BY IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI
The history of the world they say is nothing but a compendium of the biographies of great men- and as the proverbial literary guru, Williams Shakespeare aptly noted, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”.
Late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa certainly falls into the category of men that achieved greatness by means of their resolute strength of character—an attribute evident in the salvo of post-humous eulogies that has greeted this consummate jurist since his death on May 4. Whereas the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, SAN, described him as “Nigeria’s foremost legal icon”, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, maintained that Justice Oputa not only bestrode the legal firmament of the country like a colossus, “He also exhibited impeccable character, integrity,learning and professionalism.”
It is however very painful to note that this iconic master of jurisprudence who was fondly called the ‘Socrates of the Nigerian legal profession’, died an unhappy man, with most of the dreams he had for the judiciary still unfulfilled.
Justice Oputa had earnestly dreamt of a corrupt-free cum independent judicial system in the country- such that would have reinforced the age-long belief that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man.
“It was my father’s earnest desire to see a corrupt free and independent judiciary in his lifetime. He strongly fought for the independence of the judiciary and always told us that the judiciary would have been better if it was separately funded.
“He usually buttressed this point with an adage that ‘he who pays the piper will always dictate the tune’. He wanted the judiciary to be properly funded, and told us that if the present crop of judges, are well taken care of, they will perform better.
“He told us that if the judiciary, like the Nigerian police, if properly funded would drastically reduce corruption in the country”, the second son of the late jurist, Barrister George Oputa told Vanguard law AND Human Rights.
Our need for an independent and self accounting judiciary cannot be overemphasised.
The fact remains that when compared with other arms of governance in the country, the judiciary is appallingly underfunded. Nevertheless, money seems not to be the only problem confronting our justice administration system and more money will certainly not be the complete solution to the multifaceted bugs that are currently ravaging the nucleus of justice dispensation in Nigeria.
Little wonder the NBA recently raised the alarm over the importunate invasion of the judiciary by “very bad eggs”, who it said are “So bad that they have exhibited the potentials of destroying the judiciary and by extension this nation.”
In a paper it served on the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar and the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohamed Bello Adoke, SAN, on April 30, 2014, the legal body, insisted that there must be consequences for any form of misconduct in the legal profession. According to the NBA, “These bad eggs are worse than the mob, they are doing more harm to this nation and they are worse terrorist group in the world, Boko Haram. As 2015 approaches, they are getting more daring”, it warned.
Remarkably, recent developments have proved that our Judges are not immune from this ‘bad-egg’ syndrome. The days are long gone when Judges, like the Biblical Pontius Pilate, overtly wash their hands from injustice.
In clear contrast to the unforgettable golden era that had the likes of Justice Oputa, Justice Kayode Eso, Justice Otutu Obaseki, Justice Babatunde Craig and Justice Nnaemeka Anyagolu, wielding the judicial scale with wholesome uprightness, some judges today, aside their frequent hobnob with politicians, their judgments not only lack depth but analogous to a term paper by a lazy law school student.
This however is not to say that all our judges are very bad or corrupt—far from that assumption—we still have the good ones, though they are in the minority.
In the words of Justice Christopher Chukwuma-Eneh who recently retired from the Supreme Court Bench, “Time has come for a critical appraisal of the efficiency or lack of it of the system of dispensation and administration of justice in this country.”
According to him, “The situation calls for a holistic overhauling of the system. If what judges and lawyers are doing in the court rooms, are to resonate with the litigating public, for whom the courts are meant, there must of necessity be some thinking out of the box approach”.
Justice Chukwuma-Eneh went ahead and suggested the “re-visitation and revision of the prevailing conventional wisdom in our system of administration of justice, a hard and critical look and stock-taking of the ways and means we have been doing things”, saying there was need for “Some deliberate and tenacious efforts to address the disconnect between what legally trained minds call justice and what the rest of the society know or perceive to be justice”.
He said: “Time has come for us to take account of our local and peculiar environment in formulating rules and principles that are suited and tailored for our environment, stage of development, culture, mentality and tendencies.
“The question is: Need we go the way of some foreign jurisdictions when their system and circumstances are a world apart from ours. We have adopted the common law system of accusatorial procedure in criminal trials in tackling the ills of this society to our chagrin.
“The staggering impunity and lawlessness (particularly in the area of fraud and corruption) that have become the hallmarks of our daily life in this society are proofs that our justice delivery system in this area at least is just not working.
“No wonder why it should take so long as a matter of routine to get a legal dispute finally determined. In my view, the National Judicial Council, NJC, made up of eminent retired justices should be more proactive in dealing with the ills of the judiciary vis-a-vis the Judges/Justices, and should not wait to be prompted by petitions only.
“By acting proactively over matters affecting the integrity of the courts particularly, public perception in our justice delivery system is seen to be done on a proper pedestal and public confidence in the judiciary is thereby reinforced”, he postulated.
On the other hand, the earlier the Federal and State governments appreciated that the judiciary is pivotal to the well being of the country, the better for the citizenry.
This further goes to the issue of funding for the judiciary—a major concern to Justice Oputa before his death.
For some time now, the poor funding of the judiciary has come to the front burner of national discourse, especially after the Federal Government presented the 2014 Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly.
From the 2014 Appropriation Bill, the sum of N68billion was allocated to the judiciary from the N159billion Budget Estimates submitted by the judiciary.
This was inspite of the fact that the stakeholders in the Justice sector have repeatedly cried out against the dwindling budgetary allocations to the judiciary in the last four years.
Statistically, in 2010, the sum of N95billion was approved for the judiciary, a figure that was reduced to N85billion in 2011. Financial provision for the judiciary further nosedived to N75billion in 2012 and N67billion in 2013. The NBA, while decrying the situation, observed that the advocacy for funding of judiciary has so often been misunderstood for funding for the comfort and luxury of judicial officers.
“Of course, they should be comfortable to do what they do, but it is a lot more than that, it is more about a functional judiciary, it is about digitalized and computerised judiciary, it is about capacity building for judiciary staff and support staff, it is about modern infrastructure to aid expeditious determination of cases.
“After all, this is supposed to be the largest economy in Africa and the 6th largest economy in the world”, the legal body added.