The on-going efforts to fish out bad eggs from the alarmingly corrupt judicial system in the country must be holistic before it can make any meaningful impact, writes Ohia Israel
It is not uncommon to see many people address the judicial arm of government as the last hope of the common man. Perhaps, it could be because it guarantees, or so it seems, equal access to justice and equity to everyone that approaches its supposedly hallowed chambers. Infact the world over, an independent judiciary is regarded as a sine qua non for a functional democracy. Its centrality to social harmony and good governance in any given democratic society is widely documented.
This explains why advocates of good governance, for instance, stress that if the rule of law must be guaranteed in a democratic society, the funding of the judiciary must, necessarily, be removed from the control of the executive, so that its officials would not be unduly influenced or hamstrung in the discharge of their statutory responsibilities.
The temple of justice in Nigeria is being irretrievably destroyed by corruption to the concern of many. This was brought to the fore in 2010 when the report of a survey on crime and corruption in the country, conducted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and National Bureau of Statistics with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, was released. The survey shocked not a few with its disclosure that “Nigerian courts of law receive the biggest bribes from citizens among all institutions in which corruption is rampant”, though it also indicated, for effect, that “among public officials, police personnel were most frequently alleged by respondents (58 per cent) to request the payment of bribes followed by employees of PHCN and the Water Board (39 per cent), Revenue officials (26 per cent) as well as Customs (25 per cent).”
The summary of the survey particularly stressed that “though bribery in the judiciary was less frequent than in many other agencies, it required the biggest transactions.” Respondents to the survey conducted in 2007, on a sample of 2,775 enterprises randomly selected to represent businesses active in the country, and a response rate of 79.4 per cent representing 2,203 interviews recorded, said they have paid the biggest bribes to the courts, an average of $87 (N13,050) per transaction.
However, after that survey by the EFCC, the alleged corruption in the Justice system of the country has continually grown to an alarming rate, as it was widely reported in the media that the Judiciary is corrupt.
Gathering from events that further made it an issue in court of public opinion is the recent ruling on 28 January by Justice Mohammed Talba in the case brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against a former Assistant Director in the Police Pension Office, John Yakubu, who was accused of stealing pension funds to the tune of N27.2 billion.
For instance, it was gathered that during the tenure of Justice Alloysius Katsina-Alu as Chief Justice of Nigeria, the National Judicial Council (NJC) accused judges of lobbying for appointment as members of election petition tribunals, leading to the marginalisation of many judges from the “juicy” postings.
NJC’s position, contained in a memo to all Heads of Court, in Federal and state structures by Katsina-Alu as Chairman of the Council, also noted that many judges abandon a load of cases to take up tribunal appointments. To beat that perceived emerging cabal, the then CJN in the memo dated January 10, 2011 with reference No NJC/CIR/HOC/1/51, asked all chief judges of states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) as well as Grand Khadis and presidents, Customary Court of Appeal to recommend judges and khadis who have never participated in tribunal exercises from their jurisdiction.
The position was contrary to the decision by the suspended President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Isa Salami, who had allegedly stated in an interview that he relied on a crop of trusted judges to handle election petitions. Incidentally, both approaches by the two judicial officers tend to confirm the fact that the Judiciary stinks. While some sources would say that the judiciary, being part and parcel of the Nigerian setting may just be a reflection of the larger picture out there, the growing culture of corruption in that sector could only be dangerous to the polity.
Only recently, it was revealed that some opposing political parties have developed a strategy by which they employ legal consultants in election cases. The job of the said legal consultants who would either be serving or retired Appeal and Supreme Court Justices would be to check out the loopholes in the suits and as well procure judges that would favourably entertain the suits.
Meanwhile, the making of the Justice Aloma Mukthar as CJN seems to be spelling doom for the men in black; as the hurricane from the CJN has begun to sweep across the bad judges and such has created tension and panic in the judiciary. Sources told this medium that many of the judges are scared now of the impending doom on them as they are not aware when the cleansing in the Justice system will finish.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) on Thursday suspended Justice C. E. Archibong of the Federal High Court and Justice T.D. Naron for alleged misconduct. Investigation, however, showed that the suspension of the judges was just the first step in a cleansing exercise the Federal Government wants to carry out in the Judiciary. Few hours after the two judges were suspended, it was learnt that three Chief Judges are already being investigated for corrupt practices and for allegedly compromising their positions.
“The cleansing of the Judiciary has started in earnest and the government will not relent until bad eggs are sent out of the system,” said a source. The National Judicial Council (NJC) on Thursday recommended to President Goodluck Jonathan the compulsory retirement of Justice Charles Archibong of the Federal High Court Lagos and Justice Thomas Naron of the High Court of Justice Plateau State. The decision was reached at a meeting held at the Supreme Court Complex, Abuja and was presided over by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Maryam Alooma Mukhtar and it was recommended that the justices should retire on ethical grounds.
NJC also set up a committee to investigate Justice Abubakar Talba of a Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court. Justice Talba recently sentenced Mr. Yakubu, who pleaded guilty to embezzling billions of pension funds to 2 years imprisonment with an option of N 250,000 fine for each of the 3 counts against him. Justice Archibong was recommended for compulsory retirement pursuant to the ‘findings” by the council.
The last time this kind of exercise was heard was when the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, raised the late Justice Kayode Eso panel in 1994. The judicial panel for the Reform/Reorganization of the Judiciary headed by Justice Kayode Eso, was inaugurated by the Federal Government in December 29, 1993 while it handed over its report on July 5, 1994.
Nigerians had expressed dismay over government’s continued silence on the Late Justice Kayode Eso panel’s report on the judiciary which indicted no fewer than 47 judges, most of who still dispense justice in the nation’s courts. Besides, those suspended by the NJC, three Chief Judges of some states DESERT HERALD learnt, are already undergoing discreet investigations for alleged corrupt practices, and out of the three judges one is a female Federal High Court judge, a senior high court judge and another male judge. Many security agencies are involved in the ongoing exercise in order to establish the truth or otherwise of the allegations against the CJs.
“Although the names of the judges are being kept under wraps, those affected are already aware that issues are being raised against their conduct. We have not disclosed their identities in order not to prejudice investigation,” a source said.
Meanwhile, President Goodluck Jonathan has approved the immediate retirement of Justice Charles Archibong, following the recommendation of the National Judicial Council (NJC). The NJC on Thursday February 21st, recommended to President Goodluck Jonathan the compulsory retirement of Justice Archibong of the Federal High Court Lagos and Justice Thomas Naron of the High Court of Justice Plateau State. Speaking to state house correspondents, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, said that the fight against corruption can only get a firm root when the entire judicial system is cleansed.
Justice Archibong was recommended for compulsory retirement pursuant to the ‘findings” by the council on the following complaints levelled against him: that the judge dismissed the grievous charges against an accused without taking his plea; that he refused to release the certified true copy of his ruling to the lawyers; that the judge issued a bench warrant on some officials of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for contempt even when the counsel who was directed by the court to serve them filed an affidavit that he had not been able to serve the contempt application; that he made unfounded and caustic remarks on professional competence of some Senior Advocates of Nigeria; that there were glaring procedural irregularities which showed that he did not have a full grasp of the law and procedure of the court; and that he granted the leave sought for in the originating summons that had no written address of the parties and without hearing both parties in the originating summons after he had earlier overruled the preliminary objection.
Three others, whose cases have reached advanced level of investigation by the relevant judiciary and security agencies, might soon be fired because of what competent sources described as unprofessional conduct inimical to the judicial system.
Sources within the Judiciary told this paper that the CJN penchant for Zero tolerance against corruption in the sector has propelled the CJN on this as he has also warned judges and judicial officers to stay clear of corruption and anything capable of dragging the image of the judiciary in the mud as she would not hesitate to wield the big stick against anyone caught in the act.
A paper, not DESERT HERALD, had reported that in a bid to deal a deadly blow on corrupt workers, the CJN has caused the judiciary to develop an in-built mechanism to monitor, detect and deal with erring officers within the system to serve as a deterrent to pecuniary-conscious officials. The offending judges were said to have been under close watch for sometime without their knowledge. Top judiciary heads were said to have decided to investigate and punish the affected judges following incontrovertible evidence by security agents that they had been compromised in several cases decided by them in various parts of the country.
The only woman among them was said to have issued two contradictory injunctions in a money laundering case involving a former governor, who is being tried for a massive rip-off while in office. The female judge is reported to have issued the offending restraining order despite the fact that the case was already being heard by another judge with corresponding jurisdiction.
It will be recalled that the NJC hammer headed by Aloma, had fell on three judges recently.
“In the case of Justice Talba though he relied strictly on the law because the EFCC amended its charge and chose to re-arraign the accused person under section 309 of the Penal Code, but by the sentence awarded, he did not seem to understand the mood of the public in the case, to that extent he blundered.
“None of us would want to make any decision now without thorough reflection. As you know the CJN had vowed to tackle corruption and restore the confidence of the people in the judiciary. So nobody want to be a scapegoat”, the source said.
Justice Naron was indicted by the council for exchanging numerous call logs and text messages with lead counsel to Olagunsoye Oyinlola, who was eventually declared winner in the Osun State election petition Kunle Kalejaiye (SAN). The council said this is contrary to the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria vide Section 292(1((b) of the Constitution. The appeal court later declared Abdulrauf Aregbesola winner in May 2007. The latter’s counsel, Ajibola Basiru Esq., petitioned the NJC over the call logs in 2011.The question on the lips of observers is, whether the sledge hammer of the NJC and the CJN will continue. Only time will tell.