By; SUNDAY ODE, Abuja.
The Federal Government on Wednesday reiterated that the on-going investigation of judges for alleged corrupt practices is not targeted at ridiculing the institution of the nation’s judiciary.
It also defended the crackdown on some judges last weekend by the operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS), insisting that the National Judicial Council (NJC) did not have exclusive reserve to discipline judicial officers especially on matters of corruption.
Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed restated this position while briefing State House correspondents on the outcome of the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
The Minister who stated that he endorsed the positions of the President’s Media Adviser, Malam Garba Shehu and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami earlier canvassed on the issue, advised that Nigerians should remove sentiments in the analysis of the matter.
According to Mohammed also, the Buhari-led Federal Government had a lot of respect for the principle of separation of powers and was handling the issue of the probe of judiciary officers with a lot of care.
He said: “I think the Federal Government is being very careful with the handling of this particular issue,I want to state clearly that this government believes very much in separation of powers, this government has a lot of respect for the judiciary and for obvious reasons; not just because the constitution says so but I think probably this is one cabinet that has the highest number of lawyers as ministers.
“As at the last count about eleven or twelve council members are lawyers and we have female lawyers also in cabinet. Until death robbed us of late Ocholi, we had five SANs in our cabinet and I think this is unique. Therefore, you can understand the kind of respect we have for the judiciary.
“And also look at Mr President himself three, four times he sought to be President, three times it was thwarted and all the three times he took his case to the judiciary. So I can say clearly that this administration has a lot of respect for the judiciary and I think I stand by what Mallam Garba Shehu said that please, do not confuse the fight against corruption as a fight against judiciary, what the government is concerned and passionate about is to fight corruption. In the process of fighting corruption its not unusual that you step on some very sensitive toes but the question to ask and I think these has been adequately answered by the Attorney General is that let’s remove emotion from facts.”
The Minister also stated that the right questions to ask in analyzing the issue should therefore be: “One, do judges have immunity? The answer is no. Can judges be arrested? The answer is yes. Have judges that are serving been arrested in Nigeria? The answer is yes. Justice Okoli had been arrested and tried. Now, the next question to ask is what is the proper procedure for arresting anybody including judges? There must be properly executing search warrant. Was such presented? The answer again is yes.
“People have tried to muddle the facts about when do you search the person’s house, the truth of the matter is that under the new criminal justice law, you can search anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
On the argument as to whether any institution other than the National Judicial Council (NJC), had powers to discipline judicial officer, Mohammed noted that it was only in matters of professional misconduct that the NJC had exclusive disciplinary powers, not on corruption and related matters.
“Again they have tried to muddle issues by trying to say that the NJC is the only authority that can attend complain and discipline the answer once again is no.
“There is a difference when a judge is accused of professional misconduct; it’s quite different from what is happening now. If you suspect anybody including Governors who have immunity they are still subject to investigations. So I want to make it clear, this government has the highest respect for judiciary and, two we are not in anyway trying to ridicule the judiciary. Three, we are not painting the whole of the judges with the same brush but we also have a duty to fight corruption at whatever level and in doing so, we will do so within the ambit of the law.”
Mohammed expressed regret that Nigerians were over stressing the issue by bringing up unrelated issues bothering on favoritism. He argued, however that anybody can be invited by any arm of government for questioning.
FEC at its Wednesday meeting also approved N700 million as cost of variation for Federal Secretariat buildings contracts in six states of the federation.
The states where the projects are sited include Bayelsa, Nassarawa, Zamfara, Anambra, Osun and one other state.
The projects, meant to further reflate the economy, have already been included in the budget, according to the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fasola.