Every so often, Nigeria’s justice system is perceived as weak and exasperatingly slow; quick to punish minor offenders but tardy in bringing high net worth lawbreakers to book. Therefore, for the umpteenth time, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, has brought to the fore one of its chronic defects. At the inaugural biannual lecture of the Lagos State Judiciary, Onnoghen blamed the rot in the judiciary on the politicisation in the appointment of judges by governors. But the CJN is stating no new thing; he is just reaffirming the obnoxious trend. All along, political machinations have made the public to view the judiciary with suspicion.
Apart from accusations of corruption, the lack of independence and poor quality of officers put a spoke in the wheel of justice. The decay is illustrated in frivolous judgements and spurious perpetual injunctions. The vogue among public officers is to plot the ascension of their spouses and relatives from the magistrate’s cadre to the highest echelon, both at the state and federal judiciary. It is these judicial officers who network with their colleagues when the need arises. This is a serious erosion of judicial integrity. The judiciary should discharge the burden with introspection.
Constitutionally, a high court judge or a Chief Judge is appointed on the recommendations of the state Judicial Service Commission. A list of those qualified is forwarded to the state governor, whose duty is to forward the names to the approving authority, that is, the National Judicial Council. The NJC performs a similar role at the federal level with recommendations to the President. This is where the rigmarole sets in. As stakeholders know, the executive arm of government manipulates the process to suit personal interests. In turn, this affects competence, integrity and a sound justice system.
Onnoghen lamented, “Appointment of judges has become highly politicised as a governor of a state will not approve the names of persons nominated for the bench for NJC scrutiny if the names of his candidates are not included on that list.” Unfortunately, the manipulation of the system has gained ground, leaving the polity under a cloud of incoherent judicial pronouncements in several cases before the courts.
Earlier this year, one of Onnoghen’s predecessors and the first female CJN, Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar, had spoken out candidly against the plague. “It is sad that we allow the rising culture of lobbying to influence appointments in the judiciary. Lobbying, favouritism and ‘godfatherism’ … lead to the fall in standards, and, instead of enhancing the institution, they devalue and weaken it, because of the incompetence of the personnel.”
The rot was exposed in the submissions of a former Justice of the Supreme Court, the late Kayode Eso. He labelled some of the judges who handled the 2007 Elections Petitions Tribunal cases “billionaire judges,” on account of the compromises that surrounded that turbulent era. Joseph Daudu, a former president of the once-vibrant Nigerian Bar Association, once said justice was for sale to the highest bidder. “We are no doubt aware that some of our colleagues, including very senior counsel and at times eminent retired judicial officers, go about offering their services as ‘consultants’ particularly in election cases for incredible sums of money so as to act as conduit between their clients and the election court,” he agonised. Already, several judges have been dismissed over various allegations.
This trend has to be tackled frontally. In the past, the Nigerian judiciary was a bastion of moral rectitude, integrity and excellence. Nigerian jurists like Akinola Aguda, Udo Udoma, Taslim Elias, Daddy Onyeama, Bola Ajibola, Eso and Samson Uwaifo distinguished themselves at home and abroad. Those were the halcyon days. Elongated years of military rule combined with civil leadership impunity have damaged the judiciary. In 2011, the then President of the Court of Appeal, Ayo Salami, accused the then incumbent CJN, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, of asking him to “arrest” the 2007 Sokoto State Governorship Election Appeal Tribunal judgement. It triggered a huge controversy, which underlined the entropy in the judiciary. In 2016, several judges were arrested on allegations of graft.
Therefore, the incumbent CJN has his work cut out for him. We throw back the challenge to him, for the NJC, which he heads, has the means to implement far-reaching changes. A system that vests a crucial duty of appointing judges mainly in the executive might not stand the test of time. The NJC needs to improve the process through a rigorous but fair mechanism to screen nominees of the executive, as this is the crux of the mess.
With a transparent and a competitive remuneration system, the best legal minds in the bar could be encouraged to take up judicial appointments. Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former NBA president, insists that this is the pragmatic method to reform the justice system. We agree. It is in consonance with the practice in the United Kingdom. In the UK, only a Queen’s Counsel – the equivalent of a SAN – could be appointed as a High Court judge.
This is somewhat similar to the system in India, where merit is valued above other extraneous considerations. There, candidates are subjected to written examinations, which are conducted by independent panels. With some other adjustments – like open interviews – this method could better the lot of the stinking temple of justice.
To restore judicial credibility, sound legal rulings and confidence in the system, capable lawyers and senior lecturers in law from the universities could also be directly elevated to the bench after a series of exacting process.