Ibori, Peter Odili, and Justice Buba

A week ago today, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission said it sought former Governor James Ibori (of Delta) to answer questions related to the alleged mismanagement of over N44 billion during his governorship tenure.

A day later, several newspapers and online forums reported that Justice I.N. Buba of the Federal High Court in Asaba had issued an injunction prohibiting Ibori’s arrest. In a report last Friday, NEXT stated that Buba had granted an “injunction restraining the EFCC and any other anti-crime agency ‘from arresting, harassing, intimidating, or attempting to arrest, harass, and/or intimidate the applicants (Mr. Ibori) in any manner whatsoever and howsoever.’”

My first reaction was one of incredulity. How could a judge – even if he earned his bench in Mars and practiced there – seek to permanently cuff the hands of law enforcement agents in order to detain them from doing their work? Would that not be a recipe for anarchy? Then my doubt gave way to recognition: Mr. Buba, I realized, had done it before.

He’s the man – lest we forget – who ordered that neither the EFCC nor other agents of the government should ever disturb the peace of Peter Odili, the former governor of Rivers State. At the time of this improbable reprieve, Odili – a medical doctor by training whose wife is a justice of the Court of Appeal – was the target of an ongoing investigation for corruption.

Today, Mr. Odili basks in the splendor of retirement in Abuja. A year ago or so, he treated himself to a lavish birthday party. His servile coterie flatters him with the title of “golden governor,” yet Odili has been in no hurry to return and reside in the state where he allegedly gave surpassing leadership. In fact, since leaving office, he has been reluctant to make frequent trips to his home state.

Perhaps – just perhaps – Mr. Odili’s record as governor was clean, beyond reproach. Perhaps, he can easily account for every naira and asset that he owns. If so, why did he seek to be shielded from answering questions from investigators? Why did he go to extraordinary lengths to acquire immunity from investigation?

I am neither a lawyer nor a legal scholar, but my hunch is that few serious lawyers and students of the law would be proud of Justice Buba’s injunction prohibiting the questioning of Odili. The ruling, quite simply, doesn’t stand up to reason. It’s the kind of judgment that inspires cynical statements about the law and those who practice it.

This isn’t a case of Buba reviewing investigators’ evidence and concluding that it is too weak to warrant an ex-governor’s trial. Nor is it a case where a judge determined that investigators used illegal methods to incriminate an accused. No, Buba simply ruled that the very idea of investigating an ex-governor – one accused of fiddling with state funds – was not to be countenanced.

A nation that fosters the idea that some people are above the law cannot long hope to ward off the debilitating effect of pervasive lawlessness. Justice Buba’s gift of a permanent protective blanket to Odili represents such a grave threat to the notion of the rule of law that the Nigerian Bar Association should have strongly decried it. One wonders why Mrs. Waziri Farida, the current leader of the EFCC, did not retain lawyers to mount a vigorous appeal against Buba’s blunder of a verdict?

Taken to its logical conclusion, Buba’s verdict could only result in an absurdity. Imagine a situation where the leader of a feared armed robbery gang obtains a permanent injunction barring the police from ever arresting, detaining or questioning him – or other members of his group. What, then? Or where a serial rapist is granted a shield from interrogators. If an ex-governor, alleged to have betrayed the trust by corruptly enriching himself, must never be called to account, why should an accused armed robber or rapist be denied the same prerogatives?

One was troubled that Buba’s name cropped up again in Ibori’s application for an injunction against the EFCC. Is this judge on the path to establishing the granting of scandalous permanent injunctions as his forte, his specialty?

Femi Falana, a former president of the West African Bar Association, was right to respond strongly to the rumored injunction in Ibori’s favor. He insisted that the EFCC would still be within its rights to arrest Ibori. He then warned: “no court in Nigeria has the power to grant immunity to any citizen from arrest or prosecution unless he is a president, vice president, governor, or deputy governor. No ex-governor in Nigeria can enjoy immunity even for one second.” He struck the right note in that statement.

One was somewhat relieved when the EFCC issued a statement last Friday to pooh-pooh reports of an alleged injunction restraining it from arresting Ibori. The agency’s spokesman said the EFCC had heard from Justice Buba – and that “no such order was issued by either the judge or the court.”

The EFCC should not lapse into complacency. After all, if Buba ruled for Odili, there’s nothing stopping him from extending the same judicial immunity to Ibori. If anything, given the judge’s antecedents, the lawyers of the anti-corruption agency ought to expect – and be prepared – for another of Buba’s bizarre injunctions.

This time – and one assumes, against the evidence, that the current leadership of the EFCC take themselves seriously – the agency’s lawyers should vigorously expose the folly and danger of injunctions that shield ex-government officials from being answerable. In his ruling for Odili, Buba in effect created a new class of Nigerian: one who can mock the law because law enforcement agents dare not pry into his affairs. Nigerians should reject this impunity, and a courageous appellate court ought to formally revoke the injunction that Buba handed Odili. That’s the only way to ensure that neither Buba nor any other judge ever plays this unsavory card of dispensing immunity from the bench.

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