By Awa Kalu, SAN
I struggled to find an appropriate title for this brief article. The competing titles were: “Onnoghen, what manner of Justice?”; “Lady Justicia and her imbalanced scale”; and the one I eventually chose- “Nigeria: Lady Justicia has fallen”. The reason for choosing the current title arises from Asiwaju Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN’s lament over the confusing signals from the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT. It was the necessity to abide by the age-old tradition, of avoiding commentary on pending trials that compelled me to reject the title- “Onnoghen, what manner of justice” so as not to prejudge the outcome of the trial of the learned Chief Justice of Nigeria.
For the avoidance of doubt, when Lady Justicia falls, the signs are ominous. If you paid a visit to the headquarters of the Federal High Court in Abuja, or the Oyinkan Abayomi Road premises of the same Court in IkoyiLagos, you would find the statue of Lady Justicia. Similarly, the headquarters of the High Court of Enugu State, in Enugu, has the bronze statue of Lady Justicia in its premises. In addition, whenever you’re in the Abia State Judiciary headquarters in Umuahia, God’s own State, you would find proudly mounted the statue of Lady Justicia.
Without a shred of doubt, the statue of Lady Justitia is an assurance that ‘Justice’ can be found in those premises. This is because Lady Justicia is universally considered the symbol of justice. She usually stands erect, blindfolded, robed, holding a balanced scale of justice and wielding a sword. All these represent impartiality, objectivity and enforcement of the law.
I say she has fallen in reference to the cinematic film ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, a film with a plot narrating terrorist attacks on the White House in the United States of America. In this film, the bodyguard of the President was removed from his job against his wish and for no reason of any legal wrongdoing. He ends up saving the President and his son in a terrorist attack, by entering into the White House amidst the chaos and without the knowledge of the security officials.
Indeed, Lady Justicia has had a terrorist attack but in her case in Nigeria, this terrorist is injustice. Injustice, if you don’t mind, has crept into the very fabric of what we have always known as Nigerians in our economic and financial transactions, our electoral process, our communal life, our religious and social life and behold, our judicial process. Yes, Lady’s Justicia’s scale is imbalanced and an imbalanced scale does not signify or indicate justice.
The concept of justice is a universal language, despite its varying practicality from country to country. In fact, in the normal scheme of things, it should motivate every aspect of the legal system in any country. This is because it knows no class, no creed, no ethnic group, no gender, and ought to be served equally, in line with Thomas Aquinas’s reasoning that ‘Justice is in subjects as well as rulers’. It is indeed a concept that permeates many aspects of human life.
Those who practice Christianity will know that injustice was indeed one of the reasons God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. In the broader perspective and beyond religion, justice connotes the rule of law and the idea of fairness. It is fuel to the progress of a nation. Therefore, when a country wallows in the quagmire of injustice, it is no surprise that poverty, crime, lawlessness and so on, will inevitably be the result.
Consequently, Asiwaju Awomolo, SAN, in a much-publicized press statement has said of the trial of the Chief Justice of Nigeria that “the case has clearly shown that Nigerian Judiciary is very weak, vulnerable and not independent. The security of tenure of a judicial officer is mere wishful thinking.” This is notwithstanding the several laws that govern the appointment, removal, remuneration, pension plan and even retirement age of judicial officers.
The supreme law of the land, that is, our Constitution provides that appointment and removal of a judicial officer particularly, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, shall be by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (subject to confirmation of such appointment by the Senate or removal by the President acting on an address supported by two-thirds of the majority of the Senate) as the case may be. In addition to this, even the remuneration of the Chief Justice of Nigeria and all other members of the judiciary are protected by law as the Constitution provides that the amount standing to the credit of the Judiciary shall be paid directly to the Judiciary.
It is clear that this is to ensure the independence of the judiciary. However, the fact that public funds are controlled by the Executive begs one to ponder on the true independence of the Nigerian Judiciary and even the legal profession as a whole. It is not farfetched to think this way because as Awomolo, SAN pointed, “it is unthinkable that the head of the Judiciary will be treated the way Onnoghen was treated and not a whimper came from the body of men and women of highest distinction in the legal profession.”
As stated above, the National Judicial Council indeed plays a key role in the appointment of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Therefore as Awomolo queried: “Is it not dangerous that the President can appoint a Chief Justice without the recommendation of the National Judicial Council, NJC? Whereas political matters and election matters were treated with dispatch, and judgment delivered within hours, the appeal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, six weeks after argument, was ordered to be kept away in the file. There is no association of Nigeria Judges to speak a word. […] Nobody knows who is next, a precedent has been laid. The Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation seems pleased.”
From the foregoing, it is obvious that many stones have been thrown at Lady Justicia. It is to bring heavy, the wind of injustice that has brought Lady Justicia to the ground. Continuing the lamentation from the bar, the well-respected Senior Counsel, further stated that: “Men, who sit in judgment over fellow human beings are representatives of God on earth and everyone shall face the Almighty God, on the last day, to give an account of his stewardship. On that day all secrets shall be laid bare.”
“The Bar Association has” Chief Awomolo continued, “by reason of personal leadership ambition, been rendered ineffective, divided and weak. It is unable to speak boldly to secure the independence of the Judiciary.” With no less than 80 branches in the Federation, not one single branch of the Nigerian Bar Association made a categorical statement all through the saga. “Elders of the Bar and men of goodwill should rise from their deep sleep. People, who must sit in judgment over others, must be men and women of character, learning and maturity. The mental status and background of such judges must be certified approved.”
Awomolo further said that: “the experience of Onnoghen’s trial has brought to the fore the urgent need for institutional reforms to ensure that agencies like the CCT was made independent.”
It is this writer’s view that what has happened to Justice Onnoghen, contains a recipe that would in due course be tried on many other high functionaries of the judicial branch and probably, on other persons whose category maybe unknown at this time. But just as the traducers are not at this time smelling of roses, it may be scientifically speculated that in due course also, “what goes around, will come around.” Apart from a few, each Nigerian hides in the cocoon of his comfort zone when sinister things are happening in quarters that seem distant. However, democratic ethos if followed, are the best guarantees of the brand called democracy.
Justice Walter Onnoghen was taken out of office beclouding the real substance of the war of corruption not being fought in a tight manner, further spreading the perception of apparent injustice. If in the end, the public opinion is in favour of what the Federal Government has done, then the war against corruption will gain additional momentum but if doubts remain as to the transparency of the whole process as well as the validation of the facts, then the war will continue to create doubt about Lady Justicias’s scale, balanced or imbalanced.