Role of Bar and Bench in the Fight Against Corruption – Orji Uzor Kalu

Orji Uzor Kalu

Being the text of a lecture  delivered by Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu at the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Aba branch Law Week on Tuesday

I do not know if I will be right to also tag myself a learned colleague having been pulled out of the political front to address the learned that I rather should be learning from. Let me first thank you, the Aba Bar, for inviting me to deliver this lecture and share my knowledge of what role the bar and bench ought to play in fighting corruption in our country.

In doing this, I am guided by the inimitable words of one of ours, and one of the finest products of the Nigerian judicial system, late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (JSC, as he then was), who asked: “If you are a judge and you are corrupt, where do we go from here? Then everything has come to a halt. If the legislature is corrupt, you go to the judiciary for redress. If the executive is corrupt you go to the judiciary for remedy. If the judiciary itself is corrupt, where do you go from there?”

Justice Oputa, alongside Justice Kayode Eso (also JSC and equally late), is acclaimed as one of the best and a most incorruptible jurist that passed this way. We thank God for his gift to us and, we continually pray that his soul rest peacefully. Like him, Justice Eso was also celebrated as a jurist who abhorred corruption, and lived out his abhorrence of corruption, such that in 2011 some civil society groups gathered to bestow on him the Civil Society Anti-Corruption Defender Award.

Today, when we look back, we somehow feel that the good days are gone. As a politician, when I look at the issue of corruption as it affects the judicial system, and the society generally, the words of Frederic Bastiat, a French economist and prominent member of the French Liberal School who developed the economic concept of opportunity cost, where he said “when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system, that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it”, comes hitting at the mind.
That seems to be what we have done with corruption in our country. For some, corruption is a game we all play for which those who are caught are considered naïve. I am told that in the legal profession, you have a saying that a good lawyer knows the law but a smart lawyer knows the judge. So, the question is: which is most desired? The good lawyer or the smart lawyer? In navigating our minds between the good lawyer and the smart lawyer, we find that collectively, we have created a system that has not worked for us and will not work until we are able to dismantle the structures that feed corruption and enthrone a regime of merit and order.

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In simple language, corruption is a deviation from the good. It does not necessarily indicate stealing or embezzlement of state or company funds. However, in our political understanding of corruption, it has to be stealing of public funds or money laundering. But we don’t consider driving against traffic, vandalising public utilities, skipping work without permission or health reasons, delaying administrative process while waiting gratification or extortion, polluting the environment, examination malpractice, sex-for-grades and a lot more as corruption, though we condemn them as immoral acts. However, I reckon that our focus is not on all those but on the main issue for which President Muhammadu Buhari is to some people today a hero, and to some, a dictator.

In Nigeria, the judiciary has been a constant factor like the executive. We know that even under military regimes, the judiciary retains its place though its works may be altered by the fact of suspension of the constitution, which in itself, is an act of corruption. So, to some extent, one could argue that the judiciary had also acquiesced and played along with the military in corrupting the political system even though we know that it was coerced to do the bidding of the regime at the time. So, the story of the judiciary in Nigeria is one replete with the good, the bad and the ugly. We all know that even when soldiers upstage a constitutionally elected government and suspend the constitution, they still come back to the bar and appoint lawyers as Attorney Generals and legal advisers. From the workshop of these same lawyers, society is entertained with all sorts of decrees and legal dictates, some outrightly foolish and laughable and some draconian. It is still the lawyer, mostly a Senior Advocate, who agrees to ‘serve’ in a regime whose being is based on corrupt acquisition of power. I have always asked one question: What will happen if lawyers refuse to be used by such regimes to corrupt the democratic system?

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Today, we are faced with challenges which had led to arguments that for the fight against corruption to be won, the judiciary must first be cleaned up. That argument had found expression in the Department of State Security (DSS) leading to the recent swoop on the home of justices of the Supreme Court and of other jurisdictions. The news media was awash with stories of how the homes of justices of the apex court were raided in the dead of the night. There were reports that the doors to the homes of some of the justices were pulled down in the bid to gain access. The media described it as ‘sting operation’. So, they had to ‘sting’ the justices to get at them. – guess you know what happens when a bee stings you.

The most interesting aspect of the ‘sting operation’, for me, is not the fact that the justices were accused of acts which are said to constitute corruption or that some cash were found in their homes. I was rather fascinated by the commentaries that followed those ‘sting operations’. I focused my analysis more on what senior lawyers and players in the temple of justice said about the development. In my layman understanding, a Justice of the Supreme Court is like a cardinal working with the Pope in Rome. It means that he is a member of the inner temple of the church. So, when a Justice of the Supreme Court is harassed, embarrassed and shamed in the manner that we had seen, the shame goes down to the least member of the judiciary. That was why I found it hard to believe that senior lawyers would rise in defence of the Gestapo-style ‘sting operation’. Many of you justified that action. You have your reasons for doing so. But as a layman, I felt something was deeply wrong. There is evidently a deep gulf between the bar and the bench. I may not have the details but the issues raised when that ‘sting operation’ occurred clearly showed it.

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That development made me wonder if indeed lawyers mean what they practice. You are the ones that are quick to tell brutal regimes that a citizen is innocent until proven otherwise, not just by a court, but by a court of competent jurisdiction. So, I was amazed when senior members of the bar justified that act. I was asking myself if indeed those who justified the action ever came across these three words –Rule Of Law?

Late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua made rule of law the focal point of his short-lived administration. With that, he wanted us to respect the law and be governed by it. Many of those who justified the ‘sting operation’ on the justices lauded President Yar’Adua when he announced that the focus of his administration would be rule of law. So, is it that we swing with the tide and lack the moral character to stand on grounds on what is right or that we live for pecuniary benefits? In the republic of Ireland, it is said that “when Irish eyes are smiling, they are usually up to something”. Is that the case here? Were those who prefer that the rule of law be jettisoned in the fight against corruption up to something that we all do not know yet? Is it proper for a lawyer to advance his personal interest by sacrificing constitutionality and proper conduct?

I do not know as much about the concept of the rule of law as you the learned gentlemen. But as a politician, I am aware that the rule of law encourages us to be guided, in our actions, by what the law says.



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