By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
IN a country buffeted by corruption like ours, the judiciary is expected to be the last bus-stop of hope for the common man. It is the primary organ of any democratic society that is expected to guarantee equal access to justice and equity to everyone that approaches its supposedly hallowed temple.
A corrupt judiciary is every nation’s worst plague that if left unchecked could effortlessly sound the death knell for its justice administration and delivery system, with attendant dire consequences for the sustainability of its democratic governance.
Though the perceived romance between the Nigerian Judiciary and the politics of corruption dates back to time immemorial, however, recent outcry by both the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and many legal egg_heads including the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, has raised a platform of concern in the minds of conscious Nigerians, even as the 2011 general elections draws nearer.
The role of the Judiciary after every election in Nigeria cannot be glossed over considering that the decisions of election tribunals and appellate courts have gone a long way towards conferring or denying mandates to political office holders in plethora of cases.
Judges have cancelled election results with long strokes of their pen, just as others allow election-related cases to drag in their courts only for judgment to be delivered few weeks before the expiration of the tenure of the office holder.
The ongoing gubernatorial tussle in Sokoto state is a classical example of such cases.
It is however baffling that despite the notorious fact that bribery and corruption has eaten deep into the vein and arteries of the third arm of government in Nigerian, no judicial officer of note has been convicted for corrupt practices.
Though successive military juntas had earlier diagnosed the Nigerian Judiciary sick, it was indeed the regime of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida that made solemn attempts to purge the sector of the malaise.
He specifically instituted a panel charged with the responsibility of perfecting strategies towards ensuring the severance of the Judiciary from the uncanny grips of bribery and corruption.
The blueprints initiated by Babangida was further crystallized by the despotic administration of General Sani Abacha, who engaged one of the vibrant jurists of his time and former Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Kayode Esho, to champion an in-depth probe into the alleged bribery extravaganza among judicial officers, and proffer clinical solutions on how best to tackle the malady head-on.
It is on record that the Justice Kayode Esho led panel not only confirmed monumental height of impropriety among Judges, but went ahead to indict more than two dozens of serving judicial officers it deemed unfit to remain on the bench for want of personal integrity.
As a way forward, the panel recommended compulsory retirement or an outright dismissal from the bench for indicted judicial officers, depending on the nature of the offences established against them.
The Esho panel equally suggested among other things, the setting up of a body called the Judicial Performance Commission, JPC, to act as a watchdog of the judiciary.
The JPC which subsequently metamorphosed into the present day National Judicial Council, NJC, was vested with the powers to receive and deal adequately, complaints in respect of judicial officials in Nigeria, as well as oversee disciplinary matters as it concerns magistrates and judges.
Explicitly, section 153 of the 1999 constitution, imbued the NJC with the requisite locus to hire and fire judicial officers, preside over the issue of appointment, discipline, as well as the remuneration of judges from the high court up to the Supreme court.
Many legal pundits at that time saw the move as the only sure way to eradicate the proliferation of corruption in the justice delivery sector in Nigeria.
Upon assumption into office and the unprecedented role the Judiciary played in the disposal of legions of election petitions that trailed his emergence as the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, in 2001, ordered a full report of the Esho panel, and referred it to the NJC for prompt implementation.
He was of the view that no ailing sector of the nation would recover from its ill_health except the rot in the judiciary was first fixed.
Consequently, the NJC under the able leadership of Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais (now retired) set_up a Review Committee, headed by Hon. Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin, (Rtd), also a former justice of the Supreme Court, to take a holistic appraisal of the report and make recommendations.
The task of that committee culminated into a whirlwind of sack, as no fewer than 28 serving judicial officers who were yet to clock their statutory retirement age, lost their positions on the bench.
The decision of the council further forced the remaining crooked ones on the bench to mask their criminal tendencies.
It however seems like the mask has gradually fallen-off, considering the mounting allegation of corruption that has been leveled against the judiciary in recent times.
Among the rising voices against the infiltration of illegality among Judges was that of Justice Esho himself, who only recently, lamented the endemic level of corruption in the judiciary, describing the corrupt roles of some judges handling election petition tribunals as “mind shattering”.
Justice Esho equally stressed that most of the compromised judges “are not just millionaires as we are told but billionaires”.
The NBA on its own part, insisted that unless the geometric allegations of corruption against the judiciary was taken very seriously, dishonest politicians might resort to using judges to alter results of the 2011 general elections in the country.
According to the NBA President, Mr. J.B Daudu, SAN, “What has brought this issue of corruption among Judges to the fore is the electoral justice jurisdiction conferred on courts. These courts have the capacity and power to alter results of election brought before them by a stroke of the pen.
“The desperation of most Nigerian politicians knows no bounds and if electoral officials can be influenced to alter election results ( as have been found to be so from numerous findings made by tribunals and appellate court), is it Judges and Justices that will not be sought after for influence?
“One indisputable fact about politicians is that they are prone to publicizing facts that others think were concluded in secret. Consequently, everybody hears about the bloated sums that have been given to judicial officers so that the desires of elective office seekers can be satisfied.
“It is not for nothing that the finality of certain courts in election matters has been displaced, leaving finality to the Supreme Court. That measure shows the level of confidence the legislature still reposes in the apex court. One point is however clear, if the warning signals raised on the issue of corruption is not heeded, jurisdiction may one day be taken away from regular courts on election matters”.
It was at this backdrop that Vanguard, decided to sample opinion of seasoned legal bigwigs, on the endemic issue of corruption against Judges and how it may likely affect electoral dispute dispensation come 2011.
Some of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SAN, interviewed over the issue had this to say;
Albert Akpomuje SAN, “A good number of Judges appointed in election tribunals have not lived up to expectation. I have been privileged to handle cases at the tribunal and most times, the kind of judicial pronouncements some of theses judges utter, makes you wonder who the actual piper that dictates the tune is. Though some Judges are still above board, a good number of them have been seriously compromised. Most of these Judges are drafted into tribunals where they strike out cases at will, only for such cases to be referred back to appeal tribunal, thereby wasting public funds.
There will be so much political influence in 2011 and appointment of members of election tribunals may largely depend on who you know and who your political godfather is. I strongly believe that the NBA will be more objective in the appointment process than what obtains presently. NJC have been trying its best to curb the situation, but how much do its members really know? We are the people that handle these cases and we know ourselves; some of the tribunal appointees have left the preview of contemporary trends. The NBA must be involved in the drafting of election tribunals this time around, if indeed we intend to make any headway in 2011. If they allow us in the NBA to make inputs, though we may not achieve 100%, it will however be better than what we have now”.
Patrick I.N Ikwueto, SAN. “Even though the NJC operates as a disciplinary organ of the Judiciary, it is however not an investigative agency. It can only swing into action when an allegation of corruption is leveled against any particular judicial officer. Those that are alleging corruption in the Judiciary should try and identify the perpetrators to enable the NJC to punish them accordingly”.
Okunade Olorundare, SAN. “It is no doubt that some Judges are perceived to be very corrupt and partial in their pronouncements. This has continued to stain the integrity of the Nigerian Judiciary because one bad apple in the market spoils the value of the whole other apples. Most times these corrupt Judges forget that they are holding the position of God on earth, considering that they are the only ones with the power of death and life apart from God. Though the NJC has tried to meet up with its mandate so far, I still believe that there is still plenty room for improvement. We are yet to reach there, until all the corrupt umpires in the court rooms are fished out and punished accordingly, the NJC will not be said to have done enough”.
Paul Erokoro, SAN. “We can no longer deny that some judges are corrupt, but the more important question is how do we tackle the situation? I don’t believe any Judge that is accused of bribery should be spared especially now that they are reasonably paid. I only blame agencies like the SSS, EFCC, ICPC and the Police over their sit down look approach to this issue.
If it is in advanced countries like America, you’ll see some of these agencies, disguise and offer bribes to suspected Judges and arrest them red-handed afterwards. NJC cannot on it own do anything, it acts on evidence. If three of four Judges are arrested and convicted, I sincerely believe that it will sound a note of warning to other corrupt ones. As 2011 looms, it is now the onus of these anti_corruption agencies to take a closer look at this issue, bearing in mind that our democracy can be mutilated by compromised judge’s right inside the court rooms”.
Amechi Mwaiwu, SAN, “it is important to warn politicians to leave the judges alone, the judiciary must be allowed to do its work, it is central to the stabilization of our democracy that the judiciary be allowed to do its work without diversions.