The Justices of the Supreme Court, it does seem, did finally awaken to the dire straits of institutional corruption as they themselves have become victims of the malaise in the body politics of Nigeria.
The history of these justices was that once, they had been inured from the reality of society. Once appointed to the bench, historically, all their creature comforts were met; they were isolate and detached; their material necessities were guaranteed, and they were handsomely remunerated to secure them from base temptation. The Judges pay, come rain or hailstone, was paid by the clock, straight out of the consolidated fund.
Judges lived in circumstances, by which from their perch, they could wholesomely be protected from the desires of normal life which might inadvertently influence their judgement. For instance, it was well known in those years, in the 1970s and 1980s, that as Chief Justice of Plateau State, the late Justice Anoliefo deliberately kept away even from official cocktail parties organized in the State House of Plateau State.
He kept well to himself. An old friend of my fathers, the late Justice Amadi-Obi, as Administrative Judge of the Umuahia Judicial Division, following the likes of Anthony Aniagolu and followed by Justice Obioma Ogwuegbu, all of whom ended up in the Supreme Court, was reputed to have rejected membership of the Ridge Club, the city country club in Umuahia, on account of his duties. He simply returned the membership form as it was sent to him. Great justices valued their integrity and their passionate indifference to sentiments.
My dear old friend, classmate and Housemate at the Government College Umuahia, Victor Achinike Aseme, now a pastor of the Christ Embassy Church, once declared to some of us, one day during tea in the Simpson House Common room: “If I ever, ever, appeared before my father’s court, he would sentence me to jail, and put a little jara on my sentence, because I was his son.” I remember this distinctly because it was in our final year, and we were talking about our next moves towards the university. Everybody thought Achi was moving naturally to Law School. He had the flair for it.
But he said, he would rather study Philosophy, for two reasons: one, his intense interest then in the mystical aspect of Philosophy – Metaphysics – and secondly, and most consequentially, because he did not want to end up as a judge, largely because of the serious strictures and discipline required for the life of a judge.
His father, the now late honorable Justice Anthony Aseme, was then President of the Federal Court of Appeals in Enugu. These judges were serious men.
And with the entrance of women, very serious women too. To end up in the Supreme Court was an honour, and a privilege reserved only to the most serious among serious judges who hand the severe reputation of unalloyed integrity, high intellect, and the mental energy to advance the course of justice in the land.
It was for those judicial camels who could pass through the eye of the needle in the estimation of both their peers and the institution they represented. The court is that institution that preserved the balance of justice, freedom, and wellbeing of the nation, because where there is no justice, the land turns to molt.
Nigeria as we see has come to that edge because, for a few years now, particularly heightened in the era of the administration of this current President, Muhammadu Buhari, the institution of the court, including the Constitutional court of the land, has been attacked and humiliated as never before.
For the first time in known Nigerian history, a sitting President directed the police, State Security Agents, and the agents of the EFCC (the financial crimes police) to invade and raid the homes of Justices of the High Courts – the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
It was a serious violation of the sanctity and the sacred status of the Justices under the law. The president dishonored the rules of coeval authority that makes the Supreme Court as a body, the third equal arm of government.
While this was going on, no Justice of the Supreme Court rose in protest or in defiance of this executive rascality and overreach. The National Assembly did not rise to caution or sanction this president in defence of the Judiciary and its highest symbolic institutions.
The Trustees of the National Judicial Council was characteristically, cowardly. Perhaps because the justices that were humiliated came from one region of Nigeria it elicited very little debate within the ruling party – the All Progressives Congress.
The failure of the National Assembly to raise a query against the action of the president was one of the greatest examples of the betrayals of Nigeria by its elected parliament.
We know that the Parliamentary arm of government is established as the highest vanguard, alongside Justice, of the republic. Then came the real blow: President Buhari and his Attorney General, Malami, instigated a kangaroo trial of a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria and forced him out on unproven charges of corruption, and following an illegal ex parte order issue by a judge of a very inferior court.
Although none of his peers on the bench had raised such a charge against their Chief, Walter Nkanu Onoghen was forced out of his position as Chief Justice of Nigeria, and in his place, Justice Muhammad Tanko was appointed, thus completely consolidating the control of the triadic power of the federation in the hands of one region and one religion.
This was always the endgame for president Buhari and his party, the APC. Justice Muhammad Tanko was not especially a bright judge. But what recommended him was his specialization in the Sharia Law.
It is quite ironic now that a judge whom Buhari brought in to replace another Chief Justice falsely accused of grievous misdemeanor, is now, by the universal discontent of his peers on the Supreme Court bench, facing more grievous charges. But all is silent on the western front. The National Assembly once more is shirking its responsibility and pussy-footing and the president is predictably glum.
Meanwhile the spokesman of the Chief Justice released one of the sorriest press statements that I have ever read in this business. The problem is in the language of address.
It is dated an presumptuous. First, it said, Judges are to be seen, not heard. I beg you sir! Judges are to be heard loud and clear. Their power is ex-cathedra. If justice is to be done, it must be loud. It must be clear. And it must be seen to have been done. Secondly, need one remind him, that the Chief Justice does not have only “brother justices.” There are women on the Bench too.
Such masculinist language is not only disrespectful, it speaks about the insensitivity of the cultural environment in which the Chief Justice and his staff have been socialized.
The Chief Justice has co-Justices, and there are women among them, who are principally Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, and are equal to the CJN. That principle is just simply axiomatic: there is no justice higher than the other in the Supreme Court.
Their judgements carry equal weight irrespective of what lies between their legs. In fact, in the judicial system, from the High Court to the Appellate courts, to the Supreme Court, all judges are equal, once they sit on the throne of justice. To be appointed the Chief Justice is an administrative privilege which does not confer extraordinary powers in the collegial system of the court.
That means, each Justice of the Supreme Court is entitled to the same privileges and conditions, except for administrative privileges, which adhere mainly to the extra duties of the Chief Justice. This is as it is. Meanwhile, what we have today is a crisis in the Temple of Justice.
For the first time, since the Nigerian Supreme Court was established following the Republican Constitution of 1963, the Justices of the Supreme Court have raised a petition against their peer. This is unprecedented. It is akin to an invocation of a vote of no confidence on the current Chief Justice of the Federation of Nigeria.
When fourteen out of sixteen justices of the Supreme Court sign a petition accusing the Chief Justice of Nigeria of Corruption, Maladministration, and incompetence, specifically with regards to the state of the litigation department, the welfare of the justices, and the mismanagement of the funds allocated to the court, it should trigger a massive legislative and executive response. Particularly because this action by the justices is unprecedented, a Parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the Chief Justice is called for. In the history of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, only Justice Muhammad Tanko has had the unique situation where his co-justices would rise as one to accuse him of corruption, incompetence, and maladministration.
Yet President Buhari who was quick to throw Onoghen under the bus, has not called for an inquiry by the National Judicial Council, nor has the National Assembly, aside from a largely puerile move to mollify the judges and sweep the seriousness of the Tanko affair under the carpets, yet to begin an investigation into the Supreme Court as required by parliamentary remit.
This revolt of the Justices is significant. It calls for the process of impeachment of Mr. Muhammad Tanko, as the Chief Justice of Nigeria to begin, because clearly, a trust has been broken at the apex or constitutional court of Nigeria, and the Chief Justice no longer enjoys the confidence of his Associate Justices. After his impeachment, he must then have his day in court.