By Rotimi Fasan
WHEN recently the Department of State Security, DSS, arrested seven very senior judges, including Justice John Okoro, and Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, many Nigerians condemned the raid for the manner it was executed and not because they considered the judges above the law.
If some people do in fact accept such notion that the judges shouldn’t have been arrested on account of their status, this writer is certainly not one of them.
What some of us thought was wrong with the arrest was the manner of execution that involved armed masked operatives breaking down doors in the dead of the night and/or early hours of the morning. Nothing says the arrests couldn’t have been conducted in a manner that separated them from the kind of criminal abduction for ransom that has come to define life in our country. It was on this ground that the arrests were condemned, not that the judges were above the law and shouldn’t be investigated, prosecuted and, if found guilty, sanctioned according to extant laws.
It is important that Nigerians realise that we are in very dour circumstances given the state of our judiciary. Of course, the judiciary cannot be expected to be an island unto itself, separate and unaffected by the rot that has hobbled law and order in diverse sectors of life in Nigeria.
No, the judiciary reflects the filth in the larger Nigerian society. Until recently, the judiciary has appeared immune to the kind of corruption that has characterised other arms of government. This, notwithstanding the condition under which judicial officers operate makes them amenable to corruption. One only needs to pay a visit to our courts, especially in the states, to appreciate why it would be difficult if not impossible for a litigant to get justice from those places.
The sheer extent of physical dilapidation and decay inspire fear, worry and sadness in equal measure. Nothing good can easily emanate from such places. Poorly ventilated court rooms with leaky roofs and furniture that look like museum pieces can hardly be venues of positive or clear thought. Judicial officers mostly employ obsolete means of operation to perform regular responsibilities.
They write their judgments in long hand and, perhaps, for obvious reasons of maintaining the integrity of their work, with little or no secretarial support. The rot in these places beggars belief and would in times past be seen as mere evidence of our lack of a maintenance culture, literal sign of an underdeveloped polity. But the material condition of our court houses, it is now emerging, mirror the moral poverty of our judicial officers, many of whom have been led off the narrow path and taught to take care of themselves in their own way by a system that had for long ignored them.
Long before things got to this point many Nigerians have called attention to the situation. But such calls were ignored by leaders who saw a well resourced and highly incentivized judiciary, which by that token means an independent judiciary, as a threat.
Like former military dictators who refused to equip the military for fear of coups, thereby exposing professional soldiers and officers to ignominious defeats by ragtag militias and insurgents, the better resourced executive and legislative arms appeared to enjoy the embarrassment of an impoverished judiciary.
The conservative nature of their profession makes it difficult and near impossible for judicial officers to speak openly about their frustration. We even see it now in the manner several of those arrested request permission of the Chief Justice of the Federation to seek redress for their disgraceful treatment.
Today the chickens of a mistreated bench are coming home to roost in the form of compromised judges and magistrates, and both the National Judicial Council and the Nigerian Bar Association are playing the role of accomplice before and after the fact.
It is enough scandal that justices of the Supreme Court would come under a cloud of suspicion and would be so embattled and shabbily treated as those currently under investigation. Such would have been unheard of in times past. But it is a disaster of tragic proportions that the NJC and the NBA would seek to shield these judges from scrutiny, further soiling the integrity of the judiciary.
For let’s be clear about one thing: these judges have a lot of explaining to do given the compromising way they have conducted themselves with and around politicians to say nothing of the stupendous sums of money allegedly found in their homes.
Dropping names of politicians, ministers, past and would-be governors, who tried to influence them in the line of duty- reporting the activities of these politicians only after they (the judges) have been busted undercuts their claims to moral probity. It tells us there is a lot rotten about the state of our judiciary. It is a measure of this rot that the NBA and NJC can no longer see eye to eye on this matter at a time when judges allegedly stuff bribe money in shoes and others are feigning illness in order not to be interrogated.
After initially siding with the NJC in its supposedly principled stand against executive impunity, the NBA now wants the accused judges suspended by the NJC.
This request the NJC has promptly rejected. Both the NBA and the NJC have cited relevant sections of the law to support their stance. But as matters now stand no dubious recourse to legal technicality would wash. Like other sectors of our society and arms of government, the judiciary has devised a way to protect its own. We saw it in the manner tens of Senior Advocates of Nigeria rallied round Ricky Terfa during his spat with the EFCC. We also saw it in the manner bus loads of senators accompanied Bukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu to the Code of Conduct Tribunal during their trial for forgery of House rules.
We’ve seen it in the way the House of Reps shielded its members accused of improper behaviour and rape during a trip to the US, and in the manner the House covered Yakubu Dogara and company in the budget padding saga. We are in the era in which accused persons sit in judgment over their own case. It should be of no surprise then that the NJC claims investigative powers over criminal cases involving judges even when it routinely provides soft retirement landing to judges who ought to spend the rest of their life in jail. Our judiciary and by extension our society is in a moral bind. S-h-a-m-e!