The Supreme Court has been enmeshed in an internal crisis, with at least five associate justices calling for the immediate resignation of Chief Justice Olukayode Ariwoola for his alleged partisanship, which has also resulted in his interrogation by the State Security Service (SSS), Peoples Gazette learnt.
Top officials in both the Supreme Court and the SSS told The Gazette that Mr Ariwoola, who was on October 12 sworn in as the chief justice, has been asked to resign following his comments lauding the membership of Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde in the so-called “Integrity Group” set up by Nyesom Wike and other aggrieved governors of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to derail the opposition’s efforts ahead of general elections in February.
While hailing Mr Wike’s achievements at a gala night in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital, Mr Ariwoola expressed his gladness that the Oyo State governor aligned himself with the group also comprising Governors Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu, and Samuel Ortom of Benue. The so-called G5 seeks the resignation of the party’s national chairman, Iyorchia Ayu, after the emergence of Atiku Abubakar as the party’s presidential candidate. The disgruntled governors called a pact that involved Mr Ayu stepping down as chairman should a northerner emerge as the party’s standard-bearer for 2023.
Mr Ayu and Mr Abubakar, a northerner who won the party’s presidential ticket at its May 28 convention, both denied such an agreement ever happened, and Mr Wike and his allied governors have yet to supply any evidence of such backdoor accord prior to or even after the May primaries.
The crisis has continued to undermine the main opposition’s 2023 efforts, with Mr Wike facing ridicule for bringing up the issue because he saw his primary loss to Mr Abubakar as a humiliating defeat.
The Chief Justice, who heads Nigeria’s judiciary, took sides with Mr Wike in the matter during his speech at the dinner last week that was bankrolled by the Rivers governor.
“That is why we should not be scared to have these men of the Integrity Group, and I am happy that my own governor (Makinde) is among them because he would try to imitate his friend and in-law because we came here to marry for my governor,” Mr Ariwoola said.
The Supreme Court, in a statement by its spokesperson, Festus Akande, quickly denied Mr Ariwoola’s utterances as fake news, saying: “We don’t also know at what point the CJN said he was happy that Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State was a member of the now christened ‘Integrity Group’ or “G5 Governors.’”
But a video quickly emerged from the event that further stoked the collective outrage of Nigerians, who said the Chief Justice’s comments had all but diminished the independence of the judiciary.
Critics, including the PDP, northern groups, the SSS, and justices, described the utterances as capable of further dividing the major opposition party, threatening the country’s democracy and eroding Nigerians’ confidence in the judiciary.
They argued that the utterances contradicted Rule 1(5) of the Judicial Code of Conduct, which states that: “A judge must avoid social relationships that are improper.” The rule also said judges should avoid conducts that “may cast doubt on the ability of a judicial officer to decide cases impartially.”
Justices are concerned that Mr Ariwoola’s conduct was an explicit bias that could complicate his ability to impartially assign judges to cases without being second-guessed. It was unclear how the crisis in the PDP would end, but political observers feared it might end up at the Supreme Court, especially as Mr Wike had already instituted a lawsuit against Mr Abubakar’s victory.
An SSS source privy to the matter told The Gazette that Mr Ariwoola was grilled and warned to resign “because it (the partisan political grandstanding) might get dirty for him.
The SSS source said Mr Ariwoola “refused to step down.” But this did not stop his associate justices from pressing on with demands for him to stand down to save the judiciary from further reputational damage.
A top official at the Supreme Court said that five jurists expressed their displeasure at Mr Ariwoola for frolicking with politicians and asked him to step down.
Should the CJN fail to resign voluntarily, the justices threatened to communicate their positions through a letter in the same manner that they accused his predecessor Ibrahim Tanko of being corrupt and irresponsible before successfully ousting him from office. The verbal firework has lingered around the halls of the country’s top court since last week, The Gazette was told.
“Even as a joke, it was an expensive one that should have cost him his office,” a Supreme Court official said under anonymity for want of permission to discuss internal deliberations. “So other judges will know the office is not for comedians but for people who are serious.”
Mr Wike, who has over the years reportedly bragged about his influence over the judiciary across the country, was also alleged to have been bribing judges following his rapport with the judicial officers.
“We already have information that Wike has been bribing judges, so they will make an example of him. So other judges will be careful of getting involved in political activities,” the Supreme Court source said.
The governor did not immediately respond to requests seeking his comments on whether or not his public affinity with the chief justice augurs perils to the Nigerian judiciary.
Mr Wike had, in 2020, while distributing Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) to judges in the state judiciary, criticised judicial officers involved in partisan politics.
“Adjudication and politics are incompatible extremes; hence, no judge can be both and legitimately claim to be an independent and impartial adjudicator,” the governor had said.
He added, “Heads of the country’s judicial system should positively address the identifiable weaknesses and processes that have continued to create room for judicial corruption.”
For three days, two spokespersons for the Supreme Court did not return The Gazette’s request for comments. One of them who promised to call back failed to do so as of Tuesday afternoon.
A spokesman for the SSS declined comments.