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How Judiciary Can Get Its Act Together

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The court of law is adjoined from ages as symbolic Temple in the Celestial or saintly community. While the latter is run by Ministers known as the ‘’Priests’’ of different cadres, the court of law which is simply referred to as ‘’Temple of Justice’’ is constituted by two sets of people or Ministers otherwise called ‘’the Bench and Bar’’.

In Nigeria President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) are the two Chief Priest or Prime Ministers in the Temple of Justice. In other words, they are Heads of the Bar and Bench respectively.

Until in the recent time, while Justice Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), was the head of the Bench or Judiciary, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro (SAN) is the head of the Bar.

Curiously, the two chief priests or prime ministers in the Temple of Justice became enmeshed in corruption scandals. To say all is not well in the Temple of Justice is to say the least. Concurrently, leading ministers of the temple of justice were stripped naked in the market square, a sacrilege according to tradition and the temple myths. In short the temple was desecrated, despoiled and dishonored.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arraigned the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro (SAN) on December 10, 2018 for allegedly laundering N1.4 billion. The commission had in its 10-count charge alleged that Usoro converted and laundered the said sum sometimes in 2015 in connivance with the Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State. The offence allegedly committed by the NBA President was contrary to Section 18 (a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011 and he is liable to be punished under Section 15(3) of the same Act

Barely a month after Usoro was arraigned, precisely on January 11, 2019, the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) summoned the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen to appear before it for trial on 6-count charge over failure to declare his assets fully before the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB). This is just as the EFCC went behind and filed some charges bordering on money laundering against Justice Onnoghen before the National Judicial Council (NJC)

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), is unarguably the mirror image of the judiciary, and perhaps that informed why members of the bar and bench felt bereaved with the trial and conviction of Justice Onnoghen. Their image and pride were as good as being mangled or muddled up, as the trials were akin to defiling the temple of justice or spattering on judiciary statute.

At a time like this, what can the judiciary do to redeem its image and pride? The National Judicial Council has courageously and archetypally taken a historical decision. The council had on April 3, 2019 under the interim chairmanship of former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Umaru Abdullahi, recommended the suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, for compulsory retirement. The council felt, irrespective of any argument, Justice Onnoghen who has been mounting the dock in his trial for false asset declaration before the CCT has lost the moral authority to continue as CJN with even the litany and incontrovertible allegations of corruption against him.

Justice Onnoghen himself, not waiting to see what President Muhammadu Buhari would do with NJC recommendation, and even for the Code of Conduct Tribunal to deliver its judgement; went ahead on April 4, 2019 to tender his resignation as the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

Of course, if NJC had passed a vote of confidence on Justice Onnoghen, he would not have resigned, and irrespective of CCT verdict, the mudsling and splattering of invectives on judiciary would been fueled and raging.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) should take a cue. It needs not to wait till its next election to pull itself out of this shame. Perhaps, the words of former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, though meant to address different issue but by and large not far different.

On June 24, 2015 Justice Mahmud Mohammed used the opportunity offered by a seminar that was organised by the anti-corruption commission of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to fire back at members of the Bar often accusing judicial officers of corruption.

He said contrary to the much talked about corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, only 64 out of the whole lots of 1,020 judges serving in the superior courts have so far been punished by the National Judicial Council (NJC) for various offences especially bordering on corruption between 2009 and 2014.

Justice Mohammed told the Bar that the Bench cannot be clean if the Bar that gives birth to it is filthy. “Unless we work in synergy to ensure that only fit and proper persons remain in our midst, it will be impossible to expect a different Bench when its origin remains the same. I hereby call on the leadership of the Bar to expunge from its ranks such persons whose conduct may be unfit, improper, dishonest or unethical’’.

NBA can no longer look at the Executive in the eyes and say the general elections it conducted for instance in February and March this year was bad when it conducted one of the most shameful elections in the anal of its history. 

From what inspiration would NBA draw to criticize members of the executive, legislature and the judiciary when its head or President is standing trial for alleged corrupt practices with prima facie underlining? If Usoro cannot muster courage to step aside like his counterpart in the Bench, there is no reason why NBA’s NEC shouldn’t do the needful.

Turning to the judiciary proper, the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad should without waste of time reframe and put in use a holistic National Judicial Policy that recognizes and touches on subjects such as judicial independence and accountability  judicial ethics, case flow management; speedy and judicious disposition of corruption, economic crime and high profile cases; judicial administration, technology, relationship with other branches of government, justice sector co-ordination, access to justice, alternative dispute resolution, review of outdated laws, public awareness, trust and confidence in the judiciary.

Let there be renewed vigour in the monitoring of serving judicial officers by the Performance Evaluation Committee of NJC to forestall undue delays in delivering judgements and applications for unnecessary adjournments in the courts.

NJC doesn’t have criminal investigation unit or ‘’Fraud Detective Squad’’ to detect and investigate criminal involvement of any judicial officer. It has only been putting judges on trial if there are petitions filed against them, and again, the trials are based mostly on documentary evidence which are hard to get. But it is high time the council’s Performance Evaluation Committee be re-packaged to include criminal investigation unit. This will give the much needed cleanness in the judiciary.

The acting CJN should re-energise further, the institutionalised disciplinary mechanism put in place by NJC to sanitise the judiciary as complaints of corruption and abuse of judicial power by judicial officers in granting frivolous and reckless injunctions and ex-parte orders are rife. Justice Muhammad can do that without let or hindrance due to his clean record of service as he has never been associated with any corruption scandal.There is no how judiciary can be transformed or reformed with empty envelop or paltry resource allocation from the executive branch of government. It would defy all measures put in from within to function creditably well if budgetary allocation continues to be low.

The most worrisome situation in the judiciary today is the release of budgeted allocation to the sector by the Accountant General of the Federation and the Federal Ministry of Finance. Judiciary is currently recording low performance of the 2018 Budget on account of release of fund to it.

President Buhari cannot afford to probate and approbate by wanting to reform the judiciary and at the same time starving it of fund. The country won’t appropriate good governance, corruption-free society or achieve major development if the judiciary is lowly performing. The President won’t get it well, if he relies on the’’ stick’’ alone for correction rather than applying ‘’carrot and stick’’ principle to tackle myriad problems in the judiciary.

In the speech he delivered at the 2015 All Nigeria Judges Conference, President Buhari urged the Judiciary leadership to carry out various reforms to position and portray the administration of justice system as humane and efficient, adding that, ‘’the Judiciary must go the extra mile to sanitize itself and improve its capacity to act independently, courageously and timeously.

‘’This administration is committed to the financial independence of the Nigerian judiciary in accordance with extant laws. We believe that the judiciary must be treated fairly and must be treated in much the same way as the executive and the legislature’’, President Buhari had said.

Let every judiciary officer especially those participating in the nationwide election petition tribunal exercise be reminded that more than 50% of the judicial officers who lost their jobs between 1993 and 2019 were on accounts of complaints filed against them before NJC while adjudicating in election tribunal matters.

The judicial officers were either accused of receiving bribes from litigants, granting unmeritorious injunctions and ex-parte orders, unwholesome telephone conversation with litigants or engaging in other forms of social interactions with parties in a suit before them.

On March 19, 2019, while flagging-off an induction program organised for Court of Appeal justices that will serve as Chairmen and members of election petition tribunals, the Court of Appeal President, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, disclosed that over 250 Judges handling election petition cases across the federation, have been placed on watch list. 

The PCA, said the judges would be “closely monitored”, vowing that any of them found wanting in the discharge of his or her duties, would be seriously dealt with.

The only way to be free of compromise is to avoid the politicians completely. No amount of what judicial officers receive from them could ever purchase needed goodwill and integrity in their career, either within or outside it.

The judiciary must halt its operation in opaqueness; its activities cannot remain shrouded in secrecy. In a keynote address he delivered at the opening ceremony of a two-day training workshop for Abuja Chapter of the National Association of Judiciary Correspondents (NAJUC) on December 3, 2014, Justice Mahmud held that the era when the activities of the judiciary were shrouded in secrecy is over.

He stressed that the role the press had played in enthroning integrity, probity and transparency in the judiciary could neither be underestimated nor over-emphasised adding that there was need for the public to be properly informed about the nature and activities of the judiciary.

“The general belief was that all the activities of the judiciary started and ended in the court room. The scare of the dreaded subjudice or contempt of court hung ominously over every information or on the head of the information disseminator.

“The judiciary was a no-go area for the media by whatever means and the judiciary itself saw no use it could make of the press. The judiciary completely lived in its cocoon. Any prying eyes of the media into the affairs of the judiciary was treated as a satanic invasion or demonic intrusion that must be resisted and repelled by any means, especially by the use of the doctrine of contempt of court ex facie curie.

“However, the trend has changed. The judiciary as the third arm of the government treats the press as the fourth estate of realm. Since the judiciary as an arm of government is a subsystem within the state, it cannot, therefore, be insulated from the stimuli (both external and internal) which impact upon and influence the state as a system.”

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