Ariwoola: Crossing the Lines

Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Kayode Ariwoola, recently acted against the sacred principle of judicial neutrality with his gaffe at an event organised by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, and this deliberate choice must not be glossed over by anyone, who loves Nigeria and her judiciary. Oluwaseyi Adedotun writes

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice OlukayodeAriwoola, is presently at the centre of the storm after he breached the principle of judicial neutrality – an essential factor for the preservation of the integrity of the judicial system. He is being pelted for his recent unforced error of hailing the Oyo State Governor, SeyiMakinde’s membership of the “Integrity Group” – a caucus of five aggrieved Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governors, who seek an unlikely change in the party.

Ariwoola, while speaking at a banquet organised by the leader of the “G-5” governors, NyesomWike of Rivers State, reportedly engaged in a subtle endorsement of the group.

Hear him: “That is why we should not be scared to have these men of the integrity group,” he said, as he began a series of remarks that would eventually place him on the hot spot for contradicting the sacred principle of judicial neutrality.

Apparently overwhelmed by preferential emotions, the CJN betrayed the universally acceptable neutrality codes as he expressed delightful sentiments at his governor’s membership of the embittered PDP governors.

“I am happy that my governor is among them, because he would try to imitate his friend and in-law, because we came here to marry for my governor,” he said in what has generated serious argument in the polity, for its sensitive nature as it affects the integrity of the country’s judicial system – the last hope of the common man.

“So, Governor Wike will always threaten that he will call back his sister if my governor fails to play ball. That is why you see him following his excellency (Wike) because my governor is afraid of his wife being recalled,” he added, but just like an egg, which once dropped, crashes, spills, and becomes intractable.

The discussion in the public domain is that the highest Nigerian judicial officer ran foul of the ethics that mandates legal officers to always remain unbiased and dispassionate to all issues and in all spheres.

Unfortunately, no amount of remedial statements and denials would remove the fact that the CJN was caught flouting the oath of his office in the web of politics.

Under the 7th Schedule of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution (As Amended),  judicial officers are made to state expressly under oath, that they would not allow their personal interest to influence their official conduct or official decisions.

It is, therefore, regrettable that Ariwoola’s statements and fraternity with politicians are a direct, yet, unforced affront to the pledge he took when he assumed office.

 Barely two months into his tenure as substantive CJN, Justice Ariwoola’s Port Harcourt remarks were indisputable violations of his oath of office and many Nigerians were apprehensive.

According to a law expert and former University lecturer, Barrister KunleAreke, “it is a judicial ‘aberration’, for any judicial officer to descend low into the political arena,” much less the CJN.

Whereas the principle of neutrality dictates that judicial officers maintain impartiality to any topic, because, ensuing disputes would invariably be brought before them for resolution, the conduct of the CJN and his remarks in PortHarcourt last Thursday, has gotten Nigerians worried with some becoming skeptical against earlier hopes, a turnaround at the appointment of the Ariwoola as substantive head of the Supreme Court in October. 

His fraternity with the integrity group and his non-dispassionate statements about Makinde’s membership has attracted ridicule to the reputation of the courts and ought to have been shunned by any disciplined officer of the Law. It might have also made it difficult for opponents of any of the five governors to secure fair judgment in their respective states, because the principle of neutrality guarding, guiding and protecting the integrity of the judicial system as an unbiased umpire and reliable arbiter in dispute resolutions in society, has been so compromised.

Accordingly, occupiers of judicial positions as sacred as the office of Chief Justice of any civilisednation, must always be careful and wary of their acts, especially engagements that might generate or elicit political undertones. Sadly, the incumbent CJN was neglectful of these codes of conduct.

Being constitutionally expected to transcend petty political partisanships, the CJN ought not to be seen in any form of fraternity within the dispute-prone murky waters of politics or any matter at all.

For judicial officers, certain associations come with an intrinsically lethal capacity to bring the judicial system to ridicule, by eroding confidence in the courts or persons embodying the system. They easily elicit unhealthy insinuations that ultimately present the courts as ‘used’ and unethically associated before the eye of the public.

The CJN’s expression of delightful sentiments at his governor, Makinde, for belonging to the Wike-led group of five aggrieved PDP governors was therefore considered “unfortunate” as they represented open biases and partiality from which he had rather remained neutral.

This is why people with experience in matters of law considered his attendance at a banquet, themed in PDP colours as capable of jeopardizing the integrity of the judicial system, thereby robbing it of public confidence as an unbiased umpire.

Political gatherings are some of the places forbidden for judicial officers, conventionally.

Lawyer and public analyst, ChidiOdinkalu, was of the view that Justice Ariwoola was rather impolitic for attending the dinner and should have been more circumspect with his utterances in public.

“What happens when the Chief Justice of Nigeria manifestly breaches the Judicial Code,” he wrote, emphasising the part that was meant to restrain judges from improper social relationships…  or that might cast doubt on the ability of a judicial officer to decide cases impartially, said Odinkalu.

Further explanations by the Supreme Court Justice on how Wike would always threaten to recall Makinde’s wife, who is a native of Rivers, and other rebuttals of some of the statements credited to the CJN, were seen as mere damage control or after-thoughts.

In what was obviously a belated attempt at playing down the gravity of the voluntary desecration of his office and personae, Ariwoola, had said inter alia: “After all, because we came here to marry my governor.”

It was not unexpected that many observers quickly raised objection to their condemnation of his evident thoughtlessness.

Some have rightly noted that the Ariwoola’s fraternity with the Integrity Group predated the banquet event of last week. They recalled that the group was present in Ibadan, Oyo State Capital, when the government hosted a similar banquet in honour of the CJN upon his confirmation as substantive Head of the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, the statement credited to the CJN in Port Harcourt, last week, gave him away as the number one principal judicial officer caught in flagrant violation of an all-important principle of judicial impartiality.

Curiously, before applauding Makinde, Ariwoola had offered what was seen as a disguised recommendation of the Wike group, when he said, “that is why we should not be scared to have these men of the integrity group”

Barrister Areke considered it a desecration of the judicial system for any officer to be found in association with or expressing emotions towards the dispute-prone waters of politics.

“It’s going to be very unfortunate and sad, for any judicial officer to be found to have descended into the political arena,” Areke, a former university teacher with over three decades of post-bar experience, considered such a slip into a judicial abyss with the capacity to defeat the purpose the of courts.

Ariwoola’s unrestrained utterances in promoting and associating with a splinter faction of an opposition party, which law experts said were capable of giving rise to unhealthy accusations or insinuations, highlighted a flagrant flouting of the principle of neutrality, which ought to be held sacred as it preserved the sanctity of the judicial system

Another indication that his utterances were unforced lied in the purpose of the visit of the CJN to Rivers State, as he was said to be playing the guest of Wike.

A defence put forward by the Supreme Court was rendered lame by its justifiable yet unanswered interrogation as to the propriety or otherwise of an invitation to commission projects from politicians at such a volatile period. He was reported to have called on other governors to emulate the Rivers governor in terms of the number and value of commissioned infrastructural projects.

Areke’s position, however, faulted Ariwoola’s presence in Port Harcourt. He argued that with critical consideration of his conduct in Rivers as a breach of the codes of conduct of judicial officers, expendable sweat might be minimised yet, but ‘unbiased’ conclusions reached, in case the Judicial Council of Nigeria (JCN) needed them in terms of decision-making.

“Judges occupy sacred positions and they must be seen to be above board in everything,”Areke said, as he cautioned against unguarded frivolities and fraternity between politicians and judicial officers, particularly as the 2023 general election approaches, adding that every party before the courts must be assured of the impartiality of the bench.

“And in this political dispensation, more so, there is a need for our judges to be very careful in their utterances, and associations. In every area and every sphere. Therefore, I don’t think any judicial officer should be seen, in any function or arena, wherein there could be a political undertone

“Invariably, when there are disputes, the judges are called up to settle them. And for a party to a dispute to feel free that he has received justice and go home and be convinced that truly, justice has been served. The umpire must at all times be seen to be neutral. That is why it is not encouraging for any of our judicial officers to utter a statement that has political connotations to be seen at events, where some elements of politics could be read into it,” he said.

A US-based Nigerian journalist and publisher of pointblank news, Dr. Jackson Udeh,  not only condemned the CJN for this inappropriate choice and its timing, he also called for his sack or resignation.

According to him, “The CJN, Justice KayodeAriwoola has compromised his position. His public utterances have confirmed him to be highly partisan and unfit to occupy that post. His behavior is coming at a highly charged political season. President Buhari and the NJC must compel him to resign immediately!”

He said this in a statement on his verified social media handle.

Rights activist, Aisha Yesufu, in a short but weighty tweet, expressed fears that the CJN’s conduct might have caused a compromise of the Nigerian Justice system

“This should be criminal in itself. How is justice now not compromised?” she wrote, wondering how a person of the status of the head of the Supreme Court, could involve himself in such judicial impunity.

The opposition PDP also decried the utterances of the CJN and expressed fears Nigerians might no longer trust the judicial system as an unbiased umpire.

The party, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. DeboOlogunagba, expressed fears of violation of the code of conduct by the CJN, being the head of the Supreme Court’s calls for concern, adding that, his party would not fold its hands and tolerate any action or utterance by any judicial officer, let alone the CJN, that undermines the integrity of the judiciary.

Truth is, irrespective of the attempt at damage control, it is obvious that CJN Ariwoola conducted himself in manners capable of swaying emotions in the favour of Makinde and his allies, when he presented them as indispensable. Many have even wondered if any PDP card-carrying member would do or say more than what the CJN has said in campaigning for Makinde, Wike or any of the G-5 governors?

It was a deliberate betrayal of emotions and the oath of office by the Chief Justice of Nigeria. Although there have been attempts to water down his open endorsement of the G-5, what cannot be taken away from this is that Justice Ariwoola has shown his hands early and this, from all indications, is a smoking gun, that must be addressed by all stakeholders, irrespective of political affiliations or leanings.

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