Written by the Editorial board of The Guardian Newspaper
The recent sanction carried out by the National Judicial Council (NJC) on Justice Idris Evuti and Justice Tanko Usman of the Niger State High Court for allegedly falsifying their dates of birth, and on Justice O. Gbajabiamila of the Lagos State High Court for delaying delivery of judgment for about two years, is a courageous and commendable action. Coming on the heels of the Federal Government’s anti-corruption drive, and especially on the sanitisation of the judiciary, the NJC has candidly matched action with the forceful declaration made by the Attorney-General of the Federation to deal with unscrupulous elements on the Bench.
With this level of commitment to ridding the judiciary of odium and impropriety, the confidence the people once had in the citadel of justice would be re-built.
Based on petitions filed to the NJC by Mohammed Idris Eggun against Justices Evuti and Usman of the Niger State High Court over falsification of their dates of birth, the fact-finding committee set up by the NJC found that Justice Evuti used three different dates of birth in service (September 15, 1950, April 10, 1953, April 1, 1951), while Justice Usman was still in service when he should have retired. As for Justice Gbajabiamila, a petition filed by Mr. C. A. Candide-Johnson (SAN) alleged that, among other misconducts, the former delivered judgment in a suit 22 months after written addresses were adopted by counsel, and 35 months after close of evidence, and did not publish a copy of the judgment he delivered on December 24, 2013 until 40 days after. All these allegations are contrary to the 1999 Constitution and rules of the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.
As a penalty for these cases of misconduct, some of which border on criminality, the NJC committee recommended the compulsory retirement of Evuti with immediate effect as well as the deduction from his gratuity all salaries received by him from September 2015 to date. With respect to Usman, it only recommended the deduction from his gratuity all salaries received by him from June 2015, since it already accepted his retirement with effect from March 1, 2016, whilst it recommended the compulsory retirement of Gbajabiamila.
By their misconduct in service, these judges put themselves in positions and circumstances that compromised their professional integrity and expected personal moral character. Age falsification has been known to be an affliction of civil servants and public officers. Apart from presenting an inauthentic state of affairs that is injurious to history, the altered ages of the judges robbed the state of its resources and funds. By reducing their dates of birth, the judges stole from the state, and denied others the benefits that would have come to them.
On the other hand, Gbajabiamila’s action is representative of the wanton miscarriage of justice by unscrupulous judicial officers, who in recent times, have tarnished the image of the noble profession. That Justice Gbajabiamila would delay delivery of judgment for 35 months after close of evidence is an indication of how deep the dereliction of duty is being accommodated by some judges. It brings out in bold relief the many unspoken incidents of injustice, poor management and utter disregard for constitutional provisions by those who ought to be its most faithful custodians.
Whilst it could be argued in certain quarters that, as public officers, judges are susceptible to the same moral currents pervading the general public order, their position represents the significant minority that should of necessity be the moral compass of the society. Notwithstanding the misunderstood idea of impartiality that separates law from morals, judges are custodians of public morality which the law seeks to uphold. The dispensation of justice which forms a cardinal function of the judge would be virtually impossible if the judge possesses no moral sense. The concept of a good dispenser of justice that is said to be an immoral and an unethical person is a contradiction in terms. A judge or jurist cannot be a good administrator of the law if he is not a morally conscious individual. He is a moral light for the society.
The bold action of the NJC to restore the integrity of the judiciary is commendable. As more and more questionable elements are sanctioned, the insidious moral decadence that has crept into the judiciary would begin to gradually fall until it finally disappears.
These isolated cases may suggest that the NJC is assuring Nigerians of its resolve to act decisively on cases of judicial abuse. However, as it carries out its respectable role as the highest judicial body in the country, the NJC must not fall into the temptation of politicising its actions. It should diligently and promptly act on reports that should come not only from senior and influential lawyers but also from ordinary citizens, through the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other groups representing the citizens. As this newspaper has always admonished, it is not enough to sanction the judges, the logical end of the misconduct, which is appropriate legal action, should be followed through. Erring judges should be prosecuted and be made to serve the required terms of conviction if found guilty.