THE CJN AND JUDICIAL INTEGRITY
The judiciary must guard its independence and stay above suspicion
The crisis of credibility afflicting the country’s judiciary has taken a serious toll on the institution. Its image in the eyes of most Nigerians is now severely battered. Restoring this credibility becomes difficult when the number one judicial officer in the country puts himself in a compromising situation. While we do not want to dwell on the controversy of what Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Olukayode Ariwoola said or did not say in Port Harcourt, the unfortunate situation has already raised questions about a man whose conduct should be free from the appearance of impropriety – not only in the discharge of official responsibility but also in his everyday life.
It is not for nothing that in the United States from where we borrowed the presidential system of government, judicial reach is kept beyond the grasp of state officials so that whenever governments encroach on the rights of its citizens, there would be an independent institution to keep those rights safe. More than anybody else, the CJN should understand that principle, hence avoid hobnobbing with politicians within the executive arm of government, either at the federal or state level. If it is bad enough that the CJN agreed to be hosted to a gala night by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, he compounded the situation by his utterances which many now interpret to be partisan.
As we have repeatedly stated on this page, the judiciary is not just any institution: it is an important arm of government that knits human society together. Yet, the function of law as an instrument of social engineering can only be made difficult when judges compromise their oath by acts of omission or commission. And to the extent that nothing destroys public confidence in the system than the bad behaviour of judges, the judiciary must guard its independence and impartiality jealously. No matter the temptation, this critical arm of government must not be unduly politicised. Neither should it be rendered impotent by the very people who should labour to maintain its prestige and integrity.
Apparently concerned by the crisis of credibility that has for long dogged the judicial arm of government and the damage that it inflicts on national psyche, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) last year hosted an important Justice Sector Summit which brought together critical stakeholders. The broad consensus was the need to rise above the interests that are holding back fair and equitable justice administration in Nigeria by working to restore integrity to the bar and bench. For that to happen, Judges must, like Caesar’s wife, stay above suspicion.
While it is standard expectation and even a requirement that US Supreme Court judges be either conservative or liberal, they cannot be Republican or Democrat in their votes on judicial decisions. The former is ideological, part of the right to hold beliefs. The latter is a matter of political partisanship, an area that is below the independence and impartiality of the judiciary as everyone’s last bastion of hope for justice and fairness in a democratic republic. In the absence of such deep-rooted ideological differences, our apex court judges have an even narrower room. As citizens they may have their private partisan preferences, but such biases are not expected to reflect in their dispensation of justice or indeed in their social conduct and public utterances.
By virtue of his exalted position, the CJN should avoid social dealings that are capable of eroding public confidence in the judiciary as the last hope of the common man. As the ultimate judge of the land, Justice Ariwoola should also purge himself of the slightest inkling of partisan taint.