By Joseph Chu’ma Otteh
On March 9, the National Judicial Council (the Council), responding to public outrage over the allegations that the Chief Justice of Nigeria sought to interfere with proceedings before the Sokoto Gubernatorial Appeals Tribunal convened an emergency session of the Council where it set up a fact_finding Committee to investigate allegations leveled against the CJN and the President of the Court of Appeal.
Other members of that Committee headed by the former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi (rtd) are Justice Emmanuel Ayoola (rtd), Justice D. Edozie (rtd), Justice M. Akpiroroh (rtd) and Hajiya Rakiya Ibrahim.
The Council gave the Panel a two month deadline to complete its investigations and submit a report. When the media reported that the Panel got three months to do the assignment, the Council widely published refutals clarifying that what was given was a two month timeframe. So from the time the Commission was set up, that two_month deadline would expire on May 8th 2011. On May 9th at the latest, we expected the Panel to be submitting its report to the Council. That did not happen!
The Panel has probably met just once, as available reports suggest, on April 12, 2011. On that date it adjourned till May 9 and 10; it does not appear anything happened on those days, but it is understood the Panel has now adjourned till May 18 and 19.
At the Panel’s sitting on April 12, a short riposte by the former Governor of Ekiti state Segun Oni was quite symbolic: he reportedly took the witness stand and, when asked what he wanted the Panel to do, reportedly pointed at Hon. Justice A. Salami, President of the Court of Appeal, and said: “I want this man punished to serve as a deterrent so that the day would not come when a judge would sit on his own divorce case to punish his wife”. The panel it was said, was “thrown into laughter”.
We are here talking about the President of the Court of Appeal! Someone who turned down a nomination to the Supreme Court. I doubt that, for many others outside of the venue, this would be a laughing matter.
The irony is what will ring better. That the Nigerian judiciary is just about now a laughing stock! We did not realize how fast things had moved! That that day had indeed arrived when a fellow would poke his fingers at someone of the rank of President of the Court of Appeal and say what the ex_Governor said with that kind of impunity! And that this would evoke a good humour.
This is indeed a new dawn; a dawn heavy with a foreboding cloud. How did we come to this bend? What brought the Nigerian Judiciary to the market square to dance naked in it? Who brought this upon us? What fell upon this house and crumbled it?
About this time, a respected newspaper published a leaked story where it was reported that Supreme Court justices were heavily bribed to deliver a certain political verdict. We feared the Nigerian earth will give way and sink the nation, including the audacious newspaper.
And that the Justices mentioned will engage in a do or die fight for their lives and the very thing that meant (or should mean) more to them than their lives too. But no! Not as much as a whimper.
Neither the Supreme Court nor its Justices joined issues with this report or the allegations they made. No one went to court to protest these sacrilegious, contemptible claims, just as Justices of that court had done before when a newspaper said they were bribed with new cars.
No major press conference aflame with righteous (or, for that matter, unrighteous) indignation. Why? Just why was the Supreme Court agnostic over this crazy, unthinkable indictment? What are Nigerians supposed to think about the brazen claims made?
But this was not all. About this same time, it was heard that a very high ranking judicial officer had stepped in to stop an anti-corruption agency from investigating allegations of misappropriated funds at the National Judicial Institute.
This opposition to the inquiry whipped up a storm that hurled out the acting Chair of the anti-corruption agency who insisted it was his right to investigate the Institute. The National Judicial Institute, incidentally, only recently had been at the centre of serious allegations of corruption leading to the removal of its erstwhile Administrator.
So, here’s a blight spot that has been a stamping ground for corruption lately. Why would the judiciary have any qualms about the investigation of the same institution if there are any subsequent allegations? To show transparency, the Judiciary’s attitude should have been cooperative, not oppositive.
It did not help to see a leading newsmagazine allege and this has so far not been refuted that a ward of this high ranking judicial officer was a director of one of the companies through which, as the allegations go, the Institute has been defrauded.
But to go back to the main story: what is the worth of Justice Abdullahi’s Panel and what promise can it hold? Will this panel find the courage to depict the entire picture of what has gone wrong and identify the fault lines underneath an institution that is self_destructing? Or will it, as many have feared, bow to captive political forces overwhelming in their base and reach? Many had feared that the Probe will conclude its work only during when some of those implicated in the allegations have proceeded on terminal leave, and further said the National Judicial Council will not indeed consider the report until after these ones have retired. So that effectively, the Council will not be able to sanction them if they are indicted.
At the time these fears were expressed, we thought the conspiracy theorists were just practicing their trade. But now look: the Panel was given two months to conclude their assignments from March 9, 2011.
They should have turned in their report latest on May 8th. But now the Panel has only adjourned till May 18 and 19 for a continuation of hearing. From a distance we can hear these theorists theorizing, “we told you so.”
This Panel-constituted by quite eminent and distinguished persons-has failed to uphold public confidence and deflect insinuations that its work will not lead to any meaningful outcomes.
However, there are still many Nigerians who believe that the Panel can be forthright in spite of its initial errors. Now the Panel needs to win back broad public confidence in its very significant work, justify the confidence some members of the public still have in its ability to discharge its functions creditably, and substantiate its own claims of integrity and independence.
On its part, the National Judicial Council will need to complete the review of the Panel’s work with despatch and ensure that disciplinary actions are taken by it against any judicial officer, no matter how highly ranked, who is found to have breached the Judicial Code of Conduct.
Nigerians demand no less. In the last few months, the Nigerian Judiciary has suffered tremendous loss of institutional prestige and honour following extremely scandalous allegations leveled against the leadership of the Judiciary, leveled against the Supreme Court itself as well as Courts of Appeal. Public perceptions of the Judiciary’s autonomy and moral integrity will plunge further if the Panel does not submit its report without further delay.
The Panel needs to work to avoid the perception that it is itself, an interested party that could be teleguided as to the timing of the conclusion of its work. The Panel’s role in re-establishing behavioural rectitude and drawing a bright line of what is acceptable conduct and what is not within the Judiciary cannot be over-emphasized.
*Joseph Chu’ma Otteh, is the Executive Director, Access to Justice.