The news report that the National Judicial Council (NJC) has set up seven investigative panels to probe 25 judges accused of corrupt practices by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), is sweet and sour. It is sweet because it shows that the NJC has adopted an expeditious process to deal with allegations of corruption in the judiciary, as we have urged here severally. The news is sour as the number of judges under probe by the anti-graft agency underscores the level of challenge facing the judiciary.
According to NJC’s Director of Information, Mr Soji Oye, NJC, under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, took the decision at its 86th meeting held on May 8 and 9, 2018. In his words: “Petitions written against the 25 judicial officers and others by the EFCC were also considered by the council, after which it resolved to empanel seven committees to look into the allegations,” The EFCC sent in the petitions against the judges, following the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, which dismissed the charges against Justice Hyeldzira Nganjiwa of the Federal High Court in Abuja, on the grounds that under the 1999 Constitution, the NJC is empowered to first determine the fate of judicial officers before they can be charged to court.
We hope the NJC will henceforth determine expeditiously any petition over corrupt practices against any serving judicial officer, whether of the High Court, Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, as its contribution to the fight against corruption. The delay in dealing with petitions had been raised by law enforcement agencies in the past. Again, the recent dismissal of cases against judges, because they were not first dealt with by NJC, even though based on a constitutional imperative, do not buoy confidence in the judiciary in the war against corruption.
No doubt we support the application of due process in the investigation and trial of judicial officers, but considering the importance of that arm of government in the fight against corruption, every legitimate effort must be made to clean it of corrupt officials. Since the constitution has given NJC the power to cast the first stone on corrupt judges, we urge it to always do so without hesitation, once a prima facie case of corruption is established against a judicial officer. The old system of allowing allegations of corruption against judicial officers to linger must stop.
For us, Nigeria is facing an emergency with regards to corrupt practices in public service, and so it behooves those in authority to adopt emergency measures, to stem the tide. We therefore commend the multiple panels set up by NJC and hope they will deal with their assignment expeditiously. No doubt, corruption has eaten deep into the fabrics of our nation and the judiciary is no exception. Tragically, corruption in the judiciary is far reaching, because the judicial officers have enormous constitutional powers, which include the power to punish for corruption.
So, when a judicial officer is corrupt, the result is that corruption festers and a corruption-ridden country cannot make any progress, whether economic, political or social. Such a country stagnates in the cesspool of corruption. Unfortunately, to a large extent that has been the fate of Nigeria. To start the arduous task of cleaning our political and economic systems, the judiciary must be at the vanguard. Not much can be achieved otherwise, considering that we run a constitutional democracy.
Take for instance the several infamous election petition tribunals that have caused our country so much in resources and social cohesion. Where politicians believe that the judiciary can be compromised, they rig elections, believing that the end justifies the means. Thus we have seen those not duly elected serve as governors and legislators for nearly a full term before their elections are declared as invalid. In such circumstance, elections become a do-or-die affair.
Again, when judges are corrupt, commercial disputes can easily be compromised and the consequence on the national economy can be so disastrous. So, judicial corruption affects the level of direct foreign investment and even the unlawful flight of capital, as those involved know that the judiciary can easily be compromised. In our country, simple commercial disputes like loan transactions linger in our courts, and that discourages banks from giving out facilities even to genuine investors.
The fight against corruption must be won if Nigeria is to make progress. If we have our way, the burden of proof in criminal trials should be shifted to the accused, especially in cases of graft. Considering the level of impunity by public officials, we don’t mind if the constitution, relevant criminal laws and evidence act are amended to allow that.