By Tonnie Iredia
The popular saying that change is the only thing that is constant in life is difficult to sustain in Nigeria because things hardly change here. Indeed, the few changes which occur in our public affairs are usually negative. Thus, the expectation that the assumption of office, tomorrow, of a new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), would bring positive changes to the nation’s justice delivery system may be elusive.
Oh yes, the deterioration in the Nigerian judiciary is enough to make an average citizen to despair. For too long, analysts consoled everyone with the argument that the bad eggs in the Judiciary were only at the lower levels making it look logical that all the ills can easily be resolved through the appellate system which offers an upward review of cases.
Today however, no one is sure if our higher courts are not doing more harm than the lower ones. Public affairs commentators who raised alarm as the situation worsened by the day were dubbed as alarmists and arm chair critics until some of our judges started behaving like policemen at checkpoints.
One of our greatest jurists, Chukwudifu Oputa, once revealed that there are lawyers in Nigeria who after having charged their own fees, charge extra for the judge! For our nation, such unwholesome behaviour happens more in election cases. The scandals are no less shameful today as they were in the past; a good example being the infamous role of our judiciary in the June 12, 1993 election.
The drama began when Justice Bassey Ikpeme, the “midnight judge” made a ruling a few hours to the casting of ballot to stop the conduct of the election. To the applause of the public, the electoral body ignored the ruling and went ahead with the election because Section 19 of the relevant Decree – No. 13 of 1993 ousted the jurisdiction of the court in the matter.
A few days later, an astonished populace got to know through the media that the then Chief Judge of Abuja, Justice Dahiru Saleh had made another ruling suspending further release of the results of the election and also issued a bench warrant for the arrest of the then Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Professor Humphrey Nwosu and his principal staff for non-compliance with the earlier ruling of Justice Ikpeme.
Incidentally, a persuasive road map had earlier been drawn by Justice G. A. Oguntade who was then at the court of appeal when he ruled that “where a court makes an order in contravention of a statutory provision which forbids it from makin
g such order, the order so made is null and void and no appeal need be filed against the order”. Every other person with a legal background except Justice Saleh was able to recognize that the ruling of Oguntade being a superior court was on the basic principle of judicial precedent binding on high courts.
During the Abacha military era, government said it had to disband the 1998 local government election tribunals because, “petitions, allegations of bribe taking and even confessional statements by some members of the election tribunals threatened to undermine the credibility of the judicial process”.
Unfortunately, the hope that our bad judiciary would go with the military has since been shattered as the problem has escalated since the return of democracy in 1999. During the 2011 elections, there were hundreds of ex-parte orders restraining INEC from accepting and recognizing some candidates nominated for elections by their political parties.
With more election cases to contend with than the election itself, the chairman of the commission, Prof Attahiru Jega had to formally draw the CJN’s attention to what he called an “emerging trend in the political process where ex-parte orders are granted at the top of a hat by judges”.
INEC’s pain could not have been more than that of General Muhammadu Buhari who must have gathered from sources like the Wikileaks that the court victory secured by his opponent concerning the 2007 election was purchased. Within a short while, the fear that the manipulation of election cases was itself routed at the very top of the judiciary was brought to the fore by the shameful roles of our top most judges in such cases like the Sokoto governorship election petition.
It was a battle which threw the then CJN, Justice Katsina-Alu and the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Ayo Salami into a big dungeon from where the judiciary is yet to resurrect following the ignoble showing of the National Judicial Council (NJC)
The NJC admitted that the CJN should not have gotten himself into the Sokoto case yet lacked the courage to blame him for doing so. Also, whereas it claimed that Justice Salami’s allegation against the CJN was not true meaning that the Appeal Court President lied on oath, the NJC as an administrative body went ahead to penalize the ‘proven’ crime of perjury by ordering Salami to apologize to Katsina-Alu.
The entire episode which looked like a serialized television comedy opened up the Judiciary for the nation to see that Nigerian judges are not ghosts. They live among us; they oppress themselves; they pay lip service to the rule of law and its due process; they donot abide by the simple principles of natural justice; they donot just tell lies-they do so on oath; making it obvious that they are neither better nor worse than the rest of us.
Perhaps society can better appreciate our judges now that they have shown to us they are only human. The Judiciary on its own part needs to know that every societal group has its bad eggs and that they can be at any level in the group. Indeed, the leader may sometimes turn out to be the bad egg and when it so, the group must summon enough courage to embrace leadership change. If the NJC had had the courage to do so in the Katsina-Alu/ Salami feud, it would have made a greater mark instead of circumlocuting to avoid washing the dirty linen in public.
The tenure of Justice Musdapher ends today with very little change to the situation probably because the tenure was short. The new CJN, Justice Aloma Mukthar whose tenure begins tomorrow, is no doubt best positioned to break away from the old order and make her mark.
Luckily, she is known for her courage and dynamism being among the only 3 Justices who were able to rule that the 2007 Presidential election was as defective as the blind man saw it. Having thus established that she is incorruptible; to achieve her promise to lead by example and above board would be with ease.
As the first female chief registrar of the High Court in Kano State, first female judge in that state and in the whole of the north, first female Justice of the supreme court and now the first female CJN, she may be the first to begin, in the next 24 hours, the process of ending Nigeria’s subsisting system of justice for sale.