Judiciary and the Future of Our Democracy

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Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed

… Judges Like Catholic Priests

By Eddy Odivwri

Knowing some of the operational canons that govern the conduct and carriage of judges, I have always wondered how some people will knowingly elect to be judges. They approximate, to me, Catholic priests, who have sworn to live a life of denials, sacrifice, celibacy and devoid of all such other worldly warts. In a sense therefore, I perceive Judges as social celibates. It is for them, I think, the word hallowed should be exclusively ascribed. Their genre in the practice of law is truly hallowed, a sacred judicial calling. They have sworn to be impartial adjudicators on all matters pertaining to human affairs. They can therefore not be seen to have moral wrinkles or character patches. Like Ceaser’s wife, they must be manifestly above board. In a way, they are the measure of truth, the guage of uprightness and fairness; a breed of human folk fitted with moral rampart to fearlessly straighten the crookedness of humanity.

….Judges Like Assistant Gods

To be able to discharge this onerous task (if not burden), Judges are not expected to be seen “anyhow”. They are rare faces at social gatherings. They attend no parties or at best sparingly. Not even gigs. They are exclusive beings. They do not mix with the rest of society, so their sanity and sense of uprightness is neither compromised nor tainted by the ill-laden portfolio of the rest of humanity.

In a way, they are members of a sacred order. What the Latin language describes as sanctum-sanctorum.

Indeed, if there was any organogram about all things created by God, Judges, should rank next to God. It would appear that after God, Judges come next. Little wonder they are addressed as “My Lord” in the court rooms.

That is the height Judges are mounted in a sane society. Like demi–gods, they petch at their exalted seats watching how the rest of humanity work and play. They noiselessly wait till they are invited to decide who played roughly or rightly. And their verdict is it!

….Judges as Social Recluses

I had a colleague and friend who decided to sign up with the Bench, after many years of practice as a lawyer. It is unimaginable to know that the once-chummy relationship we had terminated abruptly the day she was sworn-in as a Judge. We spoke probably only once afterwards. And for seven years now, we have neither seen nor spoken to each other. In fact, she changed her line. She’s been completely separated from us, the ‘vileful folks’.

From her case, I realized that Judges are also not expected to be seen on social media. They just should be heard (in courts only) and not seen. Not even after they have retired, do they dabble into the public square to run open commentaries on socio-political matters.

Such is the awe in which Judges are held. Their pronouncements must be obeyed peremptorily. And choicelessly too. Not even the President of a country has such awesome powers.

…. But they have no Moral Immunity

It thus stings the conscience of right-thinking members of the public when this same Judge, seen like an “assistant God” exhibits the frailty and vices of ordinary men. It is the fear that there could be such character/moral slips among judges that the Nigerian Judical Council (NJC) is established to check and judge erring judges.

And many are they. The rank of erring judges have been on the rise. Most times, the judges play on the fact that their judicial pronouncements, especially at the apex court is unchallengeable, and thus dish out awkward and sometimes illogical verdicts that truly stand justice on its head. We cannot forget all the judicial shenanigans of justices like Justice Egbo-Egbo, Justice Ikpeme (with her midnight judgements).

….Judges in the Political Square

Over the years, politicians have established a nexus between their desperation to get power and the susceptibility of vulnerable Judges.

This nexus it was, that Senator Francis Arthur Nzeribe exploited to scuttle the June 12, 1993 presidential election, using the platform of the notorious Association of Better Nigeria (ABN).

The late Justice Ikpeme had at about 9pm given a court order in Benin-city, stopping the holding of the June 12 presidential election. All the maverick military president, Gen Ibrahim Babangida needed was the straw provided by the Judiciary to, among other factors, annul the election.

The judiciary came under very ludicrous and embarrassing show when different judges in various regions of the country, kept granting conflicting orders on the same issues, all to betray the fact that ethics aside, judges are also human!

So, it can be syllogically argued that the foundation for the failure of the third republic was laid by the Judiciary.

We have since been seeing the human content reflect strongly in the judgement of many judges, especially when it is on political matters.

Gradually and steadily, for instance, the Judiciary is almost ‘electing” more governors today than the bona fide electorate. If you doubt me, ask Govs Douye Diri of Baye;sa State, Hope Uzondinma of Imo State, Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State etc.

Some crafty politicians have perfected how to loaf about all year round and merely wait at the door post of the judiciary to get power. And quite often, money is the over-riding factor.

Perhaps most quaintly put was the summation of then Lt Gen Oladipo Diya, as the Chief of General Staff, in the 90’s, when he delivered the keynote address of the NBA at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; where he lampooned the commercialization of justice as he spoke of Judges coming to court with two contrasting judgements, in either pocket, on the same case. And that the Judge would deliver any of the judgements, depending on which party that settled better.

The judges have become very conscious of this “judi-political” powers and have been giving verdicts that interrogate common sense or even casuistic arguments of complex jurisprudence.

How, for instance, is it explained that in the Imo State governorship election tribunal, the man who initially won was thrown out only to settle for the man who came fourth in the number of votes garnered, as the winner?

Just few weeks ago, in that same Imo State, All Progressive Congress (APC) was declared winner by INEC, without a candidate.

In 2019, Nigerians were shocked when Rivers State High Court barred the APC from fielding any candidate in any of the local government, state or federal elections because it failed to conduct the party primary in a particular manner. How could denying the entire APC members in Rivers State a participation in the electoral contest be a punishment for not adopting a particular type of primary? Not a few thought (and still think) that it was an extreme procured judgement that anchored on an irredeemable berth.

A similar court also nullified the concluded election in Zamfara State . And in both cases, the APC lost out thus paving the way for the PDP to effortlessly emerge.

This unholy amity between Judges and politicians was also responsible for the unceremonial exit of Justice Ayo Salami, then President of the Appeal Court, from service. He was accused of hobnobbing with some politicians including Bola Ahmed Tinubu, even though he denied the charge.

…. Judges Fighting Back?

In fact, some political commentators have inferred that the “harsh and irredeemable” judgements of the Supreme Court against the APC are clearly in furtherance of the vengeful whip of the judiciary against the ruling party for what they described as the humiliation of the bench when in 2016 the homes of many Judges of high courts and supreme courts like Justice Sylvester Ngwuta and co, were raided by security operatives on the suspicion that they were blatantly corrupt.

Perhaps the method of enforcing a saner judiciary was too brash. But what about the findings? Who has been able to intelligently explain the volume of cash–in foreign and local currency—found in the homes of the judges? Why did the judges avoid saving those monies in the bank if they were genuinely earned?

For the records, the sum of $800,000; 645,200 British Pounds, and lots of other hard currencies and local currency were found in the homes of some of these Judges.

For crying out loud, they are still Civil servants. How did civil servants land such mega fortunes? Nobody explained, four full years after.

NJC was astonished or so it appeared at the break of the scandal. NJC suspended the accused judges while they were arraigned on a 15-count charge of fraud. Not unexpectedly, after some judicial circus, many of the judges were acquitted of the charges against them. And many of them are back to the bench.

It is the fear that the supposed sacrosanct mind of the Justices is no longer assured that many Nigerians are worried sore that if not tamed, the Judges would be veritable threats to the growth and development of the nation’s democracy especially as we inch nearer 2023.

….Wike and Judicial Conjugation

Some who have expressed this fear cite the brazen romance between the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike and his state’s Judicial officers.

Few months ago, the news was all over the place of how Gov Wike bought 41 Landrover Discovery SUVs to the judges in the state’s High court and Customary courts, allegedly in fulfillment of his promise to improve their welfare. Really? Four years earlier, he had also bought 35 Porsche Ford Explorers for the Judges in his state.

This same year, he had also built 24 Duplexes and given to Judges.

On the surface, it looks a great and thoughtful venture by the governor. But hey, whoever sets a trap with a goat knows what he is expecting to catch. How can one arm of government be so overtly benevolent to another arm without an ulterior motive?

If Gov Wike was so concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of the said Judges, why did he not fit the cost of the SUVs into the budget of the state’s judiciary? Why did he have to overplay his father Christmas status to Judges, who literally hold the knife and the yam of his (Wike’s) political career?

Were it not so, why was Wike soliciting the “co-operation and collaboration” of the Judges at the presentation of the vehicles? Pray, “co-operation and collaboration” on what matters?

Indeed, which of the Judges, going forward, will ever give a ruling that will not favour Gov Wike, no matter what the facts of the case may be? I dare any of the recipients of these gestures to give a judgement that will be unfavourable directly or indirectly to Gov Wike’s interest.

It is like asking the police to arrest and prosecute the community rich man who built, furnished and donated a police station to the community. To argue to the contrary would be mere academic exercise that will be easier said than done.

Or is anyone still wondering why the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has gone mute in the face of all the affronts on education in Nigeria? How can NANS yet be vibrant when the same Federal Government it is supposed to tackle has bought Mercedes 350 ML to NANS officials?

Are the arms of government truly independent of one another? And where is the ground for over-sight function with this filial affinity between the Judiciary and Executive arms in Rivers State? It is remarkable that this is the same state where we have witnessed rather wild and gawky judicial pronouncements.

….Are Courts Tools in Politicians’ Hands?

Already, the courts are being used in playing the spoiler in the same Rivers State APC with the gale of suspensions and counter-suspensions, with the courts being bombarded with a litany of litigations. Political actors in Rivers State are already trading technical tackles between the existing factions in the state and are waiting to use the courts to achieve what they want.

And as an aside, the story was told of the scramble of many of the Supreme Court Justices who were literally falling over themselves to endorse the form of Justice Eberechi Suzzette Wike, (the wife of the Rivers State governor) who is being elevated from the Rivers State High Court to the Appeal Court. Question is: why were the revered “my Lords” so enthusiastic in endorsing Mrs Wike’s form? Could it be that because Gov Wike has been so” nice and friendly” with the Judiciary?

…Enters New S’Court Judges

It is instructive that eight new Justices were recently appointed into the Supreme Court. Nigerians expect that they will chart a new path aimed at restoring the revered character portrait of Judges. More importantly, they should discharge their duties in ways that manifestly support the growth and development of the nation’s democracy. The judiciary cannot afford to be the cog in the wheel of the nation’s democratic progress.

In all, let the fear of God and the NJC be the ultimate check to guide the operations and services of the Judges.