Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mariam Aloma Mukthar
With the recent retirement of two judges, the judiciary seems set for a new regime of zero tolerance for graft, writes Nkiruka Okoh
Of the three tiers of government in Nigeria, the limelight is rarely beamed on the judiciary if compared to the Executive and the Legislature. However, recent developments may have shifted the attention of Nigerians to the happenings in the judiciary.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) under the leadership of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mariam Aloma Mukthar, at a recent emergency meeting recommended the compulsory retirement of Justice Charles E. Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Justice T.D Naron of the Plateau State High Court. And to give life to the development, President Goodluck Jonathan, last week, approved the recommendation of the NJC with immediate effect.
The suspension and subsequent retirement of Justice Archibong was the fall-out of the investigations by the Council vide Section 292(1)(b) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), having found his conduct reprehensible when he heard the case of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Vs Dr. Erastus Akingbola.
However, the suspension and recommendation of Justice Naron for compulsory retirement was sequel to findings by the Council that there were constant and regular voice calls and exchange of MMS and text messages between the judge and the lead counsel for one of the parties to the suit in Osun State Governorship Election Tribunal, contrary to the code of conduct for judicial officers vide Section 292 (1)(b) of the constitution.
This action has not only exposed the erring judges however, it has further thrown light on attempts by the CJN to restore the integrity of the judiciary.
No doubt, the judiciary in every democratic society plays a critical role towards the realization and sustenance of justice hence it is referred to as the last hope of the common man.
But over the years, the Nigeria judiciary has been criticised as being subject to politicisation, inertia and corruption, thus questioning its role in Nigeria’s fragile democracy.
Sadly, the ‘wrist slap judgments’ in certain cases as well as increasing impunity that had slowly eroded the common man’s confidence and cast doubts on the credibility of the judiciary. Although, there had been attempts at cleaning up the Judiciary through sanctions, the outcome of such attempts have been underwhelming.
It is, perhaps, for that reason that Mukthar admitted before the senate in July last year that “there is corruption in the Judiciary just like every aspect of the society. The most important thing is to curb it and lead by example and ensure others follow.”
But to many Nigerians, this was just propaganda. But an undeterred CJN, during the 2012 Biennial conference of All Nigeria Judges, reiterated same warned against corruption on the bench and promised to act accordingly.
“I urge that you reform yourselves and allow yourselves to be reformed by amending your conduct that brings dishonour to the judiciary as an institution.”
Finally, it may have dawned on many that the country’s first female law officer is serious about taking the bull by its horns.
Thus, apart from the recent sanction of Archibong and Naron, the NJC has also set up a fact finding committee to investigate allegations against Justice Abubakar Talba of the Federal High Court in the Police Pension case of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Vs Mr. John Yusuf & Others.
Following this, the cleansing revolution of the Judiciary is fast becoming a reality. As if taking a cue from the NJC, the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) recently suspended a senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Ajibola Aribisala, for alleged gross misconduct by using the coveted rank.
Aribisala became the second SAN to be deprived of the use of the rank, coming after the former Justice Minister, Mr. Michael Aonodoaka. The statement from the LPPC read: “The LPPC at its meeting held today February 26, 2013, considered the petition by the Fidelity Bank against the person of Chief Ajibola A. Aribisala (SAN) together to his response to same and after due consideration of the said response has decided in its wisdom to suspend him from the use of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria and all other privileges attached to that rank pending the outcome of the court case and impeding investigation by the subcommittee set up by the LPPC.”
But while many considered the latest development within the judiciary as a encouraging and enjoined other arms of government to take a cue from the sanitization process, the need to sustain the tempo has also become an issue of concern.
Therefore, observers advised that the effort should be a continuous process based on facts of investigation and not become a tool for intimidation of certain members of the bench. This, in effect, observers fear could affect the sanitization process, if not properly handled and stifle the independence of the judiciary, especially for judges who are not morally or professionally corrupt but are known for taking the highway in dispensing free and unfettered justice.
But again, some have dismissed the effect of a negative fall-out, noting that it would only ensure that all legal practitioners, not only members of the bench, would put their best foot forward at all times.
Those who belong to this school express concern against the backdrop that the issue of corruption in the judiciary should be tackled from its root, noting that the appointment of judicial officers has is today enmeshed in politics.
This is contrary to argument that countries that are serious about sustaining democracy culture do not play politics with judicial appointments. But eligibility and competence are considered uppermost in such appointments.
But this is believed to have also assisted in casting shadows on the credibility of the judiciary and contributed to the general belief that the judiciary has been laidback its role as a custodian of the rule of law and due process. However, when the politics that often dots such appointment is yanked off, it is believed that some semblance of hope would be further restored.
Generally, observers hold the view that, although the CJN has vowed to sanitise the judicial system as well as speed up the justice delivery process in the country, there is the fear that the role the Executive in the removal of erring judges might only slow down the tide as the principle of checks and balances eventually leaves the Executive with the discretion to either go along with the recommendation of the council or ‘forgive’ the erring judge.
Unfortunately, this position questions the independence of the judiciary and the role the NJC in its sanitization bid. While the CJN has kick-started the drive for the clean-up, it is imperative that members, associations as well as stakeholders in that arm of government continue to guide against blackmail, corruption and professional misconduct.
In the final analysis, the judiciary, many contend, should be applauded for the current drive especially the CJN’s zero tolerance for unprofessional conducts.
Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, (SAN) has confirmed the president’s support for the ongoing sanitization in the judiciary. “It is Mr. President’s belief that once we are able to cleanse the judiciary of corruption, then our fight against corruption in its entirety will take a firm root and will be on its way to success.”
Other well meaning Nigerians have equally followed suit, noting that amidst the support for the judiciary, it is expected that the Executive and Legislature take a cue from this and exhibit seriousness in their fight against corruption.