Clearing the Mess in the Judiciary

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The resignation last week of Tanko Muhammad as the Chief Justice of Nigeria is not enough to douse the raging crisis in the judiciary. His exit was preceded by weighty allegations of maladministration and financial malfeasance levelled against him by 14 other Justices of the Supreme Court. This calls for a thorough independent probe and inauguration of radical reforms in the hallowed temple of justice.

Like the two other arms of government — the Executive and Legislature — the Judiciary has been thoroughly besmirched. It reached a crescendo with the detailed allegations of lack of accountability, poor work environment, and incompetence made by the 14 JSCs against the departing CJN.

In the leaked memo, the justices said they lacked IT data and electricity to perform their duties, despite the judiciary being allotted N120 billion in the 2022 budget. “In the past, justices were nominated to attend two to three foreign workshops or training per annum with accompanying persons for reasons of age. Since your Lordship’s assumption of office, Justices only attended two workshops in Dubai and Zanzibar. They were not accorded the privilege of travelling with accompanying persons as was the practice.

“Your Lordship totally ignored this demand and yet travelled with your spouse, children, and personal staff. We demand to know what has become our training funds, have they been diverted, or it’s a plain denial?”

Before his resignation “on health grounds,” Muhammad had denied the allegations through his spokesperson, blaming the inability to fund the upper bench on inflation, among other reasons.

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As usual, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), is mishandling the crisis, demonstrating his accustomed practice of trivialising issues. For a regime that claims an anti-corruption stance, it presents an opportunity to initiate and support probes and undertake thorough reforms of the all-important Third Estate of the Realm within the law. In this, the sanctity and independence of the judiciary should not be compromised. Instead, Buhari heaped praise on the departing CJN and conferred the country’s second highest national honour on him.

Muhammad could well merit all that, as he remains innocent until otherwise established; but given the swirl of scandal surrounding his last days in office, Buhari should have first allowed an independent investigation into the justices’ petition to establish the guilt or innocence of the jurist before rushing to his side in solidarity.

Nevertheless, the anti-graft agencies should swing into action and investigate the financial ill-doing allegations. The acting CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, must avoid the customary elite conspiracy of sweeping the issues under the carpet to carry on business as usual. He should initiate an internal probe and an audit to unravel the truth. The tenure of Muhammad, January 25, 2019, to date, should be scrutinised. The ex-CJN was due to retire by end of 2023 but resigned 18 months earlier.

Calls for a probe by the Nigerian Bar Association, retired jurists and other groups should be heeded. The National Judicial Council, the Nigerian Body of Benchers, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission should ensure an unsparing probe. This will go a long way to unearth problems in the judiciary and serve as deterrence.

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The judiciary is a vital stabiliser of every polity and the ultimate guarantor of the rule of law. Described as the “backbone of democracy,” it is the arbiter and final authority on disputes between the two other arms of government, and between individuals or groups. Experts say “the principal role of the judiciary is to protect rule of law and ensure the supremacy of law. It safeguards rights of the individual, settles disputes in accordance with the law and ensures that democracy does not give way to individual or group dictatorship.”

But in recent years, the Nigerian judiciary has descended into disrepute. Many judges have been accused of corruption, others of selling justice to the highest bidder, and the system has been producing what the late eminent jurist, Kayode Eso, called “billionaire judges.” Several have been prosecuted for bribe-taking, and many others accused but escaped trial. Bizarre judgements have been handed down, including some by the Supreme Court. Compromised and compromising, the bench has been infiltrated by politicians, corrupt senior lawyers, and the Executive. Muhammad’s immediate predecessor, Walter Onnoghen, was controversially removed after unproven corruption allegations were levelled against him. Ayo Salami was prematurely removed as President of the Court of Appeal after he protested the improper interference of the then CJN, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, in an election petition appeal.

Ariwoola should set himself the target of leading the charge for reforms and restoring the dignity of, and public confidence in the judiciary. The independence of the bench should be jealously guarded. He must ensure that the men and women of questionable character that have found their way to the bench are exposed and weeded out. There should be zero tolerance for judges of coordinate jurisdiction recklessly granting ex parte orders to the same parties on the same subject matter.

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The welfare of justices should be improved and their pay greatly enhanced to insulate them from compromises and undue influence. Entry requirements should be stricter.

Nigeria’s judiciary was once the pearl of Commonwealth countries and beyond. Nigerian judges at various times headed the judiciaries of Uganda, Botswana and The Gambia, including the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But corruption has sullied that image; merit has been sacrificed for nepotism. Nigerian judges are no longer sought after. Ishaq Bello, nominated by Buhari to the ICJ in 2020, was rejected in the polling, reportedly on the grounds that he did not make the cut.

Today, politicians manipulate the appointment process to infiltrate their relatives and cronies to the bench for their selfish agenda.

A former JSC, Samson Uwaifo, once cried out that corruption was creeping from the lower to the appellate courts. That fear has come to be. The judiciary must be reformed; the new CJN should champion and sustain this cause with vigour.

Punch

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