Good news - and bad - for African judiciary charged with wrong-doing

For two senior African judges, this is a particularly momentous month. Justice Joseph Wowo of Nigeria, former Chief Justice of Gambia, has been effectively exonerated by a regional court after his humiliating treatment at the hands of the courts in Gambia and his dismissal by the then-President, Yahya Jammeh. Justice Wowo has also been awarded significant damages for the way he was treated. But though his trials and tribulations may now be over, serious trouble is only just starting for a member of Kenya’s Supreme Court, Justice Jackton B. Ojwang’. Chief Justice David Maraga is reported to have written to President Uhuru Kenyatta, recommending that a special tribunal be established to consider the impeachment of his suspended colleague, Justice Ojwang’.

Justice Joseph Wowo, originally of Nigeria, was jailed on corruption charges in January 2014. His trial was seen by many as involving trumped-up charges and he has now won a kind of vindication via the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

In a special statement, the Ecowas court has announced that it has ordered Gambia to pay $200 000 in “nominal damages” to Justice Wowo. Unfortunately, however, no judgment has been released that explains the court's decision.

According to the statement, the damages are in respect of the violation of the judge’s rights to a fair hearing. They are also related to his “unlawful imprisonment and removal from office on allegation of corruption, false information and the abuse of office”.

Justice Wowo had originally claimed $20m in damages, but without any judgment it is not possible to explain the basis on which the Ecowas court found that $200 000 was appropriate.

One of the chief complaints of Justice Wowo was that he had been tried by a judge who was himself on trial before Justice Wowo for corruption. That alone, he argued, would constitute evidence of the violation of his fair trial rights.

The Ecowas court had further held that Gambia’s acts relating to Justice Wowo’s “removal from office, trial and conviction were biased, lacking in independence, inconsistent with due process, in breach of natural justice and thereby constituted a gross violation” of his fair trial rights.

According to Gambia, however, he had been removed from office “by the President in consultation with the Judicial Service Commission after investigation and due deliberations”.

The court ordered that $150 000 be paid directly to Justice Wowo “as restoration, mindful of (his) claims of inability to secure employment and the time spent in prison after he was wrongfully tried and sentenced although he was subsequently cleared”. The balance is to be paid to him as legal fees as he has not been working since his removal from office and had struggled to pay his attorney.

Justice Wowo is not the only Gambian Chief Justice to enjoy a very short term of office. His replacement, the first woman to hold the office in Gambia, was Mabel Yamoa Agyemang of Ghana. She lasted just six months before President Jammeh dismissed her without explanation. The next Chief Justice lasted just as long and though no official reason was ever given for his dismissal, commentators pointed out that it followed the decision to acquit a prominent member of the navy on treason charges.

In Kenya, meanwhile, Chief Justice David Maraga this week told the media that he had written to President Uhuru Kenyatta recommending that a tribunal be established to decide the future of fellow Supreme Court justice, Jackton Ojwang’.

Preliminary investigations indicated there were grounds for a tribunal to be set up, the CJ said.

Justice Maraga said he regretted that Justice Ojwang’ had ignored a Judicial Service Commission summons to defend himself before their initial hearing.

According to local media, Justice Ojwang’ is accused of “conspiring” with a prominent local politician to build a road to the judge’s private residence “in exchange for a favourable ruling in a case”.

The CJ’s recommendation is likely to be followed by the suspension of Justice Ojwang and then by the appointment of a tribunal.

Another Kenyan Supreme Court justice, deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, is also having problems on the other side of the law. She was arrested at the Supreme Court last year, and now faces charges related to corruption and non-payment of tax among others.