By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
A retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice James Ogebe, has revealed how late former Head of State, General Sani Abacha, attempted to force the judiciary to deny bail to the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Abiola.
Justice Ogebe, said Abacha had after Abiola was arrested and detained for declaring himself President, asked the Court of Appeal to dismiss his application for bail.
He said after a panel of Justices of the appellate court that heard the bail application, including himself, decided that Abiola deserved bail, Abacha, in a bid to reverse the ruling, extended the compulsory retirement age of Justices of the Supreme Court from 65 to 70 years.
Justice Ogebe, who made the revelation in a book he wrote to mark his the 80th birthday last Saturday, said the action was to frustrate the hearing of an appeal against the continued detention of Abiola in custody.
The book which is an autobiography of the octogenarian, is entitled: “Justice Under the Shadow of the Almighty; My Life Sojourn to the Nigerian Supreme Court”.
Reputed for his various landmark Judgments, one of which is the reversal of the impeachment and sack of Oyo State Governor, Rashidi Ladoja in 2005, the retired jurist, in the 329-paged book that has 15 chapters, recalled how God and fate took him to the peak of his career in 2008.
Ogebe said he was twice denied the opportunity of becoming the Chief Judge of Benue State, saying the situation, which at the time seemed unfortunate, later turned to be a blessing in disguise for him and others that would have been disqualified from ascending to the apex court bench on account of their age.
According to him, “There is a very intriguing historical footnote to my ascension to the Supreme Court. When business mogul, turned politician, Moshood Abiola, was arrested after declaring himself President in the June 12, 1993 election, I was put on a panel of Appeal Court Justices who granted him bail.
“General Abacha’s regime did not take kindly to our decision and appealed against our decision to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court could not form a quorum because many of the Justices recused themselves since they had a libel lawsuit against Abiola’s Concord newspaper. There was accordingly, a stalemate because of shortages of Justices on the Supreme Court.
“Rather than appoint new Justices who would then form a quorum to hear Abiola’s bail case, General Abacha decided to extend the retirement age of Justices from 65 years to 70 years, to continue to keep Abiola in legal limbo. He, therefore, did not appoint more Justices before his sudden death.
“And, so, it was that a retirement age extension meant to frustrate a ruling I gave years before, ended up working for my benefit as I went to the Supreme Court at the age of 68”, he said.
The octogenarian also recalled the refusal of Justice Ayo Salami to ascend to the apex court to fill a vacancy for North Central as another factor that led to his elevation to the apex court.
In another part of the book, the renown jurist, who has over 4,000 Judgments and over 1,000 rulings to his credit, emphasized the need for the appointment of only the best and most qualified into the bench of the apex court.
He said it was necessary since the Supreme Court is the policy court that guides all other courts in the country and being the final court in the land, a serious responsibility is placed on Justices on its bench.
Besides, he argued that the deployment of the federal character policy in the appointment of Justices of superior courts, has done more harm than good to the judiciary.
“It is my belief that the best human capital available in the country should be appointed to the apex court which is the policy court that guides all the courts in Nigeria.
“The federal character consideration in appointment has done considerable damage to the quality of Justices appointed to the Supreme Court.
“In all seriousness, a few appointments made to that court constituted a liability on the system. Some of these Justices were mediocre and were not suitable material for the apex court”, he said.
More so, Justice Ogebe, who chaired the five-man panel of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal that heard appeals of General Muhammadu Buhari and that of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar against the election of late President Umaru Yar’ adua in 2007, stressed that Justices being considered for the Supreme Court should always decline their nomination if they are not sure of their ability to perform at that level.
He also advised the National Judicial Council NJC, to always carry out a comprehensive scrutiny of candidates based on the performance evaluation, health status, character and integrity before appointment.
Meanwhile, some dignitaries at the book launch took turns and showered encomium on Justice Ogebe, whom they described as bold, courageous, firm and a man of integrity.
In his remarks, the Vice Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 general election and former Governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, who claimed to be one of the greatest beneficiaries of Nigeria’s Judiciary, described the retired Justice as a man of integrity, insisting that Nigeria needs people like him to rebuild the country, which he said is deteriorating.
Obi said Nigerians should pray to God for leaders that would use public money only for the good of the people so that the country can make progress.
Likewise, a former Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Kanu Agabi SAN, urged Nigerians to have respect for the Judiciary even when its decision is not in their favour.
“Justice Ogebe is a product of the Judiciary and so a tribute to him is a tribute to the Judiciary. Our respect for the Judiciary is unqualified, we must respect the Judiciary and should not go on stigmatizing it. There are many good people still in the judiciary like Justice Ogebe”, Agabi stated.