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A thin line

By Muyiwa Adetiba

I once got a message from a respected industrialist and former Vice-President of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce. He wanted an appointment to come over to my office. Such was my respect and affection for this man that I simply dropped everything and followed the ‘messenger’ who happened to be his wife to his GRA Ikeja home. It turned out that he had a son abroad who had some legal issues.

Somehow, some implicating documents got into the hands of an unscrupulous fellow who claimed to be a journalist. He wanted a tidy sum of money for himself, the Editor and the Publisher in order to kill the story. Fortunately, the publication in question was mine and the person he chose to extort had a good relationship with me—otherwise, he could have damaged my name, my publication and the profession and I would not even have known.

We quickly set a trap for him and handed him over to the police. Not once did I hesitate or think the matter should first be reported to the NUJ (Nigeria Union of Journalists) for sanctions. In my book, what he was trying to do was criminal, and crimes should be investigated by those equipped for it. It didn’t matter whether he was a registered journalist or not.

I have used this personal story to illustrate and try to bring to clarity, my position on the midnight arrests of some judges. Normally, I should not be commenting again on the controversial arrests immediately after my last article. (This moving hand, haven ‘writ’ should have moved on to other pressing things). But I had several discussions with people that I have tremendous respect for during the course of the week on my article and the position I took regarding what some people saw as the violation of due process by the DSS.

What I can distil from their positions are these. First: they largely agreed that there was massive corruption in the judiciary, and something needed to be done. Second: the DSS over reached itself and thereby threatened the delicate separation of powers that all democracies need to survive. It should simply have handed over the petitions to NJC which had the power to discipline erring judges.

Third: the indicted judges were those who had given unfavourable judgements to the ruling party and the executive was fighting back. We are on all fours on the first one, so there is no need to dwell on it. I will therefore try to clarify my position on the other two points.

I believe there is a line however thin, between a professional error of judgement and a deliberate abuse of a professional position. Again, I will use my profession to illustrate. Every Editor is at one time or the other, under pressure from governments, corporate bodies and powerful individuals to drop a story or use an angle that is favourable to them. And because there are very few stories really, that a newspaper cannot do without, the Editor sometimes yields to some of the pressure.

But while it is an error of judgement to drop a story that has commercial or credibility implications, or use an angle that threatens fairness and balance, it is criminal and an abuse of position to demand money either to drop a story or to slant it. It can even lead, like it happened in my earlier illustration, to blackmail.

Now, if the money is marked and the police swoop in while receiving the money or in the dead of the night with the red hot money, should the Guild of Editors come out in defence of such an Editor under the pretext that the press is being gagged and that the guild should be allowed to discipline erring editors? I think not.

I believe judges walk on a more tenuous line. Many of them would be occasionally leaned on my governments, colleagues and friends to write a judgment that favours them. It would be left to their professional discretion and judgement to know how far they can go without damaging the interest of the other party. It is this kind of judgement that in my view, the NJC should monitor because such a case can be cited in future and it would be bad for the course of justice.

Besides, justice should not only be fair, it should be seen to be fair to all and sundry. It becomes another matter however, when a Judge deliberately perverts the cause of justice for pecuniary gains. That to me, is a crime and crimes should be left to those best equipped for them.

My questions to those who say that the arrested judges were those who gave unfavourable judgments to APC are these. Did the judges corruptly enrich themselves in the process? Was money a factor in the judgments they delivered? Buhari will not be there for ever. Let whoever succeeds him indict the judges that also delivered judgements that were favourable to his party if he is unwilling to do it.

I believe that those who give judgements that subvert the will of the people irrespective of which party the judgements favour, and thereby turn the law on its head because of money deserve to be named and shamed. If NJC truly feels it is its duty to do this then why has it been failing in its duty? It cannot be for lack of knowledge of what is going on. Or lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, we blame the EFCC for not getting any conviction from its high profile cases. Maybe we are blaming the wrong institution because we all know that many of these Politically Exposed Persons have the wherewithal to buy or stall judgements.

Without necessarily mentioning names, I have had the privilege of interviewing many of the early Nigerian Judges of the Supreme Court including perhaps, the first three Nigerian CJNs (Chief Justice of Nigeria). One question I usually asked them was how they felt on the night of delivering landmark judgements. Many told me they usually had sleepless nights.

Some told me they fasted and prayed. One told me that all judgements were landmark judgements to him because of the need to be fair and not offend man and God. Most wanted judgements that would stand the test of time and could be cited by generations unborn. They were to a man, concerned with reputation and erudition.

I wonder what the answers of some of these judges would be if asked the same question. Already, many young lawyers are finding it difficult to cite cases because of conflicting judgements.

My summation is this. I do not think the judiciary is on trial. I think corrupt judges are. I do not think the arrests bring the judiciary under the ambit of the executive. Rather, I believe when all this is over, that a cleansed judiciary will be emboldened to speak truth to the executive in the interests of the average Nigerian. After all, whoever comes to equity must come with clean hands.

The alternative to an incorruptible judiciary is chaos. The alternative to the rule of law is the reign of might.


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