HOW would you describe the unfolding scenario bedevilling the Nigerian Judiciary now?
The image of the country’s judiciary is at its lowest ebb. The judiciary has never witnessed such humiliation before. After the condemnation of the barbaric raid on the houses of the judges by the State Security Service goons, the National Judicial Council, (NJC) should proceed to examine the allegations of judicial corruption without any further delay. Both the bar and the bench have long been united in recognising the dangerous rate of judicial corruption in the country. Regrettably, the authorities in the legal profession have paid lip service to the nagging crisis of judicial corruption for too long. Hence we have allowed the purge to be instigated from the executive.
Now the allegation of corruption levelled against some judges is becoming messier as some lately admitted to have been approached for favour by some politicians? What is your take on this?
Frankly speaking, I did not know that the judiciary had sunk so low to the extent that supreme court Justices have admitted publicly that the doors of their homes have been flung open to politicians. One of the embattled jurists even confessed that he visited a serving minister in his house for the purpose of discussing a pending appeal at the apex court. What further evidence of judicial misconduct is the NJC looking for? Can you imagine judges in whose houses millions of naira and thousands of dollars and pounds sterling were recovered coming out to say that they signed and admitted the incriminating items under duress or that the huge sums of money were planted in their homes by the security operatives?
Why did it take over a week to disown the statements signed by them? Are they not aware that they were recorded in line with provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015?
When Governor Nyesom Wike visited the office of the Chief Justice at the Supreme Court complex twice when the appeal over his election was pending, did his Lordship not cry out and warn him to desist from the act? Why did both Justices Okoro and Ngwuta not cry out or alert the Police that they had received strange visitors in their homes? Of course, I have called for an investigation of that aspect of the allegation of judicial interference.
What do you think the allegations and counter allegations from the Justices portend for the nation’s judiciary?
I thought that our jurists should not have gone that far on defending themselves. But since they have admitted that politicians are allowed to visit judges, the NJC has to deal with it separately with a view to restoring confidence in the judiciary at the highest level.
The NJC has been accused of shielding some corrupt Judges and that it lacks political will to deal with the corruption in the Bench. What do you have to say of this?
I do know that there are some judges that are untouchable as far as the NJC is concerned. For instance, I submitted a petition against a judge at the NJC headquarters in Abuja. On returning to Lagos many people had called me to withdraw the petition. Even the secretariat of the NJC pleaded with me to temper justice with mercy. Since the NJC claimed to have dealt with all petitions I have asked for the decision of the body in respect of my petition.
I just cannot understand the seeming cover up of misconduct on the part of some judges by the NJC. In the instant case the details of the allegations of judicial corruption are in the public domain. The huge funds recovered from the homes of some of the judges during the raid have been disclosed. Each of the embattled judges has sent a written defence to the NJC. For goodness sake what other report is the NJC waiting for from the DSS before embarking on an investigation of the unprecedented scandal that has shaken the nation’s judiciary to its foundation? If the NJC had treated the scandal with the urgency it required the image of the judiciary would not have been so badly dented. Last year when some judges were recorded on tape while negotiating bribes in Ghana, the judicial authorities in that country did not wait for any formal report from the journalist, Anas Arameyaw Anas who carried out the sting operation. The judges who were identified in the tape were immediately placed on suspension while a full scale enquiry was ordered. At the end of the inquiry, 22 judges were removed from the system. But the NJC has said that the judges would not be suspended without an investigation. With profound respect, there is no precedent for the stand of the NJC.
There is no civilised society that will allow a judge accused of involvement in judicial corruption to continue to hear and determine cases while he has not cleared himself of the allegation. How will litigants who appear before him have confidence in the judicial system? For instance, if he rules against the government it may be said that it is because he is facing a trial. If he rules in favour of the government it will be said he has done so because he is standing trial.
The NJC recently directed judges handling sensitive cases to declare their assets before and after such matter. Does that make any difference?
In addressing the ethical challenge confronting the judiciary the NJC has to consider the full implications of the new policies and measures it has introduced. With respect, these are knee jerk reactions which are not addressing the crisis of judicial corruption. Since the Constitution has made adequate provisions for declaration of assets by public officers including judicial officers the NJC lacks the competence to insist that judges should declare assets at the beginning and conclusion of every sensitive case. Who defines a sensitive case? What happens in a situation where a judge is handling up to 10 sensitive cases? Judicial corruption transcends the formal declaration of assets. To seriously address judicial corruption the mode of appointment has to be made completely transparent. The recommendations and views of the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, on candidates being considered for judicial appointments have to be taken seriously because lawyers know themselves. If corrupt and incompetent judges are appointed no amount of asset declaration will purge or check them.
What do you feel about the panel led by retired Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi appointed to design code of ethical standard for judicial officers?
The code of conduct for public officers and the Code of Conduct for judicial officers are sufficient to curb misconduct on the part of judicial officers in the country. To that extent what is required is to ensure that both codes are observed by judges.
New ethical standards
With respect, the Kutigi panel should not waste time defining new ethical standards as the existing ones are in order. The Kutigi panel should be tasked with the responsibility of going round the country like the Kayode Eso panel to collate information on corrupt judges throughout the federation and make recommendations to the NJC. Unless the ongoing probe is thorough and all embracing it will not stop or even reduce judicial corruption in the country. The NJC should therefore have another look at the terms of reference of the Kutigi panel.
There were controversies on whether the NJC was duly notified by security outfit on corruption allegedly perpetrated by arrested Judges. Is it compulsory that the security outfit must take permission from NJC before it will act?
What the NJC is saying is that it was not afforded the opportunity by the DSS to examine the allegations against the judges. The DSS reacted by citing a case of a judge who was given a clean bill of health by the NJC despite the fact that he had collected a bribe of N500 million. Whether the claim of the DSS is right or not the NJC cannot be right in insisting that complaints of murder or bribery or corruption involving judges have to be reported to it. There is no law that allows an administrative body to usurp the functions of the police and the courts. Of course, the DSS may take the NJC into confidence but there is no law that requires the DSS or EFCC to report to the NJC any allegation that judges have committed or criminal offences be reported.
How would you view the position of the NJC that the recent invasion or arrest of some suspected judicial officers can be capitalized by some hoodlums to also invade Judges’ houses at will?
I have always condemned the humiliation of criminal suspects generally. Instead of shouting myself hoarse over the raid on the judges’ home I have demanded that we formulated a policy for dealing with all criminal suspects.
Let us stop talking of Gestapo tactics when judges and lawyers as well as other influential people are harassed by security forces because majority of criminal suspects are daily assaulted or tortured by the police even when they are presumed innocent until the contrary is proved by the State. I do not share the view that the nocturnal raid on the homes of 7 judges will expose Nigerian judges to hoodlums. My home was raided not less than 15 times by the National Security Organisation now State Security Service and the Police from 1985-1997 under the defunct military junta. But those illegal raids have not exposed me to danger from hoodlums. If the lives of our judges are threatened let the NJC ask for adequate security for them.
Would you subscribe to the argument that the root cause of the problem today stem from the appointment of the Judges?
Yes. Lawyers regularly discuss the involvement of certain judges in corrupt practices. I know one lawyer who could not be appointed in the state where he had his practice because he was alleged to be an agent of corrupt judges. But he ran to Abuja and was made a federal high court judge without any protest from the NBA which has five members in the National Judicial Council. You cannot have an incorruptible judiciary without an incorruptible bar. Lawyers know all corrupt lawyers and judges but have failed to move against them. Through compromise and connivance, the NBA allows corrupt and incompetent lawyers to be elevated to the bench. The root cause of the crisis is the mode of appointment. Not too long ago brilliant and incorruptible lawyers were invited to join the bench. But today the system allows corrupt and incompetent lawyers to be appointed as judges. Each of the branches of the NBA knows all the bad lawyers but will paint them in beautiful colours when asked to make input into the process of appointment.
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