Making the Judiciary Truly Independent

President Muhammadu Buhari congratulating the new Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria , Justice lbrahim Tanko Muhammed, shortly after taking the Oath of Office at the Council Chamber of the Presidential Villa , Abuja on Friday (Photos by Godwin Omoigui)

As important as the judiciary is to the sustenance of the rule of law and democracy, the current administration has within its first four years exposed the fact that it is the most vulnerable of the three arms of government, writes Davidson Iriekpen

There is no doubt that in the 20 years that Nigeria has witnessed uninterrupted democratic rule, the judiciary has played key role in the sustenance of the rule of law. This all-important arm of the government has made serious interventions where its attention was needed.

Before the assumption of office of President Muhammadu Buhari four years ago, what many Nigerians had agitated for the judiciary was financial autonomy for the third arm government, where their budgets would be drawn on first line charge, and for judges to deliver their judgments without undue interference.

But an all-new chapter was written when with a mindset, the current government went on a spree to decimate the judiciary and instill fears in the mind of judges. A clue to this was when a few months after Buhari assumed office, the president during a town hall meeting with Nigerians living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said the judiciary remained his main “headache in the fight against corruption.”

Forgetting that corruption thrives more in the executive arm of government, the president requires the strong support of the judiciary to effectively tackle the monster. Not considering how weak his case was, he recalled that corruption in the judiciary stalled his presidential ambition for years and promised to overhaul the country’s judicial system.

With this kind of remarks from the commander-in-chief, the discerning knew it was a matter of time before the arm of government, known as the last hope of the common man began to get all the attentions. Soon after the comment, he approached the National Assembly to grant him emergency powers.
Due to the tendencies the administration was already exhibiting, his request was turned down. Not only were peoples, especially members of the opposition parties arrested, court orders were disregarded and disobeyed.

For this reason, the National Assembly reasoned that granting the president emergency powers would make him a tyrant and dictator. Having failed to secure emergency powers, and other regular orders from the court granting bails to persons standing trial, the president turned on the judiciary and accused it of being corrupt in the discharge of its statutory duties.

In October 2016, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, alleged that his office received complaints from concerned members of the public over the corrupt practices of some serving judges of the superior court of record. Without investigation and a petition to the National Judicial Council (NJC), he directed the Department of State Service (DSS), whose primary duty is for intelligence gathering within the country and for the protection of senior government officials, to raid the homes of seven serving judicial officers of the Supreme, Federal and High Courts across the country at the wee hours of the night and arrested some of them.

The affected Justices of the Supreme Court were Sylvanus Ngwuta and Inyang Okoro. Those from Federal High Court included Muazu Pindiga, Adeniyi Ademola, Abdullahi Liman and Nnamdi Dimgba.
The seventh judge, who was serving in Port Harcourt, Rivers State capital was saved from the raid and arrest by the prompt intervention of the state governor, Nyesom Wike.
The outcry was massive, especially among lawyers, members of the National Assembly and the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA). That was where it ended. Nothing happened afterward.

While all these were ongoing, they did not know that a bigger repression against judiciary was underway, which was the suspension and eventual conviction of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen in a most autocratic manner.

All of these had happened in addition to some of the disobedience to court orders, which had made the judiciary appear worthless as an arm of government.
Currently, judges live in fear with many not knowing who would be the next victim of the clampdown. This is why with what Nigerians had seen in the last four years, nobody can say for sure what will happen in the next four years. Regardless, however, the independence of the judiciary is not negotiable if Buhari desires to make any meaningful impact in the next four years.