i read a piece by Tonnie Iredia on Daily Trust titled “Corrupt Judges: Does our Chief Justice need help?” published on 27th September 2015 which elaborate the extent of corruption in our judiciary and the need for adequate solution in order to address it. Last Monday, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) admonished senior lawyers in the country to stop making “unguarded” utterances about corruption in the judiciary without identifying the corrupt judges. Somehow, the CJN sounded as though he himself does not know his judges that are corrupt. I just hope I misunderstood his Lordship. While waiting for more comments that could illuminate the subject, I reached out to two small pamphlets in my personal library dealing with statements on corruption in the Nigerian judiciary. After reading over some of the statements, I opted to make today’s article a simple literature review of the pamphlets so as to remind us all of some relevant stories most of which are credited to judges themselves.
In 1993, Justice Bassey Ikpeme of the Abuja high Court ruled in favour of the unregistered Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) that the famous June 12 Presidential election should not hold. The Judge breached the relevant law of the time that court proceedings were not “to affect the date, time or the holding of the election or the performance by the electoral commission of any of its functions.” It remains instructive that the ruling took place at midnight on the eve of the election. Three days later, the then Chief Judge of Abuja, Justice Dahiru Saleh issued a bench warrant for the arrest of the then Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Professor Humphrey Nwosu for non-compliance with the ruling of Justice Ikpeme. Saleh discountenanced the decision of a superior Justice Oguntade then of the Court of Appeal that: “where a court makes an order in contravention of a statutory provision which forbids it from making such order, the order so made is null and void and no appeal need be filed against the order.”
Five years later, when the judiciary had opportunity to determine election petitions in respect of the local government elections of 1998, government was forced to disband the election tribunals because as the then Chief of General Staff, General Oladipo Diya told the nation, “petitions, allegations of bribe taking and even confessional statements by some members of the election tribunals threatened to undermine the credibility of the judicial process.” Justice Kayode Esho a retired Justice of the Supreme Court was probably more apt when he opined that “the election tribunals were turning judges into billionaires.” His learned brother, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa at a point stated on national television that there are dishonest lawyers “who after charging their normal fees, charge extra for the judge. If so, which judges are involved? The initial belief that corruption in the judiciary was limited to the lower courts was dispelled by Justice Samson Uwaifo of the Supreme Court who at his valedictory session, in 2005, revealed that corruption “had gradually crawled to the high courts and would appear to have had a foothold among a noticeable number of judicial officers there.” This seems to explain why the work of the Kayode Esho panel, reviewed by another committee headed by Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin, also a former justice of the Supreme Court, saw to the sack of as many as 28 serving judicial officers.
No one could have felt a greater pain than our current President Muhammadu Buhari when Wikileaks revealed that the court victory secured by his opponent concerning the 2007 election was purchased. The only stories that came thereafter had to do with numerous ex-parte orders restraining INEC from recognizing some candidates nominated for elections by their political parties in 2011. With more election cases to contend with than the election itself, the then chairman of the commission, Prof Attahiru Jega had to formally draw the CJN’s attention to what he called an “emerging trend in the political process where ex-parte orders are granted at the top of a hat by judges”. No wonder, a report titled: “Department of State’s Country report on Human Rights practices for 2011”, which was submitted to US Congress by the then Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, said that “Nigerian judges frequently failed to appear for trials, often because they were pursuing other sources of income. This appears to explain why the Court of Appeal in 2012, went to sleep for months till a few hours before the deadline for handling the Adamawa governorship election petition. Then, on the last day, the court arrived in Yola, sat, wrote and delivered a judgment in a manner akin to how decisions affecting some local communities are made and pronounced by their Igwes in the famous African magic series.
It was thus an interesting valedictory speech one year later, when, a retiring Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Stanley Shenko Alagoa, admitted that some judges collect bribe from politicians and traditional rulers to pervert the course of justice. Alagoa disclosed that politicians often resort to intimidation and harassment in their uncanny bid “to influence judges to depart from their sacred oath of office and the path of honour and rectitude.” His learned colleague Justice Olufunmilayo Adekeye made perhaps the same case which seems to colour the roles of judges in the matter as passive. Interestingly, with all the allegations about politicians attempting to induce judges, we are yet to hear of any judge who ordered the arrest of anyone seeking to offer him bribe, which is itself an offence.
Now that the CJN wants senior lawyers to name corrupt judges so that they can be dealt with by the National Judicial Council, we, ordinary citizens are yet to appreciate how the NJC deals with cases. For instance, who exactly did that body deal with over the squabbles at the very top associated with the Sokoto governorship election petition? A clear answer to this type of question can do two things. First, it can make people have more confidence in the judiciary. Second and more importantly, it can establish that the judiciary, like every human organization has its bad eggs who are not necessarily more than the large number of men and women of proven integrity that should deservedly be honoured all the time.