Last week, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Justice Tanko Muhammad as the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). The senior judicial officer had functioned in that role in acting capacity since January 25 following the suspension from office of the erstwhile occupier of the post, Justice Walter Onnoghen, over alleged corrupt practices. Justice Muhammad was grilled by a comparatively friendly Senate in the areas of corruption, administration of criminal justice and the poor funding of the judiciary. The quality of his responses to some of the questions from the senators was somewhat average but in particular, his reply to the question on the alleged pervasive corruption in the judiciary was rather casual and pedestrian. The CJN claimed that he was not surprised at the gravity of sleaze by judicial officers in the country because the grave situation was simply reflective of the decadence in the society at large. And he called for a holistic review of the criminal laws with a view to amending them.
It is not difficult to agree with the CJN that the country’s criminal laws need comprehensive retooling in such a way that they will render criminals helpless. It is equally easy to acknowledge the crucial role the legislature at the federal and state levels has to play in that regard. But it is an unacceptable platitude by the CJN to imply that judicial officers are corrupt because they are an integral component of a society that is inherently corrupt. The lucid connotation is that there is no quality or virtue that sets the judicial officers apart from the rest of the society, even though they sit in judgment over infractions of the law and mete out sanctions from the grid, including the death sentence.
The societal expectation is that the judiciary lives above board and resists the temptation to descend into the arena in order to effectively play the role of an unbiased umpire. If the leadership of the judiciary is not shocked that this expectation has been met largely in the breach, then there is a serious problem. Given the rigorous training of judges, their calling, the privileged and exalted position they occupy and the oath they swore to, the CJN ought to be naturally astonished at the allegations and indeed revelation of monumental sleaze within his constituency, irrespective of what obtains in the larger society. After all, in all the allegations of corrupt practices against judicial officers treated to date, there have been no instances where judges were reported to have been held at gunpoint or blackmailed to accept bribes. All the cases involved conscious givers and unburdened takers of bribes.
The point we make is that the odious shades of debauchery engaged in by some judicial officers arising from the low quality of their moral fibre and the appalling level of discipline in the judiciary cannot and should not be explained away by the general level of decadence in the society. The truth is that judiciary in one form or the other has always existed since the beginning of civilisation. And if the society had been construed as a paragon of virtue that is conflict-free and where everyone does what is right always, the need would not have arisen for the emergence of the judiciary as the final arbiter in the first place.
The reality on the ground is rather grim: the country is sadly described as the world headquarters of the poor and it is ranked among some of the most corrupt nations in the world. Transparency International has also named the judiciary alongside the Nigeria Police and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) as the three most corrupt institutions in the country. The knowledge that the judiciary is as corrupt as the rest of the society is unsettling. The CJN admitted as much during his screening by the Senate but he blamed the larger society for the sordid state of affairs. He has failed to take ownership, a situation that promises to delay the much needed sanitisation of the judiciary. As it stands and per his claim before the Senate, the CJN is not astounded by the level of the rot in the judiciary, even though he acknowledged the challenges and proposed changes in the criminal laws in order to restore sanity. What that means is that the status quo will prevail in the judiciary until the laws are amended. And by implication, and sadly so, the judiciary cannot be the hope of the common man for as long as it takes for sanity to be restored. That cannot possibly be the optimal vision plan of a new CJN.
Justice Muhammad ought to be stupefied by the disclosure that some judges in the country are corrupt, even if the society is literally rotting away. And we believe there is a lot he could do to rein in the negative trajectory under the extant laws and administratively. For instance, the recruitment process of judges can be rejigged to bring in people of excellent character and competence. That does not detract from the desirability of the amendment of the criminal laws to accommodate contemporary developments. Perhaps, Justice Muhammad needs to be reminded that past CJNs also spoke about corruption in the judiciary but the measures they took to curb the menace were of little moment. Many Nigerians have understandably become despondent because of seemingly unending leadership failure. The new CJN should therefore be as pragmatic and sincere as possible in proffering solutions to the challenges in the judiciary as that is the only way he can aspire to earn the trust of Nigerians.