We had just had elections in 2007 that, by most accounts, were possibly worst ever, and the legitimacy of the presidential poll that the authorities had declared won by Umaru Yar'Adua and his running mate, Goodluck Jonathan, hung in the balance.
Justices of our Supreme Court, the final arbiters of the disputed election, immediately became the objects of affection of interested politicians, who proceeded to shower them with cash to make sure they confirmed the legitimacy of the election of Messrs Yar'Adua and Jonathan, according to secret US diplomatic cables leaked to the whistleblower site Wikileaks and made available to NEXT.
According to the cables, filed to Washington by then US ambassador to Abuja, Robin Sanders, the source of this information was none other than the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole.
According to Mr. Bankole, Mr. Ibori, a convicted criminal, who is being held in preventive detention in Dubai while awaiting extradition to London to face the latest in his many corruption trials, got the then newly appointed federal attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, to serve as bag man, delivering the cash to the unnamed Supreme Court justices.
Mr. Bankole also told the US ambassador that by accepting bribes to reach a legal condition favourable to President Yar'Adua and Vice President Jonathan, the supreme court justices had "tasted blood".
The cables made exclusively available to NEXT are part of a cache of more than 250,000 US diplomatic reports leaked to Wikileaks, the whistleblower web site now under legal siege in Europe and whose work has caused major embarrassment for the US government.
While the revelation from Mr. Bankole cannot be independently verified by NEXT, the cables themselves are indisputably authentic and the U.S government has never cast doubt on the accounts.
On May 6, 2009, a day after the meeting with the Speaker, Ms. Sanders filed a report to her principals in Washington, detailing her interaction with Mr. Bankole, whom she described as "sometimes elusive, but certainly ego-driven."
"Bankole claimed that he had proof that most of the judges had lined their pockets throughout the entire process of rerunning state elections, including the Supreme Court decision on President Yar'Adua's case in November 2008," the diplomatic cable read.
‘It is not true'
When contacted on Sunday, Mr. Bankole did not deny that he had met with the US ambassador but claimed he was misquoted.
"He could not have said what was attributed to him," Mr. Bankole's spokesman, Musa Ebhomhiana, said by telephone. "He is not an INEC official and could not have said that about the election. But how can you believe whatever Wikileaks says, given the damage it has been doing around the world?"
On his part, Mr. Aondoakaa said Bankole's allegation is ‘rubbish'. "I don't know whether he really said that or why he said it," the former AGF said by telephone. "But let him come out in the open and say it. Then, I will know what to say or do."
Mr. Aondoakaa denied that he passed bribes to the justices. "Yar'Adua is not a man who gives bribe, and Ibori did not give me a kobo to give to anybody. I didn't do anything like that."
The justices involved in the case could not be reached on Sunday.
When contacted, Sunday Olorundahunsi, the chief registrar at the Supreme Court who also doubles as spokesperson for our highest court, wouldn't comment on the statement credited to Mr. Bankole. Immediately our reporter posed his question to him via telephone, Mr. Olorundahunsi terminated the call. He did not answer subsequent calls.
A former Chief Justice of the Nation, Muhammadu Uwais, declined comment on Mr. Bankole's comment, saying he had retired at the time the Supreme Court decided the case.
Justices of the Supreme Court and other senior judges have lately been enveloped in the stench of another election scandal, in which senior judges have accused one another of manoeuvring to reassign judges in a way that friendly justices can determine the outcome of election cases.
The 2007 presidential election was characterized by irregularities and violence and was rated by both international and domestic observers as the worst election ever held in the country.
Dissatisfied with the outcome of the election, two contestants, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) and Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress (AC) dragged Mr. Yar'Adua to court, asking that the election be annulled.
In February 2008, the Court of Appeal upheld the election. The appellants then took their case to the Supreme Court. The seven-member panel of the Supreme Court concurred with the appellate court in November that year.
The four Judges who voted in favour of Mr. Yar'Adua were Legbo Kutigi, who was the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) at the time; Aloysius Katsina-Alu, the current CJN; Niki Tobi; and Dahiru Musdapher. Justices George Oguntade, Maryam Mukthar and Samuel Onnoghen, in a minority judgment, held that the election failed substantially to comply with the law.
Bribing the Judges
According to Mr. Bankole, the cable reported, the late president was actively involved in the bribery process and made special arrangement to ensure that the judges swing judgment in his favour. Mr. Ibori was the money bag while Mr. Aondoakaa, was the conduit.
Ms. Sanders explained that the disclosure by the Speaker was a confirmation of earlier reports the U.S. Mission in Nigeria had received regarding how the Supreme Court decision was manipulated to favour the late president and his then deputy (who is now president).
"We had also heard during the entire Supreme Court process on the Yar'Adua case that the judges had been heavily influenced and paid off," Ms. Sanders said in her report, quoting Mr. Bankole as saying ‘he had no faith in the transparency of the judiciary'.
There were reports in the media at the time that as much as $30million was spent to bribe the Supreme Court judges. But there was no concrete evidence to back the claim.
The Speaker reportedly said the judiciary had over-stepped its bounds in most of the rerun gubernatorial elections, and had "tasted blood," with its new found power to influence state elections and power politics in Nigeria.
Ms. Sanders also said that the Speaker's revelation was a confirmation of Mr. Aondoakaa's corruption as well as an explanation for why Mr. Yar'Adua refused to fire the former AGF in spite of the widespread calls for his removal.
"The Ambassador asked what this particular minister [the AGF] had on the president," the cable further reported. "Bankole said without hesitation he was the money conduit from Ibori to the Judiciary as regards to the President's Supreme Court case.
"The Mission was always aware that Yar'Adua would not touch him [the AGF], but also did not believe that the President was unaware of the AG's corruption. Evidently not only was he aware, but also had to use the AG as the avenue to secure the Supreme Court decision, if Bankole's comments are true," Ms. Sanders said.
Reacting to the revelation, Jiti Ogunye, a lawyer and activist said, "If Bankole says he has proof, he should bring it forward. He is the Number 4 citizen of this country. If he has proof and he has been sitting down like a lame duck and is not bringing it out to help the country, what are we to make of him? That is not a statesman. If there is that allegation, the public ought to be helped by the provision of evidence."