By Josef Omorotionmwan
EACH time we hear this noise about the independence of the Judiciary, we are quickly reminded of that husband whose wife keeps accusing him of hardly sleeping with her but as soon as the wife goes into the bath-room, this husband takes delight in peeping at her through the key hole.
We wonder what joy this peeping tom of a husband who refuses to take advantage of his wife’s total body derives from peeping at a small fraction of that body. The Nigerian Judiciary has had every opportunity all these years to assert its independence but it has kept blowing all the chances.
The wrong impression is created that the independence of the Judiciary, or any organisation for that matter, is projected solely on the quantum of budgetary allocation available to it. In large measure, independence is determined by your carriage and your attitude to work. Independence is never given on a platter of gold.
Essentially, an organisation decides whether it wants to be independent or not. A Judiciary that cannot assert itself is doomed. An independent Judiciary must be prepared to take the hard decisions and pronto too. The situation in Nigeria today is such that judicial directions are determined largely by the political party in power.
We call to the witness stand, the Anambra State Election Petitions Tribunal, which was, until recently, headed by Justice Pius Damulak. We hear that following several threats allegedly received by the five-man Tribunal, which was sitting in Awka, it has disqualified itself from further hearing of the case between Dr. Chris Ngige of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Mr. Peter Obi of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). We condemn in its entirety, any form of threat or harassment on officials in the course of carrying out their assignments. We also totally condemn any attempt at the miscarriage of justice.
Again, we should all know that every occupation has its hazards. Threats, a vast number of which could be empty, are the very stuff on which the Nigerian society is built. Politicians receive a full dose of it on a continuing basis.
Governors and other important officials are perhaps used to such threats that they hardly mean anything to them any more. What of tax collectors and even pastors who are busy day and night, trying to ensure that the kingdom of evil doers is in disarray?
Essentially, threat could be good reason for asking that security be beefed up around you but it is not a good reason for abdicating your responsibility. If you can’t stand the smoke, you should get out of the kitchen. One would have expected the ‘chicken judges’ to chicken out of the entire judicial system, not just disqualifying themselves from hearing a particular case for, they could also face greater threats in other areas that they have now opted for.
In any case, who are the judges with two heads who are immune to threats that they want to go and replace them in Anambra State? Don’t forget, Ngige had originally asked the Tribunal Judges to disqualify themselves.
He was not doing so because he saw them as too upright. If anything, the opposite was the case. After all, no one sells a chicken because it hatches too much.
Men of integrity have passed through this route, unscratched and undaunted. They left their footprints in the sands of time. We invite to the witness stand, Mr. Justice Oyemade, where ever he may be. In his days, Nigeria was perhaps not as refined as it is today. It was in the early 1960s, when the Agbekoya society held sway in the “Wild-Wild West”.
Mr. Justice Oyemade acted firmly and spoke convincingly in the way he dealt with the case of the political guinea pigs who attempted to intimidate him: I will not allow myself to be intimidated into sending innocent persons to jail.
Even if this leads to my losing my job, I am still sure of leading a decent life. The only thing we have now in this country is the judiciary. We have seen politicians change from one policy to another and from one party to another but the only protection the ordinary people have against all these inconsistencies is a fearless and upright judiciary.
An independent and fearless judiciary is the greatest hope of the ordinary citizens. It gives form and substance to the spirit of liberty and man’s yearnings for justice. The day the people lose confidence in the judiciary, there would be anarchy. We should therefore learn to say: ‘Let there be justice though the heavens fall’.
Up till this day, the heavens have not still fallen and they never will! We must be prepared to learn from the lessons that history teaches. Come to think of it, where did all the courage go over the years? Members of the Anambra Tribunal who disqualified themselves a few days back must now reinstate themselves or be reinstated.
They should shape in or ship out! That is the total difference between the men and the boys. Shakespeare was essentially right, when he said, “Honour and shame on no part arise; act well your part and there the honour lies”.
Judges, particularly those in the courts of superior records, can no longer expect to handle only the sweet cases. The tough ones are those that define the content of the Judge’s character. You cannot run away from them.
The Nigerian Judiciary must finally define itself to itself and for itself before it can begin to think of full independence. No matter how anyone looks at it, a situation in which close to the end of the four-year tenure, many of the petitions from the April 2007 elections are still limping between the Tribunals and the Appeal Courts, courtesy of a tardy judiciary, is far from ideal.
We have mentioned somewhere else that in the more advanced democracies, electoral cases are given accelerated hearing and except in a few instances, such cases are concluded within a few days. Any electoral reform that does not begin with the reform of our judicial system is a waste of time.
We do not know of other countries where, in this digital age, judges are still sentenced to the recording of proceedings and writing of judgments in long hand. Nigeria should put its money where its mouth is. By investing reasonably into the upgrade of our Judiciary, we can certainly avoid a situation where our electoral cases are abandoned in the deep freezer for upwards of four years; and we can consign the awaiting trial syndrome to history.