By Dayo Benson & Abdulwahab Abdulah
For sometimes now, the prevalence of corruption in the nation’s judiciary has been a major concern to stakeholders, particularly the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA and the top echelon in the justice sector.
Successive Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN and the NBA presidents have vowed to rid the hallow institution of justice of the scourge with little success achieved.
Lately however, the frontier of the battle against corrupt in the judiciary has been expanded. Other concern groups and institutions have equally picked the gauntlet before what is supposed to be a sacred institution is brought to its knees. Hence, the collective resolve now is that all hands must be on deck to stamp out the menace once and for all.
This was the central message at a forum held in Lagos Tuesday. It was a round table that drew participants from the bar and the bench, the civil society, anti graft agency, the media and the academic.
At the end of the day, participants agreed that corruption must be frontally fought to a standstill.
Acting Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Ekpo Nta, who was represented by the Director of Legal Services of the commission, Mrs Christiana Onuogu, set the tone for the discussions when she said lawyers are fundamentally responsible for the delay being suffered in our different courts because they (lawyers) failed to tell their clients the truth about how to admit guilt whenever they are wrong.
The ICPC boss, charged lawyers to desist from the continued practice of filing what she described as ‘frivolous Interlocutory appeals’ before judges, saying the action not only cause a lot of damage to cases before the court, but also runs down the integrity of the judiciary.
The Media-Roundtable with the theme, “Promoting Ethics and Integrity Within The Courts System- Towards Citizens Access To Justice” was organised by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), in collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Abuja.
Describing the court as a major stakeholder in the fight against corruption, the ICPC boss urged lawyers to always advise their clients to say the truth so as to ensure easy and quick dispensation of justice, arguing that delay tactics employed by lawyers in cases before the court should not be encouraged.
He said, “It is difficult in our court system to see that justice is not delayed in whatever manner. You hardly see a situation when a lawyer advise his client to own up to a crime. This would have saved the time of the court and improve our justice delivery system.
“Let me use this medium to charge all Nigerians to join in the moves to fight corruption head on. I also want to call on the authorities concerned for the appointment of Assistant Judges in the Nigerian judicial system to help substantive Judges in the dispensation of justice,” Nta added.
He said all hands must be on deck in the battle to fight corruption and see that “justice is done to all parties concerned at all times.”
Mrs. Onuogu who narrated her experience when she traveled to Japan, said the nation’s judiciary should take a cue from the Japan experience where suspects own up to crimes voluntarily just to save their system and their integrity.
“In Japan, there is no delay in their court system, but here in Nigeria, the courts are burdened with so many interlocutory injunctions and others and these lead to frustration in the system. Land and corruption cases take unnecessary delay and resources before issues are resolved in court.” She said.
On his part, former Chairman of the Lagos State House of Assembly House Committee on Judiciary, Mr. Babatunde Ogala, described corruption in the country as endemic, adding that the worst that can happen to anyone is to be labeled a criminal.
Ogala condemned the recent fuel subsidy scam which involved children of top politicians in the country, adding that the judiciary has done creditably well in some areas.
He however advised the Lagos State government to provide necessary facilities to judges and the state judiciary staff to do their job effectively, while advocating for the constant review of the Lagos State laws to meet with the international standard.
“Where laws are obsolete, justice cannot be well dispensed. The appointment of judges is becoming political and most of the judges so appointed are incompetent,” he added.
Also commenting, the Chief Registrar, CR of the Lagos State High Court, Ganiyu Safari, maintained that the Lagos State judiciary is doing everything possible to ensure that those who are appointed as judges are people of proven integrity.
The chief Registrar who admitted that corruption has reached a controversial level that some prominent Nigerians do not mind what it takes to deviate from recognised societal norms to achieve their goals, said the few members of the judiciary who are corrupt cannot do this without those who approached them.
The Chief Registrar said corruption has reached a hydra-headed level in the country that most public officials, especially those working on the bench are threatened by litigants, their lawyers and their prominent families to achieve their aims by all means possible.
Safari, who disclosed that on several occasions he received serious pressures and threats from prominent Nigerians who mostly asked favour from him in order to have their ways in either securing bail for their relatives or on other issues,said he always insists that thing should be done normally.
Specifically, Safari said he was threatened by some aides to a prominent government official in order to secure urgent bail for the detained oil marketers who were ordered to be remanded at EFCC custody after he was approached to bend the rules in order to secure their freedom from custody.
According to him, “There was an instance when I was approached by an aide to a senior government official in Abuja who said I should bend the rule to get bail for one of the oil marketers. Thecourt imposed a condition that they should produced a surety with landed property in Lagos, but they got a surety from Ogun state. They want my office to confirm the surety, but luckily for me I was in Abuja for a programme then. They called me severally, I said there is nothing I can do to confirm it. They even promised to fly my secretary with the file to Abuja but I refused.
“There are serious pressures from prominent Nigerians, including lawyers. How many people can stand face to face with these people. Sometimes when they want to stand surety for their relatives, I asked them to appear personally, but they request that we should interview them on phone. I always maintained my stand that how should I know or recognise a surety if I did not see face to face.
“They will threat that they will call on the governor who will direct the CJ to influence it. But eventually they will still have to show up.”
According to him, “The duty of cleansing the system lies in the hands of all of us. The Judiciary in Lagos State has been doing everything to ensure that corruption is fought to a standstill in the country.”
Guest speaker at the occasion, Mr. Tayo Oyetibo, SAN in a paper presentation entitled, “The role of the judiciary in combating corruption in Nigeria” described, corruption as the biggest and most embarrassing challenge facing the country today.
The guest speaker, who was represented by Matthew Burkaa, said, “Corruption is indeed a serious threat on our economic and democratic development. When the rule of law is weak, corruption will remain a nagging problem.
“Corruption in the Justice sector is a keystone to corruption throughout society. Without an honest criminal justice system, the wealthy, especially the corrupt, can escape the consequences of their crimes.
“Such impunity reduces the perceived cost of corruption. The risk that corrupt activity will result in imprisonment and accompanying public humiliation is minimal. The gains from corruption are therefore not discounted and there is thus little reason beyond personal integrity not to engage in corrupt acts.” He added.
The guest speaker maintained that the fight against corruption in Nigeria is a collective one and all hands must be on deck to win the battle.
“It takes two to tango. where there is no “offeror” there can be no “offeree”.
“In other words, corruption persists and reigns supreme in Nigeria because persons in authority have either been corrupted by the system or by the people they come in contact with. If the people unanimously choose not to influence the work of public officers, indeed, the corrupt public officers cannot continue to operate without being exposed.
“Therefore there are “corruptors” and “corruptees” but the judiciary plays a pivotal and central role in the fight against corruption because by virtue of the provisions of the Constitution, all cases are referred to the court for adjudication.
He said, invariably all corruption allegations, investigations and cases are referred to court.
“By virtue of Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution, only the Courts and tribunals established by law are vested with powers to adjudicate between the State (prosecution) and the individual (accused) and determine the culpability or otherwise of an accused person in any corruption case.
“No body or institution can condemn a man on the basis of any investigation or findings without recourse to the Court or Tribunal established by Law. To do otherwise will be a negation of the cherished principle of the Rule of Law which is the foundation of our democracy.
“Any findings, decision, determination or pronouncement of the court on the fate of an individual in respect of any particular allegation is final. The individual concerned may in subsequent proceedings plead autrefois acquit or convict,” he submitted.
Oyetibo explained that for the Judiciary to play its role in the fight against corruption, it must be independent and free from any form of interference in terms of funding and political manipulation.
This, according to him will enable Judges to determine cases freely and competently on the basis of facts presented before them.
He added that, “The Courts must ensure that cases bordering on corruption are dealt with expeditiously to instill public confidence in the fight against corruption. To this end, the court must ensure that recourse to unnecessary technicalities are avoided or out-rightly rejected.
“The fight against corruption will indeed be more effective when Judges are properly trained, better motivated, disciplined and committed to duty. The need for Judges to be better trained to handle (corruption) cases cannot be over-emphasized.
“It is not in doubt that the nature of the office and functions of a judge call for a very high sense of duty, probity, integrity and transparency, as such any Judge so appointed without possessing the above fundamental qualities is no doubt bound to be a clog and obstacle to justice.
“A corrupt bench can only worsen the fight against corruption. For the Judiciary to position itself properly against the fight against corruption, it must first purge itself of corruption.
“It will be a very sad day indeed for the court which is seen as the bastion of hope of the common man to stand as an “accused” in the fight against corruption. The prosecuting agencies must provide proper training for prosecutors of corruption cases.
“The courts must be properly equipped with modern facilities to be able to fast-track the determination of corruption related cases and indeed understand the modus operandi of persons accused of cases of corruption.
Earlier in his welcome address, executive director of SERAP, Adetokunbo Mumuni, described the issue of ethics and integrity within the courts system as a serious one.
According to Mumuni, “Today’s gathering is a further element in the project and the significant purpose is to generate more ideas and suggestions of the realistic and practical kind, as to how the courts system in Lagos State and in Nigeria can be strengthened in the interest of better and efficient delivery of justice.”