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Nigerian judiciary: Turning a new leaf? By Bola Bolawole

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When a professional colleague suggested that I beam my searchlight on the Nigerian judiciary to witness some of the reforms he said were taking place there, my retort was like biblical Nathaniel’s.

John 1: 45: “Philip found Nathaniel, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathaniel said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see”

Can any good thing come out of the Nigerian judiciary; especially one presided over by Tanko Mohammed? After the way and manner Walter Onnoghen was harassed and eased out as the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the quality of his replacement, whose academic qualifications became the butt of cruel jokes; the judiciary was at its lowest ebb ever.

This is not to say, however, that the judiciary hadn’t enough problems before that time; what with EFCC/Ibrahim Magu’s audacious act of harassing and cowering the judges! Since the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1999, the judiciary has gradually sunk in esteem, respect, and integrity, becoming a sorry sight, spectacle, and caricature of the judiciary of the days of Kayode Esho, Akinola Aguda and Chukwudife Oputa, to mention but a few.

Those were days when judges were cerebral, bold, audacious, incorruptible, and independent. Those were days when judgments were judgments – reasoned, seasoned, measured, and profound. They were days when judges spoke without minding whose ox was gored. Judges bestrode the temple of justice like colossus, sparing no thoughts for which toes they trod upon. Doing justice and maintaining the independence and sanctity of the judiciary was their mantra.

Those were the days of philosopher-judges when you read landmark judgments as if reading Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. Little wonder, then, that one of them was nicknamed Socrates! Those were days when judges were judges and the temple of justice hallowed. Judicial activism was not only rampant but was elevated to high art; and hiding under technicalities to miscarry justice was abhorrent. Judges of yore not only bent over backward to interpret the law on the side of justice; they even went a step further to make or re-make the law to serve the cause of justice. That was when, truly and really, the judiciary was the last hope of the common man. Judges and their pronouncements were not only seen but also accepted as final, reversible only by an act of God.

Since 1999, the judiciary has turned coat, doing the bidding of politicians and running after filthy lucre. Before our very eyes, judges have acted like commodities that are bought and sold, becoming cheap and base as to compete to see who could churn out the most ridiculous of judgments. Like a field where opposing teams trade tackles, judges counter judges while litigants forum shop for the most pliable and amenable judges that will do their bidding. It became so bad that it was not how good your case was or how brilliant your lawyer was but how well you “greased” the palms of the judge or judges in question.

Election matters soon became the cesspit of this perversion of justice. According to reports, judges lobby, beg, and bribe their way into election petition tribunals, which have now become the final bus stop in election matters. Judges became consultants on election petition matters! You have not won an election unto the judges say so and you did not heave a sigh of relief until the apex court has spoken on your mandate. The highest bidder – or the preference of the powers-that-be – always carries the day, except where other power-play considerations force their hand. In all of this, the will of the people take the back seat. The judiciary as the last hope of the common man becomes a mirage.

So I asked: Can anything good come out of the Nigerian judiciary? And just like Philip said unto Nathaniel, the colleague said unto me “Come and see”! It is no longer news that Nigeria has relapsed into another economic recession, the second during Buhari’s regime. Without doubt, the PDP/Goodluck Jonathan administration was corrupt and incompetent and Nigerians felt a change was needed. APC/Buhari campaigned on CHANGE and Nigerians believed them but Buhari has turned out a big flop. Nigerians now know they jumped from frying pan right inside the fire.

On all fronts, the state of affairs has gone from bad to worse. Insecurity is worse. The economy is worse. Inflationary trend is worse. Cost of living is worse. Fuel price is worse. DSTV price is worse. Transportation cost is worse. Power supply/cost is worse. Unemployment is worse. State of infrastructure is worse. Education is worse. Health is worse. The country is more divided than ever before. There is a clear absence of governance. Nepotism is worse. Clannishness is worse. Cronyism is worse. Tribalism is worse. Ineptitude is worse. Religious strife is worse. Crime is worse. Corruption is worse. Wastefulness is worse. Indebtedness is worse. Name it – everything is worse!

Everywhere, the demand for restructuring (or else…) has become a din; the prognosis of Nigeria remaining on the world map without urgent and radical restructuring gets more uncertain each passing day. Yet, Buhari insists Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable! He may be right! There will be no one to negotiate with when it finally dawns on them that the centre can no longer hold! It may be too late very soon to talk restructuring as the train may have left that station for the one called Balkanization!

If the Executive is head-strong on restructuring, the Legislature has been insensitive to cries that the cost of governance is burdensome and must be drastically reduced. The Legislature behaves like the arch-type oppressor who professes his sympathy for the oppressed and would do anything to lighten his burden except get off his back! The law makers have talked and talked; they have amended the Constitution ad nauseam but the critical and very important decision that the people demand i.e. a drastic reduction of the humongous percentage of the Federal allocation that this tiny minority appropriates to themselves, they have refused to consider. They cling to their privileges just like those resisting restructuring. They care less if, by so doing, the country collapses on all of us.

It was a surprise to me, then, to hear that the Judiciary, of all places, has silently been re-inventing itself, responding to criticisms, and plugging loopholes that may, eventually, redeem for it some of its lost values and glory. I have it on good authority that, as a matter of deliberate policy, the NJC is weeding out corrupt and incompetent judges. The judiciary is said to be fighting corruption in its midst while the two other arms of government appear to have succumbed to the monster. The figures I have stated that 46 judges have been compulsorily retired; eight dismissed, 29 reprimanded, and three suspended – all for misconduct. That may be a tip of the iceberg, though, knowing how deep corruption has eaten into the judiciary.

Justice delayed, they say, is justice denied but there is no place justice is delayed (and denied) better than in the judiciary itself. Lawyers, judges and litigants have found a way around previous efforts (like the Administration of Justice Act) to remove bottlenecks and other rigmaroles that aid delay in the administration of justice. Interlocutory injunctions have been the chief culprit here. Now, the NJC is said to be seeking a review of Section 233 (2) (3) and Section 241 of the Constitution to cast out this demon. Section 343 (3) is also being proposed for review, which will make it compelling for any justice of the Supreme Court to be empanelled for available cases instead of waiting for a particular panel to hear a particular matter, leading to the monsters of undue delays and long adjournments.

There are many more other reforms and innovations I was told are underway in the judiciary. For instance, while everyone else was locked down by COVID-19, the judiciary innovated with virtual meetings. It is also said to be doing a lot about ensuring that corruption cases are speedily tried and the culprits brought to book. One of the incentives to corruption is where the administration of justice is lax and criminals can easily compromise the system and escape justice.

I will henceforth keep an eye on the Judiciary and I enjoin readers of this column to do likewise. Whatever you know about the judiciary, kindly give us a shout here!

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