Gambian lawyers accuse ‘mercenary’ Nigerian judges of backing Jammeh

Gambian lawyers and members of the country’s opposition have accused the country’s leader, Yahya Jammeh, of using “mercenary judges” from Nigeria, and other officials sent as technical assistants to the country’s judiciary, to hound dissidents.

The Gambian Bar Association also accused the Chief Justice of Gambia, Emmanuel Fagbenle, of plotting to use Nigerian judges to overturn the outcome of the December 1, 2016 presidential election in which Mr. Jammeh lost to Adama Barrow.

After initially conceding defeat and congratulating Mr. Barrow, Mr. Jammeh, who has ruled the tiny West Africa country for 22 years, recanted.

He claimed the polls were characterised by “unacceptable abnormalities”, and filed a petition challenging the result and praying that he be declared winner.

The Gambian opposition, including the GBA and other activist groups, argue that by unanimously annulling the election, Mr. Jammeh usurped the role of the country’s Supreme Court, flouted the tenet of the constitution and possibly committed treason.

“While under normal circumstances the right to petition against election results does exist, the situation in the Gambia now, is that there is no constituted panel of the Supreme Court,” the Gambian Bar Association wrote in a statement.

“The GBA notes with concern that since May 2015, there has not been a sitting Supreme Court session due to the absence of a panel. This is despite several reminders issued to the Chief Justice by members of the Bar. In the circumstance; it would be against the principle of natural justice to for the outgoing President to appoint Supreme Court judges to hear a Petition filed by him or on his behalf,” the statement added.

The body said the last decision of the court was not in favour of the government and resulted in the acquittal of former Chief of Defence Staff, Lang Tombong Tamba, a general, and Sarjo Fofana, a rear admiral.

Shortly after that Mr. Jammeh dismissed the only two permanent Supreme Court judges, Sallieu Taal, former Vice President of the Gambian Bar Association further explained in an email to PREMIUM TIMES.

Hobnobbing with Jammeh

The Gambia’s Bar Association accuse the Chief Justice, Mr. Fagbenle, of plotting to manipulate the judiciary to give a verdict in favour of Mr. Jammeh.

The country’s lawyers said at an emergency meeting on December 12, 2016, the Bar Association “unanimously passed a resolution and mandated the Executive of the Association to call for the resignation of Mr. Fagbenle as the Chief Justice of The Gambia”.

In a letter addressed to the Chief Justice, the association stated that Mr. Fagbenle’s had no moral right to occupy the office after his alleged openly bias position during the election.

“It was resolved by the members of the GBA that your conduct during the presidential campaign has brought disrepute to the Office of the Chief Justice,” the letter read in part.

“The position of the Chief Justice is a constitutional position and as the head of third arm of government, you are expected to maintain and uphold certain standards. You have in our considered view woefully failed to adhere to these standards,” the letter continued.

The GBA said during the campaigns leading to the election, Mr. Fagbenle openly attended the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, APRC, rallies. They further added that on the day Mr. Jammeh was nominated as the candidate of his party, the Chief Judge was “seen in front of the court premises waving and dancing in support of the incumbent presidential parade.”

“Several members of the bar saw you wearing APRC apparel on the court premises. You were distributing APRC apparel to the court staff and making preparations for the victory celebration of the incumbent president,” the lawyers wrote.

The GBA further accused Mr. Fagbenle of several misconducts throughout his tenure.

“You interfered with judicial officials who were presiding over cases and caused them to be dismissed when they made decisions which were deemed to be against the state’s interest,” they claimed.

“Emmanuel Fagbenle is clearly unfit to for the constitutional role of Chief of Justice and there is no doubt he will take steps to attempt to extend the illegal regime of Jammeh,” the association stated.

Mr. Fagbenle could not be reached for comments.

The lawyers’ association claimed that the recent announcement that six judges, five from Nigeria and one from Sierra Leon, have been appointed to the Gambia’s Supreme Court, is fraught with suspicion. The association of lawyers claimed that Mr. Fagbenle did not disclose their appointment until Mr. Jammeh’s challenge of the election was filed in court.

The six judges are: Habeeb A. O Abiru, a justice at the Court of Appeal in Jos, Akomaye Agim, a former Chief Justice of the Gambia and presently assigned to the Abuja division of the Court of Appeal, Abubakar Datti Yahaya, also of the Abuja division of the Court of Appeal, Abubakar Tijani, a former Chief Judge of Jigawa State and presently attached to the Lagos division of the Court of Appeal, and Obande Festus Ogbuinya of the Abuja Division of the Appeal Court.

The sixth judge, Nicholas Colin Brown, is a Sierra Leonean.

When contacted for comments, Acting Director of Information of the National Judicial Council (NJC), Soji Oye, told PREMIUM TIMES he was on leave and could not speak on the matter.

However, a source within the NJC, who asked not to be named because he had no permission to speak on the matter, said he was aware The Gambian judiciary had requested Nigerian judges to be appointed to its Supreme Court long before the election crisis ensued.

The source further explained that Nigerian judges sent to other countries were expected to act professionally and not to abuse their privileges. He said any judge on assignment outside the country who is proven to have acted unprofessionally will be severely sanctioned by the NJC.

“We normally send judges to other countries, not only The Gambia on their request. They normally send their request through the NJC, and the NJC will screen judges before sending to them,” the source said.

“The request usually go to the chairman of the NJC, the CJN (Chief Justice of Nigeria) and the chairman will now decide on which judges to send.

“They (The Gambian judiciary) have written before this crisis for the appointment of Nigerian justices. It is only judges of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court that are normally sent there.

“If there is a petition against them that they are planning to make Jammeh overrule the election result, they have not implemented the plan yet. It is when they have implemented the plan that the NJC will step in. Any judge who is sent to another country knows the implication of misbehaving because they know they are coming back to the NJC so they cannot mess up because they know the implications,” the source explained.

“Mercenary Judges”

The Gambia Bar Association also alleged that at least, there are seven judges “handpicked” from Nigeria working as high court judges in the The Gambia who are being used by the Jammeh administration to perpetrate judicial fraud.

“These persons have never been judges or sat in a judicial capacity. They were imported and appointed and have demonstrated in several high profile judgement that they will not take any steps contrary to the will of the president,” the GBA stated.

They gave the names of the judges as: Agboola, Anyim N.C Ikoro, Uduma, E.E Ogar, E.O Dada, Sulaiman and E.O Otaba.

PREMIUM TIMES found that the named judges, whom Gambian media refer to as “mercenary judges”, are embroiled in several judicial controversies in the West African Country.

The judges were personally handpicked by Mr. Fagbenle and The Gambia Attorney General, Fatima Singhateh.

Our investigation shows that one of the judges is the founder of Liberation Chambers located at Suite 34, Abuja Shopping Mall Zone 3, Wuse, Abuja. The telephone number he provided was listed as incorrect.

In June 2016, senior Gambian lawyer, Antouman Gaye, and his legal team, who represented opposition lawyer, Ousainou Darboe, and others standing trial on a six-count, staged a walkout after Mrs. Dada, who was adjudicating the case, refused to stop soldiers who had forced their way into a private conversation between the lawyers and their clients.

According to local media reports, soldiers with guns had walked into a private room where lawyers were speaking to their clients, insisting that they will have to listen to the conversation. When Mrs. Dada was asked to order the army out of the room, she purportedly said: “I cannot prevent the army from listening in.”

Also, in July 2016, The Gambia opposition party, United Democratic Party (UDP), wrote a petition to the Nigerian government, accusing seven Nigerian “judges” and other members of the Nigerian technical Assistance of “judicial rascality”.

They particularly mentioned Hadi Saleh Barkum, a Nigerian, and Gambia’s director of public prosecution (DPP), whom they accused of cooking up trumped-up charges against members of The Gambian opposition.

Copied in the petition were the NJC, Senate Committee on Judiciary, House of Representatives Committee on Judiciary, House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“It was the expectation of the People of The Gambia that these personnel would import best practices and systems of justice and moral code from our Sister Republic, however to our dismay this has not happened. Instead they have become the preferred tool in the hands of the Executive which unscrupulously uses threats of imprisonment against members of the public in the firm assurance that same would be made good by Nigerian prosecutors and judges.

“Mr. Attorney General, our country can afford to hire its own prosecutors, our country has the budget and the manpower to man its own Ministry of Justice. The legitimate need for Technical Assistance no longer arises,” the petition reads.

“It is, therefore, a vital priority for the Government of Nigeria and all Bar Associations to condemn the actions and capacity of all judges of foreign nationality currently sitting in Gambia and call for their immediate repatriation to prevent them from undermining the will of the Gambian people,” the GBA also said in another similar statement.

Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, his media aide, Isah Salihu, and the director of information of the ministry did not answer calls made to their mobile phone. They also did not respond to text messages sent to them asking for steps the ministry has taken in respect of the petition.

A curious association

The GBA also slammed the African Bar Association (AFBA), a lawyers’ association whose members are mainly Nigerians for giving what it described as a “semblance of legitimacy” to annulment of the December 1, 2016 election by Mr. Jammeh.

“The AFBA was full of praises of Jammeh and critical of the local bar for taking a position in the matter,” the GBA stated.

The AFBA, which claimed to be mediating with the Gambian government and opposition in order to resolve the election logjam, had released a statement on its position on the The Gambian crisis which thanked Mr. Jammeh for “peacefully making his case”.

“AFBA believes that the President knows the constitution of Gambia and having run Gambia for 22 years will not want to create chaos and destroy his legacy of landmark development,” the statement reads.

It then proceeded to blame the GBA for not pointing out the unavailability of a Supreme Court justices to sit on Mr. Jammeh’s petition before the election.

The AFBA has since met Mr. Jammeh and country’s President-elect, Mr. Barrow, and has plans to return to the country in early January in what it described as on-going negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

But the GBA said that it was suspicious of the intentions of the AFBA. Though on its website, the AFBA listed the GBA as one of its national legal member associations, the GBA released a video statement denying it has any connection with the association.

“The Gambian Bar Association is not connected or associated to with Mr Hannibal Owaifo (the president of the AFBA) and his organization, the African Bar Association. The general public is hereby notified that this organization does not represent all or any association or bodies of African lawyers as the name suggests. The said African Bar Association is not connected or associated with Nigerian Bar Association, although its members are predominantly Nigeria. It also is not connected or associated with the Pan African Lawyers’ Union (PALU), The International Bar Association (IBA), or related entities.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which was also listed as a national legal member of AFBA also denied being an affiliate of the association.

The NBA president, Abubakar Mahmoud, told PREMIUM TIMES that though he was aware that some of its members were also members of the AFBA, the NBA had no relationship with the association.

However, the AFBA says it is a legally registered association which derives recognition from its members and not from other individuals or associations.

“The African Bar Association does not need the approval or recognition of any individual no matter how highly placed or any law society,” Osa Director, special adviser, media and publicity, AFBA told PREMIUM TIMES during a telephone chat.