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Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed

Should ‘corrupt’ judges ‘step aside’ for investigation? By Bola Bolawole

 Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed

Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed

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“What is sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander”

The two justices of the Supreme Court and five or more others of the High Court cited for corruption by the Department of State Security (DSS) are under intense pressure to “step aside” for investigation or trial to proceed apace. The Nigeria Bar Association, Body of Senior Advocates, civil society organisations, and other anti-corruption bodies and individuals are toeing this line of argument. The Chief Justice of Nigeria and the Nigeria Judicial Council, supported also by a coterie of bodies and individuals disagree. From reports, more judges across board are also under investigation and may be invited by the DSS before long. But for the fact that the DSS bungled its so-called “sting operation” against the judges, more judges would have, by now, been similarly stung by the agency. The outcry against the cavalierly and amateurish way the DSS handled the operation reportedly caused the Presidency to call it to order. The timing of the “sting operation” in the dead of the night was frightening; its Gestapo-style was shocking; and subsequent disclosures that it could have been vendetta carried out under the guise of anti-corruption war have infuriated the citizenry and cast both the DSS and the government it represents in bad light. Soon-to-retire Chief Justice Mahmoud Mohammed has stood firmly against the DSS operation. He may not have been firm in the way he has handled corruption allegations against members of the Bench; he may himself have been a suspect to many but he insists that there are due processes and laid-down procedures to be followed on such issues. Many are not convinced that the procedures are good enough or will suffice. Should we, then, throw processes overboard and engage in outright self-help? The Presidency, DSS and many others impatient with due process will answer in the affirmative.
But now that we have been told by the CJN that laid-down procedure does not allow for the summary suspension of judges fingered for corruption, we must patiently go the whole hog of due process. We must not forget that the procedure for punishing erring judges may have been deliberately made laborious to ensure their independence. Mindful of this, there are those who are appealing to the concerned judges’ good conscience to voluntarily step aside; but why should they on the basis of mere allegations which are yet to be proven before a court of competent jurisdiction? What if, eventually, the DSS is unable to prove its allegations? Did our law not say the accused is deemed innocent until proven otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction? Media trial or trial by mob action\lynching wants instant judgment without passing through due process. The rights of the accused must be laboriously protected. Our justice system says it is better for many guilty persons to escape justice that for a single innocent person to be wrongfully sentenced. The import is to bend over backward to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice. Patience is of the essence here. And due process must be followed. Laid down procedures must not be whimsically tossed overboard. It may be frustrating and time-consuming but this is meant to ensure that the cause of justice is not only served but is seen by all to have been manifestly served.
Besides, recent antecedents do not strengthen the case of those asking the judges to step aside for investigation or trial to take place. The Judiciary is the third arm of the government; the other arms are the Executive and Legislature. On the side of the Executive, we have had series of corruption allegations levied against highly-placed officials of this government. Ministers have been accused of corruption; evidences have been adduced against them; yet the anti-corruption agencies have not investigated them, least of all carrying out “sting operations” and asking them to step aside. President Muhammadu Buhari, in fact, had come out to say that what had been levelled against the Ministers were mere allegations which had not been proven. So they have continued in office! In like manner, the judges should continue in office until the allegations against them are proven in open court and judicial pronouncements to that effect made. Corruption allegations have also been made against serving top military officers and Presidency officials who continue to sit pretty in office. As for the Legislature, the Senate president, Bukola Saraki, is in court on allegations of corruption; yet, he sits pretty in office as the Number Three citizen of the country. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, fights allegations of budget padding but still sits pretty as the Number Four citizen of the country. All cries and pleas that the two step aside for investigation and trial have fallen on deaf ears. Why should the judges’ case be different? We should apply rules and standards uniformly across board.
This, however, should not be misconstrued as excusing the malfeasance on the Bench. There is no denying the fact that there is corruption on the Bench – and the Bar inclusive. The Bar and politicians appear to be the “agbero” or touts who help corrupt judges collect bribes from willing clients just as motor park touts help errant policemen collect bribes at garages, bus stops and everywhere else. The days of the Socrates and philosopher judges are over; the titans like Alexander, Kayose Esho, and Oputa are no more. This is the age of the Lilliputians and minnows. Many people go to the Bench just because they need jobs and some because they see an avenue to get rich quick; not for love or passion for the profession. And the recruitment processes have also been bastardised, such that who you know determines what you get. The whole system needs a revolutionary overhaul; not the ongoing infantile radicalism of the DSS or the directionless grandstanding of the Buhari presidency.

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