By Sunny Awhefeada,
The title of this essay will resonate with my age mates and others before us as it invokes pleasant memories of the play, The Incorruptible Judge, by D. Olu Olagoke. The play excoriates corruption and privileges the judiciary as the agency to eradicate it.
Readers of the play marveled at the refreshingly sound logic and verbal dexterity of the lawyer-characters. However, the character who stole the show was the trial judge, Justice Faderin, who resisted pressure and attempts to get bribed and compromise the case. His action and resoluteness was what provided the play’s title The Incorruptible Judge.
Many impressionable minds who read the play saw in it an ideal that should guarantee fairness and justice and by extension a stable socio-economic and political order. Sadly, this has not been so for Nigeria. What Olagoke’s play portrayed was not real life in Nigeria, but mere drama which is fiction. The Nigerian reality is grossly antithetical to what the play depicts.
Nigeria derailed on many fronts and the ideals that inspired the play in question have been thrown to the dogs.
The judiciary as an arbiter ought to be the institution that should ensure fairness, equity and justice and thus guarantee stability, but this has not been so in Nigeria. Although, the judiciary has had a chequered history in Nigeria, its fortune these past twenty years have been most unenviable.
The judiciary in Nigeria has come to represent what it should not be. For each passing year since 2003, the Nigerian judiciary has so violated codes of honour to the extent that it is now on trial. By calling, orientation and training, judicial officers should be conservative and driven by utmost integrity. They ought to be acutely consciousness that they wield the power of life and death in their pronouncements and therefore should uphold the highest standard of ethics and the will to do right.
Ideally, material, monetary and emotional considerations ought not to find a place in the thought of a judicial officer. But this has not been so in Nigeria. Recent revelations and happenings only confirm that Nigeria has gone down the wrong lane for too long and that her judiciary has been dragged along and badly bruised too.
In the course of being dragged along, the judiciary jettisoned its honour, integrity and dignity.
The great purge of 1975 found scapegoats in the judiciary. The Buhari regime in 1984 also saw the judiciary as an emergent Augean stable and attempted to clean it.
By 1992, it was alleged that the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida had so corrupted the judiciary to the point of unbridled rot.
That was the period midnight judgments were procured. If Olagoke’s The Incorruptible Judge rendered an ideal that should sustain judicial integrity, it was because a judge refused to trade his honour for lucre. In his riveting memoirs, The Mystery Gunman, Justice Kayode Eso, recounted how the government of the old Western Region mounted pressure on him to convict Wole Soyinka in 1965.
The then young Justice Eso stood his ground and refused to do the bidding of government. Nearly two decades later, another judge, Justice Gregory Okoro-Idogu allowed the Federal Government to use him to unjustly jail Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Two years after, Justice Samson Uwaifo danced to the tune of some pipers and exonerated President Shehu Shagari of accusation of graft under his watch in the second republic. Vintage Newswatch columnist, Ray Ekpu, flayed Justice Uwaifo in an article titled “A Hollow Ritual”. A miffed Justice Uwaifo dragged in Ekpu for contempt and it was the fiery Chief Gani Fawehinmi who stood between Ekpu and the jail house. Fawehinmi paid the N20 (Twenty Naira) fine Justice Uwaifo slammed on Ekpu.
These three instances depicted men who made their choices for good or bad. If these instances were personal, what is happening to the Nigerian judiciary today has assumed the degree of institutional plague.
Evaluating what is going on in the judiciary today, the foregoing incidents, ugly as they were, would make us conclude that the Nigerian judiciary saw its halcyon days then despite the dubieties. The Nigerian judiciary has put itself on trial before the Nigerian people.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Kayode Ariwoola, at the swearing in of new silks some days ago struggled in vain telling his colleagues not to pander to public opinion in the discharge of their duties and that they should see the Law as the Law. Surely, Justice Ariwoola was merely hiding behind a finger.
A judiciary that does not care about public opinion should be disbanded and in the Nigerian case the public has lost confidence in the judiciary.
And Nigerians have more than enough reasons to pooh-pooh the judiciary. Did Justice Ariwoola not squirm listening to Justice Muhammed Dattijo’s valedictory speech where the retiring jurist took the judiciary to the cleaners? Did Justice Ariwoola not hear Senator Bulkachuwa tell Nigerians on national television that his wife as president of the Court of Appeal dashed favourable judgments to his fellow lawmakers? What the Senator omitted was how much the wife was paid.
Did Justice Ariwoola not hear about the incriminating discrepancy in the Kano governorship appeal judgment that was read and the Certified True Copy (CTC)? Was Justice Ariwoola not aware of the raid on judges’ residences and the circumstances of Justice Walter Onoghen’s exit as the Chief Justice of Nigeria? Was Justice Ariwoola not aware of the gross incompetence of Justice Tanko Muhammed, his successor, and the near anarchy that saw to his forced retirement? So, what is Justice Ariwoola talking about?
It is now common knowledge that the period just before and after elections are boom seasons for judges. Bribes are rolled to them in dollars and not in naira and they struggle to get appointed into election petition tribunals. The poet, Niyi Osundare’s scathing “My Lord, Tell Me Where to Keep Your Bribe” is an apt depiction of how the judiciary has put itself on sale. Besides the issue of corruption are those of gross incompetence and mental laziness of some judges who now pay lawyers and professors to write judgment for them.
The National Judicial Commission (NJC) has failed in ensuring that Nigeria has an incorruptible judiciary. May be the Nigerian judiciary is merely acting to type as truly Nigerian! The process of recruiting judicial officers has been reduced to nothingness. The story was told of a big man who wanted to fix his side chic as a judge in an area court. When the local bar association protested that she wasn’t competent, the big man got angry and got her appointed as a high court judge.
In recent years, appointment into the judiciary has become an exclusive preserve of wives, concubines and children of ageing judges and politicians at the expense of merit. This is a grand conspiracy to seize political power using the judiciary. As things stand, the judiciary and not the electorate now decide who finally gets to occupy elective offices in Nigeria. To consolidate its base, the political class has to capture the judiciary. Nigeria is in dire straits. In the countdown to the delivery of the verdict in the recent presidential election tribunal, the mantra all over the country was ALL EYES ON THE JUDICIARY. But when the moment came, lawyers, journalists, activists put themselves to sound sleep as their lordships delivered judgment. The import of this is that Nigerians have slumbered for too long and do not yet appreciate the role of vigilance in the quest for freedom. Nigeria has been taken hostage, we are manacled and we do not need further evidence of state capture. But hope is not lost. The day will come when we shall be tired of the shackles and break them off. We shall then embark on a search for the incorruptible judge. The time hasn’t come, but it will come.