive their utmost and undivided attention first. In other words, there ought to be a pecking order in crime management instead of dissipating energy searching for the low-level crime suspects while the society-disrupting big suspects remain untouched.
The snag in this country is that the law and order operators seem to be in search of extreme justice that is defined by their prejudices and political and ethnic inclinations. Such extreme justice, ill-defined, can easily lead to injustice, crass injustice. When this happens the society discovers that at the end of the day the criminals that terrorise our society fail to receive their just deserts.
In that case, we fail to get justice for the criminal suspect which then means that the innocent persons in the society invariably receive injustice. This amounts to a poke in the eye of justice and democracy.
Those who run our law and order architecture must rework their strategies to ensure that no innocent person is unduly harassed either wittingly or unwittingly. If an innocent person gets harassed, even mistakenly that is the equivalent of barking the wrong tree.
If a criminal suspect is mistakenly released it is less offensive than if an innocent person is punished. If an innocent person is punished that is what Immanuel Kant called radical evil, evil that exceeds the bounds of instrumental rationality. Whether it was a case of mistaken identity or a case of political harassment, the siege on Jusstice Odili’s residence is the equivalent of radical evil. Since Mr Malami has promised to investigate the matter and to bring the culprits to justice, we have to wait patiently for his verdict which we hope will not take forever to come.
Mr Malami has vigorously denied his involvement or the involvement of his office in the matter. Now that he has promised to investigate it, his investigation must be thorough and convincing because the Chief Magistrate who issued the search warrant has said that those who came to procure the warrant claimed to be from the Ministry of Justice.
Based on this information, the Federal Ministry of Justice is a suspect but it is presumed to be innocent until Mr Malami comes out with findings from his investigation. It is in his interest as the nation’s Chief Law Officer to ensure our judicial officers are treated with dignity and decorum. If any of them is a crime suspect he or she still deserves to be treated decently because until he or she is convicted he or she remains innocent.
I am sure that Mr Malami knows that several accusing fingers are pointing in the direction of his ministry not because of any definitive information to that effect but apparently because of the way he and his team have made themselves to be perceived by the public. But as I said before Mr Malami and his team remain innocent until the jury pronounces its verdict. Since several investigations on several subjects have been gathering cobwebs in the offices of many public servants, we are going to wait with bated breath for an early release of the report of this siege. Mr Malami must prove to us that he is a man of honour by revealing who these unknown security personnel are. That is the least we expect of him.