- Stakeholders must meet to review the law which seemingly gifts immunity to judges
Against the interest of Nigerians, the war against corruption has become jaded, partly as a result of institutional hiccups. Last week, to the utter consternation of citizens distressed by ravages of corruption, the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, upturned the judgment of a High Court, and struck out criminal charges filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) against a serving judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa, on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction.
That judgment based on constitutional prerogatives of the National Judicial Council (NJC) places the war against corruption in the judiciary in a quandary, and we urge all stakeholders to address the challenge. Without prejudice to the rights of the parties to appeal to the Supreme Court, citizens are worried that technicality upended facts in the case of Justice Nganjiwa. With the matter stultified by technicality, the guilt or innocence of the learned judge has not been addressed by the judgment.
Justice Nganjiwa was arraigned in June on a 14-count charge of corrupt enrichment and giving false information to an EFCC officer. In discharging the accused person, the Court of Appeal espoused the doctrine of separation of powers and held that the EFCC, being part of the executive arm of government, should not encroach on the constitutional prerogatives of the judiciary, as envisaged by the 1999 constitution, as amended. The court therefore held that the court lacks jurisdiction to entertain the matter.
In the appellate court’s opinion, a judicial officer must first be subjected to the disciplinary powers of the NJC, established by section 153(1)(i) of the constitution, once the subject matter arose from the performance of the judicial function; and if such a judicial officer is sacked or retired , then the executive arm would be free to subject the official to a criminal trial, as in the case of Justice Nganjiwa. It argued that by the doctrine of separation of powers, the judiciary must exercise its functions freely without an iota of fear.
As sound as the reasoning appears, at least on technical grounds, what then is responsible for the embarrassing corruption in the judicial arm of government and the tardiness of the NJC in dealing with criminal infractions by judicial officials? Assuming the reasoning in the judgment of the Court of Appeal is affirmed by the apex court, could that be a licence to gift our country a licentious judiciary? If the judiciary is interested in public opinion, there is apprehension that the judgment may have cloaked serving judicial officers with immunity, and that is worrisome.
As we await the final decision of the Supreme Court on this matter, there is no doubt that the majesty of the judiciary is tainted by incidence of corruption, such as is levied against Justice Nganjiwa, and no nation can survive such trajectory. Perhaps there is the urgent need to review the constitution, to determine more clearly the powers of the NJC and the powers of the national agencies empowered by law to fight corruption. No doubt, the public is rankled that where a judicial officer is accused of corruption, the police and other security agencies concerned will have to wait for NJC to first act.
If that is the law and spirit of our constitution, then the executive and the National Assembly should examine whether it is necessary to amend the laws to clearly demarcate between a misconduct and a criminal indictment, so that while the NJC deals with the first, the criminal prosecutor agencies deal with the latter. But of course, there is the need to have a virile and independent prosecutor agencies, and so any review should not gift the executive the opportunity to pocket the judiciary.
Ultimately, the answer to the corruption plaguing our country is an incorruptible, independent, fair and fearless judiciary. A corrupt judiciary is a plague to the society, even as a shackled judiciary is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the executive. So, the three arms of government must seek a solution to gift our country an independent judiciary, regulated by judicious laws, in the overall interest of the entire country. Perhaps, the composition of the NJC could be reviewed to make it nibble and more efficient.