Against the backdrop of the degeneration of the judiciary and the surrender of some judges to the corrupting influences of desperate politicians, the admonition handed down to the members of the 2023 Election Petition Tribunals by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, is timely. In recent years, some logic-defying and contradictory judgments handed down in various cases by judges across the country have tarnished the temple of justice. This malignant tumour requires urgent surgery to uphold the rule of law and the sustenance of democracy.
Addressing the judges who will decide the expected plethora of election petition matters arising from the 2023 general elections, the CJN warned against misdeeds, abuse of power and of the public trust. Stressing the need for the judges to be impartial arbiters, Ariwoola cautioned, “I will not condone any act of recklessness. Discharge your onerous responsibilities with honesty, integrity and transparency. Do what is right in our law books and you will have your names etched in gold.’’ He should match this with strong action because corruption associated with election issues have soiled the judiciary and cemented Nigeria’s sordid global reputation for corruption.
The rule of law, argues a panel of eminent international jurists assembled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “is the most basic requirement of any civilized society, and an independent judiciary is an essential ingredient of the rule of law.” To fulfil this role and act as an effective check on other branches of government, the judiciary must be free of corruption.
A vital stabiliser of every polity, it is described as the “backbone of democracy,” and is the arbiter and final authority in disputes between the two other arms of government, and between individuals or groups. Experts emphasise that “the principal role of the judiciary is to protect the rule of law and ensure the supremacy of law. It safeguards rights of the individual, settles disputes in accordance with the law and ensures that democracy does not give way to individual or group dictatorship.”
But in recent years, the Nigerian judiciary has seen many judges caught in the mire of corruption. Some sell justice to the highest bidder, and the system has been producing what the late eminent jurist, Kayode Eso, called “billionaire judges.” Several have been prosecuted for bribe-taking, and many others have been accused, but escaped trial or had their cases squashed by the courts.
Queer judgments have been handed down, including alarmingly, some by the Supreme Court. Courts of coordinate jurisdiction entertain the same matter, grant questionable injunctions, throw out cases on flimsy, technical grounds and deliver perverse rulings. Some judges have virtually rendered the Administration of Criminal Justice Act that seeks to fast-track trials, redundant.
Apparently, the bench has been infiltrated by politicians, corrupt senior lawyers, and the Executive. Their corrupting imprimatur is visible all over. Some judges and politicians have become bedmates in an unholy union. Former Justices of the Supreme Court, Eso, and Samson Uwaifo, warned some years ago that the judiciary was stinking. Uwaifo’s alert that corruption was creeping from the lower bench to the appellate courts has become a cancerous reality.
A CJN, Walter Onnoghen was controversially removed after unproven corruption allegations were levelled against him. Ayo Salami was prematurely removed as President of the Court of Appeal when he protested the improper interference of the then CJN, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, in an election petition appeal.
True, a number of judges have been sanctioned. The National Judicial Council in 2018 recommended the dismissal of Justices Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of the Federal High Court and James Agbadu-Fishim of the National Industrial Court for alleged improper financial dealings in the course of duty. One judge reportedly had improper communications with a senior lawyer during the pendency of his matter before her. Some allegations have been nullified in court.
The NJC, Nigeria’s judiciary regulatory body, similarly recommended the compulsory retirement of the Chief Judge of Enugu State, Innocent Umezulike; a presiding justice at the Court of Appeal in Ilorin, Kwara State, Mohammed Tsamiya; and Kabiru Auta of the Kano State High Court, following allegations of judicial misconduct in 2016. Judges Matilda Adamu, Anthony Elelegwu, O.J. Isede and Tanimu Mahmoud were also sanctioned on similar allegations relating to an election petition matter.
Worryingly, the declining quality of judgments delivered in recent times highlights the quality of personnel appointed to the bench. Political influence is propelling misfits to judicial offices with dire consequences for justice delivery. Ethnic sentiments and personal interests have impinged on the appointment of judges. Knowing that being able to control judges offers a route to manipulating the system in their favour, politicians have been sponsoring their relations and cronies to the bench.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo also recently lamented the manner the elite undermined the system to promote their self-serving interests. Consequently, incompetence and corruption are being entrenched and public confidence and trust severely eroded.
Ariwoola should use his tenure to drive reforms and the restoration of the dignity of, and public confidence in the judiciary. Its independence and integrity should be jealously guarded. He must ensure that the men and women of questionable character that have found their way to the bench are exposed and weeded out. There should be zero-tolerance for judges of coordinate jurisdiction recklessly granting ex parte orders to the same parties on the same subject matter. He should ensure strict observance of the ACJA and swiftly sanction errant judges. There should be close monitoring of the election petition and appeal tribunals to checkmate the corruption that has flourished in that segment.
The Nigerian judiciary has a storied record of quality and courage, and is still regarded as resilient. There remain competent, upright judges in the system unsullied by the rot; they should be identified, encouraged and rewarded for their fealty to their oath of office.
The welfare of justices should be improved and their pay greatly enhanced to insulate them from compromises and undue influence. Entry requirements should be stricter. The CJN should pursue the reforms with vigour.