Last week, members of the bench converged on Abuja for the 2017 All Judges’ Conference. It was an avenue for stock taking, writes Alex Enumah
For President Muhhamadu Buhari, who declared the 2017 All Judges’ Conference open last week, the theme is very important and apt as the country’s democratic system cannot survive or prosper without strict adherence to the Rule of Law. For the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Samuel Walter Onnoghen, the conference itself is unique, in the sense that it serves as a forum for Judges to come together every two years and address common problems as well as exchange ideas and experiences for the enrichment of their performance as the third arm of government.
Unarguably, the judiciary has never been in such a bad light as in the last two and half years of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. The height of the judiciary’s humiliation was the invasion in November 2016, of the homes of seven serving judges and justices by officials of the Department of State Service (DSS) in a sting operation.
This notwithstanding, Onnoghen argues that the judiciary is not as corrupt as being perceived by the people. “I must state categorically however, lest I am accused of the fallacy of hasty generalisation, that the Judiciary in Nigeria is not totally corrupt or inefficient. No. Only few Judges are found wanting. It is an established fact that the Judiciary in Nigeria is as good as the best anywhere in the world. Indeed, this fact can be readily corroborated by such countries as The Gambia, Botswana and Seychelles where some of our Judges have served meritoriously and without blemish”.
So while for the judiciary the conference provides opportunity for soul searching and designing of concrete steps to redeem its battered image, for the executive it was time to woo the judiciary into the corruption war.
“My lords, earlier this year the Judiciary came under investigation. Let me again assure the judicial community, this action taken by the Executive was in no way a prelude to usurping the powers of the National Judicial Council or aimed at intimidating the Judiciary as wrongly portrayed in some sections of the media. Executive and legislative officials were also investigated”, Buhari said.
He however, pointed out issues such as delays, conflicting judgments by judges, which he said were not just lowering the reputation of the judiciary but deserves urgent attention.
Two and half years into the live of this administration and despite the number of high profile cases of alleged corrupt persons in courts across the federation, not one conviction has been secured. This has been attributed to undue delays caused by frivolous applications by parties in the matter.
“For the judiciary, the public expects fairness, impartiality and speed in the administration of justice. Regrettably court cases can drag on for years and years, sometimes decades without resolution. I need only mention land cases in Lagos to illustrate my point.
“Furthermore, there are huge backlogs of cases waiting to be dispensed especially at the appellate levels. Reform of the judiciary should start at eliminating these seemingly endless delays in settling what to the layman are apparently simple cases”, the president said.
However, it was not all knocks for the judiciary as the president commended ongoing reforms by the current leadership of the judiciary and pledged his support. “Mr. Chief Justice, our administration’s commitment is to accord the Judiciary its constitutional rights. I therefore commend your recent decision to ask all judges at lower courts to provide you with a comprehensive list of all corruption and financial crimes in order to designate special courts to handle them. I support your action and the public is awaiting the results of this initiative.
While acknowledging some of the problems identified by the president, the CJN said efforts were already on to remedy the situation. “As we are all aware, the Judiciary has been in the eye of the storm in recent times, due largely to the activities of a few bad eggs in our midst. The public today has a very wrong perception of the Judiciary, and this is rather unfortunate. We have a duty to change the wrong perception and narratives”.
Part of the measures, he noted, is the constitution of the Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) to serve as a check on the excesses of some bad judges. The committee is headed by Justice Suleiman Galadima, CFR, JSC (Rtd).
He said it was not enough to get the bad eggs from among them, but also to ensure their prosecution and conviction.
In response to the prolonged trial of corruption cases, Onnoghen revealed that special courts would be designated to handle such cases to ensure speed in their dispensation. “It should no longer be business as usual. I believe the stream of justice must be kept pure and free at all times from poisonous contamination”, he said.
Onnoghen said, a good place to start this image laundering is the lower Courts – the Magistracy and Customary Courts. “These Courts are the first contact most citizens have with the Judiciary, and most times, the only contact they would have.
“I therefore urge the Heads of various Courts to pay close attention to the activities of the lower Courts within your Jurisdiction. Proper supervision and feedback mechanisms are imperative if we most succeed”.
However, on the issue of speedy dispensation of justice in the country, the CJN believes it would require concerted efforts by all stakeholders, including the Executive and Legislature to achieve.
He called for increase budgetary allocation to the Judiciary, regular capacity building programmes for Judges, training of Professional Court Administrators, financial independence for state Judiciaries and security for Judges in order to enhance justice delivery in the country.
Onnoghen, however urged the Executive to obey court judgments and respect the independence of the judiciary, adding that this to a large extent reflects the level of democracy and freedom of the country.
“The independence of the Judiciary can only be sustained and guaranteed when there is no interference by the other arms of government in the discharge of its duties.
“Closely linked to the independence of the Judiciary is the need for governments and institutions to obey court orders and judgments. Today, Nigerians easily refer to the recent Supreme Court judgment in Kenya and some court orders in the United States of America and conclude that the Judiciaries in those countries are doing better than ours. They, however, forget to mention that President Uhuru Kenyatta promptly accepted the judgment annulling his victory in the August 8, 2017 Presidential election and agreed to a re-run against his opponent.
“That is the Rule of Law in practice and I urge the other arms of government, especially the Executive, to consider the obedience of court judgments and orders as a strong motivation to the fight against corruption and the entrenchment of the Rule of Law in our country.
He also called for adequate funding particularly, of states judiciary, adding that funding is the most important and critical indices for assessing the independence of the judiciary.
He suggested a constitutional amendment that would see that funds due to the State Judiciaries are deducted from source and paid directly to the judiciary once the states receive their monthly allocations from the Federation Account.
Administrator of the National Judicial Institute, Justice Roselyne Bozimo, described the conference as a stock taking event for justices and judges of superior courts of record from all over the country, to reflect upon the activities of the Judiciary with the benefit of hindsight; and reflect on the achievements and challenges of the Judiciary. “The Conference also provides a platform for judges to strategise on the means of adopting global best practices to meet critical challenges in the dispensation of justice to all in our great country”, she stated.