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Equal but separate Courts for looters

ANYTHING  that affects all must be approached by all. This is one way of explaining the seriousness with which the relatively new Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Walter Onnoghen, is approaching the fight against corruption in Nigeria. In Onnoghen, we see the first bold attempt to deal with the issue of corruption in this country.

The CJN has directed court heads to immediately set up what could pass for separate courts for looters.

We know of no country in this world that is totally corruption free; but we also know that in other places, cases of corruption are handled expeditiously, while in Nigeria we romance with corruption and the corrupt.

When Onnoghen unfolded his master-plan, he left no doubt in the mind of anyone that he meant business. In the psychology of human adjustment, we know that what one says could, quite often, be less important than how one says it.

As a mark of seriousness, Onnoghen chose the auspicious occasion, in Abuja, at the event marking the commencement of the 2017/2018 legal year to unfold the idea. That was also the occasion on which 29 lawyers were being elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. The CJN directed all court heads to compile and forward to the National Judicial Council, NJC, comprehensive lists of all corruption and financial crime cases in their various jurisdictions.

The CJN speaks further, “Where such cases come on appeal to either, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, special dates on each week shall be fixed solely for heaving and determining such appeals.”

Onnoghen’s choice of venue for the important policy pronouncement is most appropriate. For one thing, there could be no better way to begin a new legal year. For another, the policy pronouncement could also not have come at a better time than the swearing-in of the new over-lords – the SANS. It has been a common complaint that some of these men in silk have constituted themselves into cogs in the wheel of justice delivery across the nation. Their grand merit is that they put all sorts of hurdles in the way of speedy dispensation of justice. To them, a lawyer’s brilliance resides in his ability to delay trials with unnecessary adjournments and black market injunctions rather than the ability to argue the law. The new SANS should learn firsthand what they were getting into.

It takes two to tango. Hence Justice Onnoghen was most unequivocal that lawyers cannot stand in the way of justice delivery without the active connivance of some Judges and other Judicial Officers. Of course, there is the aphorism, “Why pay a lawyer when you can buy a Judge?” Here, Onnoghen did not hide his feelings: “It is not going to be business as usual for the few unscrupulous elements in our midst. I am determined to redeem the unfairly battered image of the Judiciary. Any Judicial Officer found wanting would be dealt with decisively and shown the way out swiftly.”

The CJN left no stone unturned. He then descended on litigants whose stock-in-trade is shopping for justice and reminded them that the bribe giver and the receiver are equally guilty under the law. After all in the bribery enterprise, there can be no receiver without a giver.

To Justice Onnoghen, even the best arrangement would collapse if not properly followed up. To that extent, a high powered monitoring committee must be instituted to be charged with the responsibility for close monitoring of the anti-corruption courts.

And so quickly it is gratifying to note that the highest possible monitoring committee has been put in place by the NJC. A cursory look at the membership of the committee will convince anyone that they mean business. The 15-member committee is headed by Hon. Justice Ayo-Salami, retired President of the Court of Appeal; the Chief Judges of Borno, Imo, Delta and Oyo states; Presidents of the Nigerian Bar Association, past and present; and a representative of each of the following bodies: the Non-Governmental Organisations, NGOs, Ministry of Justice, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, ICAN, as well as the Secretary of the NJC.  Indeed, the Committee is made up of men and women who have been tested and trusted both in character and in learning.

Evidently, the easiest way to encourage evil in society is for good people to do nothing. We also know that there can be no better deterrence than the certainty of quick prosecution and conviction. Yet, we have seen crime and criminality in this country; and we have embraced them with open hands, perhaps unwittingly.

We have seen numerous cases of multiple tragedies where billions of Naira meant for the payment of pensions were brazenly carted away while the actual owners of the money died on pension queues like poisoned rats. We did nothing and the thieves laughed at us!

We are totally enveloped in cases similar to the Halliburton case, where Nigerians implicated in the deals are walking our streets in freedom, long after their foreign accomplices have been languishing in jail.

James Ibori may not have been as lucky as others. Today, he still represents his class of the very innocent here at home but stingingly guilty abroad, no thanks to the tardiness of our Judiciary!

On the eve of his departure from Government House in 2007, Governor Peter Odili secured a perpetual injunction virtually barring everyone from looking into the books during the period of his governorship of Rivers State.

For now, the Onnoghen initiative is the best we can have without recourse to any constitutional amendment. Alluring as the initiative seems, it is still a temporary measure that will at least lift the judiciary above being President Buhari’s only problem.

True, the absence of good laws has never been our problem; but the stoic absence of enforcement. This time around, are we just going to talk tough and go to sleep or are we going to walk the talk? Time will tell.

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