The judiciary is increasingly polluted. The stakeholders must take action to cleanse it
Outgoing Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, last week lamented what he described as the growing perception of the judiciary as a confused institution populated mostly by morally bankrupt officers. Justice Mohammed, who attributed this negative perception to the misconduct of a few judicial officers, confirmed that the case of some Federal High Court Judges whose actions brought shame to the bench was already before the National Judicial Commission (NJC).
Without quibbling, the CJN indeed recaptured the fundamental problems with the Nigerian justice delivery system today. “I will not behave like the proverbial ostrich and hide my head in the sand, pretending that all is well at the Federal High Court,” he said. “Recent events have once again thrust the issue of conflicting judgments to the forefront of our consciousness. Indeed, it is no longer uncommon to hear legal commentators and other observers flay the Judiciary for creating greater instability in the land and expressing doubt over our competence and desire to meet the ends of justice.”
Noting that the departure from established norms by certain judges was on the increase, Justice Mohammed said: “When we create confusion in our jurisprudence, then it would be impossible for the courts to convince people that it is not befuddled. In such a situation, it is difficult to see how our fellow citizens will entrust us with their lives, property and indeed our nation’s future.”
While we commend the CJN for his candour, there is need to go beyond mere lamentation if the judiciary is to be redeemed. It is now common knowledge that justice in Nigerian courts is most often denied or robbed of its effects by the antics of some unscrupulous judges. Therefore, it is high time all stakeholders sat down to salvage the judiciary from inefficiency and corruption that have combined to render it ineffectual.
Although the National Judicial Council (NJC) has continued to discharge its constitutional responsibility of recommending the removal of judges involved in acts of misconduct, its methodology has not achieved the desired objective. By waiting for petitions from lawyers, litigants and other concerned members of the public, the NJC has allowed some corrupt judges to continue to adorn the bench. With the current dispensation, where no petition has been sent to the NJC concerning judges who engaged in corrupt practices, no one is likely to be sanctioned. This is not good enough.
Besides, in many instances, the NJC had allowed petitioners to withdraw complaints alleging grave misconduct due to pressure from the judges involved. Even when the NJC has taken up cases of misconduct against some judges, it has acted too slowly. There were also allegations of selective investigation of judges.
Although the CJN announced last week that judges who recently gave conflicting judgments in the leadership crisis of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were being investigated by the NJC, their embarrassing conduct should never have happened. Unlike the established practice whereby the heads of court would consolidate two or more cases on the same subject matter, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, allowed the Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt branches of the court to hear three cases on the same subject matter at the same time. Questions must be asked as to why he allowed such a situation.
However, Nigerians are watching and waiting to see how the NJC will resolve the misconduct that played out in the public arena. Since these judges are rational and aware of what they were doing and why, the general conclusion is that this is only a symptom of a larger malaise. In our country today, while poor people get severe sentences for minor offences, privileged citizens who commit heinous crimes easily get away. These range from corrupt politicians to fraudulent bank chief executives and other classes of high-heeled fraudsters. It is almost an unwritten rule that in Nigeria there are separate judicial regimes for the rich and the poor.
Yet we must reiterate the point we have made on this page on several occasions in the past: when our judiciary is perverted by the very people who should maintain its integrity, the inevitable outcome is bare-faced injustice and ultimately, anarchy.
Quote: Although the National Judicial Council has continued to discharge its constitutional responsibility of recommending the removal of judges involved in acts of misconduct, its methodology has not achieved the desired objective. By waiting for petitions from lawyers, litigants and other concerned members of the public, the NJC has allowed some corrupt judges to continue to adorn the bench