The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mariam Mukhtar on Monday, 24 March, 2014 sworn in 25 new Court of Appeal judges. During the event she urged the judges to maintain true allegiance to their judicial oaths and abide by the demands of the code of conduct for judicial officers. She warned that the “judiciary will not tolerate acts of misconduct and disloyalty from judges and that there was “no middle ground and no room on the bench for those found to be contemptible arbiters of truth. There shall be zero tolerance to judicial corruption and misconduct in the Nigerian judiciary,” she cautioned. She also reminded them that as newly elevated judges, they will soon be presiding over election cases and stressed the need for them to be politically neutral, ensure the rights of litigants, uphold the tenets of justice, dispense justice for the purpose of safeguarding and protecting the constitution.
The words of advice and caution offered by the CJN came on the heels of growing concerns about corruption in the judiciary. The loudest of the claims of judicial corruption have come from the processes and outcomes of adjudication of cases in post-election disputes. The high point of this bribery and corruption allegations was the controversy that surrounded the suspension of the president of the Federal Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, by the National Judicial Council, under Justice Katsina-Alu. The incident led to a sharp division between the Bar and the Bench that was played out in the public space. This division has in no small measure affected the confidence of the populace in the judiciary.
In recent times, several measures have been taken by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to punish erring members of the Bench. However, such punitive measures have been limited to retirement. An example is the case involving Justice Lawal Hassan Gummi, previously of the Federal High Court, Abuja. The NJC, at its 63rd meeting held on July 17 and 18, 2013, accepted the findings and recommendations of its committee that investigated a petition against Gunmi. The committee had established that Gummi interfered with the execution of the judgment delivered by Justice Jude Okeke in a suit between Nestello Gateway Group and Alhaji Abdul’aziz Abubakar Yari, a former National Assembly member who is the current governor of Zamfara State. The council found the interference by Gummi “most unethical and reprehensible” and proceeded to pronounce him guilty of gross misconduct on the grounds that he violated the code of conduct for judicial officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
However, after finding Gunmi guilty of gross misconduct, the council decided not to recommend his removal from office because he had already voluntarily retired from service. It thereafter issued a warning that “henceforth, any similar misconduct by any judicial officer in the federation will be visited with severe sanction.” The argument that Gummi’s voluntary retirement prevented the NJC from recommending his removal from office is curious. The council said it lacked the power to sanction him because he had voluntarily left the Bench to serve as the traditional ruler of his people. Where is the deterrent effect when a judicial officer, after an act of gross misconduct, could go scot free? It has become the standard practice for judges to be summarily retired after grievous misdeeds. To simply ask a public officer who has abused public trust to go and sin no more makes nonsense of the crusade against corruption. A pre-emptive voluntary retirement cannot obliterate an act of gross misconduct committed by an officer who has abused his office.
Reducing corruption in the justice sector would make it more likely that corrupt individuals in other sectors would be prosecuted and punished. This would raise the cost of corruption and discount the rewards derivable therefrom. Taking steps against corruption in the justice system is an essential step in dealing with corruption in the larger society. But the current practice of using mere retirement as punitive measure cannot help to clean the Augean stables in the judiciary. Judges found guilty of corruption, unethical and reprehensible acts must be made to face the full wrath of the law. They must be prosecuted and punished according to the prescribed laws if trust in the criminal justice system is to be regained. The consequences of an egregiously corrupt judicial system are better left to the imagination.