Written by the Editorial board of The Guardian Newspaper
President Muhammadu Buhari’s lamentation that the Bench is not doing enough to assist in fighting the monster of corruption is a cry from the heart shared absolutely by all Nigerians. No doubt the temple of Justice has sometimes been the refuge of criminals.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Nigerian leader who sets so much store of his readiness to rid Nigeria of the cankerworm of corruption has been voicing his frustration with the judiciary even at international conferences. In December last year, the President told the same top echelon of the judiciary at that year’s All Nigeria Judges Conference that he was not satisfied with the way the Bar and the Bench have exploited some subterfuge and undue legalese to frustrate the war on corruption.
Allegations of judicial corruption and dilatory tactics by lawyers, sometimes with the apparent collusion of judges all in a bid to stall trials indefinitely are some of the elements of frustration.So, even as the judiciary remains the hope of the common man, the observations and frustrations are valid and worry every Nigerian.
Indeed, in June last year, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, obviously aware of the negative public perception of the institution he heads, said on an occasion of the induction of new judicial officers that “the Nigerian judiciary is now more prepared and more poised than ever to rid itself of all the ugly dirt inflicted on her by unscrupulous, fraudulent and corrupt persons occupying judicial positions in Nigeria.”
To achieve this, the CJN had cited the Code of Conduct that is in place to guide judicial officers, and the national and state judicial councils that are “adequately empowered” to deal with misconduct.However, President Buhari’s latest concern about the same old issue of judiciary and near absence of support for fighting corruption has raised the question as to whether the CJN’s strategy is working effectively a year after his charge to judicial officers. It does seem that the judiciary can do with more than the routine counselling it has been receiving, from within and outside, to redress all the unethical practices and disturbing failings in the Temple of Justice.
Certainly, factors that hamper the Bench’s capacity to dispense justice as and when due are well-known. It is difficult nonetheless not to hold that judges can and should be more assertive, more courageous, demonstrably impartial, and much more openly efficient in doing their work. This is not too much to expect from that institution at such a time as this in Nigeria when corruption has ruthlessly brought the country down.
Some courageous Chief Justices of the Federation who were generally perceived to be very proactive in dealing with bag eggs in the citadel of justice have set the example. Justices Mohammed Alfa Belgore and Mariam Aloma Mukhtar did not delay in dealing with petitions against judicial officers. Many were named and shamed, especially in the time of Justice Aloma Mukhtar. According to her in 2012, “…except laws are administered fairly, rationally, consistently, impartially, and devoid of any improper influences, a society cannot operate under the rule of law”.
It is not for nothing, therefore, that people fervently believe that if the judiciary fails, hope is lost for the survival of a democratic system of government that by definition is based on the rule of law. The revered late Justice Anthony Aniagolu had once aptly charged members of the Bench to dispense justice with courage and integrity because “you …most directly represent God on earth because God is justice and so, by delivering justice on the people, you are sitting on God’s throne.”
In January 2012, then CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher had also pleaded with members of the Bench “in the name of justice to decide cases on their merits and not on technicalities.”There is an urgent need to walk the talk of these former and serving jurists and the judiciary must to rise to the level of excellence expected of persons who ‘represent God on earth.’
Some redemptive measures to manage this poor image of the citadel of justice and change the ways of the Judges must, therefore, be considered. Extra-ordinary circumstances such as Nigeria is in now on graft demand extraordinary measures.
In this regard, the expediency of establishing special courts at all levels including state judicial arms to deal with corruption cannot be over-stated. Time to create federal and state divisions of the high courts, for instance is now! There have been enough of debates on the issue and time is running out on the need to take extra-ordinary measures. The debate on a speedy justice system over corruption has always been stalled by the elite whose members are the powerful rent seekers who have institutionalised corruption. The Bar and the Bench should, therefore, move from rhetoric to action!
The Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) should make thorough investigation the hallmark of their operations before arrest of suspects. The EFCC should indeed build its own capacity to handle the three pillars of investigation, arrest and prosecution as the spectacle of arrest before investigation and concomitant media trial of suspects will only render any fight against corruption futile.
The sudden revival of the death penalty debate now shows the grave danger of the snake called corruption, and the frustration of Nigerians with the apparent kid gloves with which even the few caught in the act have been treated.
The people of Nigeria should also note that the war against corruption involves all the citizens and it is too important to be left to governments alone. Even as the Nigerian government is being asked to treat corruption as a national emergency issue, the people must stand up to fight it and to treat corrupt people as criminals with no place in the society.