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One-point agenda for new CJN

By News Express on 18/03/2017

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On March 7, 2017 the Nigerian judiciary received a new head - in the person of Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen – who was sworn-in by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, ironically a professor of law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). 

Justice Onoghen was also conferred with the highest national honour, of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON. 

This multi-dimensional decoration with the highest judicial office and one of the highest national honours is symbolically impactful, and goes to demonstrate the essence of the exemplary leadership qualities and attributes that citizens expect their new head of the nation's court system to have in abundance, in both his private and public life. 

What this solemn inauguration which took place within the precinct of the Abuja seat of executive power means is that after months of suspense and doubt, the judiciary now has a substantive leader who should steer it away from the mountain of credibility crises that are both self-inflicted and externally-induced. The job of the new helmsman in the judiciary is therefore clearly cut out for him, but could be summed up in what I have called a single point agenda

Before unfolding the one-point agenda, may I state that with the swearing-in of Justice Onnoghen, he has broken a jinx as the first person from southern Nigeria, in over three decades, to assume the exalted mantle of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, after what became a season of northern dominance. Others before him were: “ Justice Stafford Foster-Sutton, Hon Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, KBE, GCON;  Justice Taslim Olawale Elias, CFR, GCON; Hon Justice Darnley Arthur Alexander, CBE, KCMG, CFR, GCON; Justice Atanda Fatai-Williams CON, GCON; Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo, CON, GCON; Justice Ayo Gabriel lrikefe, OFR, CON, GCON; Justice Muhammed Bello, CON,GCON.           

Others were: Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, CON, GCON; Justice Salisu Modibo Alfa Belgore, CON,GCON; Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, CON, GCON;  Justice Aloysius Iyorgyer Katsina-Alu, CON, GCON; Justice Dahiru Musdapher, CON, CFR, FNIALS, GCON; Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, JSC, CON, CFR, FNIALS, GCON  and Justice Mahmud Mohammed, GCON.

Before Onnoghen was finally recommended for confirmation, President Muhammadu Buhari came under intense criticism for his deliberate prevarication to name him (Onnoghen) successor of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria who hails from Taraba State, North-east Nigeria. There were speculations and allegations that President Buhari planned to substitute the now substantive chief justice with another judicial officer from Northern Nigeria. But that is a story for another day. 

 The focus of this piece is not to play up the political under-currents that characterised the selection of the substantive CJN, but we are here to list out what I consider as the most strategic agendum of the head of the Nigerian court system. This is because if any interested researcher should carry out dispassionate opinion poll on how most Nigerians see the justice sector and, by inference the Judiciary, the most likely outcome would be that the Judiciary has lost credibility. The snail speed that matters take before decisions are reached is a matter of considerable worry for millions of Nigerians.  

Although the factors militating against speedy and efficient dispensation of justice include certain external matters, such as issues of lack of professionalism and non-adherence to ethical standards by prosecutors and investigators, the bulk of the factors that weigh down the integrity of the Judiciary lie within the courts. 

 So, what this new head of the Nigerian court system should focus his attention to achieve is: to repair the credibility damage inflicted on the Judiciary by a combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces. 

He has already stated his readiness to confront this hydra-headed monster frontally, but if our recent history is anything to go by, we can safely say to him that, Seeing is believing.’

 The above-mentioned cynicism is informed by the fact that past chief justices made similar pledges but found it impossible to overcome the human factors that usually oppose radical transformation from a decadent system to that of efficiency and effectiveness. It is true that people resist change but, Justice Onnoghen, from his tension-soaked long wait for the President to forward his name for confirmation by the Senate, must have thought himself the lesson that it is no longer business-as-usual. If he has been subjected to these topsy-turvy pre-confirmation experiences, it is expected that the restoration of integrity in the judicial process should be the categorical imperative for the honourable Chief Justice.

 The new Chief Justice of Nigeria has the next four years to put transparent mechanisms in place quickly, to tackle the hydra-headed monster of corruption and bribery weighing down significantly on the Judiciary. He needs to advocate for constitutional amendment too that would empower the Judiciary in the states and the Federal Capital Territory, to stop going cap-in-hand to the executive branch of government, incessantly begging for cash to operate. The Constitution must have a clear provision stipulating punishment for the breach of the financial and operational independence of the Judiciary.

The new head of the court system should work out feasible framework to democratise the working of the national judicial council, so Nigerians can easily forward and follow up on petitions against members of the bench just as the Nigeria Bar Association must be tasked to weed out self-serving members who are deployed by politicians as bribe-givers that convey bribe-money to judges. 

 Onnoghen must ensure that an in-house rule that precludes the media from observing the processes of the investigative functions of the National Judicial Council (NJC) are quickly amended, to encourage openness and transparency. The Constitution has in the Third Schedule section 21, conferred on NJC the powers to quickly remove corrupt judges from the Bench. Let the new CJN encourage whistle-blowers to watch over judges, so the Temple of Justice is sanitised of all ethical faults such as bribery and corruption.

In the aforementioned constitutional provisions the, NJC is to: “(b) Recommend to the President the removal from office of the judicial officers specified in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers; and (d) Recommend to the governors the removal from the office of the judicial officers in sub-paragraph (c) of this paragraph, and to exercise disciplinary control over such officers.”       

 Also the process of selecting judicial officers must be made transparent so Nigerians can observe and send in their comments on the integrity or otherwise of prospective judges.  Another disturbing phenomenon is the issue of disrespect to court orders by governments of the federation. This pattern that has emerged since the emergence of the current administration must be tackled, because the persistent disobedience of binding orders of competent courts of law undermines the integrity of the Judiciary. Let the CJN take drastic measures, including calling out judges on strike to protest the unpardonable disobedience of court orders by the executive branch of government. Disobedience of the binding orders of the court also offends the constitutional provisions that speaks to the issue of separation of powers, and threatens the independence of the Nigerian Judiciary.

 If government officials continue to disobey court orders without any penalty enforced against the said official, including the Minister of Justice, the implication over time is that the ordinary Nigerian will no longer trust the Judiciary, but would opt for self-help measures such as jungle justice, if government makes it a habit to pick and choose which court orders to obey, as we are currently witnessing. 

The incumbent President has in the matters involving the former National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki (retd), Mr Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPoB) and Sheikh El Zaczakky of the Shiites Islamic Movement, disobeyed court orders granting these litigants bail.

 Let the CJN roll out measures to compel government to obey court orders. 

 Dahiru Mustapher, one time Chief Justice of Nigeria had once raised the alarm that disrespect to court orders undermines judicial independence.

His words: “Judicial independence is essentially composed of two foundations (that is, individual and institutional) that cumulatively ensure the independence of the judiciary.

 “Independence of the judiciary means that every judge is free to decide matters before him, in accordance with his assessment of the facts and his understanding of the law. Without any improper influences, inducements, or pressures; direct or indirect, in any quarter or for any reasons; and that the judiciary is independent from the executive and legislature, and has jurisdiction directly or indirectly or by way of review, over all issues of a judicial nature.” 

 Mustapher also noted: “Impartiality is essential to the proper discharge of judicial office. It applies not only to the decision itself, but to the process by which decisions are made. Judges must perform their duties without favour, bias or prejudice and ensures that their conduct, both in and out of court, maintains and enhances the confidence of the public, the legal profession and litigants in the impartiality of the judicial system.

“Impartiality means that the judge treats the parties before him as equals, providing them with an equal opportunity to make their respective cases. It also means that the judge has no personal interest in the outcome of the suit; with impartiality comes objectivity.”

 The nation now awaits the pragmatic steps Justice Onoghen will adopt to bring about fundamental revolution in the nation’s court system.

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via doziebiko@yahoo.com

Source News Express

Posted 18/03/2017 3:33:50 PM

 

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