By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Still smarting from the national embarrassment of topping the odious table of states that have not been able to keep fidelity to payment of workers’ salaries, which are in arrears of many months, Kogi State is once more in the news. Again, for the very wrong reason! The three arms of government that should be meeting minds on how to ensure that salaries are paid are locked in a macabre dance.
Governor Yahaya Bello has a beef with the Chief Judge of the State, Justice Nasir Ajanah. Although, the executive alleges gross misconduct against Ajanah, the truth of the matter is that it substantially borders on ego trip. Bello, by the way is the executive governor and that makes him the incumbent executive head. The administration of Kogi State under him is very well referred to as the Bello administration. Yet the State Government is not the exclusive preserve of the Executive arm.
To be sure, the government is a collective project in which the Executive, the Legislature (State House of Assembly) and the Judiciary are all independent and interdependent stakeholders. The three arms exercise the power of checking and balancing one another within the ambit of the constitutional provisions so that no arm acts ultra vires of its powers.
I have devoted a substantial time to read up the development in Kogi, which actually began in December last year, but has now reached a head with a motion by the House of Assembly recommending the suspension of the Chief Judge; and my conclusion is that the matter should have been handled differently and in accordance with constitutional due process.
A grapevine had hinted that the State Governor and the Chief Judge fell out with each other when the latter rebuffed the former’s decision to subject him and the judiciary to the ridiculous level of drawing their salary across the table in the guise of auditing staff (salary) payment. The Chief Judge rebuffed that. That resulted in other decisions including alleged suspension of the monthly subventions to the Judiciary and other perks of office. These and others are, however, are at the level of small talks.
But the official narrative that is in the public domains and which I have decided to relate with is the alleged indictment of the Chief Judge by the House Committee on Public Accounts on the basis of its consideration of the State Auditor-General’s reports on the 2016 Financial Statements (Budget performance, analysis on personnel cost, overheads, capital expenditure and revenue performance of Kogi State for the year ended December 31, 2016).
This understandably was the connection of the State House of Assembly, under the speakership of Prince Matthew Kolawole, with the Governor Bello-Justice Ajanah conflict. In a situation of partisan frenzy, a finger of guilt had been pointed at the Speaker for colluding or acting in cahoots with the Governor in a desperate bid to suspend the Chief Judge. There had been a preemptive court action to restrain the execution of the plot and, interestingly, the other party had through proxy petitioned the Chief Judge to the National Judicial Commission (NJC).
The court angle was the right of the Chief Judge to exercise in self preservation while the NJC angle was the Chief Judge’s hurdle that must obligatorily be crossed without any element of culpability. The petition to the NJC remains the best approach to adopt for its procedural correctness as constitutionally prescribed. But, perhaps, Governor Bello considered the NJC process dilatory and too decent.
Did he therefore convince himself that Justice Ajanah should be ignominiously treated? Current developments in the State would appear to validate the supposition. Consider the adoption of the motion by the Kogi State House of Assembly on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, purporting to recommend the suspension/removal of the Chief Judge from office: it is, without a doubt, a violation of a subsisting interim order by a Kogi State High Court that restrained the Governor, the Speaker and the House of Assembly from doing anything or taking any further step in the matter pending the determination of the suit.
The suit was filed by the Chief Judge and Chief Registrar of Kogi State High Court and the order referred to supra was made on December 13, 2018 at the behest of counsel to the Chief Judge with the concurrence of defendants’ counsel. According to reports, the said interim order was further renewed on February 4, 2019 by common consent of counsel of both parties. The originating summons was fixed for definite hearing on March 11, 2019 but had to be adjourned to April 30, 2019 due to the ill-health of the presiding judge.
Besides, a member of the House of Assembly, Hon. Haruna Idoko, had drawn the attention of the Legislature to the subsisting order, restraining the Governor and the House of Assembly from doing anything whatsoever on the matter but he was reportedly overruled by the Speaker, a move that reinforced the claim of Speaker’s collusion with the incumbent Executive head. The Speaker had gone ahead to approve the illegal recommendation in the face of the subsisting order and the legal provisions.
As I had noted earlier, the NJC had already been seized of the facts of the matter via a petition purportedly authored by the Executive arm. The petition was submitted to the NJC in December 2018. It would have been neater and tidier if the Governor had waited for the outcome of the NJC’s investigation into the matter. By sidestepping the NJC that is constitutionally vested with the powers of investigation and recommendation of sanctions against judicial officers who are guilty of constitutional infractions, the Executive and Legislature in Kogi cannot escape essential indictment as conspirators in the plot to subjugate and humiliate Justice Ajanah, nay the entire Judiciary, because he is an emblematic representation of the institution.
Indeed, the real culprits in the macabre dance that is playing out in Kogi State presently are the State Governor and the Speaker of the House of Assembly. And the victim of their reckless and rascally action is Justice Ajanah, who has the law on his side, having acted within its ambits and submitted to the observance of due process. He must necessarily deploy the magnitude of the law and constitutionalism in clearing his name.
To acquit himself on this score, he must, beyond reasonable doubts, dismantle all the wild, concocted and vindictive allegations against him. This is the trajectory that he must successfully chart and, at the end of the road, be found to be above reproach like Caesar’s wife. Justice Ajanah, before you are history and posterity. Will history remember you and posterity adjudge you as that man that was assailed by the conspirators with a cocktail of falsehood but overcame them all? Time will tell.
▪Ojeifo, editor-in-chief of The Congresswatch magazine, contributed this piece from Abuja via email@example.com