Monday, May 20, 2024

Crafty judges may help fugitive Yahaya Bello escape justice

The former Kogi governor is wanted by the anti-graft EFCC over alleged N80 billion loot.

• April 21, 2024
Yahaya Bello on money bag
Yahaya Bello on money bag

Josiah Majebi is the fifth Chief Judge of Kogi State (in north-central Nigeria) in four years and the fourth to exist almost entirely in the pocket of the state governor. He has been in office as substantive Chief Judge since the beginning of February 2023, having acted in that role since June 26, 2022, when his predecessor, Richard Olorunfemi, retired. Henry Olusiyi served in that office for just under seven months from the end of June 2020 until January 2021. Sunday Otuh, who succeeded him, spent eight months in office before retiring in September 2021.

The last Chief Judge of Kogi State who attempted to hold that office with dignity and independence, Nasir Ajanah, paid with his life, un-mourned and exiled from the state. He was the second Chief Judge of the State to be politically lynched by the government of Kogi State in one decade.

At the beginning of April 2008, the Kogi State House of Assembly, defying an order of the state High Court, adopted a resolution asking the State Governor to remove the long-serving Chief Judge Umaru Eri. On that basis, then-acting governor Clarence Olafemi promptly announced the sack of the Chief Judge on April 2, 2008, and designated another judge, Sam Ota, to act in his place. 

In his defence, Umaru Eri claimed that his crime was that he had declined the politicians’ request to act as a go-between in bribing the election petition tribunal on behalf of the then-state governor whose election was in dispute. On May 16, 2008, Alaba Ajileye, a judge of the High Court of Kogi State, reversed the sack and reinstated Umaru Eri. 

Eleven years later, on June 18, 2019, Alaba Ajileye presided again in deciding a case that seemed uncannily to reprise issues in his earlier decision. As with the 2008 decision, the claimant in 2019 was another Chief Judge of Kogi State, Nasir Ajanah, with his Chief Registrar, Yahya Adamu. The defendants included the Kogi State House of Assembly, its Speaker, and the State Governor, Yahaya Bello.

At Governor Yahaya Bello’s directive, the Secretary to the Government of Kogi State wrote to Chief Judge Nasir Ajanah on November 14, 2018, asking him to provide “the payroll of judicial staff for the ongoing pay parade of civil servants in the state.” At the time, the Governor was a defendant in the court of the Chief Judge, so the Chief Registrar responded to the letter and explained that the judiciary was a self-accounting and co-equal branch of government supervised by the state’s Judicial Service Commission. 

An affronted Governor Yahaya Bello wrote under his own name to Walter Onnoghen, then Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chair of the National Judicial Council (NJC), asking the NJC to find the Chief Judge guilty of misconduct and requiring that he “step aside and (an) Acting Chief Judge allowed to take his place.” 

While his petition was still waiting for the attention of the NJC, Yahaya Bello resorted to political self-help. He referred the perceived effrontery of Nasir Ajannah to the State House of Assembly, which promptly constituted an investigation committee. The Chief Judge sued. While his suit was pending, on 2 April 2019, the State House of Assembly adopted a resolution asking Yahaya Bello to remove the Chief Judge and requiring disciplinary action against the Chief Registrar. On 18 June 2019, Alaba Ajileye sitting at the High Court of Kogi State in Kotonkarfe, determined that the Kogi State House of Assembly and the Governor acted unlawfully in seeking to remove the Chief Judge. 

The governor’s reaction was bestial. He first went after Alaba Ajileye, a man of courage and learning whose judicial record was unblemished. With a doctorate degree in law, Alaba Ajileye was an expert in the rarefied subject of digital evidence.

 Following this judgment, however, Yahaya Bello’s government made it known that they could no longer guarantee his safety. Yet, the same Kogi State government actively blocked it when he was put forward for elevation to the Court of Appeal. A man who would easily have adorned the Supreme Court with distinction, Alaba Ajileye retired from the High Court in February 2023 and has since forged a career as a scholar and academic

Turning to the State Chief Judge, meanwhile, Yahaya Bello made life unbearable for Nasir Ajannah. He began by banishing the man from official state functions. When Chief Judge Ajannah attended the swearing-in of the new Grand Khadi of Kogi State on 21 May 2020, the Chief Security Officer to Yahaya Bello informed him that “the governor gave a directive that he should not be allowed to attend the function.” 

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Yahaya Bello made Nasir Ajannah persona non-grata in the state. As a result, he was forced into internal displacement in Abuja, where his personal arrangements were worse than transitory. While in hiding in Abuja, Nasir Ajannah contracted COVID and died in isolation in Gwagwalada in the Federal Capital Territory on 28 June 2020. His death went unacknowledged, and even the institutions of the judiciary were reluctant to mourn his passing. 

The men who followed Nasir Ajannah in the office of Chief Judge of Kogi State learnt to stoke the vanities of Yahaya Bello and avoid his anger. Ahead of his departure from office at the end of eight years as governor of Kogi State in January 2024, Josiah Majebi, as Chief Judge and Chair of the Kogi State Judicial Service Commission, prepared a list of candidates for nomination as judges of the High Court of Kogi State. At the top of the list was a wife to Yahaya Bello, the basis of whose claim to the nomination was the dutiful fulfilment of the duties of connubium in Yahaya Bello’s bedroom. For the chief judge, it was also proof that he had truly abjured any pretensions to a mind of his own.

Alarmed at what they saw as a perversion of the system of judicial appointments, a group of seven Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) from the State wrote to Josiah Majebi to dissuade him from this course of action. In January 2024, they sued, challenging his judicial nominations. Pending the outcome, the NJC suspended the process of appointment to the Kogi State judiciary.

 On April 18, 2024, James Omotoso, a judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, many of whose judgments usually have something of a smell problem about them, implausibly ruled that these SANs had no legitimate interest in the process of appointing judges in their state and that, in any case, the NJC’s discretion in appointing judges was effectively not open to review.

It was the day after Yahaya Bello’s chosen successor and blood relative, Usman Ododo, chose to turn his predecessor into a fugitive from legal process and two days after Mr. Ododo opened his case in the petition questioning the lawfulness of his election as governor of Kogi State. As a bungling Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) waited to arrest Yahaya Bello in Abuja, one I.A. Jamil, a judge of the High Court of Kogi State, issued an order claiming to restrain the Commission from doing its job. 

According to the order of the judge, the case, which was filed over two months earlier on 8 February, was hurriedly assigned while the siege was ongoing in Abuja, argued, heard and decided, and the judge quickly signed the order and handed it to Governor Ododo to take with him to Abuja from where he spirited his cousin away from legal process in a blaze of gunfire. The court was almost assuredly disingenuous about the date of filing. In all likelihood, the case was filed the same day on April 17 and then back-dated.

The EFCC now claims it has declared Yahaya Bello a fugitive, but the real question will be how a compromised and complicit judicial leadership will treat the nomination of his unqualified wife as a judge and the petition against the declaration of his violent cousin as governor of Kogi State. The judges who currently control Nigeria’s criminal politics must now show how much they owe Yahaya Bello.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu 

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