Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper
It is yet another dehumanising story about Nigeria that while the legislature has been smarting from one corruption story to another, the judiciary, widely touted as the last hope of the common man, has been enmeshed too in a fresh cesspool of corruption. This is sad for the most populous black nation in the world in need of redemption songs from long years of battling with corruption.
And this reminds everyone in the country of a fine line from D. Olu Olagoke’s The Incorruptible Judge that ‘if the citadel of justice is corrupt, what will happen to the body politic? It will be completely rotten and collapse.” This is the crux of the corruption matter in the Temple of Justice at the moment: the widely reported ‘sting operation’ by the Department of State Services (DSS) in which the residences of seven justices of state, federal high courts were arrested at midnight. The action of the DSS has touched off heated debates in the polity. While some said, the extra-legal action was a desperate action needed for the equally desperate corruption scourge that has mocked the country, others have argued that indeed, the law, rather than man, must rule the process to prevent anarchy from ‘self help’ that the DSS had resorted to, in this regard.
When the Department of State Services arrested a total of seven judges in several parts of the country in the controversial recent operation, two of those arrested are surprisingly Supreme Court justices. During the raid, the DSS operatives claimed that they recovered a total of N363 million from the houses of three of the judges. It was not clear how the ‘exhibit’ was obtained in the operation.
Specifically, when the DSS raided the homes of the judges, they confirmed that they arrested Sylvester Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro (both of the Supreme Court); Mohammed Tsamiya (Court of Appeal); Adeniyi Ademola and Muazu Pindiga (both of Federal High Court); Innocent Umezulike (Chief Judge, Enugu State); and Kabir Auta (of Kano State High Court). But the raid in Port Harcourt, Rivers State generated some concerns, when the governor, Nyesom Wike reportedly mobilised police action against the DSS agents from arresting a federal high court judge.
Although the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has condemned the action of the DSS and the presidency that has been justifying the operation by citing the National Security Agencies Act, Section 3, that empowers the State Security Service to prevent and detect crime against the internal security of Nigeria, we agree with the defenders of the rule of law. However, all of us including the NBA members should be concerned too about the implications of corruption of ministers in the Temple of Justice. The grave consequences are like the heaven falling that no one can escape.
What is more, the Bench is a product of the Bar. In other words, all the judges are first lawyers before they are sworn in as judges. They are all ministers in the Temple of Justice. And so members of the Bar cannot be ‘innocent bystanders’, in this connection. As reports and comments of old members of the Bar and the Bench have clearly shown in the bitter debate following the raid, senior members of the Bar are said to be ‘consultants’ and givers of bribes to the corruptible judges. This is also vexatious in the extreme.
National umbrage on the recent report of desecration of the justice system is not a surprise. Coincidentally, the National Judicial Council (NJC), headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmud Mohammed, had, on September 29, shown how sleazy some judges have become in the way they have been selling judgments in their courts.
The NJC had recommended Justice Tsamiya, Auta and Umezulike to the President and their respective governors for retirement over allegations, which included demanding bribe to sell judgments to the highest bidders.
These are regular occurrences in the Bench. They portend danger as they clearly bring into disrepute the entire Nigerian magistracy. Besides, when the citadel of justice is corrupted, the entire fabric of the society is destroyed and anarchy will be imminent.
Justice Tsamiya, for instance, allegedly discredited the judiciary by relating with a litigant in a 2015 elections dispute before the Court of Appeal panel, which sat in Owerri, Imo State. The NJC said, “During deliberations, Council found as follows: that there was evidence that the petitioner met with … Tsamiya thrice, in his residence in Sokoto, Gwarinpa, Abuja and Owerri, where, on each occasion, he demanded from him the sum of N200 million to influence the Court of Appeal Panel in Owerri or risk losing the case.”
The case against Umezulike was also devastating. The highest judicial officer in Enugu, failed to deliver judgment in Suit No E/13/2008: Ajogwu v Nigerian Bottling Company Limited, 126 days after final addresses were adopted in October 2014. This is contrary to the 90 days time-limit set by law. The NJC also accused Umezulike of other offences, including accepting a N10 million donation during his book launch from businessman, Arthur Eze, who had an interest in two cases before his court.
It is unethical to unduly delay judgment. Justice delayed is justice denied and this is capable of eroding the integrity of the judiciary, which should not be doubted at any time.
All told, we believe that the anti-graft agencies and the security institutions that assist them should follow the due process. But beyond the technicalities and niceties of the legal process, all of us should feel diminished about the tragedy of mentioning corruption in the Temple of Justice. It is insufferable. Perception of corruption in the judiciary is breeding criminality in the system as people now resort to self-help when they feel that they cannot get justice in the courts anymore.
Therefore, the law enforcement agencies, notably the police and the justice ministry prosecutors, should ensure that investigations should be thorough beyond pieces of evidence claimed to have been found in the night (in the residences of the judges).
Because all of us are ashamed of the systemic corruption that has made the country to be referred to as a failed state, the present leadership that said it came to fight corruption should face the monster frontally. Really, corruption is not in our character. We all grew up in different subcultures where even stealing in remote communities used to attract opprobrium to the families of thieves.
We have had some moral ethos that defined our character as good people with high quotient of integrity. It is a national tragedy to be talking of ranking corruption within the rank of judges that the society looks up as God’s authentic ambassadors on earth. This is unacceptable.
Therefore, as we sympathise with the Chief Justice and members of the NJC who have been agonising over the night raid and alleged humiliation of the justices, we implore them to ensure that they deal expeditiously with the monumental impurities in the judicial system. Besides, they should ensure that all the accused in the current cases are promptly charged and diligently prosecuted.
It is generally believed that if the NJC had been recommending corrupt judges they have been dismissing for prosecution, we would not be in the valley of shame today.
What is more, if the ministers in the Temple of Justice can purge themselves, even corrupt officers in other sectors of the public service, political office holders and even the private sector actors who are accessory after the facts of corruption will learn some lessons: that corrupt practices are no longer permissible in the polity. Specifically, political office holders who form the bulk of alleged bribe givers to the judges should note that they are public enemies and judgment will come upon them very soon.
It is quite shameful that most African countries cannot look up to Nigeria as a citadel of justice. That is why we feel that at this juncture, law of absolute necessities should override legal limitation in dealing with the mocker called corruption in Nigeria.
So, if the Judiciary does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish corruption, some future historians will have to say, that a great institution died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make accountability, anti-corruption and justice a reality for all men. And that will be a tragedy.